Book review: ‘Discovering Forgiveness’
Forgiveness is complicated. It is “an emerging, circular, interactive, complex process,” writes Larry A. Dunn in Discovering Forgiveness: Pathways Through Injury, Apology and Healing. Even if you feel stuck and are not sure if you can truly forgive another person, Dunn says, “That’s OK.”
This is not a “how to” book on forgiving. Dunn does not take up a cost-benefit perspective. He maps out the terrain of forgiveness as characterized by mystery and challenge, full of pathways that might be different for different folks.
In contrast to self-help books on forgiveness, this book serves more like a conversation partner for readers who want to think more deeply about the experience of forgiveness.
A third of the way into the book, Dunn — who is associate professor at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University’s Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies — admits that readers are no closer to a definition of forgiveness than when they began. Multiple ways of thinking about forgiveness are almost endless. This is why he makes frequent use of metaphor and story to unpack the many layers of forgiveness. Like the concept of atonement, metaphors are the best way to make sense of forgiveness.
One helpful story involves a woman in a church conflict who felt bad because while others seemed ready to forgive, she still felt stuck in the past. The facilitator told her that it was OK to be stuck and that she could accept her current state of thinking and feeling. She then became more relaxed — and this change, paradoxically, gave her greater strength and resolve to reconcile with the offending party. Dunn concludes that forgiveness “may not be possible until we stop trying.”
A strength of the book is how forgiveness is seen as a relational dynamic more than as something good for the individual forgiver. His chapter on “The Power of Forgiveness” is actually about the power of apology. Dunn understands how an offending party’s responses to an offended party can add greatly to the forgiveness process. Such responses are gifts for everyone. At the same time, he understands the subtle power dynamics between victims and offenders when expectations of the other weigh in or when self-forgiveness is stalled.
Given how Dunn mainly uses the language of victimized and offending parties, I was surprised that he did not reference the field of restorative justice. Themes of storytelling and listening-based conversation, both vital in helping people to build bridges of trust and to rehumanize each other, also seemed to be missing.
A discussion of forgiveness language would also have been helpful, since it is often confusing to know if we should say the words, “I forgive you.”
Dunn offers an extremely helpful treatment of how forgiveness and memory work together. In “The Justice of Forgiveness” he first deals with the complexity of whether forgiveness can be either conditional or unconditional. This raises the question of whether justice has to be satisfied for forgiveness to happen. For Dunn, the highest expression of forgiveness stems from a scenario when justice has not been satisfied.
But what about the painful memory of a harm or an offense? Dunn draws in the insights of Miroslav Volf to help us understand that real forgiveness comes when we remember rightly so that the negatives of the past no longer hold us captive. Memories can be selective and self-serving. Dunn highlights how a degree of forgetting is helpful, but the greater need is for a mental journey that is “active, fully aware, deliberate.” Only then can we break free from the past and find new life in the future.
Discovering Forgiveness would be an ideal book for an adult study group. It has the capacity to prompt readers to ask new questions and to make things personal. Best of all, it promises to support all of us in our search for healing and forgiveness from life’s most painful experiences that linger. Perhaps if we can embrace this search in a more mindful, nurturing manner, the complexity of forgiveness just might turn into a simplicity that takes us by surprise.
Ted Lewis is a restorative justice trainer, mediator and consultant in Duluth, Minn.
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