e-mail us

Cover story

Forgiveness as peace process

NCR staff
Coleraine, Ireland

Welcome to Northern Ireland!” announces a leaflet from the tourist office. “Romantic countryside ... an ancient land with a rich historical and cultural tradition and some of the friendliest people anywhere.”

“Mother of Two Dies when Pipe-bomb Thrown Through the Window of her Home by Loyalist Extremists,” announces a newspaper in early June. Her name was Elizabeth O’Neill. She had lived in that house for 36 years, in a Protestant area a stone’s throw from Drumcree, made notorious by loyalist insistence on marching down Catholic streets to celebrate a battle fought in distant 1690. The bomb landed at O’Neill’s feet. She grabbed it in desperate hope of throwing it back, but didn’t get time.

Violence still stalks the romantic countryside. There and everywhere, people still struggle, after all the thousands of years, for a way to live together. Many who have known both war and peace have not judged peace -- that ambiguous condition -- the best option.

There was peace of sorts in Northern Ireland for much of the century but it was mired in such injustice that some form of revolt by the Catholic minority became inevitable. Now there is talk of peace regained after 30 years of strife, but the Protestant majority is fearful of losing what it long regarded as its heritage.

At one point or another nearly everything has been tried on this complicated little island. The British army came in force. Delegations and peaceniks came from America and elsewhere. Commissions and tribunals were established. Bodies were formed to entice investment from abroad. The talk was of community relations and development, no-nonsense practical approaches in a hardheaded part of the world that had long ago grown cynical about softness.

But now a new sound is heard in Northern Ireland. The word forgiveness.

While it has been part of our vocabulary practically forever, forgiveness has mostly been kept in a tight religious box. Thus, like Chesterton’s problem with Christianity, it has not so much been found wanting; it has rather been found difficult and left untried.

The word is being echoed, if only faintly, around the globe. An alien sound in a law-and-order age, most people would say, but it is stirring hope. A world weary of troubles, from brutal national predicaments to quiet family desperation, from East Timor to these United States, seems eager to try fresh solutions.

As May turned into June, Irish police dug frantically in search of bodies disappeared in the early 1970s. The Irish Republican Army handed over one such body and announced there were eight others. The saddest of these cases was Jean McConville, a widow and mother of 10, abducted in front of her screaming children in 1972 and executed because she had cradled in her arms a British soldier fatally wounded on a Belfast street outside her house.

Forgiveness is a tall order in cases like these.

In Drumcree, on the outskirts of Portadown, one angle of what used to be called Ulster’s Murder Triangle, all is quiet on Sunday morning as the respectable cars drive up to the local Protestant church. This is one of the last redoubts of the Orange Order, the fraternity founded centuries ago to protect Protestant interests, especially union with Britain. Many say the annual Orange marching mania represents the dying kick of an old order passing. Down those bleak streets, nationalist flags glare from their tall poles at Unionist flags, and visitors are advised not to loiter taking pictures.

Farther north is Coleraine, a few miles from the legendary Giant’s Causeway on the rugged northern coast. A polite Protestant little town, it was the focus of major dissension a generation ago when the coveted University of Ulster was located there in preference to Catholic Derry an hour’s drive away.

Ed Cairns is a professor of psychology at the university’s Centre for the Study of Conflict. A mild-mannered, scholarly type, he grew up outside Belfast, has been at Coleraine since 1972. His initial academic interest was children’s problem-solving. But in 1972 nearly 500 people died in the local “troubles,” and Cairns couldn’t ignore this. Besides, he holds the view that too much emphasis has been placed on the children: “Adults have expected them to do the work the adults themselves were not prepared to do.” The parents were saying they couldn’t be friends with “the other lot” but encouraged the kids to do so.

The local conflict was not a popular academic area for a psychologist. “People in other disciplines such as history, politics and economics don’t think psychology has anything to say to this subject,” Cairns told NCR in a postmodern glass corner of the university. The tide is turning, however, and he is now widely involved in ethnopolitical studies, while, outside academia, the IRA and other military groups have declared cease-fires, and the peace process is in the air.

Then Cairns heard the Templeton Foundation was offering grants for studies of the potential role of forgiveness in conflict situations.

‘A fool’s pardon’

He had been examining Northern Ireland interactions in terms of groups rather than individuals. While there is considerable contact between Protestant and Catholic individuals, this has not changed intergroup attitudes, he explained. In a place where people boast that they can tell in five seconds which group you belong to, Catholics see Protestants they like as exceptions, and vice versa. Both Cairns and his research assistant, Frances McLernon, are Protestant. McLernon tells of Catholics in focus groups giving her what she called “a fool’s pardon” for her misconceptions -- “Sure, you’re only a Protestant.”

Even people who have not been wronged feel strongly about their group being wronged. This can lead, as it does in a local TV program, “Talkback,” to what Cairns calls “whataboutery” -- each side countering the other’s charges with “but what about ... ?”

That forgiveness is more than the whim of a Northern Ireland academic with a heart is demonstrated by the scope of A Campaign for Forgiveness Research, headquartered in Richmond, Va.

Everett L. Worthington Jr., professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and an adviser to the Templeton Foundation, founded by British-born industrialist Sir John Templeton, had long believed forgiveness could combine science and spirituality to make a human difference. He sold the idea to Templeton.

They advertised for research proposals and received 200 letters of intent. While the very word Templeton has about it the odor of money, making it liable to attract gold-diggers, Worthington found 138 responses worthy of further development. They wound up with 58 projects. Templeton contributed $4 million, and others added a million plus, but the project is still only halfway to a goal of $10.6 million.

While much has been written about forgiveness, this is the first major scientific assault on the subject. Ten criteria were used to determine projects’ worthiness, notably “scientific merit and the potential fecundity of the research.”

Yet this rigorous scholarly approach is tempered by the religious aspirations of many of the principals. “I’m a very committed Christian,” Worthington told NCR in a phone interview, “so I was committed to the personal process of forgiveness throughout.” Indeed, his academic life seems to have tracked his personal life closely. “My research was about pain control when my wife was having children. ... As my kids began to grow, I got into marriage and family dynamics and transmitting values to adolescents.”

When Worthington and one of his graduate students were counseling a particularly acrimonious couple, he said to the student, “What they need is to forgive each other.” So they designed an “intervention.” It worked surprisingly well. They published the “intervention,” and its popularity spread. He and a couple of other students, Michael E. McCullough and Steven J. Sondage, published a book, To Forgive Is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past (InterVarsity Press, 1997).

This time Worthington’s personal life had an unintended bearing on his work. A month after publication, his mother was murdered. He wrote in Spirituality and Health (Winter 1999): “The call came on New Year’s Day, 1996. My brother’s voice was shaky. ‘I have some bad news,’ he said. ‘Mama’s been murdered.’ ... Rage bubbled up in me like lava. ... That night I fought the bedcovers, imagining the scenes of violence, my thoughts overflowing with hatred and revenge. ... Finally, my own book brought me up short.”

He knew his research on forgiveness worked for others but had never been forced to apply it to himself in any significant circumstances. “It helped me forgive,” he said to NCR. “It was a pivotal event. It made me feel this is not just an academic thing. I can help people and make an impact on their lives.”

A Campaign for Forgiveness Research is a worldwide effort to influence people’s lives. Some examples of the approved projects:

  • Biological Effects of Forgiveness: Baseline & Stress Response Correlates ... “will examine whether forgiveness causes better psychological and biological health.”
  • Religion and Well-being Among Black & White Adults: Does Forgiveness Benefit Physical and Mental Health? ... “will consider whether health protective behavior, social support and religious consolation are other ways in which religion is related to health.”
  • Forgiveness and AIDS: Accepting the Diagnosis, Assuaging the Blame.
  • Forgiveness at the End of Life.
  • The Effects of Forgiveness on the Physical & Psychological Development of Severely Traumatized Females.
  • Truth and Forgiveness in South Africa: A Multidisciplinary Approach.
  • Betrayal, Forgiveness & Reconciliation in Close Relationships.
  • A Forgiveness Intervention Program with At-risk Adolescents.

On average the 58 projects will cost about $200,000 each and take from two to three years each. The money, always a good indicator, hints at the amount of brain power being applied to what was so long an orphan area of human endeavor.

But what is forgiveness?

From such a sea of scholarship it may be difficult to retrieve forgiveness as we once knew it. Yet old-fashioned forgiveness does shine forth, shines most brightly amid the most intense pain. In Northern Ireland such cases are mentioned with awe. “Let your hate be buried with my boy,” one father proclaimed at his murdered son’s funeral. Is there not a danger, then, of diminishing the heroic aspect of forgiveness amid the more practical concerns many of the Templeton projects outline?

Worthington quotes C.S. Lewis to the effect that we seldom quibble at the promise of a heavenly reward for good done. A reward or desirable side effect need not take away from the purity of one’s forgiveness.

He compares two kinds of interventions. One is empathy-based: getting people to forgive because this is a gift, a blessing they can give another person. The second is a self-enhancement intervention. “We approach the person with the suggestion, ‘This is something we can do for you.’ ”

The empathy-based treatment takes longer to happen because there is a greater distance to “come around.” With the self-enhancement type of forgiveness intervention “we find people get a smaller effect, but they get a certain effect.”

In all the academic talk it’s easy to lose sight of the enormous act of will, or goodwill, required to forgive when it really counts, that is, when the offense done to the forgiver is serious enough to be worth studying in the first place. It’s frequently about murder.

To Forgive Is Human offers this definition: “Forgiveness is an increase in our internal motivation to repair and maintain a relationship after the relationship has been damaged by the hurtful actions of the other person.” The main point of the book is that forgiveness involves the whole person, the authors note. It’s between humans, notes Coleraine’s McLernon. “You can’t forgive an animal or a hurricane.” That brings the process up close and personal. A solitary act, but also a very intimate one.

The Coleraine study claims this forgiveness extends beyond the individual to the group. The research began only last January, so it’s too early to say what it will find. But the process suggests new vistas for human relations on the bigger scale.

Robert Enright, a leader in the field of forgiveness research (NCR, May 30, 1997), is invoked by Cairns to the effect that, for lasting solutions to human conflict, justice is not enough: “There has to be forgiveness.” On the other hand, forgiveness comes more easily if justice is seen to be done. In Northern Ireland the early release of prisoners guilty of terrible crimes made people more reluctant to forgive them. While admiring the reconciliation process in South Africa, Cairns has the same problem about those who must pay no price, least of all repentance, other than to publicly confess their crimes.

In Northern Ireland, many refuse to forgive “the other side” because “that would almost condone what was done.” That, in turn, would seem to imply the victims deserved what happened to them.

A constant stumbling block is that each group has long dehumanized the other, and forgiveness involves raising the wrongdoer back to the status of a human being. A woman in one focus group said she would kick a British soldier if he were dying at her feet. “She acknowledged he felt the pain,” explained McLernon, “but was not prepared to give him back his human status because she herself had been dehumanized, not necessarily by him individually but by his group, the British army.”

Attitudes written in stone

In the Northern Ireland focus groups, few if any have been won away from their mostly steadfast positions. It is no surprise to the Coleraine team that attitudes on both sides are mostly written in stone. Yet Cairns is confident the undertaking is relevant: “You have to start somewhere.” Information is being compiled on which future efforts at forgiveness could be built -- the Cairns project, like the other Templeton efforts, is not a crusade to change the world but a study to cast some light on it.

In the current atmosphere of tentative peace many new ideas are in orbit. There is more immediate emphasis on finding ways to remember than to forgive. A victims’ commission has been set up. A replica of Washington’s Vietnam Wall has visited Belfast. Some say Northern Ireland should have one of its own. Others say they wouldn’t want the names of dear ones on the same wall with the other group.

All conflicts have a tendency to fade away for a while, but they eventually return, says Cairns. The former Yugoslavia is a classic case. “We must find a way to solve these with some degree of permanency,” he goes on. He has forgiveness in mind.

Various straws in the wind indicate forgiveness is an idea whose time has come. It began, says Worthington, around 1989, when communism began to fall and a generation of former enemies suddenly had to learn how to live together by other means than atop military hardware. The century had demonstrated that one half of the world hating and mistrusting the other hadn’t worked. Similarly, Nelson Mandela came to power in 1992 and instituted the highly acclaimed Truth and Reconciliation Commission to come to terms with an old, ruthless enemy. The social climate is making it necessary for whole cultures to deal with people who have harmed them historically. It is within this bigger picture that group forgiveness becomes important.

“There’s also the Internet and the whole electronic revolution,” continues Worthington. As traditional human bonds are replaced by new electronic bonds, people are saying, “There’s something important about human relations that I’ve got to hold on to.” Authentic relationships have consequences.

This rethinking seems to be provoking another look at spirituality, Worthington says. And all the above may in turn be influenced by the trembling or thrilling prospects a new century and millennium bring.

But is all this not asking too much of forgiveness?

Worthington, anchored in his basic beliefs, is undaunted. The world through which Jesus chose to enter history was a harsh one, yet he relied on forgiveness and made an impact, as did the early saints, he says.

“Forgiveness is not a panacea,” he agrees. “It’s part of the cooperative venture of different religions and people. It’s OK to ask a lot of it.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999