Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Book Write-Up: Forgiveness and Justice

Bryan Maier.  Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach.  Kregel, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

Bryan Maier has a PsyD from Wheaton College Graduate School and teaches counseling and psychology at Biblical Theological Seminary.  In Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach, Maier seeks a definition of forgiveness and critiques prevalent approaches to it.

Maier is critical of approaches to forgiveness that focus on the personal healing of the victim.  Examples of such approaches include highlighting the positive consequences of forgiveness on one’s mental and physical health and saying that people should forgive for their own benefit, whether the offender repents or not.  Such approaches present forgiveness as a solitary act that victims do by themselves, without necessarily entailing participation of the offenders.  For Maier, by contrast, forgiveness should involve the offender, as well, and genuine repentance on the part of the offender is a prerequisite for forgiveness to occur.

Personal healing of the victim is not absent from Maier’s conceptualization of forgiveness, for Maier maintains that genuine repentance by the offender can contribute to the victim’s healing.  If the offender does not repent, Maier argues, the victim can find comfort in the biblical ideas that God is just (the hope of the imprecatory Psalms and the Book of Revelation), may bring about the repentance of the offender, and will bring good out of evil (as occurs in the Joseph story).  Whereas many approaches to forgiveness regard negative feelings on the part of the victim as unhealthy, Maier maintains that they are appropriate: the victim is legitimately angry at injustice and sin, as God is.  At the same time, Maier’s hope seems to be that the victim will move towards concern for the offender and hope for the offender’s repentance.  According to Maier, forgiveness in the Bible is not just about healing for the victim but also the benefit of the offender.  This is the case with God’s forgiveness of people, on which believers are to model their own forgiveness of others (Ephesians 4:31-32; Colossians 3:12-13).  But Maier contends that the prerequisite for forgiveness is sincere repentance on the part of the offender.  And, even after forgiveness occurs, that does not necessarily mean that the relationship goes back to what it was prior to the offense.

One might think that this book would stress the importance of victims confronting their offenders.  Maier mentions that occasionally, and one can perhaps assert that this theme is implicit in Maier’s presentation of forgiveness.  What is remarkable is that it is not a salient theme in the book, at least on the explicit level.  Maier says that there are cases in which confrontation of the offender may not be wise, and, at times, Maier presents concern for the offender as a personal process: a person praying for the offender’s repentance, for instance.

One might also think that this book would stress the importance of victims and offenders reconciling with each other and restoring their relationship.  Indeed, Maier does talk about the disruptive, tragic effects that offenses and unforgiveness have on relationships, and he believes that forgiveness should lead to celebration at the offender’s repentance.  At the same time, Maier appears to accept that things do not necessarily work out that way.  He encourages offenders to give victims the space to forgive at their own pace; acknowledges that victims may not want to form a relationship with the person who offended them, in cases where there was no prior relationship; and states that some relationships may find their healing only after death, in heaven.

The book would have been better had Maier wrestled with certain questions.  Maier should have discussed when confrontation is appropriate, while offering suggestions about how victims can confront their accusers.  That would have added more moral support for people who struggle with confrontation.  Maier should have wrestled with Jesus’ statement in Luke 17:4 that people should forgive someone who repents seven times a day.  If a person repents seven times a day, does that not indicate that the person is not sincerely and authentically repentant?  Maier demonstrates awareness of this question, but he does not attempt to answer it (as far as I remember).  There is also Jesus’ troubling statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26).  Does that leave room for forgiveness to be a process that may take a while, as Maier depicts?

The book has strengths, though.  Maier does well to ask what exactly forgiveness is.  As Maier observes, clear definitions of forgiveness are rather scarce.  While I still see wisdom in the approaches that Maier critiques, Maier’s critiques are effective.  Downplaying or excusing sin is a flawed approach, and we cannot always empathize with the offender because we do not know why the offender did what he or she did.  Maier attempts to get inside of the head of victims, however, in that he probes their desire for a just world, as they cope with a world that is often unjust.  Maier’s discussion of this point made sense to me.

The book is heavy, even though it is a mere 154 pages.  It was depressing to me, since I recoil from the idea that I have to interact with people, period.  Still, Maier made good points.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

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