I have been studying forgiveness for the past 36 years and this questions keeps coming up. To me, this means that it is a vital question as well as one filled with emotion for those who ask. Given that we have worked in contentious world zones now for two decades, I have learned that the answer is important and can be contentious.
So, here are my views:
Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, as are justice, patience, kindness, and love, it should be seen as similar to all other moral virtues. Is there ever a case that a person would say to another, “You must not ever be fair or just in situation X for this reason…….”? This likely would never seem correct to anyone because we all have the freedom of our will to be fair whenever we want to enact justice. To prevent a person who is intent on fairness would seem unfair.
I think it is the same with regard to forgiveness under any circumstance. If the potential-forgiver has thought about the situation, determines it was unfair, and willingly chooses to forgive, then it is that person’s free will choice to do so.
Yes, others may look on with disgust or confusion because of another person’s decision to forgive, especially in the grave issue of genocide, but again, we have to fall back onto the quality of forgiveness, what it is in its essence: Forgiveness is the free will decision to be good to those who have not been good to the forgiver. In doing so, the forgiver never distorts the injustice by saying, “It’s ok what happened.” No. What happened was wrong, is wrong, and always will be wrong. Forgiveness now is a response to the other person or persons who perpetrated this wrongdoing. The potential-forgiver can and should fight for justice even when forgiving. Forgiveness should not cancel this quest for fairness and safety. In fact, forgiving may help a person to reduce hatred which can consume one’s energy and well-being. The forgiving, there, might free the unjustly-treated person to strive with more vigor for fairness.
In the final analysis, some people do decide to forgive those who perpetrated genocide. This is the free-will decision of the person and if this is done rationally then it is good because the appropriation of true moral virtues in a rational way is good by definition. When there is a philosophical distortion of forgiveness, such as engaging in the vice of cowardliness in which the false-forgiveness allows the unjust and powerful others to dominate people, then this is not forgiveness at all. It is a masquerade of forgiveness. Yet, true forgiveness, that does not back down, is a moral virtue whether or not others looking on judge it to be this or not.
At the same time, some people will decide not to forgive others who perpetrated genocide. This, too, is the person’s free will decision and those looking on, as in the case above, might best handle this situation by realizing that people have a difference of opinion at present on this moral dilemma of forgiving under the most trying of circumstances.
Can and should a person forgive those who perpetrate genocide? Yes, some can and should if they have good reasons to do so. Should all then forgive? No, because this suggests control over a person’s own private decision, which should be left to the one who experienced the trauma.
A Guest Blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman
Editor’s Note: Forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is a sensitive and controversial subject that is being addressed by Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Dr. Freedman has studied and conducted forgiveness research with Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness with Incest Survivors. This is a summary of a blog Dr. Freedman wrote that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.”
To view the complete blog, click here.
The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse.
Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.
When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. . . According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.
Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.
Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. . . . Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you.
The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur:
- Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. . . .
- Forgiveness takes time. . . .
- Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself. . . .
- Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. . . .
- Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. . . .
- Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. . . .
- Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. . . .
Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven.
I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.
For more information on how to go about forgiving and the benefits of forgiveness please check out the following resources:
Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness Is a Choice. Washington, D.C. APA Life Tools.
Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington D.C., American Psychological Association.
Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 64, 983-992.
Smedes, L. B. (1996). The Art of Forgiving. Nashville, TN: Moorings.
Malcom, W., DeCourville, N., & Belicki, K. (2007). Women’s reflections on the complexities of forgiveness. New York, New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
“Become My Son”: A South African Mother’s Response to the Man Who Murdered Both Her Son and Her Husband
After Apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Boek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.
Unfathomable Cruelty and Indignity
I can’t fathom the source or the energy needed to fuel such cruelty. But more unfathomable is the surviving woman’s response (the mother of the son and wife to the husband murdered and burned). What must she have thought and felt as she sat in the court room being burdened and re-traumatized by evidence?
A member of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?”
How is Justice to be done?
That’s the right question, isn’t it? What is justice; how can it be achieved; how does it look different from mere retribution and punishment? But the judge asked “how should justice be done for this man?” – not – “for this surviving woman.”
What would this wife & mother say in the face of such murderous cruelty that further caused indignity to her husband’s and son’s remains?
“I want three things,” the woman said confidently:
“I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial. My husband and son were my only family.”
Become My Son!?
This is truly a breathtaking request. We can finish her sentence starting with “I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I . . .” – fill in the blank!
- So I can get him to feel the crushing poverty I live with.
- So I can have him feel the full void of my loss with no husband or son.
- So I can have him feel every distrusting eye scrutinize him as the minority in our community.
But no; she finishes her request with “so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.” How much love does she still have?
And I could not find if Mr. Van der Boek could possibly receive such love. Did he come out, as she asked, twice a month to spend the day with her for the sole purpose of receiving what ever love she may still possess?
“And finally, I would like Mr. Van der Boek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Boek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
From Michael Wakely, Can It Be True? A Personal Pilgrimage through Faith and Doubt.
Forgiveness cannot be demanded
I am not naive enough to think that it’s all good in South Africa, or that forgiveness should be given because it is expected, or that forgiveness should be given because it does as much to release the forgiver as it does the forgiven (for a contrasting view, read “You may free apartheid killers but you can’t force victims to forgive“). But as the woman in the above noted story alluded, forgiveness is possible when we recognize our own status as forgiven people.
This blog is reposted with permission from R.H. (Rusty) Foerger.
Visit his website: More Enigma Than Dogma
Related blogs by Rusty Foerger:
Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog by Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Holocaust who, with her twin sister Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. Both of her parents and two older sisters died at the camp; only she and Miriam survived. Her recent video, produced by BuzzFeed, has drawn almost 5 million views on YouTube: I Survived The Holocaust Twin Experiments.
by Eva Mozes Kor
Forgiveness is a way of healing oneself from pain, trauma, and tragedy. It is a means of self-liberation and self-empowerment.
Forgiving is not forgetting. In many cases, it is impossible to forget events that deeply affect our lives. They shape our lives for better or for worse.
Forgiving does not mean we condone the evil deeds of the Nazis or other perpetrators. But in some cases, giving amnesty clears the issue for the victim and for society. The question of justice is separate from the issue of forgiveness.
This concept of forgiveness has little or nothing to do with the perpetrator. It has everything to do with the need of victims to be free from the pain inflicted upon them.
This concept of forgiveness has nothing to do with any religion. All people yearn to live free of the pain and burden of the past. If it is confined to one religion, then some people will not be able to access it.
Each person can forgive only in his or her name. One cannot forgive in the name of all Holocaust survivors. Forgiveness is a very personal thing, but if we feel troubled and hurt by learning about the victimization of others, then we have the right to take action or forgive the perpetrators when the time comes to forgive.
When we live in a place where our lives are in direct danger, the mindset of survival sets in, and survival and forgiveness do not go together. We can forgive only after the violence has ended, and the victim is at peace with his or her surroundings and wants to heal that chapter of his or her life.
However, forgiveness can prevent future violence. If we can teach people that when they are hurting instead of acting out of pain they can heal themselves through forgiveness.
Forgiveness is more than just letting go. It is proactive rather than passive. We become victims involuntarily, when a person or entity with power takes away our power to use our mind or body or both. Something was done to us that put us in a position of feeling powerless. Thus, the conscious choice to forgive provides healing, liberation, and reclamation of this lost power.
I would like to share some more ideas about forgiveness.
Forgiveness unclutters one’s mind and life, permitting us to view the world through unobstructed vision, see the beauty around us, be open to new positive experiences, and embrace the wonderful people in the wonderful world that we meet. If we did not forgive, we would not be able to experience these feelings.
Forgiveness is like a prescription or medicine for physical health and well-being. If we stay angry, this anger poisons our lives and our health. Some people say that the perpetrators don’t deserve forgiveness. That might be so, but if we can heal them and make them into loving, caring human beings, and therefore improve life for everyone in the world, I don’t see a problem with it.
Forgiveness in my opinion brings serenity, healing, respect, freedom, peace, and love. Let’s see what the opposition brings: pain, anger, revenge, and war. So I am puzzled that when people know all that, they are still willingly acting as victims, when they have the choice to live in peace and be happy instead.
It would be nice if the great organization of the United Nations, with the upcoming anniversary in December 2018, 70 years to the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, would add an addendum. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a beautiful document, but it does not have anything for victims who have already been hurt. I think it should include that every human being has the human right 1. To be happy and 2. To live free of the pain and burden imposed on them by life or society. It would really help people if that came from an organization like the United Nations.
I would like to make an effort to use forgiveness in prisons. I believe that most of these prisoners were not born to spend their days in prison or to commit a crime. So my question is, were many of these prisoners victims before they became prisoners? I would say it is quite possible that every unhealed victim has the potential to become a perpetrator. (Read more from Eva Kor following the call-out text in the box below.)
I forgive you – In one of her many interviews following her release from Auschwitz, Eva told the anecdote of how she once sat in her room, imagining that Joseph Mengele was sitting right next to her.
“I picked up a dictionary and wrote 20 nasty words, which I read clear and loud to that make-believe Mengele in the room. And in the end, I said: ‘In spite of all that, I forgive you.’ Made me feel very good, that I, the little guinea pig of 50 years, even had the power over the Angel of Death of Auschwitz.’ ” Source: The Vintage News
I also would like to help and have programs for veterans who have been trained to defend their lives on the battlefield, but they have never been able to heal themselves from that they have seen, experienced, or done. And the post-traumatic stress that they carry with them for years could be easily removed with forgiveness sessions and workshops.
I find it sad, and it pains me to know, that children who were born in the wrong place and the wrong time, who don’t get loving and nurturing families, end up in juvenile centers. We want to help them and teach them that it’s 1. Not their fault and 2. There is something they can do about it. We would teach them that forgiveness is a skill that will heal them. We cannot change their past, but we can teach them how to cope with it better.
And as I have been talking to Dr. Robert Enright in Madison, Wisconsin, he would like to start teaching forgiveness in first grade as a skill for life. And I agree with him 100%.
Let’s work together to heal the world through forgiveness. Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness.
Learn more about Eva Mozes Kor and her amazing story at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a nonprofit organization actually founded by Ms. Kor and her twin sister, Miriam Mozes Ziegler. CANDLES is an acronym for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. Since its founding in 1984, the organization has sought to locate and honor the 3,000 twins who were victims of Dr. Josef Mengele’s deadly genetic experiments. The search for more twins continues to this day.
Sometimes when we are caught up in grief and anger, it seems like this is all there will ever be now in our life. Permanent tears. Permanent anger.
Today it may seem like these will never end…..but they will.
Take a lesson from your own past. The pains were temporary.
They are temporary even now.
Forgiveness helps them to be temporary.