Marina Cantacuzino, Forgiveness: an exploration

IssueFebruary - March 2023
Review by Henrietta Cullinan

Having campaigned for many years against nuclear weapons and the arms trade, I have often wondered how I would react to a violent attack on me or my family. I was drawn to this book in a search for what I see as the hardest kind of peace activism: to understand forgiveness among individuals.

In the prologue, Marina Cantacuzino explains that she chose storytelling as a tool with which to resist the mainstream narrative of redemptive violence during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In this book, the result of over 20 years of investigation, she deftly brings together stories from all over the world, enlisting additional comments from psychotherapists, writers, spiritual leaders and activists.

Drawing on often high-profile cases of extreme violence and abuse, the author allows victims and survivors to describe their personal journey through grief, pain and loss, even the desire for revenge, towards something like forgiveness, often coming to rest in the recognition of the humanity of their attacker.

We learn that perceptions of forgiveness differ wildly, from a life goal or a process, to a miracle medicine brought about by love and suffering.

Jude Whyte, whose mother was killed in a bomb attack in Northern Ireland in 1984, tells Cantacuzino: ‘I forgave to survive… the act of forgiveness is a survivalist instinct.’ Like Jude Whyte, many people who have lost a family member to violent crime come to believe that they must free themselves of the hurt in order to live.

The author also illustrates the problematic nature of forgiveness, in the context of hurt at the hands of powerful institutions.

Using examples from Iraq war veterans, Black Lives Matter and Grenfell we learn how the act of forgiveness can sometimes involve dangerous power dynamics and often create more suffering.

A declaration of forgiveness can ignore systemic injustice and stifle work for badly-needed change. Father Michael Lapsley, a member of the ANC who received life-changing injuries from a letter bomb and who never knew his attacker, sees reparation and restitution as a necessary part of forgiveness.

Although the author emphasises that this is not a religious book, the chapter ‘Out of the straitjacket’ includes a discussion on different religious attitudes toward forgiveness as well as stories from victims and survivors who have been strongly influenced by – and yet been led to deeply question – their faith, highlighting the transformative side of forgiveness.

All the stories – from headline-grabbing cases to disputes with neighbours – are relatable. This makes the book very compelling and one to revisit.

No manual can tell us what forgiveness is, when we should pursue it, or how we can achieve it when we do pursue it. Instead, this book validates our own struggles with forgiveness.

I took from it that finding each other’s humanity – even in the most difficult of circumstances – is necessary for peace-making.

Topics: Peacemaking