WP: “Truth About Forgiveness”

Today’s Washington Post (p. W8) features a compelling account of a father who 14 years ago lost a son — one of hundreds murdered every year in Baltimore. This father, Bernard Williams, nearly died from grief, until he figured out how to save himself from the pits of despair. He learned to forgive himself and … the killer of his son. It’s a gritty, heart-wrenching story; would any of us do as he did?
Williams received extraordinary help from a Lauren Abramson, a Johns Hopkins professor who runs a 11-year-old Community Conferencing Center, wherein “whole neighborhoods are invited to gather and solve problems.”
Abramson also facilitates conversations between victims and incarcerated offenders, in keeping with the worldwide “restorative justice movement.” Pioneered barely a quarter century ago by Howard Zehr, now of Eastern Mennonite University, the restorative justice method adjusts the focus away from punishing the perpetrator and towards the victim, emphasizing support for the afflicted, repairing the harm, and transforming all the parties.
Being an international politics specialist, I sat up and took note of the referenced benefits of forgiveness — as compared to the “benefits” of vengeance. Herein, we encounter Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University:

“Recent studies suggest forgiveness can decrease your cardiovascular risk, elevate your immune system and reduce your chances of depression, anxiety, anger disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Worthington attributes this to the conflicting body messages: “Biologically, we have an immediate vengeful justice motive when we’ve been wronged, but over time we have a biological urge toward empathy and reconciliation..” On the one hand, the thirst for justice “gives us a buzz…

“Pretty much everybody can get aroused and motivated by anger and the prospect of getting back at this person. It is lighting up… those same dopamine-releasing pathways that are in the reward section of the brain.”

Gaza anyone? (Why was Israel’s recent pounding of Gaza so “popular” inside Israel?)
Yet Worthington suggests that “at some point, an evolutionary response kicks in…. A human who is totally cut out of the group doesn’t stand much chance of survival. The others in the group “want to do something to not cede them to the wild beasts out there….. That’s when we start to feel conflict and pressure.”
What group? What beasts? International community? Conscience?
Hmmmm…. much worth pondering here. Reminds me anew of Vamik Volkan’s work.

8 thoughts on “WP: “Truth About Forgiveness”

  1. Shirin

    It seems to me that the first thing that is necessary to enable forgiveness is for the offense to stop happening.

  2. Domza

    Why are people explained here in this article as if they were animals? This article is a mixture of clashing bits and pieces. Why don’t you mention how much the prison population has increased in the last quarter-century, in the time of this vaunted restorative justice movement in the USA. Why don’t you talk of Angela Davis, who has been active all that time, and is an abolitionist? The question of prison is not a side-question. You can’t treat it lightly. It is a main, systemic problem of capitalism.

  3. scott h

    Quotable – (a “lot of territory between forgiveness and vengeance”) a keeper Shirin…. thank you. Hey, I’m thinking out loud with this one…. My views are “in flux” in this realm. Nor am I well versed in EMU conflict resolution programs, except to note that their models are garnering some “unusual” international attention…
    and from what I know of it, the RJ approach (with all its controveries) has long advocated reducing reliance on incarceration….

  4. Dominic

    Angela Davis came to our country from your country to speak about this, and made a big impression on me, at least. There are vastly more people in prison, more prisons are being built, and at the same time crime gets worse.
    This is about human society. There is intentionality here. It is like any other political phenomeneon. It can be criticised and understood, politically.
    When you, instead, introduce questions of dopamine, and body messages, and questions of animal pack behaviour (and there is lots more in that vein that you have not yet mentioned), I’m sorry, but you just lose it. It is obscurantism.
    This kind of pseudo-science is a way of avoiding the truth. Then you pronounce this obscurantism as “the truth about forgiveness”!
    In rugby this kind of move is called “selling a dummy”. So where are you really going with it? Because behaviourism serves the incarcerators, obviously. So you are selling the ideology of incarceration under the label of “forgiveness”.

  5. Jim in Raleigh

    I can speak from personal experience on this subject. Twelve years ago my wife, Sandi, was murdered by her 18 year old son, Jon. Had I been home I have no doubt I would have been the first victim. Jon had told his mother several times over the years he wanted to kill me. But I was in California with my younger step-son.
    For 3 days we were not aware of the murder; and for 4 more days it was treated as a missing person. Sandi’s body was found 9 days after she was murdered. Jon committed suicide a day later after being surrounded by a SWAT team. During the negotiations with the police he did not express any remorse about killing his mother.
    I was angry. Angry at the police for treating Sandi’s death as a missing person. Angry at Jon for killing his mother. Angry at myself for not protecting Sandi; and not aware of that anger. And to a lesser extent, angry at Sandi for leaving me. I had a lot of guilt since Jon did not kill me instead.
    I also had to reexamine some of my beliefs. Sandi and I were both against the death penalty. Where did I now stand on this belief. I found I was still against the death penalty. I did not want vengeance; but I did want justice. For my step-son I would have called for life. And I would have petitioned the courts for the help Jon sorely needed for his problems.
    To deal with my anger, guilt, remorse, and other feelings to deep for me to even know I talked to anyone who would listen about how this affected me. And it helped some. But the greatest help for me came when I had the chance to provide support and understanding for someone with a child like Jon. As a part of it I wrote a friend of the court brief describing Jon’s problem and detailing my 14 years living with a child like Jon.
    Where am I today? I have forgiven Jon and myself. And occasionally I get to assist people who have had a personal disaster they cannot deal with. When they say nobody can understand their pain I agree with them. And then I say, “Let me tell you about Sandi.”

  6. Dominic

    Why are we supposed to believe this story? Why would somebody regurgitate all this just to make a point in a discussion? If it has any meaning it would only be that this person has learnt nothing, or almost nothing. He is saying that dialogue helps him, but he is showing that he enters dialogue with an overwhelming, prepared position that is intended to make further discussion impossible except on his solecistic terms. Sorry, mate. It doesn’t all belong to you.

  7. Shirin

    Dominic, what is your point in posting this utterly gratuitous, uncivil and downright mean-spirited attack? What harm does it do you that someone has posted a personal story that he believed was relevant to the topic? There was absolutely no need for you to make such a comment. If you don’t like it, skip over it and ignore it.
    Honestly, Dominic, what is with you these days? You did not used to be so uncivil.

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