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Forgiveness: An alternative account by Matthew Ichihashi Potts

31 March 2023

Stephen Cherry praises a book that is realistic about forgiveness

THE way in which Matthew Ichihashi Potts approaches forgiveness is not to treat it as a miraculous change of heart, so much as a paradigmatic ethical question to which the whole of the Christian gospel is an answer. Forgiveness: An alternative account is a rich and rewarding text, which argues that forgiveness is both a habit of grief and a practice of mourning.

Unlike some more cheerful accounts, which see forgiveness as a way of fixing the past, Potts’s vision of forgiveness is a manner of living with significant harm which demonstrates retaliatory restraint. Forgiveness is love that bears and endures human sin instead of burying or erasing it.

Potts’s remarkable book is not a dry academic tome, but an exemplary application of literary fiction in theological and ethical exploration. His reading of novels by Louise Erdrich, Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, and Marilynne Robinson frames the argument, inviting his readers to reflect on their own reading, or to engage with these books for the first time. Potts embraces literature as an apt lens through which to view forgiveness, precisely because it recognises “its own provisionality and frailty”. This, he argues, is true to the nature of forgiveness itself.

Potts also introduces the reader to a swath of important and often difficult writers, whose philosophical works touch directly or indirectly on questions of forgiveness: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, and Vladimir Jankélévitch, as well as pioneers of the contemporary study of forgiveness from an ethical perspective, including Charles Griswold and Jeffrie Murphy.

He turns to theologians rather later in his work, where the great influences are Rowan Williams and Donald MacKinnon. These writers help him to shape his extensive reflections on resurrection, which, he is at pains to point out, must never be confused with a mere “happy ending”. One of the many stimulating and wonderfully insightful aspects of this work is its challenge to the notion of “eschatological felicity”, which is, in turn, a challenge to naïve notions of happiness or, indeed, flourishing, which are today so popular as the measure against which we evaluate our lives or our communities.

Potts’s Forgiveness is an educational and engaging read that will challenge, reward, and enrich. There are many accounts of forgiveness which do not take seriously enough the irreversibility of loss or the commonality between human processes of forgiveness and grief. This “alternative account” recognises that sometimes the best that we can hope for after traumatic and harmful or horrendous suffering is not repristination, but scar tissue. He acknowledges that sins and faults are not obliterated in this lifetime, but, like death, can have their sting and their victory removed by the power of grace.

This welcome and well-crafted book is a very positive step in the direction of an understanding of forgiveness that is, to quote Potts, “careful, subtle, tentative”. And that is surely right.

The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.


Forgiveness: An alternative account
Matthew Ichihashi Potts
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