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Should All Be Forgiven? David Van Biema
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tutu : no future without forgiveness

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To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love.
In return, you will receive untold peace and happiness. - Ofra Haza with Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan


On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Sunday, Mar. 28, 1999
Should All Be Forgiven?
by David Van Biema

One year ago, on March 24, Mitchell Wright was plunged into anger and despair. On that day, two boys, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, played sniper on their middle school campus in Jonesboro, Ark. They murdered four of their schoolmates with 22 shots. They also killed a teacher, Shannon Wright, 32, Mitchell Wright's wife. Says he: "The ballistics report shows the Johnson boy fired five shots and had five direct hits. He hit one person in the head, he hit my wife in the chest and the knee and two girls in the knee area." The shooter, Wright recalls, stood up in court and said that he was sorry, that he was not trying to kill anyone, that he and his friend were shooting over the heads of the teachers and students they had tricked into assembling outside, that it was all just to scare them. The anger rises in Wright's voice. "I don't buy that."

But buy it or not, Wright knew that he must fight against being consumed by rage. He began on the very Sunday after the horror, asking his fellow congregants in church for support. The stakes, he realized, were high. First, there was his three-year-old son Zane. "When my wife was dying, she said, 'I love you, and take care of Zane.' Well, if I lose it, then I can't take care of him." And then there was the matter of his immortal soul. "If you let the hate and anger build in you, that's a very strong sin," he says softly. "I need to be able to totally forgive." And what does that entail? "To me, forgiveness would be if when these boys get out, I can see them on the street or in a Wal-Mart and not want to..." His voice trails off. He concedes, "I am not at that point yet."

America can be a very unforgiving place. It is not that we aren't taught to forgive. This Sunday, on Easter, millions of Christians will celebrate the embodiment of divine forgiveness, the risen Lord. The parable of the pardoning of the prodigal son is recapitulated as often on daytime soaps as in Sunday sermons. No, the problem with forgiveness has been that of all acknowledged good acts, it is the one we are most suspicious of. "To err is human, to forgive, supine," punned S.J. Perelman. In a country where the death penalty has been a proven vote getter in recent years, forgiveness is often seen as effete and irresponsible. Sometimes it even seems to condone the offense, as noted centuries ago by Jewish sages who declared, "He that is merciful to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the innocent." Nothing lately has shown the cheap side of forgiveness like Bill Clinton's calculated plays for public pardon, culminating in a dizzying switcheroo after the Senate impeachment vote. Asked by Sam Donaldson if he could "forgive and forget," Clinton answered earnestly, "I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it," a response that seemed almost as disingenuous as it was perfectly crafted. Of what value a forgiveness that is so easily manipulated for political gain?

Out of the Confessional . . .
And yet despite every indignity and scoff, forgiveness does not just endure but thrives. As Mitchell Wright instinctively realized, there is not only a religious impetus to forgive but also therapeutic, social and practical reasons to do so. This applies to victims of crimes as well as to those who must deal with the slings and arrows of more common misfortunes -- unfaithfulness, betrayal, ungratefulness and mere insult. In the past two years, scientists and sociologists have begun to extract forgiveness and the act of forgiving from the confines of the confessional, transforming it into the subject of quantifiable research. In one case, they have even systemized it as a 20-part "intervention" that they claim can be used to treat a number of anger-related ills in a totally secular context. In short, to forgive is no longer just divine.

"The field is just exploding," says Virginia psychologist Everett Worthington, director of the Templeton Foundation Campaign for Forgiveness Research. He should know. His organization, set up by mutual-fund magus Sir John Templeton, has distributed $5 million to scientists studying, among other things, forgiveness among chimpanzees and its physiological effects on the pulse and the sweat glands of humans. A number of psychotherapists are testifying that there is nothing like it for dissipating anger, mending marriages and banishing depression. Just a few years ago, says Robert Enright, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness, most secularly inclined intellectuals "trashed it; they said, 'Only wimps forgive.'" But now, Enright says, "psychiatrists, M.D.s, scientists, lawyers, ministers and social workers can all be on the same page. We are really on a roll."

. . . Into the Laboratory
Step into a forgiveness laboratory partly funded by a $75,000 Templeton grant. At Hope College in Holland, Mich., Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet puts electrodes on a young volunteer. In a moment he will think about a hurt that has been done him and then "actively rehearse" it for 16 seconds. At the sound of a tone, he will escalate his thoughts to "nursing a grudge" and making the offender feel horrible. Another beep will cue him to shift gears and "empathize with the offender." Finally, he will imagine ways to "wish that person well." Throughout the two-hour session, the four responses occur in different sequences, and Witvliet, a professor of psychology, will measure his heart rate, blood pressure, sweat and muscle tension.

So far, she has studied 70 subjects, half of them men, half women. Witvliet finds "robust" physiological differences between nonforgiving and forgiving states. Subjects' cardiovascular systems inevitably labor when they remember the person who hurt them. But stress is "significantly greater" when they consider revenge rather than forgiveness. Witvliet suggests that we may be drawn to hold grudges "because that makes us feel like we are more in control and we are less sad." But interviews with her subjects indicate that they felt in even greater control when they tried to empathize with their offenders and enjoyed the greatest sense of power, well-being and resolution when they managed to grant forgiveness. "If you are willing to exert the effort it takes to be forgiving, there are benefits both emotionally and physically," she concludes.

While Witvliet labors to show the physiological benefits of forgiveness, Emory University primatologist Frans De Waal is busy extending its evolutionary pedigree. A study at his Living Links Center suggests that the Christian church's teaching on reconciliation may be viewed as the refinement of mechanisms reaching back not some 2,000 years but 25 million. "Instead of looking at conflict resolution as uniquely ours," he says, "we are showing that it exists in many cooperative species," particularly chimpanzees. De Waal's work focuses on the "social memories" of primates, and he says, "We have full confidence that they have memories of fights, hold grudges -- and make up when necessary." While such behavior is not synonymous with forgiveness, says De Waal "it's hard to imagine it's not related."

Evolutionary psychologist David Buss, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, has pondered the sociobiological logic of forgiveness and concluded that at least in the realm of mating, men and women may be programmed to employ it differently. Males, he suggests, are less likely to forgive a fling because if the woman becomes pregnant, "a man doesn't want to be investing resources in other men's children." In contrast, a woman may be more forgiving of a man's one-time infidelity (assuming that he has already given her a child) but less forgiving of a long-term diversion of material or emotional resources to another woman or a second family. "From an evolutionary perspective," says Buss, "part of the reason a woman marries is to secure all the resources of a man for herself and her children."

As intriguing as such musings are, theories are made flesh outside of laboratories. A persuasive anecdotal demonstration is occurring in a spotless apartment on the struggling South Side of Madison, Wis., where a graduate student named Paul Cardis is revisiting a former insurance processor named Delilah Bell. Five years ago, Bell's fiance died of drug- and alcohol-related pneumonia, leaving her to raise their four children alone. To Bell, his death was worse than needless. It was a betrayal, and alternating bouts of anger and despair reduced her to a state close to paralysis. "I would talk to my mother about it," she says. "And she would say, 'Just let it go.' I'd say, 'How can you say that?'"

Then in 1997 Bell became part of a research project conducted by Cardis under the supervision of Enright, the forgiveness trailblazer. In eight sessions over two months, they explored a radically new approach for her condition. Today, on a follow-up visit, Cardis asks how things are going. "Pretty good," Bell replies. "The other day Michael [her 14-year-old] skipped school. He didn't walk in the door until 20 minutes to 8 that night." "Did you get upset?" asks Cardis. "I did, but I tried not to." "Did you forgive him, or are you still working on it?" "Still working on it." "That's appropriate. It's a process," Cardis says. He pulls out a set of flash cards bearing positive legends such as "Choose to forgive rather than getting even." The flash cards are familiar to Bell from last year -- as were forgiveness homework assignments and forgiveness refrigerator magnets and lessons from Cardis and Enright's 23-page "Strengthening Families" instruction manual. Bell points to the card headed "See with new eyes -- Take another look at the one who hurt you." "I'm trying to understand Mikey," she says, "but if I stay calm, I don't want him to think I condone what he did. I told him that to keep his job, he has to go to school." Cardis nods. "If you say you forgive him," he says, "it doesn't mean that you are letting him do whatever he wants. Forgiveness is not about forgetting the wrong." He smiles. "But deciding to forgive is a pivotal point."

The change in Bell is palpable. Where once she was silent and confused, she is direct and focused. This is all the more remarkable since, as she calmly informs Cardis, last October she underwent surgery for breast cancer. In the days before her forgiveness sessions, such a setback would have sent her into a vortex of helpless rage, and she admits, "At first I wanted to blame someone." That passed, however. The cancer has apparently not spread, and she values her new composure. "I can buy another breast," she explains. "I can't buy another life."

Bell, a paid research subject, signed up for Enright's project with no expectation of a breakthrough. But citing a similar study with incest survivors, Enright says, "People who came to us with moderate psychological depression -- and that is a lot of pain--all ended up being not clinically depressed and retained that over 14 months." He and his students have also applied his forgiveness "intervention" to elderly parents angry at distant children and men hurt by the abortion decision of a partner. His latest project is with sex offenders in a Madison mental-health facility. Enright feels that by helping them forgive the abusers in their own past, he may awaken empathy for their victims and decrease their recidivism.

Forgiveness has even wider social applications. An unusual coalition of liberal lawyers and religious thinkers has pioneered something called the restorative justice movement, whose favored instrument is conferences between crime victims and jailed perpetrators. There are now more than 300 such programs in prisons country-wide, including a $1 million religion-based juvenile-justice initiative in Florida.

While restorative justice has roots in Christianity, its payoff is political and psychological. The conferences give victims the chance to confront criminals with the heartbreak they caused. The meetings' end goals, however, are rehabilitation and social engineering: they rehearse the prospect of a whole community once the prisoner is released back into society. Forgiveness is not a conference "agenda item," says Bruce Kittle, a Wisconsin pastor and clinical professor who consults on the state's restorative justice programs, but "we talk about it with victims beforehand. Particularly in violent cases, it sometimes has a more direct role." Says Walter Dickey, a former head of the Wisconsin department of correction: "What you end up with is a lot of apologies by offenders." And about 85% of the time, he estimates, these are followed by a two-part victim response: "a flat-out statement that what you did to me was wrong--and then a willingness to forgive and let it go."

Long before restorative justice gathered steam, Aba Gayle, 65, learned to forgive and to let go. Gayle says she knows all about "the big lie"--the promise that prosecutors make to relatives of murder victims that "everything will be O.K." once a murderer is caught, tried, convicted, sentenced to death and executed. In 1980 her daughter Catherine, 19, and a male friend were stabbed to death on a pear farm near Sacramento, Calif. Virtually disabled by what she called a kind of temporary insanity, Gayle attended the sentencing of Douglas Mickey as he received the death penalty for the killings. She left the proceedings "horrified" that such a sentence could be imposed so matter-of-factly. Yet when Mickey's execution date was set, she asked for a seat as a witness, hoping to be able to see him pay for her daughter's death.

Then one night in 1992, Gayle wrote her daughter's killer a letter. "It just flowed," she says. She told him she forgave him and was willing to visit him. "The instant the letter was in the mailbox, all the anger, all the rage, all the lust for revenge disappeared," she says.

And Mickey wrote back. He told her that what he had done was an "unspeakable burden" to his soul. He said that if he could undo the night he killed Catherine and her friend, he would gladly give his life. Since then, Gayle has visited Mickey several times and corresponded with him regularly. And she has joined Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group that opposes the death penalty. "It is the way I honor Catherine," she says. "To murder someone in her name and to say we are doing it for her is horrible." Gayle sees herself as a spark for smaller mercies. "People think, If she can do that, maybe I can forgive my sister for what she did to me or my brother-in-law or mother -- or whomever they've been holding a grudge against all these years."

A Spineless Nostrum?
For all its feel-good potential, however, forgiveness has more problematic reverberations than, say, Prozac. Can a woman's healing be helped by forgiving a physically abusive ex-husband who continues to savage her verbally among friends? What if they are still married and he is still beating her? Should the unrepentant be forgiven at all? Kittle, the Wisconsin restorative justice consultant, warns of misuse: "In religious traditions, there can be a sense of revictimization. They say to themselves, Here I am, and my child has been killed, and my pastor during my grieving period says, Jesus says you need to forgive, and if you don't, you are a sinner."

The definitions of forgiveness are many, but most acknowledge that it involves a "giving up" of something, whether it be anger, the right to vengeance or, say some skeptics, the memory of an event the way it really was. In The Sunflower, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal asked whether it would be proper for a Jew in a slave-labor camp to grant forgiveness to a dying SS man begging absolution for earlier murders. As part of a symposium that is incorporated into the book, the writer Cynthia Ozick said absolutely not: "Forgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim. It blurs over suffering and death. It drowns the past. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered ... Let the SS man ... go to hell." How-to books, therapy and interventions may be useful in dealing with an unfaithful spouse, gossiping colleague or even some cases of violence. But there are other practices -- serial killing, torture, genocide -- often regarded as unforgivable.

There are no easy answers to such objections. But for most of us, they will remain in the background so long as -- during its journey from sacrament to science experiment to possible nostrum -- forgiveness becomes neither a foregone conclusion nor an obligation, but remains a mystery within the heart of the forgiver. Only then will people like Mitchell Wright feel free to continue their struggles. Wright knows that far from being the recourse of wimps, forgiveness is the hardest course of all.

"Hate can come easy," he says. "I am having a tough time, and I pray. It's not as bad now as it was. But there were several times when I found myself confronted with mixed emotions. You just pray to God, 'Lord, help me. I need some help with this anger.'" He takes solace in one other resource unavailable to those whose forgiveness is removed entirely from faith. The night his wife died, Mitchell Wright talked to his son Zane. "He asked me when Momma was coming back, and I told him she couldn't." But, he recalls, "I promised him we would both see her again."

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Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it.
And yet ... there is no peace without forgiveness. [Marianne Williamson]

The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.
~ Marianne Williamson ~

Pardoning the Bad,
is injuring the Good

Poor Richard's Almanack
[Ben Franklin]

Robert ShepherdRobert Shepherd asks: How can an outsider ever presume to tell a deeply wounded person when (or even if) forgiveness must come? How can an outsider, no matter how well-meaning, say "Time to get over it." Yes, we know the "wisdom" that forgiveness is the goal, it is the boon not so much for the perpetrator -- but for the good of the one who was harmed. But surely, the timing is wholly the department of the one who is most concerned, the one trying to heal. It is an internal judgment. No one tells a flower when to blossom. It occurs according to its own internal laws and timing. No one tells a mom when to give girth. (Okay, doctors may, by inducing labor -- perhaps not always wisely).

I have a family member who was the victim of sexual trauma. How can I, no matter how much I hurt seeing their pain, presume to tell them they must (or when they must) forgive the offender? Their pain is something they alone know -- in its intimate depths. Far be it for me to pretend to know what they are going through. Be there for them. Suffer with them - and 'heal' with them. But never forget that you are an outsider to someone else's pain. Some things are so precious, not even our dearest loved ones can really comprehend.

We must honor those spaces -- so intimate that there is something almost holy about them.


Believing Christians should look upon themselves as such a creative minority and ... espouse once again the best of its heritage, thereby being at the service of

humankind at large.

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