Healing Agony - Reimagining Forgiveness
“Healing Forgiveness” by Stephen Cherry is a thoughtful and imaginative approach to the subject of forgiveness which would inform those seeking to help victims of crime and harm as well as those working with the perpetrators of apparently unforgiveable acts. Cherry successfully manages to explore this complex subject in a way that is both accessible and thought-provoking. He reflects upon stories of forgiveness being realised and resisted in a way that gives his readers confidence that there may indeed be help for the devastated.
The drive of this book is found in a pastoral experience: faced with the mother of a murdered teenager, how could a pastor begin to help her face her questions about forgiveness for those who had murdered her son. The stories he uses to explore this include that of Marian Partington’s sister being cruelly murdered by Fred and Rosemary West and the account of Eric Lomax being tortured in a wartime prison camp in the 1940s. However the commonality shared by all of the narratives reflected upon never fail to address life-shattering experiences where forgiveness is not only difficult, but, in Cherry’s words, “mad”. This un-natural aspect of forgiveness is further explored in a number of useful theological reflections, including reflection upon New Testament teaching, as well as the Passion experience of Jesus. Cherry offers a relatively straightforward approach to understanding the differences and similarities between God’s forgiveness, and that which we can offer. He explores in some detail the importance of developing a forgiving heart, even when forgiveness may seem unimaginable.
Having begun with the question of pastoral understanding and support, Cherry then moves to draw a map of the territory where forgiveness operates. He includes descriptions of a “wilderness of hurt”, a “river of distasteful empathy”, and a land where it is possible to flourish if not fully recover. Two key regions on this map are explored in detail, the wilderness and the river. Again using stories, many of which are disturbing and emotive, reflections are offered upon the necessary pain experienced by those exploring forgiveness. At no point in “Healing Agony” does Stephen Cherry suggest that forgiveness is a destination, except perhaps where the offender is entirely repentant and entirely changed, at which point he calls upon Derada to suggest that forgiveness is no longer possible or appropriate. Rather than a journey, or a process, Cherry is keen to see forgiveness as an exploration. An area which could have been developed further perhaps was the link between justice systems and forgiveness. While some allusion was given to the concept of Restorative Justice, justice was generally seen as being the domain of the state, while forgiveness was the domain of the unjustly harmed.
Far from being a “how-to” handbook on forgiveness, Stephen Cherry offers realistic hope to those who work with the unforgiven, the unforgiving, and those with forgiving hearts who are experiencing the agony of unjust harm. This book is often disturbing in its descriptions of this harm, but it successfully draws upon awful events to create a practical tool to help victims. In his closing chapters Cherry suggests that there are three alternatives facing the victim of unjust harm; revenge, passive resentment, or to explore the territory of forgiveness. He does not encourage any particular path, does not “boost” the forgiveness option as the only one to take, but simply offers a map through the barren territory which victims find themselves in. In doing this I believe that this book offers pastors, chaplains, and all who care about the hurting something that is quite rare in the realm of theological study; a document of real hope.