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Revenge and Forgiveness-- A Word of Hope

Revenge and Forgiveness
A Real Word of Hope

Here's what Bud Welch said, whose daughter died in the Oklahoma City bombing ,made prior to the 2001 execution of Timothy McVeigh, the terrorist responsible for the bombing. “The first month after the bombing, I didn't even want Tim McVeigh and Terry McNichols to even have trials. I simply wanted them fried. And then I finally came to realize that the reason that [my daughter] and 167 others were dead is because of vengeance and rage. And when we take him out of his cage to kill him, it's going to be the same thing. We will keep the circle of violence going. Number 169 dead is not going to help the family members of the first 168.”
If you look at the story of Bud Welch, you find he had a lot of help along the way. And if you look at the story very carefully, you can actually learn a lot about how the human mind evolved to forgive and what kind of conditions activate that instinct in human minds, There were events that he actually made happen for himself that turned forgiveness into one of these things that can be easier. For example, he actually sought out Timothy McVeigh's father and visited him one day. He saw Timothy's picture on the mantel. It was a high school graduation picture and Bud said to McVeigh's father, “God, that's a good-looking kid." And the tears just began pouring out of the elder McVeigh. What he realized then was that here was another father on the verge of losing a son, of losing a child. And that immediate experience of sympathy and compassion went a tremendous way in facilitating the forgiveness process.
This is a very good Michael McCullough interview on Revenge and Forgiveness .
Michael McCullough is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where he directs the Laboratory for Social and Clinical Psychology and also teaches in the Department of Religious Studies. He was interviewed by Krista Tippett on the PBS program “Speaking of Faith.” March 25, 2010 the following are excerpts from that interview. To listen to the full interview click on or read the attachment.
Tippett begins: Western religious and therapeutic mindsets have come to imagine revenge as a disease that can be cured by civilization. It hasn't been seen as a natural, biologically driven impulse to which we all remain prone under certain circumstances. And at the same time, the seemingly colder eye of evolutionary biology has analyzed ruthlessness as an advantage in the relentless arc of the survival of the fittest. Forgiveness in both of these scenarios is a rare transcendent quality.
Prof McCullough continues: Throughout most of human history we have not lived in complex societies with governments and law enforcement and contracts that we could enforce in a court to get people to do what they agreed to do. So the mechanism that individuals relied upon to protect themselves and their loved ones and their property was fear of retaliation and in a lot of the world this is still going on. Any time you disrupt the system of government so people can't trust that their interests are going to be protected, people will take revenge back into their own hands to protect themselves.
Sister Helen Prejean said, "Anger is a moral response”. Anger in response to injustice is as reliable a human emotional response as happiness is to winning the lottery, or grief is to losing a loved one. And if you look at the brain of somebody who has just been harmed by someone — It looks exactly like the brain of somebody who is thirsty and is just about to get a sweet drink or somebody who's hungry who's about to get a piece of chocolate . What you see is high activation in the brain's reward system. So, again, this is one of the messages it's important for me to try to get across. The desire for revenge does not come from some sick dark part of how our minds operate. It is a craving to solve a problem and accomplish a goal.
So what about forgiveness? A lot of biologists have been trying to figure out what allows human beings to be the cooperative creatures that we are. We cooperate with our relatives, but lots of animals do that. We cooperate with people we've never met. And by virtue of our abilities to cooperate with each other, we can do all kinds of wonderful things. But one of the ingredients you have to have to get individuals to cooperate with each other is a tolerance for mistakes. … Sometimes I'm going to let you down. I'm going to get distracted and I'm going to make a mistake. And you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done… Many animals' ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that they can't do on their own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.
We think of forgiveness as this balm for great wounds. Yet, in daily life, forgiveness is more often like a Band-Aid on a scrape. I forgive my seven-year-old son every day because he's an active, inquisitive seven-year-old who sometimes accidentally elbows me in the mouth when we're cuddling and sometimes puts crayons on the walls. It seems demeaning to call it forgiveness. There’s a great evolutionary story about why it comes so easy in those kinds of circumstances. Evolution wasn't kind to individuals who would seek revenge against their genetic relatives, so we have this natural tolerance for the misbehavior of our children.
The first condition for forgiveness is safety. Human beings are naturally prone to forgive individuals that they feel safe around. If you can convince me that you're safe, that I don't have to worry about being harmed in the same way a second time, maybe I'm willing to move a little bit forward.'
THE SECOND CONDITION IS VALUE. We are inclined to forgive individuals who are likely to have benefit for us in the future. So we find it really easy, as I was saying, to forgive our loved ones or our friends or our neighbors or our business partners, because there's something in it for us in the future. And the costs sometimes of destroying a relationship that's been damaged are just too high, because establishing a new one is so difficult to do. So relationships that have value in them are ones in which we're naturally prone to forgive.
Americans have a tendency to see revenge as a mark of cultures more primitive than their own. But between 1974 and 2000, 61 percent of all school shootings in the U.S. had revenge, often for bullying, as a trigger. We tend to view other people who have positions different from ours as having much more similarity to each other than we do. We can see the great variety in our own positions. We tend to simplify positions that other groups have. We view them as more partisan and more extreme than the average really seems to be. That can cause us to not view them with the same sort of humanity that we afford our own groups; perhaps because of how the mind was actually designed to work, we have a harder time affording that kind of benefit of the doubt to other groups. So if we know that, then you can begin to say, 'Well, they're just a group of human beings, too, trying to muddle their way through a position that's going to work for them.' And maybe that kind of recognition of their diversity as well can help. Then maybe we'll have less anxiety about interacting in a civil way.
Some forgiveness happens when people become too tired to fight; Uganda has been at war for many years. And part of the strategy of one of the rebel groups — it's a group called the Lord's Resistance Army, headed by a man named Joseph Kony — part of their strategy has been to abduct children, boys and girls, from their villages and from their tribes and take them off into the woods and essentially brainwash them and send them back to kill members of their own villages, their own tribes, to maim them, to disfigure people unrecognizably, to cut off their lips and ears and noses. They give the girls as child brides to the soldiers. And through this really heartless, brutal tactic, they do a couple of things. One is that they destroy the culture of these villages, the fabric of their own history. And they also create new foot soldiers for their army. The costs of this have been so high both from a security point of view and from a cultural point of view that many of the rank and file, just regular people living in Uganda, particularly this one group called the Acholi, have grown so tired of these cycles of violence and their inability to solve them using military force that they've been pressing the government to offer official amnesty, not only to Kony, but to any of the children, any of the sons and daughters of their own villages who've been spirited away like this and brainwashed and turned into killers. They’ve used radio broadcasts, word of mouth, newspapers, really any vehicle they can get hold of to send this message out: that if you will come back to your village, lay down your arms, meet with the elders, meet with the community, and work out a plan for demonstrating your desire to rejoin us, we'll let you rejoin us as a member of our community in good standing And they've been coming back in groups as large as 300, 400, 500, 900 laying down their guns, working out plans for reparation. Trying to find some way to compensate victims for the harms they've caused. At risk to them, mind you, I mean, these returnees now have to worry about these villagers' own desires for revenge against them. So they take a risk in coming back and yet many of them are doing it, and in part it really is because there just isn't another way.
IN IRAQ WE replaced one of the truly awful dictators of the late 20th century when we removed Saddam Hussein. And yet it is also true that when we did that, and particularly when we disbanded the army, we did away with the only structure that was capable of holding a lot of very old tribal and ethnic and sectarian grudges in check. I like to ask people to look out their windows in their office or their homes and imagine what your life would look like if the police and the National Guard and the fire department and the paramedics stopped working tomorrow, because of a natural disaster. And how would you put security into place yourself? You would probably find your friends and find your family and you'd circle the wagons.
I have realized that many times if you've been harmed by somebody, you don't have any choice but to try to forgive it on your own, because the person's gone, the person's dead, the person will have nothing to do with you. There's just no bridge there. But in lots and lots of cases forgiveness is just a conversation away. I mean, there are so many people if you ask them about the hurt that they remember from junior high or high school, what you often find is there was never any conversation back with that person who harmed them. And so the conclusion I've come to is in many, many cases, if you want to forgive or if you want to be forgiven, you need to go out there and get it for yourself. And the way you go out and get it for yourself is by trying to have the kind of conversation with the person you hurt that you want to have. In my family we apologize a lot.
Apology is really important, because when I apologize to you for something I've done, you see me uncomfortable. You see me trying to reassure you that I'm not going to harm you in the same way again. You see me giving you respect as a human being with feelings. And all of a sudden, I've turned on a lot of the slider switches that make forgiveness happen in your head. There are so many people who, once they see someone who's harmed them cry and experience shame and humiliation for the way they've behaved, suddenly it's the forgiver who's doing the healing, who's reaching out to the perpetrator. This happens so many times. All people often need is this kind of vigorous conversation about the past. Now, if this were so easy, people would be doing it all day. So I don't pretend that. But at the same time, I really think we can't lose sight of the value of being willing to try to make things a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit messy in the service of making them better.
So Iraq may look dismal. It's been terrible for our country and the world in so many ways, and yet I see coming out of it, whenever that is, a society that's going to rebuild itself into a peaceful society. I don't know how long it will take — but this is what societies tend to do. They tend to find the best way to rebuild in the aftermath of these kinds of collapses in ways that will promote cooperation. If you put societal structures in place where people feel their rights are protected, and they feel that they see a way forward for making a living in a peaceful way, and you put incentives in place like that where there's security, they prefer peace over war, every time.
With our seven-year-old, I really have tried to encourage him to be vigorous about acknowledging his mistakes and the harms that he causes his friends, because so much of forgiveness comes down to interaction. It comes down to knowing that an offender is not the person you thought he was when he hurt you We think if we can explain to him what the mind needs after someone's been offended, then we can teach him how to be vigorous and not worry about having to look like he's right all the time or having to look like he's perfect or denying his mistakes. If he can own up to them, that's a vigorous healthy way to keep his friendships intact.
I think one of the best things we can do with religious faith is give people an appetite for difference. And the major world religions all have the resources for doing this, for getting people excited about people who are different from them. In the scriptures and traditions of every world religion that has been successful on a grand scale, there is a story there about the love of difference. Caring for the strangers in your midst, being able to see beyond superficial differences toward the essential commonalities.
Religion is also good at appealing to people's meaner sides and the more brutish side and the resources are there for both. So it's really up to those people who have a passion for reconciliation in their own faiths to make sure that the right tones are struck.
Some of the baggage from the past is that forgiveness is a namby-pamby thing that doormats do or wimps do that only sort of milquetoast types of people are interested in. But from everything I've managed to read and see and understand in my own work it's that forgiveness is a brawny muscular exercise that I kind of imagine someone with a great passion for life and a great hardy sort of disposition being able to take on. And the doors are open now. The doors are open for the use of this kind of language in the public sphere…
Yeah. I'm so optimistic about our future, because, again, if you look at that long arc of history, as you suggest, what you see is — for example, the homicide rate. We worry about the homicide rate, as we should. It goes up some years, it goes down other years, and we worry. But over the long arc of history — you take Western Europe — homicide rates are a twentieth and in some countries a fiftieth of what they were 600, 800 years ago. Right? So if we take this long perspective, what seems to be happening is actually we're getting better and better control over human beings' potential for aggressiveness. And a lot of that homicide 600–800 years ago was in fact vengeance motivated. But when we get control of those instincts and we give people other tools to deal with their grievances, they will restrain themselves.
So Iraq may look dismal. It's been terrible for our country and the world in so many ways, and yet I see coming out of it, whenever that is, a society that's going to rebuild itself into a peaceful society. I don't know how long it will take — it's above my pay grade, as they say — but this is what societies tend to do. They tend to find the best way to rebuild in the aftermath of these kinds of collapses in ways that will promote cooperation.
TIPPETT: And you're really saying that on the basis of lots of research, aren't you? I mean, this is not just wishful thinking.
MR. MCCULLOUGH: If you put societal structures in place where people feel their rights are protected, and they feel that they see a way forward for making a living in a peaceful way, and you put incentives in place like that where there's security, they prefer peace over war, every time.
Pray for my preparation and my coming trip to Plowcreek 2/22-2/26 and Colombia 15 of April to end of May. Setting up venues from here is one of the more challenging parts. There I will be sharing with churches and schools to encourage them to get involved in Peacemaking.
Shalom Jim

PS. War is on the decline Alleluia! To find out about it. Goggle : Pinker war and Mueller war


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