These stories…portray people at their best and at their worst

March 8, 2009 – 5:35 pm

strugglingStruggling with Forgiveness
Stories from People and Communities
David Self
ISBN 978-1-55126-395-3
soft cover, 183 pages, $19.95

Review by Marilyn-Ann Elphick, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology

David Self, an Anglican priest born and raised in Toronto, tackles the complexities of forgiveness as seen through the lens of ordinary people. These stories are difficult to read because they reflect conflict, suffering, and struggle in situations that portray people at their best and at their worst.

Some of the indignities addressed in these narratives are sexual abuse, racial injustice, brutal murder, personal and social sin. The author explains, “The stories are powerful. I have chosen them not because they define the only circumstances in which forgiveness can operate but because they illustrate the processes we all go through even when events in our own lives seem less significant than those in the stories” (p. 9.).

The book is the result of the author’s quest to understand the operative function of forgiveness in the light of thirty plus years in ministry. His self-reflection on this topic led to the perceptive and sometimes disturbing insight that while “forgiveness” is a word often used and preached, at the same time, a real depth of understanding is elusive. Self discovered that, when he asked others to define “forgiveness,” their response was to share a story that captured the struggles associated with forgiving others, being forgiven, or forgiving oneself.

The two main sections are entitled “Personal Forgiveness” and “Community Forgiveness.” Under the subheading of “Hurt and Healing,” the reader enters into the poignant stories of people who are willing to reopen their wounds in order to allow compassion to take hold so they can heal. A woman whose sister was terrorized and murdered at the age of sixteen bravely writes, “I feel that I’m most true to myself when I’m vulnerable and open to pain. Creativity comes when you have accepted, faced, and experienced the pain. Only then are you free to forgive” (p. 21). After presenting several groupings of narratives-each of which encompasses a wide range of human emotions-the author reflects upon the behaviour, thoughts, and feelings of the storytellers and offers his own experiences as a way of teaching and learning about forgiveness.

Although forgiveness is a private matter, the author challenges the reader to consider the necessity of confronting the messiness of communal sin; communal sin as exhibited in the religious conflict in communities like Northern Ireland, the upheaval and poverty of Canada’s First Nations, and the blatant disregard for human rights enshrined in the harsh discrimination laws in South Africa. The term ubuntu, a word from the Nguni language in South Africa, aptly describes the process of communal reconciliation. Self quotes this description of the term: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human: generous, pitiable, friendly, caring and compassionate. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in theirs. We belong in the bundle of life” (p. 113). In many ways, the spirit of ubuntu is the process of vivification that allows the wounded to confront pain and suffering in order to move toward reconciliation and, ultimately, to heal from the injustice inflicted.

The strength of this work lies in its ability to challenge the reader to examine forgiveness as a progression from woundedness to conversion. While the narratives are not pretty stories with easy solutions, they offer a type of authentic hopefulness that evolves out of the deep pain and dignity of human suffering. It is also most refreshing that the author offers insights from his own life discovered through the stories of those to whom he has ministered. Self’s diverse ministerial activities provide a rich backdrop for his theological self-reflection and honest assessment of a difficult, complex process-forgiveness. The book does not invite a quick reading from cover to cover; rather the message and power of each story needs to be digested on a stand-alone basis. This work will enhance the praxis and knowledge of the professional minister. Self also includes a good selection of reference books for further reading.