In Failures of Forgiveness (Princeton Univ., Sept.), Cherry, an assistant professor of philosophy at UC Riverside, rethinks the meaning and purpose of absolution.

What motivated you to write this book?
This book was influenced, like a lot of my academic work, by real world events. I noticed a lot of forgiveness rhetoric in the public sphere; at the court hearing for the 2015 shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, for example, there were a lot of utterances about forgiveness. Something about that praise bothered me, was confusing to me, primarily because there was something about it that obscured a sense of justice—as if forgiveness could heal the type of racial animosity happening in that town.

How should people in today’s polarized world utilize forgiveness on a societal level?
It all depends on who we’re forgiving. I think that certain things need to be in place before we ask certain members of a group to forgive members of another group. Take apartheid in South Africa, for example—there was animosity, there was hatred, there was violence. The question becomes, how do we restore the situation in that particular society? What we do is get rid of apartheid first and try to create a democratic South Africa. Once you put that system in place, then you can start asking the victims to forgive. We’ve got to make sure we create the conditions for forgiveness, and that is justice.

Who is the most inspirational figure, historically, who practiced what you call “radical forgiveness”?
It’s not an intellectual figure. It’s also not a person. It’s a group of people, and several come to mind. Black South Africans, postapartheid, who engaged in the act of forgiveness—and I want to be clear that not all of them did—but in the aftermath of all of that wrongdoing, that exemplifies radical forgiveness. Or Rwandan survivors who decided to remake their society after their neighbors were trying to kill them, or African Americans during Reconstruction who decided not to kill the white people who had enslaved them.

What are some of the costs of failing to forgive others in one’s personal life?
I think [forgiveness] is one way to repair our world, but it’s not the only way. It’s okay to forgive, but it’s also okay not to forgive. If you want to forgive, it’s going to be difficult work; it’s not something you do in the moment. It’s a process. Even if you make the decision to forgive in that instance, the hatred may come out of the blue three weeks later. And, well, welcome to being a human.

What is the most misunderstood aspect of forgiveness?
That if you don’t forgive, you don’t love the person. I want to say that love can be compatible with unforgiveness.