National Post (National Edition)
‘I FORGIVE YOU’ ‘WE APOLOGIZE’ ‘FORGIVE US’
Society is having a forgiveness moment
The world was struck when relatives of victims of the Charleston massacre publicly forgave the killer on the weekend, but the pronouncements were still somehow familiar.
Western society is having a forgiveness moment — those offering it, and those seeking it.
“We apologize,” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said Monday as she sought to make amends with survivors of residential schools. “Your truth has woken our conscience and our sense of justice.”
Also Monday, Pope Francis asked forgiveness for the church’s persecution of members of a small evangelical church in Italy whose leader was excommunicated and followers branded as heretics during the Middle Ages.
“On the part of the Catholic Church, I ask your forgiveness, I ask it for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behaviour that we have showed you,” he said. “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!”
Forgiveness can be the ultimate balm to acts both heinous and unspeakable.
“The weak can never forgive,” Mahatma Gandhi said. “Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong,” and in the aftermath of monstrous behaviour, psychologist Frank Farley said, “The idea of forgiveness always arises.”
Studies on the effect of “forgiveness therapy” on survivors of incest suggest it can reduce depression, anxiety and crippling, unhealthy anger, as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Farley, who grew up in Edmonton and now teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, is a fan of forgiveness therapy — for the forgiver.
But he said little research has been done on the effects of forgiveness on the person being forgiven — the perpetrator, in criminal matters, of the horror.
Farley, incoming president of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence, felt his unease growing as he listened to relatives of the nine black church members shot dead at point-blank range during a Bible meeting offering alleged white shooter Dylann Roof their forgiveness and prayers.
“We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive,” said the sister of victim DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a minister and mother of four girls. “I pray God on your soul.”
Farley said that it’s possible that publicly forgiving horrific acts “lifts some of the possible guilt, remorse, or fear of hell from some perpetrators.”
“Is it possible that it becomes a kind of reinforcement for heinous behaviour — ‘ you are forgiven.’ ”
People can have aggressive or racist attitudes that are below the threshold, Farley said. “They’re unconscious, and we’re beginning to learn a lot about unconscious processes.”
If guilt and remorse can be influenced at an unconscious level by the prospect of public forgiveness, he said, that could unleash “some of the heart of darkness that stalks the human condition.”
“The perpetrator doesn’t have to know — the forgiveness is in your mind and your soul, and that’s where the positive effects are found.”
But others say that argument assumes criminals have a conscience.
Mass killers, said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, “get high on inflicting pain and suffering with their own hands.” To them, death is the ultimate accomplishment. They have little, if any, conscience at all.
“They ’re sociopaths or psychopaths who are manipulative, shrewd and crafty, but clearly lacking in remorse,” said Levin, who spent more than 25 years interviewing serial killers, including Canada’s Clifford Olson.
Many are sadistic. “The more their victims suffer, the better they feel about themselves,” said Levin. “They control the response of the victim and play God with the victim’s life, and that makes them feel superior.”
It can be devastating for mass killers to hear prayers for their atonement, Levin said — to realize that “the families of the victims aren’t suffering the way they had hoped.”
Agnes Zdaniuk, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph who studies people’s response to injustice, agreed forgiveness might release perpetrators from feelings of guilt, and encourage repeat offences, though the research is limited, she said.
More importantly, she said, a powerful public voice can be profoundly therapeutic for victims.
“My intuition would say that it’s almost like showing the world that we’re not like these other people,” Zdaniuk said. “We can offer forgiveness and we can treat other people better.
“It’s telling the world, ‘ what you did is horrible, but I’m going to forgive you. This is how I’m coping.’ ”
When leaders apologize, she said, they’re expressing remorse, and, in some cases, seeking forgiveness. “For the most part, it works, if it’s sincere,” she said. If the apology seems orchestrated in some way, “it can make people much more angrier with what you’ve done than if you had not offered the apology in the first place.”