The Limits of Forgiveness

Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal

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Maria Mayo
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , August
     276 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal Maria Mayo contributes to the ongoing discussion in forgiveness research by challenging the notion that forgiveness should be unlimited, unconditional, and unilateral. Mayo asserts that the onus to forgive is unduly weighted towards the victim, pressurizing them to forgive; and calls for a more balanced approach that includes the aspects of community rebuke and visible repentance by the offender (210). She states that in some cases forgiveness should be withheld, and argues this point by means of three specifically selected biblical texts and three contemporary case studies. Mayo’s criteria for biblical text selection include words spoken by Jesus, specifically containing the word forgive, and a focus on interpersonal—as opposed to divine—forgiveness (8). The three text/case study pairs selected for consideration are (1) Jesus’ seventy-times-seven instruction (Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 17:3-4) and the restorative justice movement [RJM]; (2) the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4) and the truth and reconciliation commission [TRC] in South Africa; and (3) Jesus’s cry from the cross (Luke 23:34a) and the language of forgiveness in the pastoral care of victims of domestic violence (4-6). Mayo describes the change in the understanding of forgiveness over time; going from active, relational, and conditional (7), to unconditional and requiring only the victim’s participation (6).

Delving into the Greek meaning of the verb forgive (aphíēmi) Mayo indicates that “interpersonal forgiveness in the time of the Gospels had an active or outward character and was not only a changing of one’s mind or feelings [an inward action]” (15). She maintains that forgiveness in contemporary literature is developed in three ways: (1) as a means to strengthening the community (16-21), (2) controlling negative emotions (21-25), and (3) a therapeutic strategy that benefits the forgiver’s health (25-30). Mayo is concerned with the contemporary definition and idealized overemphasis of forgiveness by psychologists and pastoral-care givers, which focuses on unconditional forgiveness, as opposed to her own position in which she states that Jesus linked forgiveness to repentance (29-30). Mayo argues that “a victim is not obligated to forgive when repentance is absent,” however, it is obligatory when sincere repentance is present (33).

In the first text/case study pair, Mayo highlights the conditional aspect of forgiveness “if there is repentance, you must forgive” (Luke 17:3), as well as the familial aspect “my/your brother” (Matthew 18:21, Luke 17:3) (51-54), while contrasting these with restorative justice’s focus on idealized unconditional forgiveness (60-96). She asserts that the RJM have embraced the forgiveness command while ignoring the aspects of reproof (Matthew) and repentance (Luke) (94). Yet, Mayo concedes, the RJM have positively focused on community repair (95). She concludes this section by stating that “forgiveness may well be restorative and admirable but it should be judged by its effects, not simply by its expression. The victim alone cannot repair the broken relationship; rather, such a process must be nurtured by the offender in the form of repentance apology, reparation, or remorse” (96).

In the second text/case study pair, Mayo highlights the prayer as preserving community order aspect in “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) which includes a contribution from offenders, not only victims, while contrasting it to the language of forgiveness used by the TRC (97-157)—specifically the speech of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was “used [to] pressure victims into forgiving perpetrators in service of the new South Africa” (102). Mayo asserts that the TRC and Tutu both present a corrupted account of biblical forgiveness by excluding the need for repentance/remorse by the offender (156). Her position is that “in order to be in right relation to God, human beings must be in right relation to each other, and this includes forgiving with repentance” (156).

In the third and final text/case study pair Mayo highlights her position that Jesus’s non-forgiveness prayer on the cross as “an opening for victims to remain faithful to the biblical model without forgiving their abusers” (162), while contrasting it to contemporary Christian pastoral-care practices (161-205) that “impose explicit or tacit pressure on victims of domestic abuse to forgive their abusers” (162). She asserts that pastoral-care authors have conflated therapeutic forgiveness with biblical forgiveness, and this has resulted in the communal character of forgiveness being lost (197). Mayo interprets Jesus’s prayer on the cross as permission to not forgive, and extends this to victims of abuse (198).

Mayo’s main concern is that the contemporary psychological view of unlimited, unconditional, unilateral forgiveness accentuates the responsibility of the victim to forgive while minimizing the necessity of repentance by the offender. She stresses that each of the three cases presented “reveals a preference for an idealized version of forgiveness presented as a biblical imperative” (209). She offers a reimagined forgiveness that is both bilateral and contingent (44-45). Mayo’s personal experience of a violently traumatic event led to her interest in this topic and any reader will be captivated by the passion and rigor with which she presents her case.

While thoroughly challenging, the narrow scope of selecting texts spoken only by Jesus and only where the word forgive occurs, limits the strength of Mayo’s argument(s) as it doesn't factor in the remaining biblical texts addressing the topic of forgiveness without mentioning it by name–concepts such as trinity and rapture which are not mentioned by name come to mind. On the other hand, Mayo offers a compelling argument to relook at the selected biblical texts and find room for reimagining a bilateral and contingent forgiveness process that recognizes both victim and offender. Some readers will find her arguments difficult to digest, while others will resonate with them, which is why her book is so thought provoking.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is research associate at the University of Pretoria.

Date of Review: 
March 7, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maria Mayo earned her doctorate in history and critical theories of religion at Vanderbilt University. Coeditor of several volumes of The Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature series, her research focuses on conceptions of forgiveness in the contexts of criminal justice, pastoral care, and conflict transformation. Mayo is currently the communications coordinator for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, and writes articles on the ideology of forgiveness and popular culture for the Huffington Post.


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