Dr. Robert Enright and the organization he founded, the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), undertook their first foray into the peace movement in 1999. That was the year they worked with a national team led by the Rev. Jessie Jackson that convinced Yugoslav (now Serbia) President Slobodan Milošević to release three captive American soldiers during the Kosovo Conflict.
In 2002, Dr. Enright initiated a forgiveness education program in Belfast, Northern Ireland that has now been in operation for 20 consecutive years. His Belfast work is featured in the award-winning documentary The Power of Forgiveness. Dr. Enright started similar programs in Liberia, West Africa in 2011 and in Israel-Palestine in 2013. He now has such programs in more than 30 contentious regions around the world and an IFI Branch Office in Pakistan at the Government College University Lahore (GCU-Lahore, Pakistan).
Eight years ago, Dr. Enright was invited by the United Nations to join an international “Expert Group” tasked with responsibility for developing intervention models aimed at ending gender-based violence across the globe. His initial presentation to the United Nations Population Fund in New York City was titled “Forgiveness as a Peace Tool.” Just three weeks later, delegates at the United Nations Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, voted to embrace forgiveness and education as essential tools in peacebuilding.
Since those early years of his career, Dr. Enright has developed scores of peace-education initiatives and research projects in some of the world’s most contentious areas. Two of those projects were published recently involving teachers in the case of China and adult clients in the case of Pakistan. Other research projects have demonstrated that children as young as 4-5 years are capable of absorbing the basics of forgiveness and making it a natural part of their early life.
In 2015, Dr. Enright accompanied Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Holocaust, on a guest tour of US radio and television stations to promote peace through forgiveness. Ms. Kor, with her twin sister Miriam, was subjected to human experimentation under Josef Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II yet she publicly forgave her tormentors.
During that tour, Ms. Kor repeatedly used this axiom:
“Let’s work together to heal the world through forgiveness. Not bullets, not bombs. Just forgiveness. Anger is a seed for war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace.”
In a 2018 guest blog that Ms. Kor wrote for this website, “My Forgiveness,” she writes that forgiveness can “improve life for everyone in the world.” Read Dr. Enright’s eulogy to Ms. Kor (upon her death on July 4, 2019): “In Memoriam: Eva Mozes Kor and Her Independence Day.”
In recognition of his contributions to the peace movement, Dr. Enright was awarded the Distinguished Peace Educator of the Year Award (2008-2009), from the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. In 2012, he received the Cecil Findley Distinguished Service Award for international peacemaking and was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International in 2016. Three years later he was awarded the 2019 Mazzuchelli Medallion from Edgewood College along with a pronouncement that “forgiveness, relevant in every age, may be one of the clearest paths to peace, individually and collectively, for our world today.”
While Dr. Enright was one of the first forgiveness research investigators to envision a path to peace through forgiveness, he says there is still much more work that needs to be done.
“We must double our efforts so that peace and forgiveness become a team that is routinely tapped in matters of conflict,” Dr. Enright says. “The flames of resentment can be extinguished by sound forgiveness programs.”
Read Dr. Enright’s essay in Psychology Today, “Reflecting on 30 Years of Forgiveness Science.”
Have you ever made a promise to love, honor, and obey outside the covenant of marriage? In a certain way, I have.
That promise, which I made in 2002, has now been fulfilled as we turn the clock to 2022. We at the International Forgiveness Institute had just decided to start forgiveness education programs at the century’s turn. The point was this: If learning to forgive can aid people’s recovery from deep injustices against them, then wouldn’t it be a good idea to help young children learn to forgive so that, once the storms of life hit them as adults, then they would have a tool, forgiveness, to avert confusion, resentment, and even possible abiding anger and anxiety? It seemed to be worth a try and so we looked around the globe with this question: Where is there a society that now is post-conflict, which has suffered, and which might benefit from forgiveness education?
Our team at the International Forgiveness Institute, after much thought and discussion, centered on Belfast, Northern Ireland for four reasons: 1) There had been The Troubles across Northern Ireland, in which Irish Catholics and British Protestants were in an escalated conflict since 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry; 2) there was a signed peace accord in 1998, which reduced the conflict, but still there was a post-conflict sense of tension; 3) the two groups were English-speaking and so we would not have to start with interpreters; and 4) Ireland and Northern Ireland are two of the closest ports-of-call from the Eastern United States.
So, off my two sons and I went in July of 2002, landing first on the West Coast of the Emerald Isle and then to Belfast, where we met the esteemed Anne Gallagher, who formed Seeds of Hope to do her best to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Anne was amazing in introducing us to primary school personnel and we had the great honor to start forgiveness education in both St. Vincent de Paul Primary School and Ligoniel Primary School, both on the Ligoniel Road in Belfast.
“Forgiveness isn’t something that’s talked about with reconciliation, but it’s needed to bring closure to the pain and suffering experienced in Northern Ireland. You can’t contemplate hope unless you address despair. To heal the wounds of Northern Ireland I believe you have to see humanity in the face of the enemy. Forgiveness is a journey.”
Anne Gallagher (1953-2013)
Upon my first visit to the principal of St. Vincent de Paul School, Mr. Brian McParland, he heard our proposal for forgiveness education and agreed that this is a vital vision for Northern Ireland. He assented to having this programme pioneered in his school. Yet, he quickly added this: “You will not last more than 3 years here in Belfast.” I was surprised to hear that and asked, “Brian, why do you say that?” He looked at me and said, “No one lasts more than 3 years in Belfast. After that time, people grow weary, the thrill of travel wears off and they quit.” I took a deep breath and answered, “Brian, I will give you 20 years.” He looked at me with kindness, but said nothing.
Well, as I consult Siri on the Apple Watch, I see that the calendar is about to turn to the year 2022. Hold on for a minute. . . I have to do a little bit of quick math. Ahh, yes. . . it has been exactly 20 years now since my promise to Mr. McParland. Our International Forgiveness Institute has successfully implemented forgiveness education now in many schools of Belfast and surrounding communities.
As we end the 20th year, some of us at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are doing a research program with 18 classrooms of primary 7 students (grade 5 in the United States), across Northern Ireland, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. This will culminate in an international conference in Madison, Wisconsin, led by Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute, in which these teachers will participate.
As I look around, I see that Mr. Brian McParland now is retired from his educational duties. Mrs. Claire Hilman, the principal at Ligoniel Primary in 2002, also is retired. Dear Anne Gallagher now has passed to eternal life. No other educators who joined us two decades ago are still there. As I look around, I see that I have kept my promise now only to God and me. And that is sufficient for the promise-keeping. I hope that at least some in Northern Ireland are the better for it.
A promise kept may bear fruit of which none of us is aware and this is why we press on with the vision for forgiveness education, started two decades ago.
It was the early 1990’s and I just recently did an interview for a Chicago newspaper. The journalist published my home telephone number within the article. For the next two weeks, it seemed as if the phone just would not stop ringing. The people who called were seeking information about how to forgive. “There is a genuine hunger out there for people to know how to go about forgiving,” was my conclusion to family and colleagues.
Because we had published the first-ever empirical article on forgiveness in a peer-reviewed journal article only a few short years before this, in 1989, there was little out there instructing people on how to forgive those who have deeply hurt them. Because of the ground-breaking work of Msgr. John Hebl, with whom I had the honor of publishing the second-ever empirical article on forgiveness in a journal, in 1993, there was emerging scientific support for our Process Model of Forgiveness.
About this same time, the late and great Dr. William Walker of Madison, who ran radio stations, wrote a letter to me (email was not big yet). He explained that many years ago, he received his doctoral degree from the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was (and am) a professor. Dr. Walker explained to me that he was drawn to our forgiveness work, had the financial means to bring this to an important level, and he had an interest in joining the research. I enthusiastically agreed and a strong collegial relationship and friendship developed.
When my dear friend William passed away, his son Thomas Walker took up the cause and provided the necessary funding to keep the IFI viable and expanding, as he does to this day.
Thank you, William and Thomas!
Given that we were getting some financial support and the many requests for forgiveness information continued, some of my colleagues and I decided to try to form an entity with the goal of serving people who wanted information on how to forgive. This was to start as a service entity for all who were interested in forgiving.
Our little group decided to take the non-profit route and developed the 501(c)3 entity, the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. (IFI) in Madison, Wisconsin in 1994. A Board of Directors was formed to help guide the development of this organization. Thank you, Board Members, for your dedicated service to our IFI! At the time of its formation there was nothing “international” about this organization. Yet, it was the vision, the promise of such expansion, that led to our keeping that word “International” in the title. We, of course, started small, without even a website.
A major turn occurred for us at the beginning of the 21st century. Because our work was having success in the mental health field with our Process Model of Forgiveness, I had an idea: Why not start to introduce forgiveness to children and adolescents? After all, if they will experience injustices, perhaps even severe injustices in this world, why not equip them with the scientifically-supported approach of forgiveness to reduce the resentment, caused by the injustices, so that they can be resilient in their emotional well-being and in their healthy family interactions?
With the idea of prevention in mind, we decided to build forgiveness curricula for children, starting in first grade (age 6 and 7). We did so through age-appropriate children’s stories, such as Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. The children, in their own classrooms, then begin to see what forgiveness is, how story characters navigate interpersonal conflict, and what happens when people forgive. We piloted this curriculum for the first time in Belfast, Northern Ireland, did the research on this endeavor through the university, and published the first empirical evaluations of this work in 2007.
The results were dramatic! Children, upon hearing stories and reflecting on the theme of forgiving, actually reduced in their own anger. Teachers saw greater cooperation among students in classrooms and teachers reported to us that they, themselves as teachers, improved in their own teaching skills as a result of being a forgiveness instructor.
The Forgiveness Education project grew to such an extent that we now have a complete set of curriculum guides from pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way up to the end of high school (age 18), including an anti-bullying guide and two guides for parents: A Family Guide (for those with primary-aged children) and Strengthening Families (for those with middle-school aged children). Dr. Jeanette Knutson, Amber Osmulski, and Dr. Matthew Hirshberg helped to craft these guides. Thank you, Jeanette, Amber, and Matthew!
The Forgiveness Education curriculum guides have been ordered by educators from over 30 countries across the world. Other international endeavors include both the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness and the Rome Conference on Forgiveness and a new Forgiveness Education initiative in Bethlehem in the Middle East. Thank you, Mr. Thomas and Terri Lucke, for your generous funding! We now, I think, have earned the word “International” in our organization’s title.
Our long-time Director at the IFI, Dennis Blang, has been instrumental in sending far and wide information about the Forgiveness Education guides, in maintaining our website, publishing the Forgiveness News, crafting the electronic newsletters, and overseeing the everyday important activities of our institute. Thank you, Dennis! And thank you to our earlier Directors, Dr. Gayle Reed and Mary Mead!
The service work has expanded so that we now are serving homeless people, those in prisons, and we have started a bumper-sticker campaign, “Drive for Others’ Lives” as a way to help make the roads a more civil environment. Many of these new ideas come from our stellar volunteer at the IFI, Jacqueline Song. Thank you, Jacqueline!
A big thank you goes out to our long-term President, Roy Lloyd, and to our Ethics Committee members for their dedicated work in examining our protocols that impact the homeless, those in prison, and others. Thank you to those “on the ground” who oversee important forgiveness programs in Belfast (Leah Judge), Greece (Dr. Peli Galiti), and Monrovia, Liberia (Rev. Kortu Brown and Mr. George Cooper). We want to thank all who have financially contributed to our efforts over this quarter-of-a-century.
We started with one idea: Forgiveness is important as it can quell unhealthy anger and improve mental health and relationships. Many are catching on to this idea. In our humble opinion, forgiveness should now become a natural part of families, schools, organizations, and individual hearts for the good of humanity.
Long live forgiveness!
Two recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on this: Forgiveness as an idea for all of humanity is powerful and so such an idea tends to persevere across time and not wither.
For the first example, I unexpectedly received on Facebook a message from a person who coaches people before they give Ted Talks. His name is Brendan Fox and he had this message for me in the context of forgiveness for sexual abuse victims/survivors:
“Hi, Robert! Hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know that I read your book, and I watched one of your online lectures. I think your work is so good for the world. Recently, I coached a Ted Talk featuring a sex trafficking survivor. Your work was hugely influential in inspiring the talk and message (as you’ll see). I wanted to credit you, and share it with you, because I think this represents part of your legacy, and how you are making the world a better place (in many indirect ways!). I’m rooting for you in the Game of Life!”
Here is a link to the talk to which Brendan refers. The video (10:21) is quite inspirational: Escaping the Pain of Human Trafficking – Markie Dell.
I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this: Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently posted here, and I had an idea in the mid-1990’s that a forgiveness intervention might be helpful for women who have been sexually abused. At the time, this idea was exceptionally controversial. People thought that we were saying this, “Oh, you were abused? Forgive and go back into that situation.” No. This is not what forgiveness is at all. A person can forgive, rid the self of toxic resentment and hatred, and not reconcile. Suzanne’s ground-breaking forgiveness intervention with incest survivors was important in helping the social scientific world see the importance of forgiveness interventions.
That study was published in 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago: Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
After almost a quarter of a century later, Suzanne’s ideas live on and are helping people to heal from extreme injustices against them. If we can get this far with forgiveness in the face of grave sexual abuse, perhaps there is a place for forgiveness in other areas of woundedness, such as helping people who have no homes, who are living on the streets, to forgive those who have crushed their hearts. Will this aid their recovery? Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute is taking the lead right now on this question.
Here is the second of our two examples regarding the staying-power and influence of forgiveness. In 2002, a team of us decided to start what we now call forgiveness education with children. We reasoned this way: If we can help children learn about forgiveness and how to forgive, then when they are adults, they will have the tool of forgiveness for combating the potentially unhealthy effects of unjust treatment against them.
We developed forgiveness education guides for grades 1 and 3 (Primary 3 and 5 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and we brought these guides to the principal, Claire Hilman, and the teachers at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast. Claire said yes and so we launched forgiveness education there as the first place in the world where there is a deliberate curriculum to teach forgiveness, about once a week for 12 to 15 weeks. The program has expanded to include pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way through 12th grade (this is a designation in the United States and includes ages 17-18). These forgiveness education guides have been requested now by educators in over 30 countries.
Just recently, Belfast had its almost 2-week annual 4Corners Festival. The theme for 2019 was “Scandalous Forgiveness.” The term “scandalous” was inserted as an adjective because, even in 2019, some people consider the act of forgiving others to be outrageous and inappropriate. The point of the festival was to gently challenge that thinking and try to fold themes of forgiveness into the fabric of Belfast society.
I gave a talk on February 1, 2019 at this 4Corners Festival. When Mr. Edward Petersen of the Clonard Monastery introduced me to the audience prior to my talk, he stated that the theme for this year’s festival was inspired by our 17-year presence of supporting Belfast teachers in their forgiveness education efforts. We started in 2002 and an inspiration by community organizers blossomed in 2019, many years after we first planted the idea of forgiveness education in Belfast. The idea of forgiveness lives on and now expands city-wide because of the vision and wisdom of the 4Corners Festival organizers.
Forgiveness: it does not wither. It survives over time and grows. I think it does so because forgiveness gives life. Forgiveness unites people in families and communities where injustices could divide.
The idea of forgiveness lives on, and for good reason.
Dr. Robert Enright boarded an international jetliner today to take his scientifically-verified Forgiveness Therapy and Education programs onto the world stage as he does at the start of each New Year. The 2019 excursion includes presentations and working sessions in Israel, the Philippines, Slovakia, and Northern Ireland.
Forgiveness Therapy for the Imprisoned in Israel
The founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI), Dr. Enright kicks off his formal presentations on January 9 during the Restorative Justice, Forgiveness, and Prisoners Conference at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel–a 25-minute bus ride from Tel Aviv on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. His talk will be entitled, “Forgiveness Therapy for the Imprisoned.”
Bar Ilan University is the largest, the fastest growing, and one of the highest-rated academic institutions in Israel with more than 32,000 students. It has a well-respected history of involvement with with criminal justice initiatives, is a member of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, and hosted the 2006 International Conference on Violence and Restorative Justice.
Dr. Enright was asked to be a keynote speaker at the Israeli conference because of the success his forgiveness therapy methodologies have had when adapted for use with inmates in maximum-security prisons over the past five years.
“Forgiveness therapy is beginning to gain traction in prisons because counselors are beginning to see that it is one of the few approaches to corrections that actually works,” Dr. Enright wrote in a recent blog post entitled Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved my Life.”
“For many prisoners, the abuse an inmate typically experienced as a young man turned to a poisonous anger which was destroying him and his life,” Dr. Enright explains. “Through forgiveness therapy, the heart softens toward those who are cruel and one’s own inner poisons find an antidote in growing compassion. And it works.”
Forgiveness Therapy for Patients with Blood Cancers in Slovakia
Seven days after his discussions at Bar Ilan University, Dr. Enright switches forgiveness gears with a presentation on Jan.16 entitled, “Forgiveness Therapy for Patients with Blood Cancers” to physicians and health researchers in Bratislava, Slovakia–-the capital of the Slovak Republic, which is also referred to as the “Beauty on the Danube.”
While that location in central Europe may seem like an unusual spot for a talk on cancer, it actually makes perfect sense because of work done by internationally-known organizations in Slovakia like the Cancer Research Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences and the St. Elizabeth Cancer Institute Hospital, both in Bratislava.
Additionally, cancer survival rates in Slovakia are significantly lower than those of most other European Union member states. That makes physicians there anxious to dialogue with Dr. Enright about his research on the improved well-being of cancer patients who have significantly reduced their anger through forgiveness–research he first started in 2008 with elderly terminally-ill cancer patients.
“There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis,” according to ground-breaking research done by Groer, Davis, Droppleman, Mozingo, and Pierce (2000). Follow-up research on unhealthy anger by Dr. Enright and Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons (2015), as well as others, has confirmed the apparent connection.
“Perhaps it is time for both medicine and psychology to unite in a new angle in the fight against certain cancers by continuing to examine the anger-cancer link,” Dr. Enright wrote in his blog “Finding ways of reducing anger may be part of a regimen for cancer prevention and treatment.”
In fact, the five hospitals operated by Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) now incorporate forgiveness therapy into their treatment regimen. Unforgiveness makes people sick and keeps them sick,” according to Dr. Steven Standiford, CTCA cancer surgeon.
“Anyone can get cancer. So make peace with yourself and others,” explains Rev. LaWanda Long, MDiv, Chaplain at CTCA Atlanta. “Forgive others and let go of past hurts and offenses. You do not have time to continue to invest in emotional pain that may be draining you spiritually. Let it go. Forgive and live.”
17 Years of Forgiveness Education for Belfast Students
Before returning to the US in early February, Dr. Enright will once more shift forgiveness gears by conducting a half-day workshop for educators in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “Forgiveness Education for Our Students” will focus on the forgiveness curriculum guides he has developed for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade which have been used continuously in many Belfast schools since Dr. Enright established his first program there 17 years ago.
That workshop is just one small part of a 12-day forgiveness-focused extravaganza in Belfast called the 4Corners Festival that runs from Jan. 30 through Feb. 10. The theme for the 2019 Festival is “Scandalous Forgiveness.” According to the event website, the Festival, “seeks to inspire people from across the city to transform it for the peace and prosperity of all. It consists of innovative events designed to entice people out of their own ‘corners’ of the city and into new places where they will encounter new perspectives, new ideas, and new friends.”The 2019 event will be the city’s 7th annual Festival. It includes a range of events featuring discussion, music, prayer, drama, poetry and story-telling in venues across the city of Belfast. The Festival was conceived by a group of Christians who wanted to promote unity and reconciliation in the midst of the city’s troubled past.
The widely-known “Troubles” in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century resulted in more than 3,600 deaths with thousands more injured during 30-years of conflict. Because of the past animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Dr. Enright selected Belfast as the first city in which he would test his forgiveness education curriculum methodology. That was 17-years ago and the Program continues to this day.
Today, Dr. Enright’s school-based forgiveness programs are operating not only in Northern Ireland, but also in the US, and in more than 30 other countries around the world. Those programs have been repeatedly tested and scientifically-supported. A recent research project with middle school students in Korea, for example, concluded that:
“The Forgiveness Education Program helped these students reduce in anger and hostile attribution, and increase in empathy. Their academic grades improved and they reduced in behavioral aggression and delinquency.”
Additional stops on Dr. Enright’s tour include: 1) Manila, the capital of the Philippines–a tropical Southeast Asian country composed of more than 7,100 islands that are home to more than 98 million people–where he will meet with non-profit and religious leaders who are proposing to expand Forgiveness Education throughout the country from its current base in Manila and neighboring Quezon City; and, 2) While in Israel, he will visit with educators in Bethlehem and the West Bank where the IFI established a program last year that teaches forgiveness to both Christian and Muslim students and young adults.♥
- Read an unsolicited article written by an inmate in the Columbia Correctional Institution at Portage, Wisconsin, who says the Forgiveness Education program “is the best program I have ever been associated with. . .” Prison Inmate Tames Anger Through Forgiveness.
- Watch a short video about the amazing power forgiveness has had on one woman’s life and her battle with cancer. “If I hadn’t learned to forgive,” says Jayne Valseca, a CTCA cancer patient who was essentially given a death sentence, “I may not even be alive today.” Watch the video here.
- Read Dr. Enright’s blog in Psychology Today: “Anger and Cancer: Is There a Relationship?”
- Read about Dr. Enright’s work with the University of Wisconsin-Carbone Cancer Center, “The Amazing Benefits of Forgiveness Therapy on Cancer Patients.”
- Read Dr. Enright’s Eight Principles Underlying Forgiveness Education that he builds into each of his programs all around the world.