How Does Forgiveness Heal? On Myisha Cherry’s “Failures of Forgiveness”
By Gregory LaskiJanuary 14, 2024
Failures of Forgiveness: What We Get Wrong and How to Do Better by Myisha Cherry
Even as Ellis directed her statement to the judge, the apology was not for him, or any one individual victim, as is common in legal contexts. Rather, Ellis was apologizing to a political collective, a group of citizens. “I now take responsibility before this court and apologize to the people of Georgia,” she stated, speaking through tears.
The apology, although perhaps genuine, was also coerced. Among the conditions of her guilty plea, Ellis agreed to complete 100 hours of community service, serve five years of probation, pay $5,000 restitution, and write an “apology letter to the citizens of the state of Georgia.” Those citizens were not present in the Fulton County courtroom, at least not en masse. A defining feature of democratic legal systems is that the institutionalized structures of justice stand in for the victims and perpetrators; the judge, the prosecutors, the courtroom, and the trial compose the constituent parts of a peaceful process that adjudicates competing claims on behalf of the parties.
Still, the unusual nature of this apology and the continually swirling falsehoods about the 2020 election raise troubling questions: Can the citizens of Georgia accept Ellis’s apology? How would they, if they could? Does Ellis have to ask for their forgiveness first? (She did not.) And as the 2024 presidential election looms, perhaps the most urgent question of all: What can forgiveness achieve, politically speaking? Can it repair a body politic riven not only by partisan divisions about the sanctity of the vote—the minimal condition necessary for democracy—but also by divergent understandings of democracy itself?
Published just as Ellis’s plea deal went public, philosopher Myisha Cherry’s new book Failures of Forgiveness: What We Get Wrong and How to Do Better does not address this particular episode, though Cherry’s treatment of forgiveness speaks readily to such moments. Eminently readable and always engaging, Failures of Forgiveness brings a care and clarity to the complex concept at its heart, ultimately asking us to enlarge the ways we understand—and practice—forgiveness. As Cherry admonishes in a line that becomes something like the book’s refrain, “Forgiveness does not always look the same in all cases.”
This may seem to say little. But for academic philosophers as much as everyday people, forgiveness generally means relinquishing anger (or other “negative attitudes”) and embracing the process of reconciliation. In what Cherry characterizes as the “narrow view,” the act of forgiving is “necessary to build a better future.” Forgiveness “is what the mature extend and what the bitter hold back,” she writes. “We think promoting it is always a virtue, and discouraging it is a vice.” Understood this way, forgiveness carries a moral superiority that often feels more like moral baggage. Some may find the weight impossible to lift.
Consider, for instance, the case of an unfaithful romantic relationship. The cheating partner seeks forgiveness from the beloved—their victim—yet makes no attempt to heal the disloyalty underlying the infidelity. Is a request for forgiveness justified in this instance? Should the aggrieved lover grant it? Alternatively, contemplate the commonplace queries that follow acts of racial violence in the United States. How should bereaved Black Americans reply when asked by elected officials or journalists if they can forgive the person who insulted, attacked, perhaps even murdered their loved ones?
Rebutting any standard response to such scenarios, Cherry advances a “broad view” of forgiveness that recognizes there is “no one way to forgive nor one primary aim of forgiveness.” Importantly, this vision does not imply that anything goes. In fact, scattered across the book’s chapters are moral maxims that Cherry terms “suggestions” (rendered in italics). “Politely invite someone to forgive. But make sure that you have given them reasons first and that you are asking for the right reason,” reads one. Another recommends, “Ask if someone has forgiven you only if there is strong evidence that forgiveness has occurred. Be mindful not to ask in order to rush or pester the victim.”
If this approach gives Failures of Forgiveness a sort of self-help feel, it finally functions to open the philosophical richness of the questions the author examines to the broadest audience. So too does the successful mixing of Cherry-the-scholar with Cherry-the-person: academic references to 18th-century British thinker Joseph Butler and 21st-century feminist philosopher Alice MacLachlan, whose ideas influence the argument, co-exist peacefully alongside autobiographical anecdotes about Cherry’s stepfather, whose relationship with another woman wronged not only Cherry’s dying mother but also Cherry and her sister.
This writerly approach is part of a larger commitment that Cherry articulated in her previous book The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-racist Struggle (2021), which explores, with a similar concern for nuance, the ways in which anger can support anti-racist activism. Philosophers are not “the only folks who have insightful things to say about anger and race,” Cherry remarks in that book, “and they should not be the only people who get to hear my own insights on anger and race either.” She adds: “I do not apologize for these choices and believe they need no further explanation.” For the desire to write prose that is at once accessible and precise, Cherry needn’t apologize. In Failures of Forgiveness, she accomplishes both.
The result is a vantage point on the subject that allows us to appreciate the wisdom in those who forgive in ways that may seem unimaginable as well as in those who challenge our imagined expectations by refusing to forgive. In Cherry’s hands, the response of Bethane Middleton-Brown, who famously forgave Dylann Roof for murdering her sister in the 2015 white supremacist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, reminds us that “forgiveness is not only about wrongdoers. Forgiveness also aims at release, relief, and reconciliation for the victim.” When nine-year-old Jeremiah Harvey refused to forgive the woman who hastily—and wrongly—accused him of groping her in a Brooklyn store in 2018, we can see in Harvey’s decision not immaturity or hard-heartedness but rather honesty, a concern for self-care, and courage. Even Cherry’s own response to her stepfather’s marital violation casts forgiveness in a new light: her abiding anger at his infidelity and her refusal to reconcile do not mean that Cherry has not forgiven him. In fact, as Cherry maintains, she has—just not in the way that might seem legible at first glance.
Distorting our received notions only to clarify and sharpen them, Cherry’s take on forgiveness effects a kind of refractive function, the sort you get at an annual visit to the optometrist. “I hope the broad view expands your expectations of what forgiveness can look like and what we can expect from it (and others),” Cherry explains. She adds: “But it’s also my hope that your expectations of forgiveness will be improved.” To see forgiveness more clearly is to understand both its possibilities and its problems, to better grasp what it can and cannot do, whom it can and cannot heal, and why. As Cherry’s second-person address indicates, the book wants readers to see, think, and evaluate for themselves. How does forgiveness look to you? Lens one or lens two?
What does Failures of Forgiveness allow us to see in Jenna Ellis’s apology? Or, to consider another character from the same plot, how might we understand the very different response of January 6 insurrectionist Larry Brock Jr., the Air Force veteran who was photographed on the Senate floor dressed in combat gear and with zip ties in his hand?
Ellis accepted wrongdoing and apologized as a condition of her plea, choosing to read her statement aloud in court—something she was not required to do. “[A]ll too often, I don’t get to hear the perspective of the accused […] in these cases and so that’s appreciated,” remarked the judge. By contrast, Brock, who was ordered to serve two years in prison, displayed “no […] remorse whatsoever, zero,” as the judge in his case put it in the sentencing decision. From Brock’s vantage, no apology was needed: in a video posted online, Brock asserts that he went to Washington, D.C., to “peacefully and patriotically protest.” Rather than perpetrating violence, he kept order, admonishing those in the Senate chamber to “act respectfully.” Brock held the zip ties not to physically restrain a prisoner, he claims, but to keep other rioters from imposing such restraint: according to this account, when he stumbled upon the flex-cuffs amid the chaos of the crowd, Brock picked them up knowing “they would be safe with [him].”
Ellis and Brock, different as their responses were, raise similar concerns about the possibilities of forgiveness, especially when the relationship between wrongdoers and their victims becomes more abstract. What happens, that is, when the aggrieved party is plural: citizens of a state, voters of a nation, congresspeople?
Cherry addresses this in an evocative endnote to a chapter on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the 1990s-era inquiry into the political violence and abuses of South African apartheid. Conceding that “relationships with our fellow citizens […] differ from our relationships with family and friends,” Cherry underscores the continuity between political and interpersonal contexts. “We also have interpersonal relationships with our fellow citizens,” she maintains, and “[p]olitical forgiveness emerges from our political relationships.”
Even if one accepts the analogy, there is much to unpack here, both conceptually and practically. What characteristics define relationships among the citizens of a state or nation? How does one know, much less come to interact with, the various individuals who constitute the people of a diverse democracy like the United States? Benedict Anderson memorably defined a nation as an imagined community, a political collective in which the majority of members do not encounter one another in person but nevertheless hold in their minds an “image of their communion,” a deep sense of affiliation with their fellow citizens. Anderson was arguing against thinkers who approached nations and nationalism as mere inventions that could be measured along an axis of truth or falsehood. What mattered, Anderson insisted by contrast, was not “falsity/genuineness” but the “style” of the imagination.
Today, enmity is the style of the imagined political community known as the 21st-century United States. Fox News and MSNBC, despite important differences in their approaches to factual reporting, both frame stories in a way that emphasizes the ostensibly unbridgeable divide that separates their viewers from those watching the other network. And the news industry is only one part of the story. From grocery stores to book choices to neighborhoods, Americans have sorted themselves into precincts demarcated, sometimes quite literally, by partisan political identities. As one scholar has written of this state of affairs, “Although we hold our beliefs about our opponents—their ideas, values, and lifestyles—with intensifying confidence, we actually don’t understand them well.”
It makes sense for Cherry to talk about why Black New Yorkers are appropriately positioned to forgive Dylann Roof for the crime he committed in Charleston. Their shared racial identity gives them a sense of the stakes and thus a standing to forgive. But when we zoom out to political relationships on a broader, national scale, it is much harder—lamentably—to identify a similar thread. What ties citizens together in a political relationship today?
This apparent deficit of fellowship may nudge us on the path to the “radical repair” that Cherry identifies as among the worthiest aims of forgiveness. “Radical repair attempts to get at the root of the problem, no matter the cost,” she writes. Forgiveness may not be enough to carry us there; it may not be the tool we need when we arrive. Yet, as Cherry reminds us in her treatment of the TRC, what “made it more possible for victims to want to forgive” was the commissioners’ commitment to “truth and acknowledgment”—recognition, that is, of both the atrocities committed and their abiding harms.
In a strange way, the radical repair that the United States requires in the wake of January 6 may be served better by recognizing Larry Brock’s lack of remorse than by celebrating Jenna Ellis’s apology. Although Ellis’s tears appeared not to cloud her vision as she read her letter into the record in the Georgia courtroom, they may have the unfortunate effect of averting our collective gaze from the root of the problems confronting political relationships today. Brock’s insistence that his actions on January 6 were motivated by a “genuine concern for democracy” stands as a stark demonstration that the work of collective reckoning and repair will require us to confront the personal truths that inform the way some people encounter the world and make sense of it. That those truths sit uneasily—and, in some respects, are fundamentally at odds—with other kinds of truth a democracy needs to survive reveals the depths we must plumb.
Working in the wake of apartheid but decades before January 6, Jacques Derrida trained his sights on the democratic consequences of forgiveness. Forgiveness revealed itself most clearly when measured against the unforgivable, Derrida held, and democracy demonstrates a similar paradox: it demands nondominating force, liberty amid dependence, equality alongside individuality, and forgiveness where there can be none. Derrida chose the phrase “democracy to come” to capture this conception of a democracy that, unable to reconcile such oppositions, is necessarily out of reach.
If the real and very present dilemmas of democracy confronting us today can feel as dizzying as reading Derrida, continually striving to bring into existence a democracy worthy of the name remains a pressing goal. Where the TRC chose forgiveness as the link connecting truth and reconciliation in the South African transition to democracy, a different orientation seems necessary in the United States, something like a rigorously nonpartisan, consistently prodemocracy lens for evaluating questions and making decisions. Such a view would bring into focus the paradoxes that attend the project of self-government, including what it means to imagine oneself as a member of a multiracial and pluralistic republic and the norms for participating in such a republic in a way that recognizes that you are but one among many people who compose its contours. It would include, as well, a path to forgiving the unforgivable, an effort to understand those who, like Brock, attempted to secure one version of democracy by destroying another.
As Cherry rightfully contends, the possibility of that prospect rests with the “[p]olitical institutions [that] create conditions that can make radical repair possible.” “[M]edia campaigns, self-help books, or private conversations about forgiveness” will not suffice. Rather, as Cherry explains, “achieving racial and political reconciliation is a political project” and will thus “require political resources.”
No one can argue with that clear-eyed assessment; still, we can hope that Failures of Forgiveness will serve as one resource in the endeavor.
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