‘Book of Forgiving’ challenges common convictions

By A Contributor

Written by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his Anglican priest daughter Mpho Tutu, this book is a common sense look at the need for forgiveness in relationships and, more importantly, how to achieve it. 

Bishop Tutu was for many years one of the leaders against the apartheid regime in South Africa, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. 

In 1994 he was appointed chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, representing a truly revolutionary approach to healing and moving beyond civil conflict and strife.

This book comes out of his thinking in that position. 

Although the book is primarily in Bishop Tutu’s voice, his daughter Mpho contributes as well, especially through her telling of her story of her family’s processing of the brutal murder of their housekeeper Angela in their home.

This book is written for the layperson, particularly someone in need of receiving or offering forgiveness. 

Although clearly coming from a Christian perspective, the authors write in such a way that their wisdom will also be applicable to those of other faiths or no faith.  They speak of the ongoing need to share forgiveness, whether for small things like insensitive remarks spouses say to each other or catastrophic traumatic issues like the murder of a family member.

Each chapter concludes with some poetry, points for meditation and journal writing. 

The authors encourage the reader to participate in these activities as they read to move toward forgiveness toward someone in their own lives.

The “Fourfold Path” they propose includes Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.  With a chapter on each of these, the authors explain how important each step is to receiving or offering forgiveness.  Each must happen in order to experience true forgiveness, and potential barriers to the process occur in each path.

For many readers some of the Tutus’ most compelling examples of people forgiving those who murder or caused the death of their loved ones will sound like implausibly saintly behavior out of touch with the real world. 

It may even been seen as disrespectful behavior dishonoring the victim or letting the perpetrator “off the hook.”  However, the authors meet such concerns head-on. 

They are very clear that sometimes people are not able to forgive, or are not ready to at a given time, and that should be respected.  They also note that forgiving is not exonerating.

There are consequences to actions, and they do not argue that an offender should not serve their prison time.  Neither is it the goal of forgiveness to somehow go back as if the incident had never happened, which is impossible.  They also acknowledge that sometime it is not possible to complete the forgiveness cycle, either because the offender is no longer alive or in communication with the victim or because they are not ready to receive forgiveness.  Bishop Tutu himself sadly notes his own failure to reconcile with his tyrannical and abusive father before his death.  Sometimes a relationship can only be released, not renewed, but at least the forgiver may experience some healing.

This is a difficult and challenging book and one whose goals often seem beyond what most of us could ever imagine doing. 

We can be inspired by Linda Biehl, who forgave the murderers of her daughter Amy, and by those men who accepted that forgiveness and dedicated their lives to working in the peace foundation set up by Linda in Amy’s memory. 

Still, most of us could not imagine doing that in such a situation. 

But then none of us really knows how we would reach if facing such tragedy and challenges.  This book at least helps us to imagine the possibility of forgiving. 

At least maybe we can begin such a path by forgiving smaller transgressions.

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