Should All Be Forgiven?

  • One year ago, on March 24, Mitchell Wright was plunged into anger and despair. On that day, two boys, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Andrew Golden, 11, played sniper on their middle school campus in Jonesboro, Ark. They murdered four of their schoolmates with 22 shots. They also killed a teacher, Shannon Wright, 32, Mitchell Wright's wife. Says he: "The ballistics report shows the Johnson boy fired five shots and had five direct hits. He hit one person in the head, he hit my wife in the chest and the knee and two girls in the knee area." The shooter, Wright recalls, stood up in court and said that he was sorry, that he was not trying to kill anyone, that he and his friend were shooting over the heads of the teachers and students they had tricked into assembling outside, that it was all just to scare them. The anger rises in Wright's voice. "I don't buy that."

    But buy it or not, Wright knew that he must fight against being consumed by rage. He began on the very Sunday after the horror, asking his fellow congregants in church for support. The stakes, he realized, were high. First, there was his three-year-old son Zane. "When my wife was dying, she said, 'I love you, and take care of Zane.' Well, if I lose it, then I can't take care of him." And then there was the matter of his immortal soul. "If you let the hate and anger build in you, that's a very strong sin," he says softly. "I need to be able to totally forgive." And what does that entail? "To me, forgiveness would be if when these boys get out, I can see them on the street or in a Wal-Mart and not want to..." His voice trails off. He concedes, "I am not at that point yet."

    America can be a very unforgiving place. It is not that we aren't taught to forgive. This Sunday, on Easter, millions of Christians will celebrate the embodiment of divine forgiveness, the risen Lord. The parable of the pardoning of the prodigal son is recapitulated as often on daytime soaps as in Sunday sermons. No, the problem with forgiveness has been that of all acknowledged good acts, it is the one we are most suspicious of. "To err is human, to forgive, supine," punned S.J. Perelman. In a country where the death penalty has been a proven vote getter in recent years, forgiveness is often seen as effete and irresponsible. Sometimes it even seems to condone the offense, as noted centuries ago by Jewish sages who declared, "He that is merciful to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the innocent." Nothing lately has shown the cheap side of forgiveness like Bill Clinton's calculated plays for public pardon, culminating in a dizzying switcheroo after the Senate impeachment vote. Asked by Sam Donaldson if he could "forgive and forget," Clinton answered earnestly, "I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it," a response that seemed almost as disingenuous as it was perfectly crafted. Of what value a forgiveness that is so easily manipulated for political gain?

    And yet despite every indignity and scoff, forgiveness does not just endure but thrives. As Mitchell Wright instinctively realized, there is not only a religious impetus to forgive but also therapeutic, social and practical reasons to do so. This applies to victims of crimes as well as to those who must deal with the slings and arrows of more common misfortunes--unfaithfulness, betrayal, ungratefulness and mere insult. In the past two years, scientists and sociologists have begun to extract forgiveness and the act of forgiving from the confines of the confessional, transforming it into the subject of quantifiable research. In one case, they have even systemized it as a 20-part "intervention" that they claim can be used to treat a number of anger-related ills in a totally secular context. In short, to forgive is no longer just divine.

    "The field is just exploding," says Virginia psychologist Everett Worthington, director of the Templeton Foundation Campaign for Forgiveness Research. He should know. His organization, set up by mutual-fund magus Sir John Templeton, has distributed $5 million to scientists studying, among other things, forgiveness among chimpanzees and its physiological effects on the pulse and the sweat glands of humans. A number of psychotherapists are testifying that there is nothing like it for dissipating anger, mending marriages and banishing depression. Just a few years ago, says Robert Enright, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin and a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness, most secularly inclined intellectuals "trashed it; they said, 'Only wimps forgive.'" But now, Enright says, "psychiatrists, M.D.s, scientists, lawyers, ministers and social workers can all be on the same page. We are really on a roll."

    Step into a forgiveness laboratory partly funded by a $75,000 Templeton grant. At Hope College in Holland, Mich., Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet puts electrodes on a young volunteer. In a moment he will think about a hurt that has been done him and then "actively rehearse" it for 16 seconds. At the sound of a tone, he will escalate his thoughts to "nursing a grudge" and making the offender feel horrible. Another beep will cue him to shift gears and "empathize with the offender." Finally, he will imagine ways to "wish that person well." Throughout the two-hour session, the four responses occur in different sequences, and Witvliet, a professor of psychology, will measure his heart rate, blood pressure, sweat and muscle tension.

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