Complex Workings of Forgiveness


Everett Worthington, a Virginia Commonwealth University psychology professor, had become one of the nation's leading researchers in promoting the act of forgiveness.

Then his 76-year-old widowed mother was murdered by a teenage burglar.

As his brother relayed the police description of the killing, forgiveness was the last thing on Worthington's mind. "I was so angry. I pointed to a baseball bat and said, 'I wish whoever did that was here. I would beat his brains out.' "

Worthington had come up against the kind of spiritual dilemma that confronts the nation this morning as it awakens to the anticipated execution of Timothy J. McVeigh: whether to forgive.

Like many of those who lost loved ones in McVeigh's bombing April 19, 1995, of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Worthington was torn between fury and forgiveness. As a devout Presbyterian elder and director of the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, he knew what his faith required of him.

Living up to it, he would find, was another thing entirely.

Is forgiveness possible--or even appropriate--in the face of so heinous a crime? Should forgiveness be unconditional? Is forgiveness always an individual act, or does the community have a stake?

Answers to such questions have long been the stuff of biblical epics and theological discourse. But now academics and researchers such as Worthington are venturing into what largely had been a theological preserve. They are trying to unravel the psychological and physiological dynamics of human forgiveness.

Intriguingly, some studies suggest health benefits for those who forgive. This has been shown to be true even when the offending party admitted no wrongdoing.

Interest in this research appears to have been sparked by the Oklahoma City bombing and other events of the 1990s. For example: Former President Clinton asked the American public for forgiveness for his dalliances with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. Pope John Paul II asked Jews to forgive the Roman Catholic Church's wrongs committed throughout its history, including the Inquisition and the Nazi era. And South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that granted pardons even to those who committed the cruelest of acts during the apartheid era if they publicly confessed.

"There's an interest because not one of us escapes this life without feeling hurt," said researcher Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Before 1985, only five scientific studies of the effects of forgiveness had been completed.

Today, Worthington's Campaign for Forgiveness Research, aided by a $4-million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is funding 38 forgiveness projects, including one involving the warring tribes of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda.

In one study by Witvliet, Thomas E. Ludwig and Kelly L. Vander Laan, published in the March issue of Psychological Science, 35 women and 36 men were asked to recall a person who had hurt them and then react in unforgiving and forgiving ways. Unforgiving thoughts triggered stress responses from higher blood pressure to faster heart rates. Forgiving thoughts resulted in lower physiological stress responses. The researchers concluded that prolonged feelings of not forgiving could be hazardous to one's health.

"We can choose how to respond to someone who's wounded us," Witvliet said. "We aren't held hostage to their previous behavior. When we cling to the notion that we must have a certain repentance script enacted by the offender before we will budge, we essentially give the key to our jail cell to the very person who stuck us in the jail to begin with."

Such findings are creating a stir among some theologians, who caution against "cheap forgiveness"--forgiveness that is unaccompanied by repentance or fails to meet society's need for justice.

Forgiveness must be more than "a therapeutic process," said David Augsburger, the author of two books on the subject and a professor of pastoral care and counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Cheap forgiveness, Augsburger said, "is a product of the age of individualism." People who forgive uncritically, he said, are simply saying: "I've taken care of this in my own closet with God. I've dealt with my own rage and therefore I'm OK."

Augsburger's view that forgiveness must be conditional also reflects Jewish thinking. "Forgiveness is not always appropriate. You actually have to earn it," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Indeed, the Jewish concept of teshuvah--literally, to return--requires the wrongdoer to take specific steps in order to be forgiven: acknowledgment of the wrong, public confession and remorse, a resolve not to do the wrong again, compensation to the victims accompanied by acts of charity, a sincere request for forgiveness, and avoidance of the conditions that caused the offense.

"The victim should not simply say I forgive and pretend that nothing has happened," Dorff said. "That undermines that person's integrity, and also undermines the moral claim against the perpetrator, which the perpetrator has an obligation to try and resolve." Much the same holds in Islam.

Opinion is divided among Christians. Some, like Witvliet, stress unconditional forgiveness. Others stress that repentance and forgiveness must go hand in hand.

Witvliet said she would not begin to presume to tell friends and relatives of the 168 people killed in Oklahoma City that they should turn the other cheek. "It's a very dangerous thing to look at someone deeply wounded and traumatized and say flippantly you should forgive." She acknowledges that justice can alleviate pain but believes healing sometimes also requires forgiveness.

To Witvliet, forgiveness does not mean to minimize, ignore or forget wrongdoing. "Forgiveness is about looking at the wrong and the wrongdoer squarely in the face, pointing the finger of blame, and then saying I am choosing to let go of the bitterness and the vengeance that is eating at me."

An early pioneer of forgiveness research, Lewis B. Smedes, argues that, from the Christian perspective, forgiveness is always unconditional. Only reconciliation is conditional. There can be forgiveness without reconciliation, but there cannot be reconciliation without forgiveness.

Smedes--whose 1986 book, "Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don't Deserve," is widely regarded as a seminal work--dismisses theologians who worry about self-centered victims who forgive too easily.

"They call it American egoism," Smedes said. "I think they're all wet. They see it as cheap forgiveness. I don't think it's ever cheap. It's costly."

Everett Worthington paid that price.

Five years ago, his brother called from Tennessee to tell him their mother had been killed. He flew to Knoxville. That night he paced the floor of a guest bedroom in his aunt's house. It was 3 a.m. He sat down to write his mother's eulogy, still wanting vergence, still wishing he could use that baseball bat.

And then the irony finally stung him.

"Here I was, [someone] who had done research on forgiveness for 10 years, and the word 'forgiveness' had not consciously entered my mind all day."

As dawn neared, he decided to practice what he preached. He began to put himself through a five-step program he had developed to help people forgive others. Worthington called it the "REACH" program for the first letters of each step. He forced himself to "recall" the hurt, "empathize" with the one who hurt him, offer an "altruistic" gift of forgiveness, make a "commitment" to forgive, and "hold" onto the forgiveness.

He envisioned the youth, then 16, planning the burglary, thinking it would be a perfect crime. Certainly, Worthington acknowledged, there was no intent to murder his mother.

It had been New Year's Eve. No one was home. No car in the driveway. The burglar couldn't know his mother didn't drive, or that she was hard of hearing. Maybe he knocked on the door but got no response. He broke a window and let himself in. He and perhaps an accomplice were rifling the house when Worthington's mother appeared.

"They probably heard my mom's voice," Worthington told himself. "The kid turns around. He's holding a crowbar. This was supposed to be the perfect crime. 'This woman's seen me. I'm going to go to jail.' He reaches out and strikes her with a crowbar. He hits her three times. He felt so guilty over this he broke every reflecting surface in the house, every mirror. Even the TV had a toaster thrown through it. Here's a kid who cannot look himself in the face over what he's done."

Then Worthington compared his own vengeful reactions to those of the assailants. The kid, or kids, had to react immediately. There was no time to think, to plot. Yet Worthington now realized that he had all day and part of the night to think about his own response--and he still had murder in his heart. He wanted to bash the kid's head in. Whose heart was darker?

He didn't talk about forgiving publicly for five months. But already, he had.

That did not change even when the suspect, who first confessed, then recanted, was freed without a trial. The chain of evidence was found to be contaminated.

"If I could contemplate something more evil than he did," Worthington said simply, "who am I to withhold forgiveness from him?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World