Wrongdoing has an afterlife
Love this part: "Forgiveness as a way to get to radical repair requires actual work and effort, creativity, sacrifice, ingenuity, and community. Thinking that forgiveness is 'magical' makes us lazy in the aftermath of wrongdoing, and it often leads us down the road towards superficial and thrifty repair, instead of the more radical kind."
The part about victims being asked to forgive so quickly always gets me -- especially when there's absolutely no sign that the person who harmed them is apologizing. Not that they should automatically have to accept an apology, not at all, but to put people on the spot about forgiveness when it's not even being asked for in even the shallowest way! So much of the time, these external demands for forgiveness, and not just in the case of crimes, are really just a way to say to people that they don't have a right to expect to be treated better and it's on them to be gracious about it.
thank you so much for sharing their work and this topic.
forgiveness as a concept is difficult for me, at times, to disconnect white/christian/spiritual bypassing culture where comfort of everyone but the harmed seems of utmost import. about 5 years ago, i attended a therapeutic training program led by majority white teachers and my cohort was also majority white (i am a female POC). i became the center of a racialized conflict due to harm that was done by the lead white male instructor to me. it was unsettling and wild how quickly after the event (i’m talking minutes) many in the class rushed to comfort the instructor over my experience - which ultimately led to me leaving the program after additional harm was added due to the mishandling of the first. i know it’s human, but so many cannot handle those “negative” emotions in themselves or others nor can they sit with their own missteps without completely collapsing (which adds even more labor to the harmed).
i’m also a transracial adoptee currently in limited contact with my adoptive parent, and it’s such a complex process to navigate forgiveness at levels that are personal, structural, institutional, and societal all at the same time. it often feels unfair that i’m the one tasked at accepting and forgiving everyone involved at every level. i’m thankful to have a therapist who reminds me that my process is my own, doesn’t need to be rushed, and doesn’t need to have any particular outcome. i’m looking forward to reading this book!
I love this interview and this concept. Part of my graduate studies focused on conflict and dispute resolution. The program is based in restorative justice, which rings throughout Dr. Cherry's interview. Punitive justice centers the wrongdoer(s) by focusing on how *they* can be held accountable and what a third party deems appropriate for punishment. Restorative justice recognizes the victim (in this context, victim is shorthand for "person who has been harmed") by centering their perspective, finding out from them directly: what would it take for you to be restored? What could the wrongdoer do to make amends? Of course this is a simple summary of a complex concept, but I encourage everyone to look into this field (reading Dr. Cherry's book seems like a good start!).
Whew.... this was a WORD. I was thinking about forgiveness and work as I was reading this and then you went there! I'm going to need to sit with that more and reflect. In my own career, I have left situations when transgressions occurred, so forgiveness can't happen in relationship. Societally, we have institutions who have ignored other narratives, centering the stories of white men & women, of wealthy & privilege. How do people who are part of these institutions now begin the process of radical forgiveness when the sins are not original to the here and now?
The other thing I was thinking about is SELF forgiveness. For those of us who hold ourselves to impossibly high standards, this creates a constant need for self forgiveness but finding the tools to do that is a lifetime's work. What do you do when you have transgressed against your own values? I think the only way forward *is* radical forgiveness, and that requires an internal overhaul.
This whole interview reinforced what I see every day as an employment lawyer, where I see up close and personal the ways that the relationship between and employee and organization has been damaged, and trying to find a way where the employee can walk away with dignity. For my employee clients, my first question is always "how can I help?" or "tell me more about what happened." I know it's not as organized as an intake form, but I find I can get to the heart of the issue more quickly and identify what is important to *that client.*
I also ask, "what is your end goal?" or "what do you want out of this process?" and when they can't identify it clearly, it's a sign to me that it's not a good fit for us to work together (learned from painful, expensive experience). Sometimes they're not ready, and sometimes it's something I know I can't deliver, but many times I can feel a *whoosh* of relief and validation when I tell them I'm sorry that happened to them.
So interested to read this book and Dr. Cherry's other work as well! Fascinating.
TW - GV and homicide
I read this today on what would have been my son’s 22nd birthday. He died an innocent victim of a horrific act of gun violence, murdered by complete strangers - 3 young men his age - without motive at the tender age of 20.
Your interview is incredibly accurate, starting with the rush for a happy ending and a tale of redemption. It is so harmful for victim’s families to be guilted into forgiveness while there is barely an acknowledgment of the atrocity committed... Like we’re the bad guys dragging a complicated and difficult story around, subjecting others to its ugliness instead of quickly burying it for people’s comfort.
How can there be forgiveness without an acknowledgment of wrongdoing by the perpetrators, much less true repentance?
Forgive we are told, so as to liberate yourself... That’s a load of BS from people who have not had to bear the unbearable.
We have not given into racism, anger or hatred, we feel empathy for the accused’s families - no mother wants their child to be a murderer - and we have responded with radical kindness in our lives. That is our healing path, as noted, there are many... But I owe these young men nothing, including unearned forgiveness.
Whew, this quote about the university - "And they expect that others forgive and move on quickly, because for them “the” main goal is to get back to raising money or climbing rankings" - hit home. How I wish higher ed would adopt the model of repair.
This interview was exceptional. Thank you. I have grappled with forgiveness for decades as I grew up and was raised by a father who suffered from a significant mental illness. He was functional and from outward appearances was quite successful in his life. However, it took me years to make me see and I still barely understand - he could not help his behavior(s) because of this illness.
After spreading his remains in a mountain lake, where he once worked as a young man, I wrote a short piece that touched on forgiveness and is part of a larger story I have been working on throughout the years: "This is the story of learning to love him. Learning to 'love the madness' as I have said many times. This is a story of coming to understand that all is not what you believe, what you have been told or what you have been led to believe. It's a tragedy and a triumph, a story of grief and sadness and joy. Ultimately, joy. Finally it is a story of acceptance and forgiveness. The forgiveness piece is fragmented though, for can we really forgive others and their actions if they cannot help themselves? Is forgiveness even necessary?"
The interview here was just so good. There is depth to forgiveness and there is a long-tail to it (for me anyways). It was never a one-and-done type of experience or action, especially when he was living. Now that he is gone there is breathing room to work towards acceptance and perhaps circles of forgiveness. Thank you for this one today.
It's interesting that Cherry mentions the mainstream discourse as equating forgiveness with reconciliation. The one scholar whose work I've read on the subject, Robert Enright, emphasized the importance of distinguishing between forgiveness and reconciliation. This is especially true if the person being forgiven is abusive or in any way unsafe. What Cherry describes sounds more like weaponized forgiveness as a way of undercutting actual justice. The Forgiveness Project in South Africa could only have been successful because apartheid ended. It wouldn't have made sense for that project to happen beforehand.
Forgiveness has been a huge theme for me the past 3 years. When talking about systems and institutions I believe the road to forgiveness and reparations is clear cut. On the other hand when it comes to interpersonal relations and feelings, things are waayyyy messier.
A main issues, for me at least, is that the one who did the hurting doesn't even acknowledge what happened. Then on top of that with this wonderful trifecta of: Not telling anyone what happened out of fear of "blowing things up", no one coming to your defense when they do know what happened, and lastly still needing to interact with said person. I can know understand why I still feel hurt, and that's because the action(s) deeply hurt my self-esteem and self-worth. I just have no idea how healing can happen when you still need to interact with said person and everyone around you acts like nothing happened or that you should no longer be hurt. Or maybe I'm confusing healing for just forgetting about said person.
Thank you for this! I'm almost done reading Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg's book _On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World_, and this seems like an ideal book to follow it with. Professor Cherry's concept of "radical repair" is so insightful, as are her points about how the "hurry and bury" approach puts so much emotional work on the victim.
I have spent time feeling confused about why emotional requests for forgiveness make me feel icky and resentful, and this all helps a lot.
I really look forward to reading this book!
Many years ago I read the book "How Can I Forgive You?" by Janis A. Spring and it changed my life. I was in therapy to deal with the fallout from being in an abusive relationship - I was really stuck on all the ways he harmed me and my own guilt for "letting it happen to me". She also writes about the collaborative work required for true forgiveness to happen, but also how to accept what happened if you aren't in a place to (safely) work with the person who harmed you.
Recently my long-term partner broke up with me because he couldn't deal with being my caregiver due to my long COVID. He still wants to be friends, but I told him he needs to work through the forgiveness process to earn back my friendship and that I deserve that accountability. I don't know that we'll ever be able to be friends again, but his "I'm sorry I hurt you, but it was too hard for me to be your partner and I needed a change" for sure isn't enough for me to forgive him.
I used to be very quick to forgive, thinking that it freed me from anger and kept the peace. Until I realized that despite saying I forgave someone, I still felt hurt and betrayed by the people who wronged me. I realized that anger has an important place because it usually reflects that a boundary has been violated and forgiveness should be earned, usually with an apology and action to do better. Recognizing that has also made me better at apologizing and working with people I've hurt to achieve forgiveness. I've also realized that giving people second chances doesn't mean that the relationship can go right back to where it was before the wrong. Rather, when I give people a second chance, it's their opportunity to work their way back to where they were before by showing they've learned from the experience. I can't remember where I read the phrase "an apology without a change in behaviour is manipulation."
I enjoyed this interview a great deal. Forgiveness is such a complex and human issue. I wrote a post about forgiveness, using a chapter in The Periodic Table, a book by Primo Levi, the writer who I think wrote most deeply and well about the Holocaust. He was open to forgiveness, but never found anyone to forgive.
I’m supposed to be writing a thesis on theologies of repair that has been modestly derailed by unexpected personal dead ends (illuminations?) in this area. What strikes me is that repair is a group project and one the harmdoer must be deeply invested in action toward. What Cherry says about asking victims to speak resonates with what I’ve read and experienced about the transformative power of being witnessed.
Forgiveness or repair may not ultimately look like reconciliation. Sometimes what’s repaired is one’s own relationship with the self, community, the earth, one’s body, the Divine, etc. Just ordered Cherry’s book and am eager to read more.
Great newsletter with lots to think about. Thanks a lot. I'm struck by how most of the comments are by people grappling with forgiving and few to none(?) about someone needing forgiveness.