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A time for the taking down of barriers

02 January 2015

Ted Harrison reflects on the theme of forgiveness with Against the Odds by Carmel Thomason


Looking forward: Jo Berry with Patrick Magee, the IRA Brighton bomber who murdered her father, Sir Anthony Berry

Looking forward: Jo Berry with Patrick Magee, the IRA Brighton bomber who murdered her father, Sir Anthony Berry

THE Lord's Prayer unites all Christians, whatever their denomination or tradition, and it expresses in one succinct sentence a core Christian teaching. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

God's desire to forgive is limitless, but what of our own? "How many times must I forgive my brother?" Peter asks Jesus. "Seventy times seven," comes the reply - in other words, there should be no limit to human forgiveness, either. This book encourages readers to examine themselves. Do we harbour petty grudges too long? Have we the capacity to cope with genuine injustice against us?

Carmel Thomason's Against the Odds: True stories of forgiveness and healing is a book that contains eight real-life stories centred on forgiveness. After each story, there is a short reflection by a "professional", including one by Bishop Peter Forster, and another by Sean Murphy QC.

The first four stories tell of events that appear to be unforgivable. The the second group of four give some everyday examples of situations where forgiveness has proved difficult.

Ray, who was a Japanese prisoner during the Second World War, tells of the horrible cruelty that he witnessed and suffered. "We came out of captivity breathing fire and vengeance against the whole Japanese nation," he recalls.

More than 60 years later, he was able to write: "If we are to lay the foundations of lasting peace in the world, there can be no room in our hearts for hatred."

As a Christian, he says that he was taught to forgive his enemies, but he observes, with notable understatement, that, for him, "it took a bit of doing."

In another wartime story, Bill tells of being blinded and disabled, and how, over time, he found contentment and fulfilment in a life that he once thought had been wrecked irreparably. "I learned long ago that to bemoan the loss of what you can never have leads to disappointment, frustration, and unhappiness."

Neither Bill nor Ray had a named individual to forgive. Joanne however, five years after being raped, found herself face to face with her attacker. A meeting was arranged between her and Darren as part of a restorative-justice programme. It was a difficult and emotionally charged encounter on both sides, which ended with Joanne's acknowledging her attacker's remorse and accepting his apology. "Now I can think about my future," Joanne concluded. "Forgiving Darren gave me my life back, and it felt brilliant."

In contrast, the book tells the story of two brothers, Tom and James, who fell out over nothing of seeming importance and did not speak to each other for six years. In her reflection on the tale, the Revd Julie Martin notes that, while forgiving those who have wronged us is difficult, so, too, is forgiving ourselves - especially if, deep down, we realise that we have played a part in putting up the barriers.

A specially challenging chapter, with which many Christians might identify, is Gary's story. He had no human being to blame: his anger was not directed against a fellow human being, but against God. His wife, Zenka, was pregnant when things went badly wrong. Eventually the doctors were unable to detect a heartbeat and knew that the child in the womb had died. Gary was an active churchgoer, and felt that the prayers that God usually answered for him had been ignored. He found himself unable to pray. "I slammed my Bible shut."

At the end of the book, just before a list of contacts for organisations that might provide practical help for those wanting to explore forgiveness, the author asks readers to tell their own stories. "Think about a time in your life when you have forgiven" is the first task, before moving on to "think about times when you need to be more forgiving," and "situations where you feel that you can't forgive".

The author has not written a book to be read passively. Each chapter concludes with a reflection and a set of relevant questions for the reader to engage with.

Claire discovered that her husband, Simon, was addicted to pornography. "My instinct was to yell, 'You're horrible. You disgust me.' But where was the grace in that? If I really wanted to help Simon, then I had to judge him less harshly."

The reader is asked to look for what he or she finds surprising and inspiring about the couple's relationship as it resolves.

The book might seem a surprising choice for an adult reading group expecting something more intellectually demanding. But that is not to say that it does not ask some very searching questions. The prompt questions and their subsidiaries should stimulate wider and deeper discussion.

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious affairs correspondent. 

Against the Odds: True stories of forgiveness and healing, by Carmel Thomason, is published by BRF at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10 - Use code CT870 ); 978-1-84101-739-6.


Ray "came out of captivity breathing fire and vengeance". Should he have felt differently?

What do you think kept Bill alive?

Who receives more, Joanne or Darren?

Can we compare Penny's story to Bill's? Should we?

Does Terry blame the Church too easily for his problems? 

Why is "Gary's Story" not called "Gary and Zenka's Story"?

Should Claire have married Simon?

With whom do you more easily identify: Tom or James?

Whose story did you find most affecting?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 6 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. It is published by Serpent's Tail at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20 -  Use code CT870 ); 978-1-84668-966-6. 

Book notes

Rosemary Cooke has spent most of her adult life wondering what became of her sister, Fern. Her brother, Lowell, has been missing for a decade, and is wanted by the FBI; her eminent father drinks too much; her mother is a nervous wreck; and her friends range from loyal to dangerous. She surveys the chaos of her life in the knowledge that her scientist parents used her childhood as an experiment, which has had devastating and heart-rending consequences for them all. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize.

Author notes 

Karen Joy Fowler grew up in Indiana, and is best-known as the author of The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), which became a bestseller in the United States and was later turned into a film.

She has also written works of literary fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, and collections of short stories. She now lives in California. 

Books for the next two months: 

March: The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

April: The Children of Men by P. D. James

Church Times Bookshop

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The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

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