I loved seeing the article on forgiveness in last month’s newsletter. I have discovered in my 30 years of studying forgiveness from a psychological perspective, that there are many misconceptions associated with what it means to forgive and contexts associated with forgiveness.
A common comment I hear from students in my university course on interpersonal forgiveness is that forgiveness is more complicated than people realize. It may not be the same notion of forgiveness preached by one’s parents or a religious leader. It goes beyond just saying the words, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” Although we often ask for forgiveness for minor injuries, forgiveness occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt (Smedes, 1996, The Art of Forgiving).
Specifically, forgiveness involves a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward an offender, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, empathy, and goodwill toward one’s offender (Enright, 2001, Forgiveness is a Choice). Notice that in this definition, one has a right to resentment and that the offender does not deserve one’s compassion and goodwill.
Although frequently confused with forgetting, acceptance, condoning, excusing, pardon, and denial of anger, forgiveness is none of these. When we forgive, we decrease our negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offender and over time, increase our positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors toward the offender. We can also only forgive for the way that we were personally impacted by an offense.
Another common misconception about forgiveness is that you cannot forgive unless you receive an apology from the offender. This may be true for reconciliation but not forgiveness. Forgiveness is something people can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to.
I began my career by educating adult incest survivors about forgiveness, and have recently turned my attention to children and adolescents. By teaching students about the psychological process of forgiveness, we are helping them develop healthy ways to express feelings, understand the perspective of others, and practice empathy and kindness.
As summarized by a 5th grader who was part of a forgiveness education program that I taught:
“I’ve learned that anger is a natural feeling. It takes time to forgive. You don’t have to forgive right away. They don’t always apologize. Forgiveness is one step closer to healing. You don’t have to be friends with the offender after. Apologies make forgiving easier. Forgiveness is made by the person who was hurt. If you want revenge, then you haven’t forgiven in your heart.”
I am often asked “Why forgive?” and my response is always the same: “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury, or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of all-consuming anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers us a way to heal while still acknowledging that what happened to us was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of SEL in Action, “a newsletter written for educators, by educators to share real world stories, questions, ideas and opinions about how to address the social and emotional needs of students and the adults who teach them.” Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.
Dr. Suzanne Freedman is the author of The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness, a curriculum guide for 4th and 5th grade students she co-authored with Dr. Robert Enright.
Dr. Freedman was recognized with a Veridian Community Engagement Fellowship (Fall 2020) for “meeting a community need through teaching and/or scholarship.” That same year she was also awarded a Kern Family Foundation Grant for a project that “examined ways that moral virtues, such as empathy, can be infused into a course on child and adolescent development.“
Learn more about Dr. Freedman and her work at the University of Northern Iowa.
Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, as with all moral virtues such as justice and kindness, it is good in and of itself. Therefore, I am confident that to forgive is a moral good. Yet, I do have doubts, but not about forgiveness itself. My doubts instead are with how people imperfectly understand what forgiveness is or have errors in trying to apply it. For example, if a person thinks that to forgive is just to move on and forget the other person, this is not what forgiveness is. The misunderstanding, of course, is not the fault of forgiveness itself. As another example, if a person spends only 2 hours forgiving someone who was brutal to him when he was a child, this is an error of not taking sufficient time to forgive. Again, this is not the fault of forgiveness itself. So, in summary, my doubts are in human imperfection not being able to lead to an effective forgiveness response. I have no doubts about the goodness of forgiveness itself.
The head of the Liberia Forgiveness Education Program (LFEP) has been appointed by that country’s president to serve on a Special Presidential Committee that will mediate post-civil war land disputes that have recently become violent. The appointment provides a unique opportunity to test the potential effectiveness of Group Forgiveness interventions developed by Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI).
Bishop Kortu Brown was appointed last month to the Nimba County Conflict Resolution Committee by Liberian President Dr. George Manneh Weah. Bishop Brown, Chairman/CEO of Church Aid Inc. (CAI) has been National Coordinator of the LFEP since it was established by Dr. Enright nearly 10 years ago.
“The president of Liberia has asked me to participate in a national effort aimed at resolving land conflicts in one of Liberia’s troubled sub-political divisions,” Bishop Brown said of his recent appointment. “Nimba County has more than 500 land conflicts recorded so we hope that our work can help bring healing and reconciliation to this troubled area.”
The Nimba County conflicts are the aftermath of a horrendous 15-year civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 250,000 Liberians between 1989 and 2004, the displacement of more than a million others from their homes, the overthrow of the government of the late President Samuel K. Doe who was assassinated in 1990, and the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers throughout the country. According to a Global News Network Liberia report, the US government has provided more than $2.4 billion in supporting Liberia’s post-war stabilization and development.
Unfortunately, the misery in Liberia did not stop with the end of the civil war. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 4,800 people died from Ebola in Liberia—the West African country hardest hit by the outbreak—and now the country of 4.8 million people is dealing with the deadly uncertainty of the coronavirus epidemic. According to the World Health Organization, Africa accounts for less than 1% of the coronavirus vaccine doses administered globally.
“There is a serious need to bring closure to the civil war and that means reconciliation through forgiveness,” Bishop Brown says, repeating what he has been espousing since becoming the head of the LFEP. “If Liberians will forge peace and reconciliation, they must forgive. Without forgiveness there will be no genuine reconciliation.”
Dr. Enright has been working closely with Bishop Brown and other civic leaders in the West African country since Rev. Joseph Cheapoo, a native of Liberia, walked into Dr. Enright’s University of Wisconsin-Madison office in 2003 and bluntly asked, “Professor Enright, can you help me save my country?”
Rev. Cheapoo, who had fled his home country for the US to save his family during the civil war, agreed to head up the LFEP when he returned to Liberia in 2004. Sadly, Rev. Cheapoo unexpectedly passed away 8 years ago. Bishop Brown anxiously assumed leadership of the LFEP soon after.
“In light of his appointment by President Weah, I have suggested that Bishop Brown engage all Committee members in the Enright Group Forgiveness process before addressing the social conflict issues,” Dr. Enright says. “I suggested that approach, in all humility, because dialogue will not be fruitful if those engaging in the dialogue are still very angry about past grievances. Forgiveness is a scientifically-supported way of eliminating that anger.”
In response, Bishop Brown shared with Dr. Enright a draft strategy he has since developed for the Committee’s first working session that he calls “Reconciliation Through Forgiveness: A Program Concept for Community Bridge-Building.” Components of that strategy include:
- Conducting a 3-day Awareness Workshop on healing and reconciliation for 150 community, religious and traditional leaders from the 9 sub-political districts in Nimba County on the need to bring closure to the civil war chapter.
- Conducting a 3-day Forgiveness Education training workshop for teachers in Nimba County primary and secondary schools.
- Replicating the Forgiveness Education Programs that Church Aid Inc. already has in place in Monrovia (the country’s capitol), Brewerville, and Monsterrado County by initiating identical programs in 25 schools in Nimba County using Kindergarten through Grade 12 curriculum guides developed by the IFI in collaboration with CAI.
- Conducting a 3-day training and commissioning workshop for 45 Community Reconciliation Animators (CRA) who will continue the work of healing and reconciliation in their respective communities after the Special Presidential Committee’s tenure expires.
“I think that interventions like the Enright Group Forgiveness process are critical to bringing peace and harmony to the communities we seek to serve in Liberia,” says Bishop Brown. In addition to being the General Overseer of the New Water in the Desert Apostolic Pentecostal Church in Brewerville and Chairman/CEO of Church Aid Inc., Bishop Brown is also president of both the Liberia Council of Churches (LLC) and the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia (IRCL).
“If this forgiveness initiative works as it did in our scientific studies, then resentments and hatred will be reduced, forgiveness will increase, and fruitful dialogue will commence,” Dr. Enright adds. “If forgiveness solves the entrenched group-to-group conflict in Liberia, that country will astonish the world with this new way of attaining peace.”
The Special Presidential Committee will conduct its first session in the next few days and is expected to report its formal recommendations to President Weah within 60 days. The Committee will be chaired by Liberia’s Minister of Internal Affairs while the Chairman of the Liberia Land Authority will serve as co-chairperson.
Help spread forgiveness education, reconciliation and peace throughout Liberia, West Africa. Click the “Donate” button at the bottom of this page to become a hero to the children of Liberia.
I have heard the term “take the long perspective” regarding the injustices inflicted on me by others. What does that mean?
Go back into childhood for a moment and think about one time in which you had what seemed to be a serious disagreement with a friend. At the time, did it seem like this would go on indefinitely? Of course, it did not. Time has a way of changing our circumstances. I am not advocating a kind of passive approach to life here. “Oh, I will just wait it out and so I do not have to exert effort.” No, that is not the point. Instead, see beyond the next hill to a place that is more settled and the pain is not so great. You already saw in your childhood that conflicts end. The consequences of those conflicts (feeling sad or angry) also end.
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