Storytelling: a Method to Heal from Historical Trauma

My friend, Tom DeWolf has been interviewed for a “Cities Tour” C-Span segment that is to air today, Saturday, 4/5/2014 @ 4:30 pm. EDT.  In this segment, Coming to the Table, an organization that “provides leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery,” is is prominently featured in this segment.  Tom discussed the book that he co-authored with Sharon Leslie Morgan, Gather at the Table:  The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, in which they wrote of their exploration into the “deep social wounds left by racism, violence and injustice.”  It is their hope that their work inspires “a national dialogue about the legacies of slavery and racism” and that it offers “practical guidance for individuals and groups who want to heal themselves and America” from our traumatic past.

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To Forgive or Not Forgive: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. vs. Malcolm X

One’s worldview shapes, to a large extent, how one might to choose to respond to situations of social injustice. That is to say, one’s historical background and culture influences how one may respond to injustice. Perhaps one might submit, or respond in an unforgiving retaliatory manner, or instead, animate a response aimed toward achieving social justice. In the U.S, during the time period of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960’s, two African-American leaders exhibited these different responses to injustice in their speech, in their writing, and in their style of social activism. These different ways of responding to injustice are perhaps related to these men’s different histories.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were two of the most prominent Civil Rights activists during the 1960s. They had a great deal in common. They were both African-Americans, sons of Baptist ministers, and they both worked to improve the lives of African-Americans by advocating for racial equality and freedom. From there, their similarities depart.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born to a “respected Baptist minister” and raised in a “prosperous but segregated neighborhood” where his “loving father taught him the value of hard work” and instilled in him “a strong faith in God (Ladenburg, n.d.).” For the most part, King was kept sheltered from racial discrimination ((Ladenburg, n.d.). He excelled in school, and went on to earn a PhD in theology (Ladenburg, n.d.). Comparatively speaking, King was privileged.

Malcolm X had very different life circumstances. He was born to a Baptist minister, an organizer for Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, who was murdered it is believed, by White supremacists, when Malcolm was only six years of age (Ladenburg, n.d.). His mother was institutionalized a few years later, leaving Malcolm as an orphan to be raised in foster care (Malcolm X, n.d.). Malcolm “had known the traumas of a broken family and an incomplete and inferior formal education” and he “spent his early youth not at theological college but on the streets” finally landing in prison for burglary (Ling, 1993.).” There he learned of Elijah Muhammad’s Civil Rights message (Ling, 1993.).

In June of 1963, Malcolm X, now out of prison and a leading spokesman of Elijah Mohammad’s Nation of Islam, gave a speech titled, The Black Revolution (n.d.). In this speech he asserted that Dr. King’s approach to racial inequality was not an effective approach to the problems faced by the majority of People of Color. He advocated, instead, for a revolution where “so-called Negros” would live separate lives in a land away from the “White devils” as he called them (The Black Revolution, n.d.). Malcolm X did not believe that forgiveness and reconciliation between the races was possible.

The approach that Malcolm X used was much like what Thomas Paine used in his propaganda speech, Common Sense (n.d.). Paine advocated for revolt in order for the American colonies to achieve their independence from the British Crown. Some of Malcolm X’s tactics were to ‘dehumanize the enemy’ by naming them “goats” and “wolves” and “devils (The Black Revolution, n.d.).” He named the revolution that he envisioned as “part of God’s plan (The Black Revolution, n.d.).” He provided snippets of Bible quotes (without reference to their historical or cultural significance) as ‘proof’ to his claims of divine inspiration. His goal was to stir emotions and to incite his followers into action, perhaps even violent action, as the means of achieving separation away from the domination of those in power.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to addressing prejudice and racism was quite different. King was an advocate of a specific type of social change, that which is known as nonviolence. Nonviolence is a rough translation of the term satyagraha, the method which Gandhi successfully used to obtain India’s independence from the rule of Great Britain in the year 1947 (Nonviolence Introduction, n.d.). This method involves such methods as ‘constructive proramme’, which is the building of more just structures and systems to replace the unjust ones. Additionally, activists might engage in tactics that could embarrass their opponent into better actions. Furthermore, unlike a violent revolution, nonviolence also involves attempting to build positive relationship with the oppressor. Gandhi believed that a dedicated adherent to satyagraha (or nonviolence), “who worked to uphold a just cause will inevitably reach the heart of the oppressor by taking authentic action to represent truth (Satyagraha, n.d.).” Gandhi’s method was effective in gaining independence for India. Dr. King was using this very same approach to advance social change in the U.S.

This method of nonviolent social change mirrors the principles discussed by theologian Walter Wink in his book, The Powers that Be (1998). In this book, Wink described common responses to injustice as either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ responses. He asserted that Jesus’ parables taught a third way to achieve social change that was neither to fight nor to flee. This was what Wink also called nonviolence. According to Wink, nonviolence includes such actions as seizing the moral initiative, finding creative alternatives to violence, asserting one’s own humanity and dignity as a person, refusing to submit or accept an inferior position, exposing the injustice of the system, and shaming the oppressor into repentance (Jesus Third Way, n.d.). In The Powers that Be, Wink walked his readers through the parables, providing historical and cultural context in order to bring to life those not-often-understood messages. King understood Biblical messages in much the very same way that Wink did.

King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (n.d.), noted his “constructive work” referring to it as a “nonviolent direct-action program.” He said that it was his intention to stand between the two current options of complacency and hatred with a “more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest (Letters from Birmingham Jail, n.d.).” By this, he meant that he wanted to pull the disparate communities together – the White community and the community of People of Color, plus the community that was complacent and the community that wanted to fight. He recognized the “interrelatedness of all communities and states” which were “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality (Letters from Birmingham Jail, n.d.).” It was his goal to repair the broken relationships for the benefit of all.

To do this, he seized the moral initiative by calling out and naming bad actions. He looked for creative alternatives by calling for people to “look at underlying causes” of injustice (Letters from Birmingham, n.d.). He exposed the injustice of the system by naming unjust laws and calling attention to a discriminating police force. Furthermore, he wrote that he was disappointed with White church complacency in racial matters with the goal of shaming the oppressor into repentance (Letters from Birmingham, n.d.). King was teaching people how to assert one’s own humanity and dignity as a person by refusing to submit or accept an inferior position.

King would not resort to destructive violence because in doing so, he knew that would precipitate further violence, thereby making peace and justice even less likely. Therefore, he maintained a goal of building community through reconciliation instead.

As a biblical scholar, King had spent as many years studying the Bible as Malcolm X had spent in prison (Ling, 1993.). This difference in life experience had a profound effect on these two men’s different interpretations of Biblical passages, and likewise their different approach in working to advance social change. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. used a peaceful approach while Malcolm X used angry hate-filled rhetoric in a separatist approach. These approaches were different because of these men’s different ways of understanding their world. When Malcolm X travelled to Mecca, he saw ‘the races’ mixing in community in a positive way and this was a new experience for Malcolm X and it gave him hope (MalcolmX.com, n.d.). When he returned to the United States, he began to work with King, instead of rallying against nonviolent methods.

These very different life experiences – one of relative privilege, and the other of relative disadvantage, influenced how these two men responded to social injustice. King, who was highly educated and privileged and had resources of social and cultural capital, wanted to maintain and improve relationship with his oppressors. Malcolm X, with little education and little cultural and social capital, also leaned on his own knowledge – and that was the knowledge that White people were prejudiced oppressors of People of Color. Because Malcolm X received very little benefit from the current system, he wanted to begin a revolution to separate from his oppressors. King seemed to be more forgiving of his oppressors than Malcolm X. This is perhaps because King, as a highly educated man, received a much larger benefit from the systems that were in place, than did Malcolm X. Malcolm X’s apparent initial position of ‘un-forgiveness’ was perhaps a response to receiving very little gain from the unjust system, and little hope that he ever would.

In the example of the lives these two great leaders of the U.S. 1960’s Civil Rights movement, it is clear to see how one’s worldview shapes how one may respond to injustice. One’s individual and collective history and one’s culture shapes one’s decisions. Additionally, different life experiences, including one’s position of privilege or disadvantage may influence how a person might respond to social injustice. In the event of oppression, poverty, and lack of education, and reason for little hope, it is likely that the result may be complacency and acceptance or else a position of un-forgiveness characterized by anger, hatred and a desire for a violent revolution. If instead, hope is present, and leadership is grounded in an education of effective nonviolent principles and methods, change may take place without need for revolt or violence.

References:

Ladenburg, T. (n.d.). 1960’s chapter 6: Martin luther king & malcolm X on violence and integration. Digital history: Using new technologies to enhance teaching and research [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/teachers/lesson_plans/pdfs/unit11_6.pdf

Jesus Third Way by Walter Wink. (n.d.). Jesus third way by walter wink. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus’%20Third%20Way.pdf

King, M. L. (n.d.). Letter from birmingham jail. The atlantic monthly [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.uscrossier.org/pullias/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/king.pdf

Ling, P. (1993). More Malcolm’s year than Martin’s. History Today, 43(4), 13.

Malcolm X (1925-1965). (n.d.). Malcolm X (1925-1965). [Web page] Retrieved from http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_malcolm_x_1925_1965

MalcolmX.com. (n.d.). MalcolmX.Com. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.malcolmx.com/about/bio.html

Nonviolence introduction. (n.d.) The metta center for nonviolence [Web page]. Retrieved from http://mettacenter.org/nonviolence/introduction

Paine, T. (n.d.). Common sense. The writings of Thomas Paine. Retrieved from Google: http://www.calhum.org/files/uploads/program_related/TD-Thomas-Paine-Common-Sense.pdf

Satyagraha. (n.d.). Satyagraha. [Web page] Retrieved from http://mettacenter.org/definitions/gloss-concepts/satyagraha

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forgiveness in Northern Ireland: Facing the Truth

The BBC documentary presentation, Facing the Truth (2013) tells the story of the beginning of reconciliation between estranged parties that experienced ongoing strife and political, ethnic and sectarian violence, referred to as ‘The Troubles’, in Northern Ireland that began in the 1960’s. This conflict was primarily political, such that Unionists and Loyalists, who were mostly Protestants by faith, wanted to remain as part of the United Kingdom.  However, the Irish Nationalists and Republicans, who were mostly Roman Catholic by faith, wanted Northern Ireland to break away from the United Kingdom and join with the Irish Republic.  In this documentary, South African social rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu moderated a ‘difficult conversation’[1] between convicted extremists and victims from both sides of ‘The Troubles’.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu used very specific peace-building skills as he moderated these talks.  One important skill that he used is his knowledge of body language and mannerisms.  Body language often speaks volumes.  For instance, body language communicated a great deal when maimed constable Michael Patterson met with Irish Republican Army (IRA) unit leader Tommy McCristal.  Mr. Patterson entered the discussion forum with lightness, exhibiting an air of confidence, and he was smiling with bright eyes as he took his seat.  When Mr. McCristal entered the room, a few moments later, his mannerisms indicated that he was distressed.  He had an air of arrogance that communicated self-consciousness and defensiveness.  His eyes looked worried and sad.  He was clearly uncomfortable with the situation.  Mr. Patterson was filmed looking directly at Mr. McCristal, examining him closely, inquiringly.  It is clear that the men were at odds with one another.  Yet Desmond Tutu’s demeanor was one of soft-spokenness, kindness, openness, and acceptance.  He presented himself as non-judgmental.  By these actions, he offered a safe space and opportunity for each ‘side’ of the conflict to tell his version of the story, and to do so without defensiveness.

Constable Patterson entered the conversation in a very different frame of mind than did Mr. McCristal.  Patterson, when asked, did not identify himself as a victim of a terrorist attack but as being injured in the line of duty, instead. His role as a police officer allowed him to view his injuries through a lens of dignity and self-respect. While in contrast, McCristal identified himself as a victim.  He said that the reason that he joined the IRA was because he was attempting to create unity and to change an unjust system.  He spoke of a need to walk the streets and of very few jobs. From this view, it seems that the Irish Nationalists were experiencing economic inequality that they wanted to redress. McCristal justified the violent actions of the IRA saying, “we had an objective here, and it was to create a united country (Facing the Truth, 2013).”  It was this attitude of victimhood that permitted McCristal to target members of the British armed forces with violent protest actions. An attitude of victimhood led to violent actions and years of being stuck in emotional turmoil for McCristal, while an attitude of acceptance of injury allowed Patterson take responsibility and move on with his life.

Although McCristal initially justified violent retaliation to injustice, he said that he began to question his role with the IRA when he participated in the killing of two of his neighbors, John Graham and John Hana. He knew these men well, and felt sorrow for their deaths and their families’ resulting loss and pain. He said that he realized that they were “filling the graveyards” but that no one was “winning” and there “had to be an alternative” to the violent methods for protest and social change (Facing the Truth, 2013.).  McCristal expressed a desire to find a point that they could all agree on and move forward, admitting that they were not there yet, but hopefully they would get there.  It was the realization of the humanness of John Graham and John Hana that led McCristal to question the armed struggles, or ‘The Troubles’, as they were called.

Patterson also expressed a desire to move away from conflict.  He stressed the need for acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility.  He said, when questioned, that McCristal’s doubting of his past actions was OK, and that it is “where they are” although “it doesn’t bring back my arms” but “if that is where they are in their healing process, that is OK” (Facing the Truth, 2013.). Patterson, even though he lost so much when he lost his arms, was able to have a positive attitude because he was able to accept and take responsibility for the situation in which he currently found himself.

An attitude of acceptance seems to be a key factor in aiding a process of forgiveness and healing.  When McCristal heard Patterson discuss this acceptance without a desire for retaliation, he seemed to become more hopeful saying, “maybe we are going to achieve something here” with “more people thinking like that . . . maybe that’s how we are going to achieve something (Facing the Truth, 2013.).”  Both men communicated a willingness to accept what is, and be accountable to what has been done.  Both men feared that if reconciliation was not achieved in their generation that the younger generation would repeat history.  Both Patterson and McCristal expressed a desire to reconcile and a willingness to take on that responsibility as a way to not pass this struggle on to future generations.  It seems that, in this circumstance, a willingness to take on responsibility grew out of an attitude of acceptance.

In another discussion between victims and offenders of the Irish ‘Troubles’ that was moderated by Archbishop Tutu, involved family members of a slain teenager and a convicted murderer of a different teen who was murdered decades earlier.  This discussion involved the family of eighteen-year-old Gavin Bret, who was a child of a mixed Catholic/Protestant marriage.  Members of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary and vigilante group, murdered him in a drive-by shooting in 2001 because they assumed he was Catholic.  This discussion also involved Alex Calderwood, a UDA member who at seventeen years of age, twenty-one years before the murder of Gavin Bret, murdered another teenager, Alex Reid, because he was Catholic.  Mr. Calderwood met with Gavin Bret’s family after having served his jail sentence.

At the beginning of the meeting, Gavin’s father Michael questioned, “Why do these things occur? (Facing the Truth, 2013).” Alex Calderwood felt the need to start at the beginning, discussing when and where he was born, providing context by doing so.  He did not like to admit at that present time that he was raised to be a bigot and hating Catholics, whom he believed at that time were all members of the IRA.  He said that he joined the UDA at sixteen years of age because it provided him with ‘identity’ as signified by a blue jacket with a fur collar.  Wearing that jacket meant that he was “one of the big boys (Facing the Truth, 2013).” Calderwood said that he “wanted to be the same as everyone else” and he admitted, “I joined because I wanted to kill Catholics, and I don’t make no bones about that (Facing the Truth, 2013).” He explained that at seventeen and a half years of age, he was drinking heavily at clubs and this was when he came across a group of Catholics who were being detained by other UDA members.   The others left and he was alone with one of the Catholic boys, and Calderwood explained to Gavin’s family, “I set myself up as judge, juror and executioner and took that young man’s life (Facing the Truth, 2013).”  He said that he believed at that time that the Catholics would have responded to him in the same way.  It was clear by Calderwood’s discussion that he was young and impressionable and he was acting on social prejudices that he had learned.  It was also clear that his attitudes and beliefs had changed since his youth.

Calderwood’s attitudes toward the Catholic community changed while he was incarcerated.  He, at twenty-five years of age, requested the governor to provide to him a teacher so that he could learn to read and write.  When he began reading, he gained information about Catholics that he did not have access to before.  For example, he learned that not all Catholics were members of the IRA. He also learned that Catholics were people, too, who had families that they cared for, and who cared for them. Up until the time he learned to read, he was dependant on the information that was provided by others, in order to form his opinions.  Receiving instruction in reading has allowed Mr. Calderwood the opportunity to learn and make decisions based on what he has learned, and this has altered how he views the conflict in Northern Ireland.  He now wishes to be a part of the healing process.

Key elements that led to the seemingly amicable conclusion of these discussions were the creation of a safe space for the sharing of each side of the story and the result of skillful and effective moderation of the discussion.  The issues were very sensitive ones, that were likely to lead to defensiveness and continued conflict. For example, when Calderwood stated in a rather matter of fact way that the reason that he hated and killed Catholics was because that was how he was brought up, Gavin’s father replied that he could not understand that.   Calderwood attempted explain again, justifying his position, but was interrupted by a moderator who acknowledged Mr. Bret’s feelings and position, “But he is saying that he can’t understand that (Facing the Truth, 2013).” That was an important moment. The feelings and position of an injured party need to be heard and acknowledged as valid.  When Gavin’s motherPhyllis said that Calderwood came across as very complacent, she also explained her own position of facing discrimination and yet still being able to respond with love, as evidenced by her own mixed marriage.  The Brets have chosen to overcome their past and love one another, despite their differences, and from their perspective, they cannot understand the degree of hatred that shaped Calderwood’s actions.  Mr. Calderwood offered a sincere apology, “I can assure you from my own perspective that I am very deeply sorry for any hurt that I have caused anyone during my time growing up, and I do apologize that I have come across as complacent because I certainly didn’t mean to do that (Facing the Truth, 2013.).” This was a very sensitive issue, but when conflicting parties are provided with a safe place and an effective method of communication, in order to share their differing perspectives, there is greater likelihood that they will be able to arrive at a common understanding that may lead to a process of healing and reconciliation.  This is what took place between Calderwood and the Bret family.

The creation of a safe place and effective communication process is what the talks with Archbishop Desmond Tutu are designed to provide. Archbishop Desmond Tutu began the discussions by speaking about the need for honesty.  He said that he was honored to be part of this healing process and welcomed the presence of all there.  He offered the first opportunity to speak to the victim, and he listened to the story of the ‘offender’ next.  The moderators probed with questions to bring out the perspective of each party. In this way, through honest, open, authentic and respectful communication, a third and more complete story emerged that was inclusive of many perspectives.  From this, both ‘sides’ of the conflict learned of each other’s experience and feelings and they each departed from the meeting with a more complete understanding as a result of their candid and respectful discussions.  This atmosphere of safety, honesty, openness, acceptance, and respect assisted the parties on both sides of the conflict to overcome longstanding lies and silence.  The creation of a safe place and effective method for honest and open communication between estranged parties is an important element of a peace-building process.

References:

Facing the Truth (1 of 2). (2013). (Archbishop Desmond Tutu Moderates Talks with Extremists and Victims on both sides of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPpw3E7wfcg

Stone, D., & Patton, B. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin.

[1] ‘Difficult conversations’ is a term coined by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Sheen, members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, in their straightforward guide to negotiation and conflict resolution, Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most (2010).

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Use of Un-forgiveness as a Technique to Gain Support and Social Control

It is interesting to consider how an unwillingness to forgive can be a cultural trait that is learned, as if it were a custom, and then passed on from generation to generation.  As an example of this occurrence, an attitude of un-forgiveness may be used as a sort of political tool, in order to achieve (what seems to be counterintuitive), social unity and social control.  This is the technique, that is, an attitude of un-forgiveness is the technique that our founding fathers used to gain social support in order to usurp the power away from those in authority in England and willingly give it to the new group of social elites that were forming in the American colonies.

Thomas Paine used an attitude of unwillingness to forgive as a revolutionary slogan in his propaganda pamphlet, Common Sense (The Writings of Thomas Paine, n.d., pp. 67-101.).  As one very strong example of this occurance, he stated that the colonies alliance with Great Britain “tends to directly involve this Continent in European wars and quarrels, and set us at variance at nations who would otherwise seek our friendship (The Writings of Thomas Paine, n.d. p. 88.).”  Paine’s reasoning, he claimed was simple enough for even a common man to understand, was that the Colonies should revolt and go to war with Great Britain in order to avoid wars.  Pain precluded this provocative piece of writing with the suggestion that “a long Habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right (The Writings of Thomas Paine, n.d., p. 67).”  That clever premise apparently distracted the common folks from accurately reasoning that the way to peace is not by means of violence and warfare.  Throughout the Common Sense pamphlet, Thomas Paine rebuked the British Crown for its heavy-handed oppression (excessive taxation and crushing authority) over the American colonists even as he was applying his own style of heavy-handed oppression.

Paine’s propaganda was in support of removing the control of the British Crown from the American colonies and placing that power in the hands of a new group of elites that had formed and were growing in both wealth and power.  According to a sometimes very controversial perspective offered by historian Howard Zinn, in chapter four, Tyranny is Tyranny, of his text, A People’s History of the United States, (2005) asserted that the colonists had been rebelling against the heavy-handed oppression of the new and growing elite class in the American Colonies for some time.  The technique that Paine used was to funnel the energy of those who continued to rebel away from the new and rising elites in the American colonies and direct this dissenting energy instead against the King of England (pp. 59-75).  The technique was effective.

The Declaration of Independence (ushistory.org., n.d.). listed twenty-nine oppressions that the colonists endured under the domination of the British Crown.  In doing so, it gain the support of those people in the colonies who were feeling oppressed.  Little did they know that the oppression would continue, just under the control of different hands and in a more duplicitous manner.  This technique has been very effective and is still in use in recent history.

A recent example of this sort of deflecting technique is when actor/president Ronald Reagan directed attention at single women with children who were living in poverty and using public assistance (who came to be known as ‘welfare queens’) and away from the major corporations who were positioning themselves to collect a stream of government financial support on a much, much, much larger scale.

These examples illustrate how creating and maintaining and attitude of conflict (perhaps though an unwillingness to forgive) can be used to control the masses of people and direct their attention away from what is to be hidden and funnel it toward a particular group who becomes a sort of scapegoat.  This sort of attitude and technique has become such a cultural norm, that for the most part, many of us hardly even notice it.

 

References:

 

Paine, T. (n.d.). Common sense. The writings of Thomas Paine. Retrieved from Google: http://www.calhum.org/files/uploads/program_related/TD-Thomas-Paine-Common-Sense.pdf

ushistory.org. (n.d.). The Declaration of Independence. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document

Zinn, H. (2005). A people’s history of the United States. New York: Harperperennial

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Exploration of Forgiveness in the Performing Arts

Artistic creations can be a means for the exploration of human attitudes, feelings and behaviors.  The performing arts are an example of an artistic media that can be utilized in this way.  For example, the use of theatre and film can be applied as method to explore some of the human attitudes, feelings and behaviors that are related to the topics of hatred, anger, tolerance, acceptance, as well as forgiveness.  Two such performing arts examples are The Laramie Project and Shakespeare as presented in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility (WVCF), a super-maximum security prison located in the state of Indiana.  These productions offer their creators and audiences alike, the opportunity to examine the attitudes, feelings and actions concerning how people relate to one another.  They also offer an opportunity for people to understand themselves better, as well.

The Laramie Project, developed by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company, consists of both a theatrical representation and an HBO film based on the actual 1998 murder of twenty-one year old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard.  On October 6th, 1998, Mr. Shepard was bound to a fence and severely beaten and left to die in the outskirts of the small town of Laramie, Wyoming.  He passed away as a result of the injuries he sustained six days later.  This was a hate crime, since Matthew was targeted because he was gay.  The Laramie Project originated when members of The Tectonic Theatre Company went to Laramie in order to interview the residents concerning the circumstances surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as their reaction to this incident.  Their purpose was to create a production pertaining to these events.

Shakespeare, as presented in the SHU at the WVCF, was born out of a prison outreach project that was developed by Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University, Dr. Laura Bates.  Dr. Bates offered prison inmates the opportunity to study Shakespeare.  She worked with men in solitary confinement as they rewrote the Shakespearian language to “contemporary prose” and the plays’ themes into “life lessons for the convicted and incarcerated” (Scotts-Douglas, 2007, pp, 110-111.).  Then, Bates’ drama group, Shakespeare Locked Down, performed and videotaped the production, and in turn, they shared their performances of the adaptations with the men in the SHU at WVCF (Scotts-Douglas, 2007, pp, 110-111.).  This opportunity offered the men in solitary confinement a way to meet their human need for community and companionship.  It provided that and much more.

These productions offered their creators and viewers alike a unique opportunity to learn about human attitudes, feelings and behaviors in relation to the themes of injury and forgiveness.  These themes can be seen in scenes from each production.  For example, in the HBO version of The Laramie Project (n.d), there is an especially emotional moment in the scene of the sentencing of Matthew’s murderer, Aaron McKinney, where one can see a process of forgiveness beginning to take shape.  Likewise, the SHU Shakespearian writers display a similar movement from a negative attitude toward one more positive, as they fashion a new nonviolent conclusion for Hamlet. These scenes present the performers in different stages along a continuum of possible attitudes, feelings and actions, ranging from the extreme emotions of anger, hatred and the desire for revenge and retribution, moving toward positions of greater tolerance and acceptance.

In a scene from The Laramie Project (n.d.), Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard, feeling a great deal of pain and anger, expressed words of hatred along with a desire for revenge, even as he was generously accepting the plea bargain that the defense lawyer requested on McKinney’s behalf.  Dennis Shepard said in his ‘impact statement’ at the sentencing, “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. Mckinney” while at the same time he was offering McKinney life instead of the death penalty.  He continued, “However, this is the time to begin the healing process” . . . “you made the world realize that a person’s lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution, and violence” and “good is coming out of evil . . . My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance.  I can’t bring him back.  But I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again.”  Wavering back and forth from a desire for healing to feelings of anger, he followed with,  “You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that.”  Although Dennis Shepard struggled with feelings of anger and hatred, he was beginning the process of healing.

Regarding the SHU Shakespearian production, the writers decided to modify the ending scenes for their adaptation of Hamlet.  The men in the SHU determined that Hamlet, when faced with the option to seek revenge or not, must choose the latter because they acknowledged that acting with vengeance could only result in more violence, his death or else his imprisonment.  The man in Cell E explained that, ‘Shakespeare doesn’t offer an alternative to the violence.  Is this the message we’re trying to send society, particularly the youth? No’ (Scott-Douglass, 2007 p. 113.).  The writers determined that Hamlet would present a speech explaining an alternative approach, ‘I don’t want to become what my father was. I don’t want to become what your father was. We’ve got to break this cycle, man, the two of us, right here and right now’ (Scott-Douglass, 2007 p. 113.).  The men in the SHU rewrote Hamlet in such a way as to send a message, in order to teach the world an alternative to retaliation.  This was a method for nonviolent social change.  In this way, the men in the SHU became some of ‘our most valuable teachers’[1].

Each production offered a unique lens with which one can observe the topics of hatred, anger, tolerance and acceptance.  The Tectonic Theatre Company explored the attitudes, feelings and behaviors of the people who witnessed a violent hate crime.  While in contrast, the men in the SHU considered their own role as violent offenders as they recreated Shakespearian dramas.  Each work, in its own way, led its creators to produce an outcome that would illustrate for the world an alternative response to violence that would work for a greater good.

Each of these scenes led their audience to consider the cycles of violence that are perpetuated in attitudes of anger, hatred, and revenge.  In the scene from The Laramie Project, Dennis Shepard spoke of attitudes, feelings and actions that were at odds with one another.  On the one hand, he desired revenge against his son’s killer, while on the other hand he desired an outcome for a greater good.  Dennis Shepard verbalized what social ‘norms’ kept silent.

In a similar fashion, the SHU’s Shakespearian project also created a space, that otherwise did not exist, for contemplation and dialog.  The men in the SHU experienced, first hand, the costs of violence and retribution.  They had learned from their own experiences that there is a better way.  They wanted to share their wisdom with others.  In order to do so, they rewrote the storyline of Hamlet so that it would teach its audience a different approach when confronted with conflict.

Both Shakespeare as portrayed in the SHU of WVCF, and The Tectonic Theatre Company’s production, The Laramie Project, have allowed their creators and audiences alike a space and an opportunity to discuss what was otherwise normally kept silent.  In this way, they have learned, and by this they are also now teaching, that there is a way out of the chaos that is left in the aftermath of violent actions and brutality.

Perhaps it is difficult to understand a response of kindness toward a violent transgressor, such as that which Dennis Shepard offered to his son’s killers.  To some, this type of attitude might not seem likely or even healthy.  Yet, there is scientific evidence that suggests that humans have been endowed with a “forgiveness instinct” that makes forgiveness possible and even desirable in such circumstances (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).  A ‘forgiveness instinct’ acknowledges that one’s own protection and safety happens in loving community.  Therefore a response to transgression that is likely to build and maintain loving community is the preferred action.

Dennis Shepard understood this concept when he said, “I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again” (The Laramie Project, n.d.).  The Tectonic Theatre Company understood it too, as evidenced when Amanda Gronich, one of its gay members, acknowledged that they might not be able to clear the town’s bad name.  “These people trust us. They want everyone to know that they are not this crime.  Its more than just clearing Laramie’s name, it is clearing their own, and I don’t know if we can do that” (The Laramie Project, n.d.).  Dennis Shepard, and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Company acted with forgiveness toward people’s violent attitudes and actions as they simultaneously exposed the unwanted attitudes and behavior and held the perpetrators accountable.

The men in WVCF’s SHU acted in a similar way.  They discovered, through the performances that they created, that violence is cultivated in a society, by people’s attitudes, feelings and actions.  Violence was all around them in their upbringing.  There was violence at WVCF too.  It was a social norm that one act of violence was returned with another act of violence.  When they studied the Shakespearian dramas, they discovered that it was an attitude that was the ‘seed of violence’[2].  Therefore, they set themselves to cultivate a positive and peaceful attitude and actions when they changed Hamlet’s conclusion.  In this way, they have called attention to the prevalence of a violent attitude in society that shapes how its members respond to one another, and they simultaneously demonstrated a preferred nonviolent way.

The performing arts, such as theater and film, have the ability to impact our perceptions.  They can be used to create a space for people to be able to observe areas of their lives that they might not otherwise wish to examine.  When one does make space for the exploration of the violent attitudes, feelings and behaviors of others, they may learn about their own violent tendencies, too.  Likewise, through the examination of the ‘self’ it is possible to learn about ‘others’.  When seeing with a resulting more expansive view, people may gain a greater degree of compassion for both themselves and others.  The performing arts are a medium that often exploits violent themes.  Yet through thoughtful and intentional productions, the performing arts may nurture and cultivate a culture that values an alternative peace-promoting response.

References:

Scott-Douglass, A. (2007). Shakespeare Inside: The Bard Behind Bars. Bloomsbury Publishing.

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

The Laramie Project. (n.d.). [Audiovisual Material]. (Original work published 2002) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1qiTmF0p4


[1] Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic Priest in The Laramie Project (n.d.), used this phrase when describing the violent offenders, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, as ‘our most important teachers’.

[2] Referencing, again, Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic Priest in The Laramie Project (n.d.), when he used this phrase in describing Laramie community members’ negative attitudes and language against members of the LGBTQ community as, ‘the seed of violence’.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Examining the Amish Forgiveness Response to the Nickel Mines Tragedy

I have always had interest in learning about Amish folks, including their lifestyle and their beliefs, ever since I had originally learned of these people. I was intrigued by their different way of being in this world. Therefore, I had previously taken the time to learn a little bit about their history, and their way of life even before I had learned of the tragic shooting that took place on October 2, 2006 at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where six people lost their lives and five others were critically injured.

I knew that the Amish people have a heritage of persecution, and I knew also that they are a peace-loving people. The Amish tradition is descendant from the Anabaptist Christian radicals and dissenters of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation period (Who Are The Mennonites, n.d.). They are one of the ‘peace churches’. The Amish broke away from the Mennonite Church (one of the Anabaptist traditions) because they believed that the Mennonites were becoming too ‘worldly’. One of the Anabaptist faith’s key spiritual beliefs is “a forgiving love in all of life (Who Are The Mennonites, n.d.).” Amish faith tradition is based on these same spiritual beliefs of love and forgiveness that their brothers and sisters, the Mennonites, practice.

The immediate forgiveness response of the Amish people, to the tragic happenings on that Autumn day, are a testament to their deep belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ, such that followers of the Christ are to live their lives following his way of peace. The teachings of Jesus the Christ (the Christ is to be understood as ‘the way’) are that of nonresistance , distinct from nonviolent social change, somewhat like, yet different from, the method Mahatma Gandhi used when he led the movement to gain India’s independence from the rule of Great Britain (Kraybill, 2006.). The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy is their testament to Jesus’ teachings, and as such, their generosity toward the family of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the shooter, was not surprising to me.

The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy was that they reached out to the family of Mr. Roberts and immediately offered their condolences, forgiveness, assistance, and even began building community with the family (Kraybill, 2006). Jesus the Christ established a loving and forgiving example for peace-loving children of God to imitate in their own lives, and this is what shaped the response of the Amish people (Kraybill, 2006). This other way of responding to transgression is different from a typically individualistic and western worldview response to transgression, that of retaliation and/or retribution.

Perhaps this other way of responding to transgression is difficult to understand for many of us. In the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Kraybill, Nolt, & Weaver-Zercher, 2010) the authors quote the father of a slain Amish girl as saying, “There was never a time that I felt angry.” From a non-Anabaptist perspective, this type of forgiving attitude might not seem possible or even healthy. Yet, there is scientific evidence that perhaps “natural selection has endowed the human mind with a ‘forgiveness instinct’ (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).”

A forgiveness instinct may be thought of as “an adaptive solution to problems” in
environments where people are highly dependent on complex networks of cooperative relationships, policing is reliable, the system of justice is efficient and trustworthy, and social institutions are up to the task of helping truly contrite offenders make amends with the people they’ve harmed (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).

A ‘forgiveness instinct’ then, understands that one’s own protection and safety happens in loving community, and it responds to transgression in a way that is likely to build and maintain loving community, even in the expression of violence. Perhaps anger and resentment (those feelings that would fuel retaliation and retribution) are not always the natural human response. Sometimes, it can be understood, that experiencing sadness (without an accompanying anger) and working toward the reconciliation of broken relationships will serve human needs in a much more fruitful way, than could attitudes and actions that might stimulate continued violence.

Knowledge in alternative ways to respond to harm can shape how one responds in such situations. The Amish learn their forgiveness response (‘instinct’) culturally, through their religious teachings and through their family traditions (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.). Their response to transgressions is not dependent on others’ actions, such as receiving an apology. In the circumstance of the Nickel Mines tragedy, the Amish acted quickly, reaching out to offer love, forgiveness and a way to heal, where such actions were neither expected nor sought. In these actions, the Amish have been a living testament of the way to peace, as their spiritual tradition has taught them. By their living testament to their faith, the Amish are also teaching how one can ‘do peace’ to ‘the world’.

The Amish testament of faith in loving kindness is a type of living memorial to the life, death and teachings of Jesus Christ. In the Huffington Post, September 30, 2011 article, Amish Memorials: The Nickel Mines Pasture and Quiet Forgiveness, author Donald Kraybill (n.d.) stated, “Memorials reveal the deep values of the people that create them.” Memorials are symbols, and their meanings, or rather how one thinks of memorials and monuments, determines whether they may be beneficial or harmful. To state this in another way, perhaps it is one’s worldview that determines one’s interpretation of, and therefore the principles expressed, though the creation of a memorial.

In some circumstances, memorials and monuments may be used as a way to ‘never forget’ and in this they may act to perpetuate anger and even justify retribution and retaliation. For example, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan, NY is designed to help us to ‘never forget’ concerning the 9/11 tragedy that took place there in 2001. It is clear that the expression of remembrance by this memorial is that of great loss and anger. According to the official 9/11 Memorial website,

The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history (9/11 Memorial, n.d.).

We can think of and relate this sort of memorial to the angry actions to the Muslim community that continue to take place as a violent retaliatory response to the 9/11 tragedy. In this way, the reminder (the memorial or monument) may be harmful as it may perpetuate pain, anger and even violence, as a way of ‘honoring’ lost loved ones.

Yet, there are some types of memorials that do not act to perpetuate pain, anger and violence, but instead act to heal and reconcile broken relationships. An example of a healing response to the 9/11 tragedy is a particular Mennonite response. In order to commemorate the lives lost that tragic day, they offer the story of STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11, n.d.). This is a “training program, born from the ashes of 9/11”, that is currently being used as a healing model around the world (STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11, n.d.). This response, that these Mennonites have created as a different type of memorial, offer healing to those harmed on that fateful day, and it also offers healing to a larger world community in a way that can create a world with a greater degree of healing, reconciliation, and world peace, in addition to remembering lost loved ones.

Another type of memorial that was created in order to intentionally bring about goodness as a response to tragic events is another Amish living memorial. The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy was to tear down the hurtful reminder of the schoolhouse and turn that place back into a pasture (Kraybill, n.d.). They built a different type of remembrance by planting five evergreens there (a living testimony to their five lost loves ones). These trees’ branches reach toward heaven as a way to continually remind their community of the loving and forgiving response that Jesus demonstrated as an example for peace-loving Christians to imitate (Kraybill, n.d.). These five trees remind the community that the forgiving, healing, reconciling response is the response of goodness in the face of wickedness as they remember their loved ones. The Amish living tree memorial is also one that offers the entire world a reminder that there is a way to create peace out of chaos.

The forgiving, healing, peaceful response to transgression creates a space for healing, growth and the reconciling of broken relationships. This worldview is generative, not destructive. The ‘world’ was astonished by the Amish’s immediate actions of forgiveness and reconciliation with the Roberts family. They were able to do this because they were able to recognize a larger perspective than simply their own. They could see that the Roberts family must also be experiencing pain and suffering. They could see that the mainstream culture is also experiencing pain and suffering as it was demonstrated by the violent actions of Mr. Roberts. The Amish loving, forgiving and peaceful actions (even as their hearts ache) puts a stop on the violent reactions that can take place in the aftermath of such a terrible event. As a result of the loving, forgiving, healing, peaceful actions of the Amish, the ‘world’ has become much more interested in learning to live in this way.

References:

9/11 Memorial. (n.d.). 9/11 memorial. [Web page] Retrieved from https://www.911memorial.org/about-memorial

Hershberger, Guy F. (1957). Nonviolence. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 January 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nonviolence&oldid=103288.

Kraybill, D. B. (2006). Forgiveness clause. Christian Century, 123(22), 8-9.

Kraybill, D. (n.d.). Amish memorials: The Nickel Mines pasture and quiet forgiveness. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/donald-kraybill/amish-memorials-the-nickel-mines-memorial_b_982144.htm

Kraybill, D. (n.d.). Why the Amish forgave so quickly. The Christian science monitor [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1002/p09s02-coop.htm

Kraybill, D. B., Nolt, S. M., & Weaver-Zercher, D. L. (2010). Amish grace: How forgiveness transcended tragedy. John Wiley & Sons.

STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11. (n.d.). STAR: The unfolding story, 2001-’11. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/sept-11th-commemorative-book

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

Who Are the Mennonites? (n.d.). Who are the Mennonites? [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.thirdway.com/menno/FAQ.asp?F_ID=2

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forgiveness in Art: A Comic Approach to Forgiveness Performances

We can explore and learn about human attitudes and behaviors through artistic means.  The performing arts are an example of a medium that can be used in this way.  For example, the use of a humorous sketch can be used as an entertaining way of exploring some of the human attitudes and behaviors that are related to our notions of forgiveness.

An example of a humorous sketch concerning the topic of forgiveness was aired September 14, 1974 in the first episode of season eight of The Carol Burnett Show titled, Eunice and Ed take Mama to Church:  Forgive Your Enemies.

Forgive Your Enemies Part 1                        Forgive Your Enemies Part 2

This sketch uses the techniques of “satire and observational comedy” as it “subtly pokes fun of real life occurrences and real-life human behaviors”, related to our notions of forgiveness by “inflating them and making fun of them (The Family Sketch, n.d.).”

This sketch brings to life the difficulty that people sometimes have in reconciling their very human (and opposing) instinctual inclinations to a “desire for revenge” and their “capacity for forgiveness” as they attempt to “make the world a more forgiving, less vengeful place (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.). ”

References:

The Family Sketch. (n.d.). The family sketch. [Web page]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Family_(sketch)

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Monuments and Memorials – Symbols of Un-forgiveness or Symbols of Forgiveness?

Memorials and monuments are symbols. Their meanings, or rather how one thinks of memorials and monuments, determines whether they are beneficial or harmful. What I mean by this is that perhaps it is one’s worldview that determines one’s interpretation and therefore the experience that is derived from a memorial or a monument.

For example, some folks certainly do use memorials and monuments as a way to ‘never forget’ and to perpetuate anger and even justify retaliation. For example, I often see Facebook posts to ‘never forget’ concerning the 9/11 tragedy. We can think of and relate this sort of ‘memorial’ to the angry actions to the Muslim community that continue to take place as a violent retaliatory response to the 9/11 tragedy. In this way, the reminder (the memorial or ‘monument’) may be harmful as it may perpetuate pain, anger and violence.

Sometimes memorials exist even as they are not consciously recognized as such. An example of such a memorial could be the transformation of the  continent of North America that has taken place as a result Western European colonial expansion. For me, attempting to understand how Native-Americans might feel concerning the loss and harm that they have experienced (and continue to experience) as a result of Western European imperialistic colonial expansion is difficult, because I am a recipient of the benefits of that social change, not a member of the oppressed culture. Yet, I am certain that Native-Americans experience daily reminders of their past and present injuries because the dominating mainstream U.S. culture serves as a constant reminder, even if no formal ‘monument’ exists. This type of memorial, therefore, may be an obstacle to healing, because it can be a constant reminder of one’s ongoing pain.

Other memorials are created as living memorials in order to intentionally bring about goodness as a response to tragic events. I think of the lyrics from a song in the children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, “up from the ashes come the roses of success” and relate this to the Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy that took place on October 2 of 2006 . The Amish community had the school where the tragic event took place torn down, and with it the hurtful reminder. They built a different type of remembrance by planting evergreens (a living testimony) that reach toward heaven as a way to continually remind their community of the peaceful response that Jesus the Christ (the word Christ to be understood as ‘the way’) demonstrated as an example for peace-loving Christians to imitate and live.

The peaceful response creates a space for the reconciling of broken relationships. It is generative, not destructive. The ‘world’ was astonished by the Amish immediate actions of forgiveness and reconciliation with the transgressor’s family. The Amish were able to recognize a larger perspective than simply their own. They could see that the shooter’s family must also be experiencing pain and suffering. They could see that the mainstream culture is also experiencing pain and suffering as it was demonstrated by the violent actions of the shooter. The Amish forgiving and peaceful actions (even as their hearts ache) puts a stop on the violent reactions that can take place in the event of a tragedy. By their action, the ‘world’ has become much more interested in this peaceful forgiving, generative response. Roses are growing up from the ashes.

I also think of another tree-planting response to violence theme in the poem ‘Torture’ by Alice Walker, author of the novel, The Color Purple.

Alice Walker Torture Video from Amnesty Bermuda on Vimeo.

Please also listen to Ms. Walker speak about response to tragic events as she discusses the reason that she wrote The Color Purple here:

http://www.makers.com/alice-walker

Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, can act as a memorial, a testament to the lives of the African-Americans that lived, suffered, loved, joyed and died as a certain notion of ‘progress’ shaped a new country.

These three examples of memorials offer very different perspectives for one to consider. Surely, when a monument or memorial is intentionally built it’s purpose is to remember. Other memorials exist perhaps unintentionally, but because they generate memories, they are a memorial. Other times a memorial may be built in order to achieve growth, that is, to inspire a path toward healing, forgiveness, and perhaps reconciliation of damaged relationships. How one thinks about a memorial depends on the assumptions concerning the purpose of the memorial and this also depends on the worldview, history and circumstances of the person interpreting meaning from the symbol.

Memorials can act as symbols that remind us of a path toward healing and forgiveness. Sometimes, arriving at a state of forgiveness must be incredibly difficult.  Therefore, thinking of forgiveness might be better understood as a process. That is, a process that begins with pain, and perhaps even anger, but moves toward increasingly positive attitudes and/or actions that takes place in such a way as to bring about greater emotional, physical and/or relational healing. In this way, forgiveness is not something that is done and completed, but something that continues to take place and something that continues to bring benefit to those involved in the forgiveness process. Memorials can help us to accomplish this type of healing and forgiveness, if we choose this path.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forgiveness in Native-American Experience

Experiences of loss, slight and compromise are common occurrences to many native people in nations that were conquered as a result of the Western European colonial expansion that began in the 16th century.  For example, in what is now known as the United States of America, many native people(s) experienced situations of genocide, ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation as a consequence of this social change.  The anger that has resulted from these injuries has made it difficult for Native-Americans to experience a process of forgiveness as a response to the harm they continue to suffer.

One group of Native-Americans that experienced great loss was the Dakota people.  During the 17th century, Manifest Destiny, the Euro-American principle that the United States were destined by God to expand the virtues of empire across North America, was used to promote an acceleration of territorial expansion.  As a result of this expansion, the native peoples were forced to move to and live on ‘reservations’.  The land of the Dakota tribes became the Dakota Territory on March 2, 1861, until November 2, 1889, when the final portion of the then reduced territory was admitted to the union as the states of North and South Dakota.

During this time period, there were many conflicts and struggles between the native people and the pioneers.  Most notable were the U.S. – Dakota Conflict that took place on December 26, 1862 and the Wounded Knee Massacre that took place on December 29, 1890.  The U.S. – Dakota Conflict was the “largest mass execution in U.S. history” when “thirty-eight Dakota warriors were executed (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  At the Wounded Knee Massacre, hundreds of Lakota Native-Americans were killed and at least twenty U.S. soldiers were awarded The Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest honor for their military action (Green, J., n.d.).  The Dakota people experienced immeasurable loss from these events: They were removed from their homeland, their way of life was forever changed, and there was a loss of trust between the Dakota people and the non-Dakota people.

youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tG7hEVUCwiU&w=420&h=315

The loss to Native-American people is not only an historical occurrence, because loss from these events continues to this present day.  For example, as portrayed in Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One sky above us: The West, 1996), Albert White Hat (1938-2013), a Lakota man and teacher of Lakota language, at 16 years of age, was sent to St. Francis Jesuit Mission School, a boarding school.  Before that time, he grew up in his traditional Lakota culture ‘of stories’.  The purpose of the boarding school system was to force assimilation of Native-Americans to the dominant mainstream U.S. culture.  The students were not allowed to practice their traditions or speak their native language.  The boarding school system “killed those stories”, and with them, the Lakota culture, and for Albert White Hat, shame resulted (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  In this way, the loss experienced by the Lakota people, as a result of Western European imperialistic economic expansion, is unending.

For Native-American people, individually and as communities, forgiveness is difficult because they experience daily the injustices they currently endure.  Albert White Hat spoke of policy and laws that were imposed on Native-Americans by the white-man’s government and their schools.  These policies and laws, such as the 1851 Treaty in which the ‘Sioux’ tribes lost most of their land, were created with intention to destroy the native people and their culture, and appropriate native people’s land and resources for capitalistic gain to the benefit of non-native U.S. citizens.  In this way, Native-Americans and their culture and history were systematically excluded from mainstream U.S. culture and society.   Native-American people live daily with the injustices imposed upon them by mainstream U.S. culture and its government and policies, and therefore, forgiveness is an ongoing process that, as Albert White Hat said, will not end for hundreds of years (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  Forgiveness is difficult because of the ongoing hardship that must be endured as the result of loss of home, loss of way of life, and a loss of trust, but also because of the shame that results from the oppression imposed on them by a dominating culture.

Shame is a feeling of dishonor, and it is the opposite of self-respect.  Dakota and Lakota people feel shame as a result of living with a morally incompatible lifestyle and belief system that was and is imposed on them by another dominating culture.  The shame experienced through the oppression of a dominating morally incompatible worldview (a moral conflict) presents itself in a different sort of societal relations understanding and expression.

One illustration of incompatible expression is in the worldviews of the Dakota people in contrast to that of the U.S. government, and this is what eventually led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  The Dakota worldview includes a certain understanding and expression of the notion of ‘relatedness’ as it pertains to ‘family’, ‘friends’, ‘father’ and ‘land’ (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  This is especially important to know in order to understand the Dakota notions of the ‘fatherly’ role of the U.S. government.  From the Dakota perspective, according to Anderson, as cited by Dowlin & Dowlin (2002), “fathers always willingly shared whatever they possessed with their children” and in contrast, the Euro-American use of the word father “means an authoritative, controlling relationship.”  This difference in worldviews concerning family relatedness explains how the territory treaty signing symbolized different meanings for these two groups.

The Dakota and the non-Dakota people held conflicting worldviews as expressed through their definitions and assumptions concerning the concept of ‘relatedness’.  The U.S. government understood the expression of treaty signing “as a way to dominate the Dakota and gain possession of the continent” and by this, the “Dakota were left with confined living areas (reservations), restricted activities, and eventually unfulfilled promises of needed provisions (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  The Dakota people likely felt resentment and anger due to the fact that they were misunderstood and therefore deceived in such a way that they now lacked self-respect because they lived in a degrading and shameful situation of relative helplessness and poverty.

In a similar way, theses two incompatible worldviews presented themselves in the expression of spoken language.  This was evident when Albert White Hat discussed how the oppressive boarding school system did not allow the students to speak their own language, and insisted on the use of the English language instead (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  The impact to Albert White Hat was that, because of the moral conflict in this situation, he felt shame and an overwhelming anger and he held onto that anger for many years.  At one point in his life, he felt that he had no choice but to kill members of the dominating oppressive culture in order to honor his ancestors.  For Albert White Hat, shame led to resentment, resentment led to anger, and anger led to thoughts of violence (as a way of regaining self-respect) and that blocked the path of forgiveness and healing.

Albert White Hat was feeling a great deal of shame, resentment and anger, and he was thinking violent thoughts, but deep down inside, what he really wanted was to live and to be happy.  He came to this awareness after spending some time fasting and meditating.  One day, when he rose in the morning and faced the East (which, in Native-American culture symbolizes renewal), he came to the realization that he did not want to follow a path of violence, but instead he felt that he deserved to live and to be happy (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  He knew that he had to forgive in order to do so.

As demonstrated in the experience of Albert White Hat, a state of un-forgiveness can be the source of many social ills including substance abuse, and by extension – spousal abuse, and even suicide.  An example of how forgiveness may help in the recovery of substance abuse, specifically that of alcoholism, is told by Sr. Molly Monahan, in her essay, Forgiveness in A.A (2008).  Sr. Monahan wrote that the stories of forgiveness, as told by fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), acted as “a faith that works” to heal.  She said that she heard of others’ experiences concerning the restorative powers of forgiveness. Then, when she reached step five of AA’s twelve-step recovery program, she experienced that she was, as were others, able to forgive not only the transgressions of others, but also her own transgressions.   She wrote that by this experience, she “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity (Monahan, 2008).”  By this account, it appears that a state of un-forgiveness can perpetuate destructive addictive behavior, whereas a process of forgiving can be healing.

Furthermore, a 2011 study, Forgiveness, Depression, and Suicidal Behavior Among a Diverse Sample of College Students, suggested that forgiveness, as a voluntary “coping process . . .may buffer . . . poor mental health outcomes (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  The researchers concluded from their study that “forgiveness of self and others could be an important way to reduce the interpersonal distress and depressogenic ‘psychache’ that often precipitate a suicidal crisis (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  Therefore, it seems that if a state of un-forgiveness may be a source of social problems, it would be reasonable then, that forgiveness could be a way to resolve them.

An extraordinary example of forgiveness acting as a balm to heal social ills and moral conflict between Native-Americans and non-native people is documented in Healing History’s Wounds:  Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non-Dakota Peoples (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The authors of this paper begin their account with an explanation of a moral conflict, explaining how it existed and still exists between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people, and conclude the account with details concerning a model that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is currently in process between these two groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) detailed the moral conflict that existed between the Dakota and non-Dakota people.  They cited Pearce and Littlejohn concerning what takes place “when two incompatible social worlds collide” when they wrote,

1) Each side considers its own position vital and sees the adversary’s position as dangerous; 2) persons set aside feelings and beliefs that don’t fit easily with official positions and statements associated with their ‘‘side’’; 3) valid concerns on both sides are belittled, and important values are denigrated; 4) passion, energy, and material resources are depleted in fruitless and redundant battles; and 5) persons are left frustrated, turned-off, and despairing (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).

The moral conflict between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people cause people in both cultures to misunderstand and distrust one another, to avoid one another, to discount each other’s point of view, and to engage in costly conflict.

As illustrated above in the examples of what led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict and the experience of Albert White Hat, the moral conflict between the Native-Americans and non-native people was evidenced by the incompatible understanding and expression of ‘relatedness’ in their differing worldviews.  Additionally, the colliding worldviews included different notions concerning power relations.  The Dakota maintained a relational, decentralized power structure, while in disharmony with Dakota values, the Euro-American model of power was a hierarchical and centralized system (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).  Because of these differences, the resulting initial response to one another was one of disgust (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The resultant conflicts that ensued led to Native-Americans being forced by the dominant culture, to live in isolation on ‘reservations’.  It is clear to see in this situation how the ignorance concerning each other’s way of understanding, and how the negative feelings of resentment and distrust that each group held concerning one another could result.

In spite of the seemingly insurmountable dilemmas caused by clashing worldviews, the Dakota people and non-Dakota people are now beginning a process of sharing and learning, which is resulting in a movement toward understanding, healing and reconciliation between these groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) explained that this movement toward transformation began with the efforts of two men who met on a fishing trip in 1958, Amos Owen, a Dakota and Bud Lawrence, a non-native businessman.  They engaged in “on-going visits, lengthy conversations, shared experiences in the way of family get-togethers, and the eventual collaborative creation of communally shared Dakota and non-native activities, which contributed to increased mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s culture and uniqueness (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  This set the stage and a model of action that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation at the community, state and national level.

What began in 1963 as a mini-pow wow as an educational opportunity for children expanded to intentional acts demonstrating respect, honor and friendship and the promotion cultural learning opportunities.  It included a ninety mile walk by Lawrence and two other friends from his university in Mankato to Red Wing, Minnesota and another pow wow in reciprocation (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  These reciprocating communal events that demonstrated respect, honor and friendship, and offered educational opportunity continued and expanded and began a healing process between the Dakota and non-Dakota communities (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

Of special interest are the events that took place that served to commemorate the thirty-eight warriors who perished during the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  First, Lawrence began a yearly observance to the thirty-eight lost warriors by going to Mankato to offer prayers for the fallen men each December 26th, the day of the massacre (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Then a pow wow was planned and dedicated to the memory of the lost warriors and took place at the Mankato city ball park (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The event was successful in that many showed up, but it was financially difficult to continue (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Amazingly, a stunning occurrence happened just before the dancing began, thirty-eight bald eagles circled above the baseball field as if to “solidif[y] the understanding that Mankato events would commemorate the 38 executed Dakota (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”

As a result of these happenings, efforts to continue community actions of “dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences” expanded even to the state level and beyond (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.). Especially notable is that Governor Rudy Perpich even proclaimed 1987 to be ‘The Year of Reconciliation’ in Minnesota in observance of the 125th anniversary of the 1862 U.S. – Dakota Conflict (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The result of this effort is that the actions continued and expanded such that a ‘Year of Reconciliation’, a ‘Decade of Reconciliation’ and even a ‘Century of Reconciliation’ was declared outside of Minnesota borders, including actions taken by churches, schools, and governments, and these actions were further supported by the media (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

What began as a friendship between two men from very different cultural backgrounds expanded to a national level cross-cultural exchange.  What is being created by these types of events is a “place where dialogue, ‘new ceremonies,’ shared meanings, and shared histories [can] take place (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  In other words, Native-American history, culture and experience are becoming more and more accepted elements of U.S. culture.

In fact, these same types of methods of reconciliation are now being used in the growing field of Peace and Justice and the practice of Restorative Justice.  One especially pioneering group of individuals that work in the Restorative Justice field is the Mennonite Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists are another group who have historically experienced situations of oppression and extermination by a dominating culture because of their different cultural beliefs.  Many individuals of their group were murdered for their religious beliefs during the Radical Reformation period of the Catholic Church that began during the sixteenth century in Germany and Switzerland, as documented in the Martyr’s Mirror (1994).  This is the group from which the Amish have descended.  Members of the Amish religious sect shocked ‘the world’ by their very quick forgiveness response to a tragic occurrence when an angry shooter killed five students and harmed five others at their Nickel Mines School, in Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006.  In the wake of this tragedy, the Amish community responded with forgiveness and kindness to the deceased shooter’s family.  In doing so, they practiced their deep faith in the ways of Jesus Christ by offering “forgiveness and actively making peace” as an “alternative to perpetual fear” and strife (Kasdorf, 2007.).   The Peace and Justice field and Restorative Justice programs are not forgiveness per se, yet they have similar elements of practice that result in relationship restoration and the healing from transgressions.

In Anabaptist circles, which include the peace churches of the Mennonites, the Amish, the Hutterites, and the Brethren in Christ, Howard Zehr is considered the ‘grandfather’ of the Restorative Justice practice in the field of Justice and Peacebuilding (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, n.d.) (Howard Zehr, n.d.).  The model of Restorative Justice that he advocates incorporates cultural values of both the Native-Americans and the Maori of New Zealand in his philosophy that includes the “core values” known “as three ‘R’s’ – respect, responsibility and relationships (Restorative Justice and Peacebuiding, n.d.).”  Zehr states that the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University “is organized around three central fields: trauma awareness and healing, conflict transformation and restorative justice. Several other auxiliary fields include healthy organizations and community development.  (Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding, n.d.)”  The methods used in the EMU Center for Peace and Justice programs mirror the methods currently being used by the Dakota people.

That the methods used by less dominant cultures are being studied and in turn now used by the dominant culture in order to create spaces for dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences in order to foster forgiveness and healing is encouraging.  As cited by Kazdorf (2007), David L. Weaver-Zercher affirmed the notion that “the Amish symbolically function as ‘a saving remnant’ within the dominant culture.  Perhaps this is true also for the Maori and the Native-American peoples and other non-dominant cultures, too.  Non-dominant cultures have been systematically oppressed and excluded even as they have so much to share with the people of the dominating culture; it is comforting that this is now changing.

To summarize, Native peoples experience a great deal of loss including negative social and health effects that are a result of a morally conflicting worldview imposed on them as a consequence of Western European colonial expansion.  The oppression they experience has, for many years, blocked the way of forgiveness and healing.  Yet, what began in the 1950s as a friendship between a Dakota man and a non-Dakota man has become a healing model that has expanded to a national level.  This model of reconciliation aids a process of forgiveness by using indigenous values in order to bring disparate groups together through communal events that demonstrate respect, honor and friendship, and offer educational opportunities as a way of fostering understanding and reconciliation among these people.  This is restoring self-respect for Native-Americans and allowing a space for healing.  These same methods are now being used in other peace and justice programs.  It is clear that the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, effort that is required in order to understand and forgive transgressions may be key to achieving a world of greater justice and peace.

References:

Dowlin, S. L., & Dowlin, B. (2002). Healing History’s Wounds: Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non‐Dakota Peoples. Peace & Change, 27(3), 412-436.

Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. (n.d.). Global Anabaptist Mennonite encyclopedia online. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.gameo.org/index.php?title=Welcome_to_GAMEO

Green, J. (n.d.). The medals of wounded knee. Nebraska history [Web page]. Retrieved from http://nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1994MedalsWKnee.pd

Hirsch, J. K., Webb, J. R., & Jeglic, E. L. (2011). Forgiveness, depression, and suicidal behavior among a diverse sample of college students. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 67(9), 896-906. doi:10.1002/jclp.20812

Howard Zehr. (n.d.). Howard Zehr. [Web page] Retrieved from https://www.emu.edu/personnel/people/show/zehr

Kasdorf, J. (2007). To Pasture: “Amish Forgiveness,” Silence, and the West Nickel Mines School Shooting. Cross Currents, 57(3), 328-347.

Monahan, M. (2008). Forgiveness in AA. (Cover story). Human Development, 29(2), 16-19.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from http://digital.films.com.library.esc.edu/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=1667&xtid=44418

Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding. (n.d.). Restorative justice and peacebuilding. [Web page]. Retrieved from http://emu.edu/now/restorative-justice/2009/04/20/restorative-justice-and-peacebuilding/#sthash.Rg3eb5D3.dpu

Van Braght, Thieleman J., and Thieleman J. Braght. Martyrs mirror. Herald Press, 1994.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Theorizing the Nature of Forgiveness

The idea of forgiveness is complex because it has several dimensions.  For many, forgiveness is considered a human virtue that can act as a path toward healing for victims, transgressors and relationships alike.  In addition to viewing forgiveness in this way, it may also be thought of as an alternate choice to a human inclination of a fight or flight response toward a transgression.  It can also be understood that there are different types of forgiveness in addition to different theories on the purpose of forgiveness.

First, different types of forgiveness may be thought of as having different characteristics.  This way of thinking about forgiveness has been explored by Michael E. McCullough & Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, in The Psychology of Forgiveness (2002).  They have categorized the notion of forgiveness as a psychological construct consisting of several dimensions.  They identify the application of forgiveness as: 1) a characteristic of social units, 2) as a personality disposition, and 3) as a response.

What this means is that forgiveness is socially contextual.  That is, the nature of forgiveness depends on the types of relationships in which they occur in addition to the nature of the transgression being forgiven.  Therefore, forgiveness is a characteristic of relationships or social units.

Additionally, a person with a propensity to forgive is a relatively positive and agreeable person.  There is a correlation with the advancing of age and a relatively positive and agreeable personality that has a propensity to forgive.  In this way, forgiveness correlates with a relatively agreeable and positive personality disposition.

Also, forgiveness takes place when people experience a change concerning how they think about, feel and act toward those who have hurt them.  This happens in such a way that their ideas, feelings and actions become more positive over time.  Forgiveness in this way is a response to a transgression.

Therefore, the act of forgiveness can be thought of as an intersection of the increasingly positive attitude and actions of someone who has been harmed as a result of their own personality disposition, and their response to the social relationships in which the transgression occurred, including the nature of the transgression.

Yet, there are not only different characteristics or types of forgiveness, there are also different theoretical perspectives concerning the purpose of forgiveness.  For example, forgiveness may be understood as a relationship-building tool.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Robert Enright, one of the earliest researchers on forgiveness, understood forgiveness as a process that may be used to build and maintain interpersonal relationships (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 99.).  Thought of in this way, the act of forgiveness takes place when one develops a kind attitude toward a transgressor such that one has “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly hurt us, while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her” (Enright, Freedman, & Rique, 1998, pp. 46-47).   Because Enright believed that the purpose of forgiveness was to build community, he asserted that forgiveness could only be directed toward people, and not situations (Enright & Zell, 1989, p. 53.)  To Enright, the purpose of forgiveness was to build and maintain community.

Another theory on the purpose of forgiveness is that it may be understood as a way to free oneself from a role as a victim.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone, and Lee (1999) understood forgiveness as a change in one’s thought process and emotional state whereby a transformation takes place in which one gives up living the role of the victim.  This sort of transformation takes place by freely letting go of negative emotions (including anger and resentment) toward a transgressor, and freely letting go of a desire for revenge, punishment and even restitution.  This change takes place even after a realistic assessment of the harm and an acknowledgement of the transgressor’s responsibility.  To Tangey, et al., forgiveness in this way, is a cancelling of all debts, so to speak, in order to free oneself from the bonds of victimhood.

An additional way of thinking about the purpose of forgiveness is that its application may reduce interpersonal conflicts and increase the likelihood of more agreeable interpersonal relationships.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007, pp. 279-282.), according to Mc Cullough and his colleagues, forgiveness has a pro-social motivation such that an avoidance of a transgressor and/or a desire for revenge toward a transgressor are both lessened, while at the same time, a desire for positive action increases.  In this way, and over time, a victim’s benevolence toward a transgressor increases (2000; McCullough et al., 1998, 2000a, 2000b).  According to Mc Cullough’s theory, the purpose of forgiveness is to reduce interpersonal conflicts.

Although there are various perspectives and theories about the different purposes of forgiveness, forgiveness may, in fact, be a means of healing from any hurtful situation or event.  As cited by Snyder and Lopez (2007) Thompson and her colleagues (Thomson et al., 2005), offered a very broad understanding of forgiveness as a “freeing from a negative attachment to the source that has transgressed against a person (pp. 279-282.).”  With this understanding, the act of forgiveness may be applied to oneself, another person, a group, or even a situation or event that is harmful or out of one’s control (Snyder & Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.).  This perspective or theory on the purpose of forgiveness offers inclusiveness such that forgiveness may be the way to heal from any harm.

The complexity of the subject of forgiveness includes the intersection of types of forgiveness and the purposes of forgiveness.  Forgiveness should always be understood within the context of the relationships in which it is applied, and the nature of the transgression.  Forgiveness may be a characteristic of relationships, a personality disposition, and/or a response to a transgression.  The purposes of forgiveness may include to heal oneself, others, and/or relationships from any harmful situation or event.  The notion of forgiveness is multi-dimensional in that it is a response to a transgression that is dependent upon one’s perspective and personality disposition in addition to the social context in which it occurs (including the nature of the relationships and the transgression), and its intended purpose.

Yet this very inclusive view of forgiveness can be expanded even more.  For example, in his speech, The Psychology of Forgiveness, (2008) Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, approached the subject of forgiveness through a scientific lens, by which he offered insights into the healing powers of forgiveness.

Dr. Luskin’s understanding of forgiveness is inclusive in that it is an intersection of the forgiveness ‘types’.  To him, forgiveness is a response to harm, such as interpersonal unkindness, human failings, life’s unpredictability and difficulties, or simply the horrors experienced as part of being a human being.  The response is that the victim of harm alters a negative disposition by practicing the elements of forgiveness such as goodwill, patience and compassion.  This practice results in a transformation toward an agreeable and positive disposition and it has many benefits including the reduction of harmful stress and the improvement of emotional, physical and relational health and wellbeing.  Therefore, Luskin understands forgiveness to comprise of each of the three types:  forgiveness as a response, forgiveness as a disposition, and forgiveness as a characteristic of social units, but he also understands forgiveness in another sense.

Theoretically speaking, to Dr. Luskin, forgiveness is a psychological therapeutic approach to letting go of the stress of un-forgiveness as a way to regain and maintain emotional, physical, and relational health benefits.  What Dr. Luskin proposed in his speech is that the ‘practice of forgiveness’ can be taught to individuals (and groups) such that as they apply the elements of forgiveness to their daily lives, they will realize the associated health benefits such as cardiovascular health improvement and breathing improvement, and therefore live healthier and happier lives.  In this way, Luskin’s theory concerning the purpose of forgiveness is much like Tangney’s:  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  Luskin’s approach to the subject of forgiveness is also broad and inclusive and in this way, he also aligns with the theories of Thompson, who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.

To Dr. Luskin, the act of forgiveness is one of purposefulness.  His intention is to teach a method of forgiveness in such a way that anyone may use it in order to receive the emotional, physical and relational benefits that it has to offer.  His broad and inclusive approach to the subject of forgiveness has the primary focus of teaching others how to use forgiveness as a means of releasing stress that is caused by any type of harm in order to increase one’s own emotional, physical and/or relational health.  Dr. Luskin’s very inclusive view on the subject of forgiveness is that it can help anyone heal emotionally, physically, and/or relationally from any type of harm.

My own perspective concerning the subject of forgiveness is that forgiveness is purposeful, personal and multi-dimensional or multifaceted.  I can see this by the different lenses with which I view forgiveness:  The different dimensions (purposes) for which one chooses to forgive, and how the ‘types’ of forgiveness intersect.

For example, I discussed the emotion of anger in the subject of forgiveness as it relates to a nonviolent social change ideology, explaining that anger toward an injustice may used in a purposeful way in order to fuel a thoughtful response, such that situations of greater social justice may result.  I also related forgiveness as a kindly and healing response to harm when I explored this concept in Zora Neale Hurston’s short story The Gilded Six Bits (n.d.).  I also related forgiveness to process that takes place over time, and may even be an ongoing practice.  I explored this when writing about Albert White Hat’s story of forgiveness, Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One Sky Above Us, 1996).

In these examples, I viewed forgiveness as a purposeful response to an injustice and/or a harm (depending on the social context), plus a change in attitude and action (personality disposition), and as a characteristic of social units in that the initial harm may be transformed into a greater social good either by improved personal wellbeing, improved social relationships, or greater social justice in general.  For this reason, I tend to think of forgiveness as layered or multi-faceted rather than being of different distinct types.

Additionally, in the examples of forgiveness that I examined, I found that the purpose of forgiveness might include healing oneself, to heal others, and/or to heal relationships from any harmful situation or event, depending on context.  For this reason, my ideas concerning forgiveness align with Tangney’s theories (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.):  Forgiveness is a transformation of one’s own way of thinking and feeling that frees oneself from a role of victimhood and restores health and wellbeing to the individual(s) who practice forgiveness.  I also understand forgiveness with a broad view, attempting to take in many perspectives.  Therefore, my ideas concerning the purpose of forgiveness also align with the theories of Thompson (as cited by Snyder and Lopez, 2007, pp. 279-282.), who understood forgiveness as a way for anyone to heal from any type of harm.  And my ideas of forgiveness also aligns with Luskin, in that forgiveness can be a purposeful method of healing oneself, others, and relationships.

To me, forgiveness is a personal choice, and sometimes relational response to any possible harm, such that an ongoing process of moving toward an increasingly positive attitude (and perhaps actions) occurs in a way that brings about greater emotional, physical and/or relational healing to those harmed, to the transgressors, to relationships, communities and even societies, depending on the context of the transgression and the social relationships in which it occurred.

References:

Hurston, Z. N. (n.d.). The gilded six bits [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.bhscpa.org/0708HW/bells/bellamlit/thegildedsixbits.pd

McCullough, M. E., & Witvliet, C. V. (2002). The psychology of forgiveness. Handbook of positive psychology, 2, 446-455.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from http://digital.films.com.library.esc.edu/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=1667&xtid=44418

Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

“The Psychology of Forgiveness”. (2008). (Theology Institute Annual Conference: Forgiveness ) [Audiovisual Material]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlo26PwfcL

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.