Father-daughter co-authors Desmond and Mpho Tutu do not see forgiveness as weakness but as requiring great strength. Photo: Dwayne Senior/eyevine/Redux
Father-daughter co-authors Desmond and Mpho Tutu do not see forgiveness as weakness but as requiring great strength. Photo: Dwayne Senior/eyevine/Redux

Topics: Ethical Living | Culture

3 books on how to forgive the unforgivable

These authors explore what it takes to move forward after experiencing devastating trauma.


Earlier this year, Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents won the annual CBC Canada Reads competition. This family memoir focuses on two of Sakamoto’s grandparents — his father’s mother, Mitsue, and his mother’s father, Ralph — who both suffered terribly during the Second World War.

Mitsue, a Japanese Canadian, lost her Vancouver home when the government sent her family to an internment camp in rural Alberta. Ralph, meanwhile, a soldier from the Maritimes, was subjected to extreme cruelty in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan. Mitsue and Ralph had every reason to hate each other. Yet when they first met, they became instant friends.

“They did not compare hardships or measure injustices,” describes Sakamoto. They had somehow managed to cleanse their hearts. Ultimately, their example gave Sakamoto the strength to overcome the traumas of his own life with an alcoholic mother. The legacy of their forgiveness made his own healing possible.

“Forgiveness is not a transaction,” he writes, “or an exchange.” It comes through moving forward rather than settling a score. Sakamoto is not alone in his capacity to find in forgiveness the root of a lasting peace. Two other recent books also draw on difficult personal experience as a source of insight into what it takes and why it matters to forgive wrongs that seem unforgivable.

Like Sakamoto, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho, a former Anglican priest (she gave up her ministry licence in 2016 after marrying her same-sex partner), identify forgiveness by what it is not. With their joint experience of South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime and other personal tragedies, they know a thing or two about reconciling with the past. In The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, they make clear that to forgive is not to forget or to forgo justice. For them, forgiveness does not mean denying the harm that has been done or letting perpetrators off the hook, but facing what has happened with honesty and finding a way to see the humanity in the other person.

Nor do the Tutus see forgiveness as an indication of weakness. In fact, it can take the greatest strength there is. They tell the story of Palestinian peace activist Bassam Aramin, who at the age of 12 saw a child being shot and killed by an Israeli soldier; he later lost his 10-year-old daughter the same way. These experiences “could have led me down the easy path of hatred and violence,” Aramin admits. But in the thirst for revenge, he only saw more of the same.

Weaving together other personal stories with rituals, meditations and journal exercises, The Book of Forgiving is intended both for those who need to forgive and those who need to be forgiven. The guidebook’s “fourfold path” includes telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness and renewing or releasing the relationship. As the examples demonstrate, this path of forgiveness is not a blithe, stepwise journey toward a certain outcome. Yet even in the face of the worst atrocities and the most paralyzing extremes of grief or guilt, the Tutus remain grounded in the belief that forgiveness is not only possible but necessary to stop our common humanity from unravelling.

In The Way of Letting Go: One Woman’s Walk Toward Forgiveness, Winnipeg writer Wilma Derksen expresses a similar conviction, arising from circumstances of unfathomable pain and loss. Seven weeks after her 13-year-old daughter, Candace, disappeared in 1984, her frozen and bound body was discovered in a shed. It would take over two decades for the alleged perpetrator to be identified and found guilty; last October, he was acquitted in a retrial.

Like Sakamoto’s grandparents and the Tutus, Derksen had every reason to define her life by hatred and the desire for revenge — which she sometimes did. Like them too, however, she found that the only way to meaningfully move forward was through a hard-won journey toward forgiveness. She characterizes it as a 15-fold process of letting go — of anger, rage, self-pity, fantasies of justice and a handful of other attitudes that kept her feeling stuck in an endless cycle of misery.

For all of these authors, forgiveness is understood primarily as a personal choice, an inner pursuit that is not dependent on the actions of others. Apology, restitution, repentance by the guilty parties — these are desirable but not necessary conditions, especially when there is no one readily at hand to blame. “When we forgive,” write the Tutus, “we take back control of our own fate and feelings.” This does not mean ignoring our human interconnectedness, but freeing ourselves from being tethered to the one who harmed us and to the harm itself as the thing that defines who we are.

And what of faith? Readers will find a small but discernible Christian thread woven throughout the three books. With the Tutus, this is hardly surprising. Indeed, what’s interesting is how softly this note is sounded. They occasionally mention Jesus as an exemplar, but their view of forgiveness is radically universal.

Similarly, Derksen, drawing on her Mennonite roots, identifies faith as essential to her understanding of forgiveness. But here, too, “what matters is that faith has to be our own” for forgiveness to be authentic.

For Sakamoto, faith isn’t central to the story. But he draws inspiration from Mark 11:25 to bring his message home: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your [God] in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

All of these accounts involve extreme circumstances that, hopefully, most of us will never face. Yet they hold out hope that freedom from the less grievous but still painful wrongs we experience, and sometimes inflict, is within our reach.

This piece initially appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of The Observer with the headline, “Forgiving the unforgivable.”

Jane Dawson is the minister supporting communities of faith, clusters and networks, Eastern Ontario Outaouais Regional Council of The United Church of Canada


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