Book Review: The Book of Forgiving

The Book of Forgiving: The fourfold path of healing for ourselves and our world, Desmond and Mpho Tutu

Harper Collins  978-0-06220-356-4

Over many decades, the Anglican Archbishop-emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, has been a tireless campaigner for peace, justice and reconciliation; most notably in his homeland of South Africa both in the pre- and post-apartheid years. In 1984 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work for the non-violent overthrow of apartheid. His presence on the international stage has been no less significant in promoting conflict resolution, the restoration of social justice to the marginalized, and inspiring world leaders to be responsible and committed to the people they serve.

This book is one of at least ten he has authored, and on this occasion it has been co-written with his daughter Mpho, a priest of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The book sets out a fourfold path of forgiveness: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, Renewing and Releasing the Relationship.

There is clearly a desperate need in our world for reconciliation through forgiveness, and not only in the obvious areas of conflict – the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Korea, to name but a few. During the
Independence referendum campaign in Scotland last year relationships in politics, in families and among friends and work colleagues were stretched in some cases to breaking-point, and now they are in need of repair. Members of LGBT communities throughout the world need to forgive lawmakers, religious leaders, family members, employers, etc for what they have endured (and continue to suffer) as a result of unjust laws, employment practices, religious dogma, persecution, and the like for, in the words of Desmond Tutu: “there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness …. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again.”

These are not easy words to read when wounds run so deep and yet it is safe to say that there are no aspects of human living that would not benefit from forgiveness and reconciliation; it is, rather, that we are often daunted by the task. In the words of Pope Francis, in a homily preached during his visit to South Korea in August 2014, it seems “impossible, impractical or even repugnant” and therefore we are often unwilling to walk that path. So the anger, hurt, mistrust and hatred are allowed to fester and erupt into violence, self-harm, revenge, thus heaping tragedy upon tragedy.

In the foreword, the authors state: “The quality of human life on the planet is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions with one another. Forgiveness is the way we set those interactions right. It
is the way we mend tears in the social fabric. It is the way we stop our human community from unravelling.” In the dialogue with our bishops we must, also in the words of the Pope, “reject the mindset of suspicion and confrontation” as we attempt to resolve our differences.

Coincidentally, just as I began to read this book an incident arose in my personal life which rapidly spiralled out of control, superficially over holiday plans for later this year. Without going into the details, I reacted to some hurtful words in an email from a friend by lashing out in tit-for-tat fashion. Realising that the breach between us was widening, and lacking time in which to absorb the wisdom of the book’s 223 pages, I launched into a rescue operation to drain the venom from the situation and restore our friendship. It worked and, as
the Desmond and Mpho testify, the experience of healing and peace which flowed from our mutual forgiveness was obvious.

The authors recommend acquiring two objects when embarking on the journey of forgiveness: a private journal to complete writing exercises set out in each chapter and a stone, noting in the journal where it was found and what it was that attracted the reader to it. This has all the appearance of being a self-help book, at which point some may turn their noses up. Because the book fits into that genre and the need to appeal to as wide a readership as possible, one suspects that the authors (or their editor) decided to minimise the number of references to the Christian concept of forgiveness. From the outset, with its reference to the tools needed for the journey, the authors’ expectations are that purchasers/borrowers of this book will be practitioners and not mere passive readers. To borrow a phrase from St Paul “all have sinned and lack God’s glory” (Romans 3:23); indeed, a chapter is devoted to seeking forgiveness of others for our own misdeeds.

Regardless of whether the reader follows the fourfold path set out here, there is much to inspire and encourage in this book, not least the courage and honesty revealed in the many stories of personal, grief, loss and suffering of the authors and others. Our alienation from others frequently gives rise to the anguish of loneliness, discouragement, despair, self-hate and alienation from others. So much of the content of this book resonated with me, it exists not simply to be read but to be absorbed and practised.

  ● John Ashman