I have noticed that in both Hebrew and Christian scripture the central stories of person-to-person forgiveness focus on family issues only. Does this imply that we are to forgive only family members because of the love we share? Maybe it is too hard to forgive strangers.

While the story of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers in the Hebrew scriptures and the story of the father forgiving his Prodigal Son in the Christian scriptures center on family issues, there are other passages showing the importance of forgiving people who are not family. Consider the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew chapter 18. In this story, the king forgives a servant who owes a large debt. That servant then refuses to forgive the debt of another servant, who is not a family member. The king is very unhappy about this lack of forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father in Matthew chapter 6, people are exhorted to forgive and this is not centered on family members only. Thus, it appears that scripture does not focus on family only when teaching us about the importance of forgiving others.

For additional information, see the “Faith and Religion” page on this website.

Kenny, Kindness, and Forgiveness from Edinburgh to Rome

Editor’s Note: Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, sent this communiqué today while overseeing forgiveness education projects in western Europe.

It was time to go from Edinburgh, Scotland to Rome, Italy to continue the forgiveness work. While going to the Edinburgh airport, Kenny, the driver, engaged me in conversation.

“Were you here to see the sights of this beautiful city?” he asked me.

“I do admire the beauty of the city, but I was not here for sightseeing,” I replied.

As he inquired further, I explained that I had been doing research with people who are homeless. It is our hope to be able to research whether forgiveness interventions can help with this population. I explained that we have found that about two-thirds of people without homes, who take our surveys, show the following pattern:

a) They have been deeply hurt by others’ injustices against them prior to their becoming homeless;

b) they have not yet forgiven, but have significant resentment toward those who treated them unfairly; and

c) they have psychological compromise in the form of anger, anxiety, and depression.

If we can help the people to forgive, perhaps they will have sufficient energy and psychological health to change their life circumstance.

Kenny had wise insights for me regarding the situation of homelessness in Edinburgh.

As we continued the conversation, I told him how, while in Edinburgh, I had visited men in what is called, in the United States, a maximum security prison because one of the professionals in the prison invited me to discuss Forgiveness Therapy. The talk was well-received and so he now is planning to implement a forgiveness intervention soon in that facility.

Again, Kenny seemed to have uncommon insights for me about how to proceed with forgiveness interventions in the prison of Edinburgh.

By then, we were at the airport. After Kenny lifted my suitcase from the boot (trunk in USA talk), I handed him the 55 Great Britain Pounds Sterling as payment. He refused to take it. As I did not want him to work for me for nothing, I again handed the money to him and he said, “You have come a long way to enter my city to help the homeless and the imprisoned. I cannot take money from you. I want you to give that money to the poor when you are in Rome this coming week.” I was almost speechless, but I did manage a heart-felt thank you.

In Rome, there are many people who hold out paper or plastic cups in the hope of help. I met Andrea, a woman with a kind smile. She walks daily through the streets of Rome. She uses crutches because she has one leg. She manages, as she walks on crutches, to hold a white plastic cup in her right hand as she maneuvers the crutches. Much of the funds, meant for Kenny, went to Andrea over the coming days. We got to know one another, as I spoke a little Italian and she spoke a little English. Her eyes brighten each time we come toward one another and she expresses a genuine gratitude, meant, of course, for Kenny, whom she likely will never meet. She, though, has met Kenny’s kindness through me.

Kindness went from Edinburgh to Rome, 1549.7 miles away from each other. Forgiveness work followed the same route. Kindness and forgiveness can spread across hearts and across countries. Long live kindness and forgiveness.

Even in Death, Coptic Christians Forgive

With mid-morning temperatures approaching 86° on Palm Sunday in April 2017, the security guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt, approached and redirected a young man rushing for the church’s main entrance. Seconds later, the bomb strapped to the man’s body detonated, killing both him and the guard while dozens inside the church were spared harm by the guard’s quick actions.

Just days later, after the bomber had been identified as an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorist, the widow of that security guard was interviewed by an Egyptian television station. As she pulled her young children close to her side she announced:

“I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”

While millions of Egyptians across the country marveled at what the grieving woman said, it was far from the first time in recent history that Coptic Christians have expressed forgiveness rather than revenge.

This 2015 photo is from a video released by the Islamic State showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. A  scrolling caption in the video mocked the hostages as “People of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.

A 2011 New Year’s Eve attack in Alexandria’s Church of Two Saints killed 23 Coptics, for example. In February 2015, the Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians on the shores of Tripoli.

A December 2016 attack at a chapel of the flagship St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo killed 29 mostly women and children–the deadliest terrorism attack against Egyptian Christians until attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 45 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services in 2017. 

Men mourn over the Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, at the Virgin Mary church in the village of el-Aour, near Minya, south of Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Hassan Ammar

But even in death, the Copts forgive. While Egypt’s president pledged retaliation following those tragedies, Coptic Christians continued to spread their message of forgiveness and love.
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On the night of the Palm Sunday bombings, for example, Coptic priest Fr. Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, he first addressed the terrorists and said:

“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is.” But then he asked those in the church, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them? If they know that God is love and they experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”

(Watch Fr. George’s entire sermon including his explanation of why he thanks the terrorists, at this video link with subtitles.)

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient churches in the world, founded in the first century in Egypt by Saint Mark the Apostle during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. A conservative Church that shares many beliefs and practices with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form. Today the Church has 18-22 million members worldwide with more than 75% of them in Egypt–the country’s largest Christian denomination.

Learn more at:
    •  Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
    •  Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: “With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt”
    •  ISIS Church Bombings Kill Dozens at Palm Sunday Services in Egypt 


This article was inspired by a blog post titled “The Scandal of Forgiveness in a Time of Terror” by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger on his website More Enigma Than Dogma. In his post, Foerger asks if forgiveness is ever wasted. He answers his own question with this: “On the surface I suppose forgiveness is a losing game; so is terrorism and retaliation. But go deeper and you will find forgiveness comes from a endless well – available for an ocean of need.”


 

I hang out with friends and a constant norm in our group is to express, and keep expressing, lots of anger. I see this as so much unnecessary anger. Please, what should I do? I ask because this constant expression of anger is wearing me down.

You might want to gently share one of your own stories of forgiveness when the group is in a quieter state. Showing forgiveness through your own story could be the beginning of teaching your friends about what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish. With this approach, you are not demanding forgiveness from them, but instead are giving them a chance to see it in action as you describe what you did and the effects of forgiveness on you. With this approach, you might be establishing a new norm, one of forgiveness, into the group.

For additional information, see: Choose Love, Not Hate.

How to Gradually Introduce Kids to the Idea of Forgiveness — and Why You Should

Greater Good Magazine, University of California, Berkeley – “Because conflict is inevitable, teaching children about forgiveness early on. . .may indeed be a path toward building communities of people who prize and cultivate peace.”

The advice outlined in the paragraph above is provided by Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D., Parenting Program Director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a developmental psychologist with expertise in parent-child relationships and children’s development of prosocial behaviors.

Image courtesy of Greater Good Science Center

Ironically, Dr. Abdullah’s advice (published March 26, 2019) is what Dr. Robert Enright, forgiveness researcher and educator who co-founded the International Forgiveness Institute, has been telling parents, educators, and peace activists for nearly 20 years. 

In 2002, Dr. Enright established his first forgiveness education program at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Belfast provided an obvious location for forgiveness education because of the  widely-known “Troubles” in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century that resulted in more than 3,600 deaths with thousands more injured during 30-years of conflict. That was 17-years ago; the Belfast program has flourished, expanded, and continues to this day.


Young kids can learn the building blocks of forgiveness and develop them as they get older.
Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D.,
Greater Good Science Center


In her Greater Good article, Dr. Abdullah outlines some of the benefits that forgiveness programs offer kids “ranging from more empathy and hope to less anger, hostility, aggression, anxiety and depression. After learning forgiveness, some children even perform better at school, have fewer conduct problems and delinquency, and feel more positive about their parents and teachers.”

Dr. Abdullah also describes, based on Dr. Enright’s insights from three decades of researching  and implementing forgiveness programs, how parents can set the stage for forgiveness in their very young children and start building their forgiveness skills as they become young adults:

“Ages 4-5. Before introducing young children to the subtleties of forgiveness, you can first introduce them to the concept of love—caring for the other for the sake of the other. For example, you can do this by reading picture books to your children in which there are loving family interactions.

Ages 6-7. Starting at about age 6, children have the capacity for what Jean Piaget called concrete operational reasoning, meaning that they now can understand the causes and effects of people’s actions. Because of this advance in reasoning in young children, you now can begin to introduce forgiveness systematically.”

The article continues with five very specific and sequential steps parents can take over several years to help young children become rather sophisticated in their understanding and practice of forgiveness before moving on to other age-appropriate forgiveness skills.

The bottom line for parents, as Dr. Enright has been saying for the past 17 years,  is that you can help your kids grow up to be more peaceful and forgiving adults which will make our families, our communities and our societies more peaceful and forgiving.

Read the complete article: How to Gradually Introduce Kids to the Idea of Forgiveness.

Read more GGSC articles:
 Why Kids Need to Learn How to Forgive.
⋅  8 Keys to Forgiveness


Greater Good Magazine is published by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC). Since 2001, the GGSC has been at the fore of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior–the science of a meaningful life. Dr. Abdullah’s role at the GGSC is to support organizations providing parenting education and to share the latest parenting science findings on the Greater Good website.

Is the Offer of Forgiveness Done for Me or for Others?

The question posed in this essay centers on my goal in forgiving.  Is the goal of forgiving to help me or is it to aid the one I am forgiving and others?  The answer can get very confusing because as we muse on this idea of the goal, at least two possibilities emerge. (Actually, there are more than two, but for the sake of clarity, we will focus only on two here).

Let us make a distinction between a primary goal and a secondary goal.  As an analogy, I may have as my goal the winning of a tennis match and so I am motivated to become physically fit.  The physical fitness is not the primary goal, but instead is a secondary goal that could lead to the primary one of winning.

It is the same in forgiving.  Sometimes forgiving is the primary goal and sometimes forgiving is the secondary goal.  When a primary goal, forgiving is offered by people for the sake of the other person who acted unjustly.  I want good for that person, even though I have been hurt by that person’s actions.  I, thus, am motivated, not by self-interested goals, but by the altruistic goal of betterment for the other.  This is a primary goal because this is what forgiving actually **is.**  It is the offer of goodness, as an end in and of itself, toward others who acted unjustly.


“When forgiveness is a primary goal, it is the offer of goodness toward others who acted unjustly.”

Dr. Robert Enright


When forgiveness is a secondary goal, then we have a different endpoint, at least for now, than the other’s betterment.  In most cases of forgiveness as a secondary goal, we desire to use the process of forgiveness to feel better.  We are hurting, possibly feeling unrest or anxiety or even depression.  We want to be rid of these and forgiveness offers a scientifically-supported path to this healing.  Thus, we forgive for ourselves and not for the other.  This is a secondary goal because it does not focus on the essence of forgiveness, on what forgiveness is, but instead focuses on forgiveness as a vehicle for advancing the goal of one’s own health.

As an analogy, suppose a person gets into a car to go to work.  Driving the car is not the primary goal.  It is a vehicle that gets one to the primary goal of going to work.  Forgiving is the vehicle for health in this case.  This usually is not a selfish goal, but instead a self-interested goal.  To use another analogy, if a person has a throbbing knee and she goes to the doctor for relief, this is not selfish but instead is a sound self-interested goal.  Going to the physician is secondary to the primary goal of walking pain-free again.

When forgiving others is the primary goal, it is showing an understanding of what forgiving is by definition.  To forgive is to reach out to the other for the other’s sake.  When forgiving is the secondary goal, there may or may not be a deep understanding of the essence of forgiveness.  We would have to probe the person’s understanding: Is the self-interest the primary goal so that the person defines forgiveness as a vehicle for self-betterment?

We have to be careful not to conflate using forgiveness as a vehicle to promote health and the actual essence of what forgiveness **is.**  If we mistakenly conflate the two, equating forgiving with emotional relief, then our definition of what forgiveness is becomes only a self-serving activity, which then moves forgiveness away from the fact that it is a moral virtue, something good for others as well as the self.  Forgiveness, then, is only a psychological self-help technique, not a virtue.  Virtues when practiced well become part of the person’s life, part of who the person actually is.  A self-help technique never goes that far but instead is used for a while and then is discarded.  We need to distinguish forgiving as a secondary goal and as a primary goal to keep its definition—what it **is**—as accurate as possible. 

In summary, if we want to forgive for our own emotional relief, this is being motivated to achieve a secondary goal, and a good one.  If we want to forgive for the sake of the other, this is being motivated to achieve a primary goal, and preserves the accurate definition of what forgiving **is.**

Robert

The Idea of Forgiveness Lives On

Two recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on this: Forgiveness as an idea for all of humanity is powerful and so such an idea tends to persevere across time and not wither.

For the first example, I unexpectedly received on Facebook a message from a person who coaches people before they give Ted Talks.  His name is Brendan Fox and he had this message for me in the context of forgiveness for sexual abuse victims/survivors:

“Hi, Robert! Hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know that I read your book, and I watched one of your online lectures. I think your work is so good for the world. Recently, I coached a Ted Talk featuring a sex trafficking survivor. Your work was hugely influential in inspiring the talk and message (as you’ll see). I wanted to credit you, and share it with you, because I think this represents part of your legacy, and how you are making the world a better place (in many indirect ways!). I’m rooting for you in the Game of Life!”

Here is a link to the talk to which Brendan refers.  The video (10:21) is quite inspirational: Escaping the Pain of Human Trafficking Markie Dell.

I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this: Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently posted here, and I had an idea in the mid-1990’s that a forgiveness intervention might be helpful for women who have been sexually abused.  At the time, this idea was exceptionally controversial.  People thought that we were saying this, “Oh, you were abused?  Forgive and go back into that situation.”  No.  This is not what forgiveness is at all.  A person can forgive, rid the self of toxic resentment and hatred, and not reconcile.  Suzanne’s ground-breaking forgiveness intervention with incest survivors was important in helping the social scientific world see the importance of forgiveness interventions.

That study was published in 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago: Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996).  Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.

After almost a quarter of a century later, Suzanne’s ideas live on and are helping people to heal from extreme injustices against them.  If we can get this far with forgiveness in the face of grave sexual abuse, perhaps there is a place for forgiveness in other areas of woundedness, such as helping people who have no homes, who are living on the streets, to forgive those who have crushed their hearts.  Will this aid their recovery?  Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute is taking the lead right now on this question.

Here is the second of our two examples regarding the staying-power and influence of forgiveness.  In 2002, a team of us decided to start what we now call forgiveness education with children.  We reasoned this way:  If we can help children learn about forgiveness and how to forgive, then  when they are adults, they will have the tool of forgiveness for combating the potentially unhealthy effects of unjust treatment against them. 

These students at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are learning about forgiveness at the same school where Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum Guides were first used more than 17 years ago.

We developed forgiveness education guides for grades 1 and 3 (Primary 3 and 5 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and we brought these guides to the principal, Claire Hilman, and the teachers at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast.  Claire said yes and so we launched forgiveness education there as the first place in the world where there is a deliberate curriculum to teach forgiveness, about once a week for 12 to 15 weeks.  The program has expanded to include pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way through 12th grade (this is a designation in the United States and includes ages 17-18).  These forgiveness education guides have been requested now by educators in over 30 countries. 

Just recently, Belfast had its almost 2-week annual 4Corners Festival.  The theme for 2019 was “Scandalous Forgiveness.”  The term “scandalous” was inserted as an adjective because, even in 2019, some people consider the act of forgiving others to be outrageous and inappropriate.  The point of the festival was to gently challenge that thinking and try to fold themes of forgiveness into the fabric of Belfast society.

I gave a talk on February 1, 2019 at this 4Corners Festival.  When Mr. Edward Petersen of the Clonard Monastery introduced me to the audience prior to my talk, he stated that the theme for this year’s festival was inspired by our 17-year presence of supporting Belfast teachers in their forgiveness education efforts.  We started in 2002 and an inspiration by community organizers blossomed in 2019, many years after we first planted the idea of forgiveness education in Belfast.  The idea of forgiveness lives on and now expands city-wide because of the vision and wisdom of the 4Corners Festival organizers.

Forgiveness: it does not wither.  It survives over time and grows.  I think it does so because forgiveness gives life.  Forgiveness unites people in families and communities where injustices could divide.

The idea of forgiveness lives on, and for good reason.

Robert