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Learning to Forgive

Emma_Williams

 
Emma Williams

February 2011 | by Susan Flansburg


Emma Williams' birthday party was about to begin. A bonfire crackled in her family's backyard, where soon she and her first-grade classmates would roast hot dogs, drink lemonade and play tag. A chocolate cake with extra frosting beckoned from the kitchen counter, along with a mound of presents. It would be a perfect night.

Then, Emma's mother put her arm around her daughter, guided her into the living room and said she had some bad news. Emma's best friend, Cole, wouldn't be coming to her party. He and his grandmother had been in a terrible accident. A drunk driver had hit their car, killing them both instantly. Cole, her parents consoled her, was playing baseball in heaven now.

In the 12 years since that night, Emma, now a first-year student at St. Ambrose University, has never relented in her anger toward the man who killed her friend. It hasn't helped that he served only a few years' time for the crime, or that he has been in and out of jail for drinking-related offenses ever since. In an attempt to cope with her anger, she joined Students Against Drunk Driving in high school, and spearheaded a memorial for Cole in her hometown of Sherrard, Ill.

It never occurred to Emma to consider an entirely different approach-until recently. For the first time since Cole was killed, she has begun to examine her response to the incident. Rather than allowing her rage toward the man who did it continue to fester, she has been challenged to consider forgiving him. She's not sure she wants to or can, but she loves the theology course she's taking at St. Ambrose that's asking her to try.

The course,"Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Peace-Building," was offered this past fall and taught simultaneously at St. Ambrose, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and St. Mary's University College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Instructors and students in each classroom explored the subject across multiple disciplines, with St. Ambrose delving into the theology of forgiveness, UW-M examining its psychological implications, and St. Mary's focusing on the role education can play in building a culture of forgiveness. Over the course of the semester, the students in all three classrooms came together via the social media network Facebook to discuss their thoughts and observations.

The global class concept was conceived by St. Ambrose Associate Professor of Theology Mara Fitzgibbon Adams '82, '95 MPS, PhD, and Robert Enright, PhD, professor of educational psychology at UW-M. The two educators had been collaborating on forgiveness research in Belfast, where the long history of Catholic and Protestant conflict has left a legacy of hatred that can still erupt in brutal acts of violence in otherwise quiet neighborhoods. As they worked together, Adams, Enright and a third educator, Sharon Haughey, a senior lecturer at St. Mary's, became convinced that, as scholars concerned with the Gospel, mental health and cultural violence, they could provide their students with a holistic perspective on the value of and need for forgiveness-personally, culturally and globally.

In addition to reading within their classes' particular discipline, students read a shared text by Enright, "Forgiveness is a Choice," to provide common ground for their trans-Atlantic discussion. As they engaged with one another, writing back and forth on Facebook, the students wove threads from their own classes into their comments. For St. Ambrose students, those threads began with exploring Christ's teaching on forgiveness.

Theology and forgiveness

It's a warm and sunny mid-October afternoon on which students might like to be outdoors basking in the sun or tossing a Frisbee. But the girls in flip-flops and ponytails who sit toward the front of Hayes 110, and the boys in T-shirts and jeans who are clustered in the back corner of Adams' class are listening attentively. They're being asked to consider things they may never have thought of before.

Adams challenges her students to think about what their faith really tells them about forgiveness, but she isn't just looking to spur a theoretical discussion. She wants her students to discuss the questions in a concrete and practical way. Is forgiveness realistic for most people? Is it even achievable, especially when justice has not been served, or when the person who has wronged us not only doesn't seek forgiveness but is unrepentant?

She offers a real-life example:

Seven-year-old Susie Jaeger was abducted, raped and killed during a family camping trip to Montana in 1973. The police couldn't find the perpetrator, who eventually began to call her mother, Marietta Jaeger, and taunt her with the crime. The mother's Journey of Hope website relays how during the year following Susie's disappearance, Marietta had struggled to balance her rage against her belief in the need for forgiveness. Instead of lashing out at him in anger, which is what her daughter's killer wanted, Marietta- who had struggled to find spiritual peace regarding her loss-told him, "I forgive you."

Should she have? Did that show acceptance of a morally evil act? While Adams maintains that we are theologically obligated to forgive, she adds that forgiveness does not mean excusing behavior, often the biggest impediment to forgiving when working through one's anger at being wronged.

"People sometimes think forgiveness is condoning the wrong done to you," she says. "South African Bishop Desmond Tutu says forgiveness is not amnesia. You do not forget, and you may still believe a consequence is appropriate for the wrong. But you let go of your right to revenge. You let go of your anger."

Psychology and forgiveness

Yet beyond being called by one's religion to forgive, what would otherwise motivate anyone to do so?

According to Enright, the motivation can be found, if nowhere else, in the mounting evidence that shows the deleterious effects of anger and resentment upon our health. Maintaining an attitude of unforgiveness and the growing hostility it produces-whether internalized or acted out-can result in high blood pressure, long-term depression and heart disease. Moreover, the effect on one's emotional health can be as toxic.

Enright, whose scholarly career has been devoted to researching the psychological pathways people follow when working toward forgiveness, elaborates in "Forgiveness is a Choice":

Certainly, people forgive for a host of reasons. You may see forgiveness as intrinsically good and also want to rid yourself of the troubling consequences of churning anger.... At first, people want to harbor anger, thinking that it shows self-respect to remain angry.... Eventually, they come to see that the harbored anger is compromising their personality. They are more surly and hot-tempered than they were before. At that point they want to cast off the anger that is too much to bear. Only later do they come to see the intrinsically good nature of forgiveness.

In illustration of Enright's point, Adams offers another example:

In October 2006, five Amish children were killed and five wounded by a gunman in their rural Pennsylvania school. Most of the girls were shot "execution-style" in the back of the head. The ages of the victims ranged from 6 to 13. News of the premeditated and methodical horror of the West Nickel Mines School shootings was quickly relayed around the world. As was the fact that by sundown, the Amish community had not only forgiven the gunman, dead by his own hand, but had also reached out in forgiveness and compassion to his family.

At the time, the Amish's forgiveness had stunned the world. It seemed too quick, too complete, to be genuine.

On the contrary, Enright maintains that because forgiveness is an important value within the Amish community, forgiving the killer helped the surviving children learn a way forward that is hope-filled. Instead of passing on to future generations a legacy of recrimination and revenge for the horrific grievance committed against them, and perpetuating the emotional and psychological pain of the tragedy, they set an example for their children and for the world.

A cultural call to forgive

Such faith-filled actions, extended in the spirit of forgiveness, Adams explains, are the only way to move forward in places like Belfast. History is rife with the inhumanity of humans toward one another, unforgiveable actions that have led to longstanding traditions of hatred, revenge and strife. When we do not find a way to forgive one another but hold on to the anger from the past, Adams says, we remain locked in that past.

She found plenty of evidence of this on a recent trip to Belfast. There, she discovered the legacy of long-held resentment manifested in neighborhoods sharply divided by centuries-old Irish Catholic and English Protestant conflict. Giant murals depict masked men with automatic rifles pointed at the viewer, and razor wire surrounds grade schools.

Memories of past violence and fears of new violence are still pervasive in Belfast, Adams says. "A parish priest told me he starts his car with the door open because if it's been rigged with a bomb that explodes, it's less likely to kill him. If he hears footsteps coming up behind him, he runs without looking back. Many people live in fear and anxiety there, because of their tradition of anger and lack of forgiveness."

That's why, beyond the college course at Ambrose she is team-teaching, Adams is collaborating with Enright to develop programming to be delivered in Belfast's parishes along the lines of the forgiveness curricula Enright has worked to put into place at many of the city's grade schools. The long-term goal is to help individuals incorporate daily habits of forgiveness, and build a new culture that may one day lead to a more stable peace in Northern Ireland.

A new way of living

Whether adopted by way of one's Christian principles or for reasons of psychological health or cultural well-being, Adams says forgiveness must indeed become a habit, a way of life, if we are to find lasting peace as individuals, as a society and as a world. In their Facebook discussions, the students wrestle with all that implies:

It takes people a long time to be able to come to terms with what someone did to them ... they may be hurting too (and) need our love and compassion, just like the love and compassion God gives us.
–SAU student

While we forgive, we do not forget the incident but view the offender in a new light. –St. Mary's student

When anger negatively affects your health, becomes an obsession or begins to affect other areas of your life, it is unhealthy. ... Letting the anger consume your life will have many negative consequences. –UW-M student

Forgiveness is a way of life-we cannot just forgive a few times in our lives and think that we are living a Christian life full of forgiveness and acceptance towards others. –SAU student

For some of these students, the dialogue will continue. Adams is working to organize a study abroad trip for students to participate in peace-building at two world-renowned reconciliation centers: the Glencree Centre for Peace and
Reconciliation in the Republic of Ireland, and Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. She has also received a grant from the Scott County Regional Authority to find ways to share her forgiveness, reconciliation and peace-building work with the Quad Cities community.

As for Emma Williams, she is working to find her own way to forgiveness. It's not easy, especially when the drunk driver responsible for killing her friend Cole seems unrepentant and unwilling to change or even try to redeem himself. Although Emma believes her anger and hurt are understandable and justified, through Adams' class she has come to recognize that this man occupies a place in her heart and mind that will only grow worse the longer she allows it to continue. Further, she recognizes the moral call to forgive. Adams says that is the point.

"This interdisciplinary approach underscores the need for forgiveness on many levels, but it also offers practical steps," she says. "It is a practice that you begin with intention: I have decided to forgive. That can be a first step in a transformative practice-a process for reconciliation."

Students may feel overwhelmed by and unable to do anything meaningful about violence on a global scale, Adams says. "I ask them, ‘but what can you do in your own neighborhood, in your own life?' Let's begin small. Let's begin with forgiveness. Let's extend the love of God in the world."

Emma wants to extend God's love. And in the company of her fellow students, both here and abroad, who are struggling themselves to forgive the trespasses of the past, she believes she has taken the first step-in her own backyard.

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