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Summer Books

Without forgiveness, evil wins


By Joan Mueller
Thomas More, 144 pages, $9.95


When crime shatters a family, sooner or later the survivors, wounded and altered, often locked in rage, must confront the question: Who are they going to become as their lives go on? Those who have been in this fire know that this question is linked intrinsically with another: Is forgiveness possible for people thrust so unjustly into overwhelming pain caused by an irresponsible or evil act?

Joan Mueller, well versed in theology and spirituality, attempts to answer that question in this book. She succeeds admirably, examining every aspect of forgiveness, going from whether the Christian message of forgiveness is humanly possible to a final truth, that “without forgiveness, evil wins and continues to destroy love and relationships.”

Mueller has used an effective method for getting one’s attention focused on forgiveness. Acknowledging that she has written this book for Christians whose faith has been challenged by tragedy, she introduces us to Ann and Joe, a couple who’ve been there. She walks us through their journey, begun when they were catapulted into near-despair after their 6-year-old son, Jimmy, was killed by a drunk driver who shows no remorse. In this crisis, Ann and Joe initially find they can’t reconcile their feelings of rage and sadness with the Christian imperative to forgive. “Their pastor has told them to forgive and not to be angry; but Ann and Joe are angry, and they do not know how to forgive,” Munch writes.

To move away from outrage becomes a long, day-by-day struggle for this Christian couple, who are so weighted down by their need for revenge against the young man who stole their son’s life. Relying on prayer, they seek wisdom and healing. “Night after night, Ann and Joe contemplate the story of Jesus and persevere in prayer,” the author writes, acknowledging this doesn’t bring any instant consolation to the couple. “One night while they were praying, Joe exclaimed, ‘I thought the gospel was supposed to be about good news! If Jesus suffered and died, this might be noble, but is there any good news in this for us? In many ways it feels like we have been crucified through the years. Is there any resurrection for us?’ ” Ann pulled out a piece of paper, and they began to identify and write down their “good news list.” It fills two pages.

They begin to refocus, away from the bad and on to the good. This is positive psychology, healing therapy and truly Christian. Ultimately it is their faithfulness to their Christian faith that leads them to know that the only balm for healing is forgiveness, and that “if forgiveness is going to happen, they must choose it, not wait to feel it.”

As Mueller follows the spiritual progress of this couple, anyone who’s been in their skin can relate to their experiences. On the negative side is finding how people, even friends, fearful of being contaminated by your pain, now stay away from you; how people you expect will help you -- like Ann and Joe’s pastor -- do not; how the pain comes roaring back suddenly and unexpectedly; how tragedy doesn’t make you immune from subsequent ones.

But then, on the positive side there is finding that you can move on from chaos; you can laugh again; you can learn by reaching out to God that you have not been abandoned; you can forgive, and when you do, you see so clearly that forgiveness has become the only way to freedom, allowing you to believe again in the goodness of life.

Mueller has made a powerful, academic case for why people shattered by crime or tragedy must forgive if they are to find peace. But while her book is intellectually very effective, it lacks any convincing emotions. Ann and Joe don’t come across as real people because we don’t hear their voice, telling their own story from their punctured hearts.

Yet, in spite of this lack of authentic feeling, Why Can’t I Forgive You? is a book I would highly recommend for its effectiveness in presenting a clear and compelling picture of Christian forgiveness.

Antoinette Bosco is an award-winning journalist, columnist and author.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001