Our Forgiveness Blog
Sometimes It Takes 36 Years to Get Your Point Across: The Case for Forgiveness Therapy in Correctional Institutions
In 1985 I began to explore the social scientific study of forgiveness. At the time there were no published empirical studies on person-to-person forgiveness. For my very first attempt at a grant (36 years ago), I wanted to see if we could help men in a correctional institution to heal from past trauma due to severe injustices against them prior to their crime and imprisonment. The approach was to offer forgiveness therapy for those who experienced severe abuse when they were children, as a way of reducing the resentment that can be displaced, sometimes violently, onto unsuspecting others.
For that first grant attempt over three decades ago, I was interviewed by a world famous experimental psychologist who was part of this granting agency. This world famous person listened to my idea and then proclaimed, “This is an absolutely excellent idea. I am going to rate your protocol as #1 in this competition.” About a month later, much to my surprise, I received a rejection letter from the granting agency. I made a phone call to the world-famous experimental psychologist and asked about the contradiction between his saying how excellent the work is and then I received a rejection notice.
He angrily and intensively said to me, “Dr. Enright, you embarrassed me! I went into the meeting with very high-powered people, praised your work, and the entire committee was outraged. They said to me, ‘Give Enright money to help prisoners forgive?? No. In fact, those prisoners should be seeking forgiveness from all of us for the crimes they committed! Rejected!'”
I then went in different directions (other than corrections) with the randomized clinical trials of Forgiveness Therapy (now considered an acceptable form of psychotherapy by the American Psychological Association) until 5 years ago when professionals in corrections began to contact me saying that our Forgiveness Therapy approach might work well with incarcerated people and they asked me if I thought that was a good idea. Well……yes, I said.
We continued to be rejected as we submitted at least three more grant requests, all of which were rejected. So, we decided to move ahead with no funding.
Our point of Forgiveness Therapy in correctional institutions is this: Forgiveness Therapy first screens those in corrections to see if they have suffered abuse while growing up. Our scientific examination of this, now published in the Tier-1 journal, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, shows that approximately 90% of the men in the maximum security correctional institution have had very serious injustices against them in childhood, such as ongoing sexual abuse and abandonment. In other words, the unjust treatment toward them as children has left them with a deep resentment that can then be displaced onto others in society. If we can find a way of reducing and even eliminating that resentment, then the person may be more amenable to traditional rehabilitation. Forgiving the abusers is the way to do this.
To forgive is to strive to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver. The one who forgives is practicing the moral virtue of forgiveness without excusing the behavior, or forgetting what happened (so it does not happen again), necessarily reconciling with the abuser, or abandoning the quest for justice.
For a year-and-a-half, a corrections psychologist within a maximum-security correctional institution engaged in a randomized experimental and control group clinical trial in which the professional worked with two groups of men, who were screened for abuse against them during childhood and currently have clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and low empathy toward other people in general. The research program took 6 full months for two experimental groups.
The results show strong statistical effects for the Forgiveness Therapy in that those in the experimental group, after they forgave their abusers from childhood, went to normal or near normal levels of anger, anxiety, and depression and their empathy for people in general rose significantly relative to the control group that had traditional rehabilitation strategies. These results were maintained 6 months after the treatment ended for the first experimental group. These results are unprecedented in the published literature within a maximum security correctional institution. It is extremely difficult to improve empathy in this context. We found the strongest psychological effects for any rehabilitation approach ever published. Here is a reference to that Tier-1 publication:
Yu, L., Gambaro, M., Song, J., Teslik, M., Song, M., Komoski, M.C., Wollner, B., & Enright, R.D. (2021). Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy.
We now are receiving inquires about this approach from scholars in Brazil, Israel, and Pakistan.
So, I have gone from being a total embarrassment to a granting agency 36 years ago to someone whom correction officials and researchers want to contact because of a vital idea. Viewpoints can change over a 36 year period. Sometimes we just have to be patient with true ideas that are life-giving until some in the world are ready to receive those ideas.
Read more about Dr. Enright’s prison work:
- Forgiveness Therapy in a Maximum-Security Correctional Institution: A Randomized Clinical Trial
- The Visit to a Maximum Security Prison
- Forgiveness Therapy for the Imprisoned in Israel
- Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved My Life”
In March of 2014, we posted a reflection here in which we encouraged you to grow in love as your legacy of 2014.
The challenge was this: Give love away as your legacy of 2014.
We challenged you again in 2015…..and 2016……and we kept going.
Our challenge to you now is this: Give love away as your legacy of 2021.
One way to start is by looking backward at one incident of 2020. Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague.
Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for whom you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?
Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because 2021 is about half over. When it is January 1, 2022, and you look back on the year 2021, what will you see? Now is your chance to put more love in the world.
Tempus fugit. Your good will, free will, and strong will can point to a year of more love…..and the clock is ticking.
A soaringly insightful essay entitled, “The Fading of Forgiveness,” by the Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Timothy Keller, appeared in the May, 2021 issue of Comment magazine. Rev. Keller uses a series of quotations to make his point that the moral virtue of forgiving is fading in modern Western culture. The quotations can be summarized this way: Forgiving allows oppressors to dominate you. So, do not forgive. Otherwise, you will stay oppressed.
In other words, the call to forgive is seen as a trick by oppressors to keep the oppressed forgiving and therefore more continually oppressed. If the oppressed are convinced that they must forgive, with no choice in the matter, and if they are taught to think in either/or ways (they must either forgive or seek justice, but never both), then the critics of forgiveness have a good point. Yet, they are wrong in their understanding of what forgiveness actually is. The harsh critics of forgiveness need good forgiveness education to realize that forgiving is a choice, not a commanded law that must be done, and that the moral virtues of forgiving and justice can and should occur together.
Another wise article, this one by Dr. Kari Konkola, appeared in Humanitas magazine in 2019, “What Psychology Might Learn from Traditional Christianity.” As with Rev. Keller, who is seeing the demise of forgiveness, Dr. Konkola sees the demise of humility in modern Western culture. This is the case because of similar themes echoed by Rev. Keller. There is a rise in emphasis on justice apart from mercy which leads to excessive cries of injustice, excessive accusations of oppression with concomitant increases in anger and rage, divisions and acrimony, and a decided lack of an appreciation of reconciliation, harmony, and a working toward a genuine common good.
The cause, he argues, is a rise in pridefulness which may have origins in our genes, with the evolutionary tendency toward dominating others through the genetic mechanism of the survival of the fittest. For Dr. Konkola, and many Christian thinkers in the 15th through the 17th centuries, the antidote for this oppressing and self-interested activity is the now-faded moral virtue of humility. Humility restores the practice and the valuing of forgiving and inspires the reawakening of the call to the common good, now being lost as people strive to be better than others, to dominate others.
When we put these two articles together, we see a common theme discussed by both authors: Christian teaching in its ancient form was a call to forgiveness and humility, not to be dominated or to dominate, but instead to spread love to others, for the common good, for harmony among people so that we all work together to end oppression, to end others’ sorrow.
If both authors are correct, then deep Christian education needs to embrace forgiveness education, with its emphasis on love and humility as the forgivers, in suffering for their oppressor, offer the hand of potential harmony to those who misbehave. Good forgiveness education instructs students that they must not abandon the quest for justice when they exercise mercy. Good forgiveness education does not over-emphasize the “therapeutic” culture (that forgiving only is for the forgiver) but goes more deeply into the insight that forgiving in its essence is a decision to love and to engage in loving actions toward someone who was not loving toward the forgiver.
“Forgiving is a choice, not a commanded law that must be done; the moral virtues of forgiving and justice can and should occur together.”
Dr. Robert Enright
Are forgiving and humility fading in modern Western culture? Perhaps it is time for educational leaders and parents to galvanize their wisdom and energy to provide this kind of education for the children. Then let the children lead the revival of these central virtues that can thwart ideologies of power-over-others. Let the children learn through forgiveness education that the means of love and humility eventually lead to a better world than do the means of cultural revolution and destruction, which are devoid of such love and humility.
For example, the Catholic community with its worldwide schools seems particularly positioned for such forgiveness education. Implementing forgiveness in these schools on a worldwide basis just might reawaken a world which is starting to fall asleep to forgiveness and humility. Our International Forgiveness Institute already has constructed 17 forgiveness curriculum guides for students from age 4 to age 18, including an anti-bullying guide and two curriculum guides for parents.
Using those guides, Forgiveness Education has been implemented successfully in Greece, Iran, Israel, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Turkey, the United States and other countries. A more concentrated effort by the educational leaders and parents could be the beginning of a revolution of quiet and gentleness and love, in contrast to the tired ideologies of meeting unfairness only with anger and resistance and fire and destruction.
What will win: the genes calling for the survival of the fittest or the grace to overcome these by learning to love and forgive and then finding the path to justice for all? Once they have accurately learned about forgiveness, and if they so choose to forgive, then let the children lead us.
- Humility: What Can It Do for You?
- Forgiveness Education Curriculum Guides
- The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program
- Curriculum Guides for Parents
I recently read an article in which the author started the essay by defining forgiving as the release of deep anger.
In fact, there is a consensus building that forgiveness amounts to getting rid of a negative emotion such as anger and resentment. I did a Google search using only the word “forgiveness.” On the first two pages, I found the following definitions of what the authors reported forgiveness to be:
Forgiveness (supposedly) is:
- letting go of resentment and thoughts of revenge;
- the release of resentment or anger;
- a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person who acted unjustly;
- letting go of anger;
- letting go of negative feelings such as vengefulness.
I think you get the idea. The consensus is that forgiveness focuses on getting rid of persistent and deep anger. Synonyms for this are resentment and vengefulness. Readers not deeply familiar with the philosophy of forgiveness may simply accept this as true. Yet, this attempted and consensual definition cannot possibly be true for the following reasons:
- A person can reduce resentment and still dismiss the other person as not worth one’s time;
- Reducing resentment itself is not a moral virtue. This might happen because the “forgiver” wants to be happy and so there is no goodness toward the other, which is part of the definition of a moral virtue;
- There is no specific difference between forgiveness and tolerance. I can get rid of resentment by trying to tolerate the other. My putting up with the other as a person is not a moral virtue;
- Forgiveness, if we take these definitions seriously, is devoid of love. It is not that one has to resist love. Yet, one can be completely unaware of love as the essence of forgiveness while holding to the consensual definition.
- A central goal of forgiveness is lost. Off the radar by the consensual definition is the motivation to assist the other to grow as a person. After all, why even bother with the other if I can finally rid myself of annoying resentment.
The statement “forgiveness is ridding the self of resentment or vengefulness” is reductionistic and therefore potentially dangerous. It is dangerous in a philosophical and a psychological sense. The philosophical danger is in never going deeply enough to understand the beauty of forgiveness in its essence as a moral virtue of at least trying to offer love to those who did not love you. The psychological danger is that Forgiveness Therapy will be incomplete as the client keeps the focus on the self, trying to rid the self of negatives. Yet, the paradox of Forgiveness Therapy is the stepping outside of the self, to reach out to the other, and in this giving is psychological healing for the client. It is time to challenge the consensus.
I hear so often that to forgive is for your own healing and is not for the one who hurt you. This kind of statement happens so often that it is time to address the issue: Is this true? To answer this question, we have to know what forgiving actually is. To forgive is to exercise a moral virtue (Enright, 2012; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). What is a moral virtue? According to Aristotle, as explained by Simon (1986), all moral virtues, whether it is justice, patience, kindness, or even forgiveness, focus on what is good for others and for the community. When we are engaging in justice, we are good to the other who, for example, built a dining room table for us at the cost of $500. Being good in this case is to pay for the work done. Patience is goodness toward others at whom one is irritated, such as toward a grocery store clerk who is simply doing one’s best with a long line of customers. What then is forgiveness? It is being good to those who are not good to you by deliberately reducing resentment toward that person and by offering, to the extent possible, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the other. You are not offering these directly toward the self, but to the other.
Here, then, is where the confusion comes in: A paradox of forgiving is that as we extend ourselves in kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offending other person, it is we, ourselves, as forgivers who often experience emotional healing as the consequence of offering forgiveness to others. Thus, the answer is this to the question, “Is forgiveness for the self or for the other?”: Forgiving is definitely for the other and one major consequence—not the act itself, but a consequence—-is that the forgiver benefits.
As another related issue, one can forgive out of a motive of freeing oneself of resentment, but to do so entails a focus on the other with the morally virtuous qualities for the other of kindness, respect, generosity, and love.
The statement, “Forgiveness is for you, not the other”, is to confuse essence (what forgiving is at its core) with the consequence and essence with one’s motivation. The essence of forgiving is a positive response, as best one can at present, for the other. The consequence in many cases is the actual self-healing. One’s motive can be the hope of self-healing from burning anger. Of course, one need not have as the motive or intended consequence self-healing. One’s motive may be entirely for the other as a person of worth. Even so, self-healing can occur even when the motive is other-centered.
When we make the distinctions among: a) what forgiving is; b) some of the consequences for the self of forgiving; and c) one’s motives for beginning the process of forgiving, we see that the moral virtue of forgiving itself (in its essence) is for the other.
- Enright, R.D. (2012). The Forgiving Life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Simon, Y. (1986). The Definition of Moral Virtue. New York: Fordham University Press.