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Book review: Failures of Forgiveness: What we get wrong and how to do better by Myisha Cherry

19 January 2024

Stephen Cherry reads a philosophical take on forgiveness

MYISHA CHERRY (no relation) hosts a podcast, Unmute, which is advertised as a space where “philosophy and real-world issues collide”. Forgiveness is just such an issue, and this book brings a philosophical analysis to some of the questions that often occur to those whose engagement with forgiveness is very much in the real world.

Cherry promotes what she called a “broad” view of forgiveness — seeing it as a variety of practices that achieve different aims. This is in contradiction both to the standard philosophical account that has sought to tie it down to one ideal, perfect, or paradigmatic practice with a clear meaning, and the everyday approach that sees it as the giving up of hostile feelings towards someone who has harmed us.

This broad view is helpful in affirming that it is not only the victim who can forgive or withhold forgiveness and that it is meaningful to forgive yourself under certain circumstances. I am, however, not entirely comfortable with its almost limitless breadth, and, to my mind, it is more helpful to try to delineate distinct types of forgiveness.

The central chapters are explorations of a range of important issues. Her account of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission identifies both positive and negative aspects. It will surprise some and shock others to read just how much pressure was put on some victims to make public expressions of forgiveness.

An important chapter challenges the view that “cancel culture” has no place for forgiveness and offers a defence of cancelling in the “impersonal, commercial sphere”. Forgiveness is not challenged by “cancelling”, because it belongs in the sphere of intimate relations. This distinction is clear, but the reality is murky, and the discussion needs to go further. For instance, we need to ask how impatience and intolerance play out across both personal and public spaces today.

Towards the end of the book, Cherry introduces her concept of “radical repair” and emphasises that forgiveness is not the only good option after things have gone wrong in relationships or harm has been inflicted. She rightly cautions against putting pressure on people to forgive, and I gave a little cheer when I read this: “we must refrain from asking victims whether they forgive and instead ask what we can do for them.”

In short, Failures of Forgiveness is a very helpful guide book for those who want to know how philosophy can help us to understand and practise forgiveness better today.


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


Failures of Forgiveness: What we get wrong and how to do better
Myisha Cherry
Princeton University Press £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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