“Forgiveness means to release from liability to suffer punishment or penalty; to let go; release or remit; to cancel a debt in full. To cancel a debt means that you absorb the liability someone else deserves to pay (i.e. liability to punishment). Forgiveness also means to bestow favor freely or unconditionally that is undeserved and cannot be earned.”
Forgiveness is a prominent topic of discussion in many religious traditions, as well as in the social sciences. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have long discussed the topic of forgiveness, how one is to forgive and the reasons behind forgiveness. Psychologists, sociologists, and others are also interested in the subject and its implications in their fields of study.
Forgiveness can be examined from a religious or non-religious perspective, and the general approaches are an intrapsychic/therapeutic approach, an interpersonal approach, and an intergroup approach. The interpersonal approach naturally utilizes some of the methods of intrapsychic approach, and the intergroup approach utilizes some of the methods of both the intrapsychic and interpersonal approaches in its methodology. The intrapsychic approach will be explored here, and the methodology of the interpersonal approach will be touched on within the intergroup approach. While keeping in mind the definition of forgiveness provided at the beginning, it is good to understand both what forgiveness is, and what it is not:
. . . a conscious and voluntary unilateral decision that “occurs with the victim’s full recognition that he or she deserved better treatment,” recognizing that the choice to forgive may not result in a response/repentance from the offender.
. . . an intentional, active process that includes a change in one’s emotions/attitude toward the offender, and a decrease in the desire to take revenge against an offender.
FORGIVENESS IS NOT…
. . . a feeling. Rarely do we feel like we want to forgive someone; rather, we make a choice to forgive and a change in emotions/attitude follows.
. . . forgetting/avoiding the unjust act committed against the offended, as these are passive processes and forgiveness is an active process.
. . . exoneration/excusing “that exempts the offender from the interpersonal and social consequences that his or her act deserves.” Even after being forgiven, the offender may still need to suffer the penalty for his/her actions, and/or make restitution to the offended.11
. . . reconciliation which is “the restoration of interpersonal trust in the mutual commitment to invest again in the relationship. The partners in a reconciled relationship do not fear the memory of the fracture, harbor no unattended resentments, are willing to be vulnerable with each other again, and permit the relationship to be different than it was before.” While forgiveness can occur without reconciliation, and the offended can forgive the offender without the restoration of the relationship, reconciliation cannot occur without forgiveness.
While there are a number of philosophical arguments against interpersonal forgiveness, most notably due to the claim that it can encourage further abuse on the forgiver, research indicates that contentions such as these misunderstand the proper definition of forgiveness, and confuse reconciliation with forgiveness. On the contrary, forgiveness helps mitigate the effects of hatred and resentment that can lead to anxiety and depression, and leads toward more internal peace and communal stability, as we will discuss in the section on intergroup forgiveness.
Understanding Our Complicity in Contributing to the Conflict
In previous chapters we have had the opportunity to consider how some things we hold dear may be an obstacle to reconciliation, negatively affect the other side, or contribute to the conflict. While you or I may have never been complicit in a violent act against someone from the other side, we as individuals and groups have been party to offenses committed against the other people. One American Christian theologian elaborates on this.
People are not culpable for those histories in the abstract, as if –for example—I am somehow ‘guilty’ for the enslavement of African Americans in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries; but I am culpable for that history in the sense that the effects of slavery continue to mar my relations with others, making me complicit in the continuing racism of the culture into which I was born. I can either remain complicit in that racism, thereby perpetuating it in ways for which I am also culpable; or I can struggle against it, seeking to mitigate its effects… But there is no one who can claim only to be victim of others’ histories; though levels of culpability certainly vary, sometimes immensely, we are all enmeshed in various histories and circumstances, and the result is that we cannot evade the truth that we all invariably diminish and destroy others in the ways in which we live.
Being unaware of how we contribute to destructive actions does not excuse us from being part of oppressive, demeaning or exploitative systems. In working toward reconciliation, especially in this phase where we are discussing forgiveness and considering offenses committed against us and our complicity in offenses committed against others, we need to be aware of our contribution and perpetuation of the conflict.
Understanding the Function of Hurt and Anger
There are a few general points to keep in mind when discussing forgiveness. Sometimes the society and culture that we live in encourage us to suppress painful emotions of hurt, anger, and offense. Feelings are sometimes relegated as secondary to logic, and what we feel in our hearts is seen as inferior to ignoring the hurt. However, feelings are part of who we are as humans, and they help us understand ourselves and create authentic relationships with others. Refusing to acknowledge anger or pain is an obstacle to forgiveness, the deepening of relationships, and reconciliation.17 Without articulating pain and hurt, we can never hope for its resolution. Protestant theologian Beverly Wildung Harrison writes:
Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons or groups or to the world around us. Anger is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring. To put the point another way: anger is—and it always is—a sign of some resistance in ourselves to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed. To grasp this point—that anger signals something amiss in relationship—is a critical first step in understanding the power of anger in the work of love.”18 She continues, “Anger expressed directly is a mode of taking the other seriously, of caring. The important point is that where feeling is evaded, where anger is hidden or goes unattended…there the power of love…atrophies and dies.
An important part of the forgiveness process is the intrapsychic (or therapeutic) phase of forgiveness, or the forgiveness process which occurs within oneself. This phase is unique in that this can be done within oneself without the need to engage with anyone else. Some experts find this to be very valuable and focus a great deal on this. Others, particularly those who work in reconciliation, argue that this inward-focused method does not have the potential to heal relationships given the essential non-relational nature of this method. This therefore cannot result in reconciliation. While going through the forgiveness process on one’s own is beneficial, it does not result in restored relationships or require that the offended engage with the offender, so it is not a method that can be employed on its own when the goal is reconciliation. However, as the phases one goes through in the intrapsychic phase are reflected in interpersonal and intergroup forgiveness exchanges, they will be briefly discussed here.
Uncovering Phase: In this phase, the individual realizes the emotional pain that has wounded him/her. Letting the feelings of hurt and anger surface, and identifying the cause of the pain allows the individual to move on to the next phase.
Decision Phase: The individual realizes that focusing on the injury causes continued suffering and a reliving of the offense. In order to be healed of the pain, the individual must consider forgiving the offender, and begin to take steps in this direction by choosing to let go of negative thoughts and feelings toward the offender.
Work Phase: In this phase, the individual actively works to forgive the offender. The offended does this by trying to think about the offender differently: by trying to understand what bad things in the offender’s life might have led him/her to perpetrate this offense against the individual, or to try and contextualize the offense and what led the offender to commit the offense at that specific time. These exercises are done not to excuse the offender, but to try and humanize the offender which will lead to feelings of empathy and compassion necessary for forgiveness to occur. This does not necessarily entail reconciliation as the individual may not wish to meet with the offender due to trust/safety issues.
Outcome/Deepening Phase: By this phase, the individual realizes that s/he has gained emotional relief through the process of forgiveness, and may even “find meaning in the suffering that [s/he] has faced.” Going through this experience can lead the individual to have more compassion for others, and “the forgiver discovers the paradox of forgiveness: as we give to others the gifts of mercy, generosity, and moral love, we ourselves are healed.”
Another Approach to Intrapsychic Forgiveness
Another approach to intrapsychic/therapeutic forgiveness is outlined by another scholar. The approach might have some points you find insightful. While the author of this approach refers to it as an interpersonal approach, it is Musalaha’s belief that since it does not require active engagement with the offender, it belongs under the categorization of intrapsychic/therapeutic approach.
As a result of his research, Dr. Frederic Luskin offers nine steps to forgiveness:
The intrapsychic and interpersonal principles of the forgiveness exchange are relevant for the intergroup forgiveness exchange, but differ slightly according to need and context. While the interpersonal approach is about a forgiveness exchange primarily between two individuals, intergroup forgiveness entails a forgiveness exchange between two groups of people.
A General Approach
When dealing with groups or working in a political context for forgiveness (and subsequently reconciliation), it is helpful to keep several points in mind.
If an unenforceable rule is “broken,” here are six steps to follow…
1. Recognize that you feel hurt, angry, alienated, depressed or hopeless. Acknowledge that your feelings may stem from memories of the past but that you are experiencing them in the present.
2. Remind yourself that you feel bad only because you are trying to enforce an unenforceable rule.
3. Assert your willingness to challenge your unenforceable rule.
4. Ask yourself the following question: “What experience in my life am I thinking of right now that I am demanding to be different?” This is your unenforceable rule.
5. Change your attitude from demanding things go your way to strongly hoping you get what you want.
6. Use that hope to motivate yourself toward finding practical solutions. When you temper your unenforceable rules, you think more clearly and feel more peaceful. This is the essence of forgiveness.
Political forgiveness keeps communities and nations from taking the path of hate. Keeping the earlier processes and steps involved in forgiveness in mind, we will now take a look at several more aspects of forgiveness (some repeated, but from a different angle) relevant in an intergroup context.
Redeeming Violence and Suffering: In a political or group context, often one or both sides have suffered violence and dehumanization throughout the course of the conflict.
Redeeming violence is a spiritual, moral and emotional process that enables a victim to recover the basic elements of their humanity which has been stripped from them through an act or acts of violence by individuals, militant groups or the state. The basic elements of our humanity include our identity, our sense of security and our ability to trust.
Violence suffered can entail physical, emotional, moral or economic suffering perpetrated directly or indirectly by one party against another. This violence harms the way we perceive and interact with ourselves and others. Consequently, it makes it difficult for us to trust others (particularly authority figures) and can lead us to question our own identities of who we are, our worth, and our way of life. The redeeming process takes place as we are allowed to: express our grievances and pain, mete out justice for the victim and offender, uncover the truth of what happened, and reconstruct our memory by giving meaning to our suffering.
Confrontation: One of the first steps in an interpersonal as well as an intergroup forgiveness exchange is the offended confronting the offender. In a long standing conflict like ours, both sides have offended each other, and there is a need for mutual confrontation for wrongdoing. Confrontation is often viewed negatively, but in order for forgiveness to occur, and thereby restore the relationship, confrontation is necessary. In the context of forgiveness, confrontation can be defined as “the direct bringing forward of painful subject matter.”
The path of confrontation includes empathic attention to one another, telling the truth of our experience without fear, and naming the wounding experience caused by another. A successful confrontation affirms that the other [side] does indeed care enough about the [relationship] that [they] will, in turn, risk listening and engaging in the pain and anger for the sake of the love. If the desire to set the relationship right is authentic, then the act of coming into the presence of the other, wounded as one may be, holds the power and the grace to effect the desired change. Confrontation need not and is not intended to be abusively confrontational. Accurate empathic action is essentially a respectful conversation. It is overcoming fear or any form of retribution to speak the truth in love. To lose the power of confrontation and to extinguish this capacity from the repertoire of human relations are to miss the chance at the best of authentic relational harmony.
Repentance: In conflicts between groups, including our own, often both parties have been offended and need to repent. Both sides must come to a place where they agree to change the behaviors and patterns that caused and contributed to the conflict. Repentance is the appropriate response to confrontation.
Repentance entails: identifying and understanding your own actions and behaviors that have contributed to the conflict, coming to a place of genuine sadness for how you have contributed to a breakdown in your relationship with the other party, making a choice to discontinue any harmful behaviors or actions, and adopting new behaviors or actions.
Experiential Approaches from Other Disciplines
Forgiving the Perpetrators of the September 11th Attacks: Associations with Coping, Distress and Religiousness
In a study of American attitudes of forgiveness toward the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks, researchers examined the levels of forgiveness in relation to how Americans were coping, suffering distress, and whether or not religiousness played a role. The researchers found that Americans who were pro-forgiveness had more positive responses to stress, and less psychological turmoil than those Americans who were anti- forgiveness or ambivalent. Those ambivalent about forgiveness were the most distressed as they spent more time thinking about and emotionally reacting to traumatic events suffered. Researchers also found that those who were religious were more likely to value forgiveness, but this did not mean that they were able to forgive.
Forgiving the In-group or the Out-group of Harm Doing
This study focused on how the historical victimization of an in-group (in this case North American Jews in light of the Holocaust) affects the in-group’s actions towards a new enemy (namely, the Palestinians). Researchers found that after encouraging participants in this study to reflect on the Holocaust, they were more likely to forgive harmful actions Israel committed against Palestinians . The question they then posed, was, “If the past can serve to legitimize present harm doing, how then can forgiveness of the historical group [in this case Germans] that committed harm against the ingroup be achieved?” They found an effective way to counter this was by appealing to a common, superordinate identity, thereby expanding the in-group to include both Jews and Germans and this led to an increased willingness of participants to forgive and desire for less social distance between the in-group and out-group.
Forgive and Forget? Antecedents and Consequences of Intergroup Forgiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina
In this study, researchers examined the role of forgiveness in intergroup reconciliation in a conflict setting, and the psychological processes involved in facilitating forgiveness. They found that focusing on a common, superordinate identity promoted a willingness to forgive and a decrease in desire for social distance. It also affirmed the outcome of other studies that showed how contact made a positive contribution to the perception of out-group heterogeneity, out-group trust, empathy and social distance (which all play a role in the willingness to forgive). As a result of seeing the out-group as more heterogeneous, the in-group began to see the out-group in general as ‘good’ rather than ‘bad.’ At the same time, they found that many people did not wish to forgive and they suggested several reasons for this: high in-group identification (as opposed to common/superordinate identity), association of forgiveness with forgetting, and low levels of guilt and shame for actions the in-group perpetrated against the out- group.
Musalaha takes the opinion that forgiveness is a unilateral decision, and releasing one’s negative feelings toward the offender is necessary, regardless of the offender’s willingness to repent. God will hold the offender responsible for their actions.
This chapter is of vital importance to the reconciliation process. As stated several times throughout the course of this chapter, reconciliation is not attainable without forgiveness. However, as practitioners and participants in reconciliation, we also need to realize that every situation and every group of people engaged in reconciliation will be different. Through constantly engaging in the process, through listening and learning, and having more empathy and compassion, we move closer toward this goal, and toward our ultimate goal—reconciliation.
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