The Forgiveness Factor
Social scientists like Robert Enright are discovering the healing power of a Christian virtue.
January 10, 2000
In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's documentary on the Holocaust, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising talked about the bitterness that remains in his soul over how he and his neighbors were treated by the Nazis: "If you could lick my heart," he says, "it would poison you."
Researchers are finding that this Holocaust survivor's sentiment is not necessarily metaphorical. While the biblical practice of forgiveness is usually preached as a Christian obligation, social scientists are discovering that forgiveness may help lead to victims' emotional and even physical healing and wholeness.
Academic interest in person-to-person forgiveness is relatively new. As recently as the early 1980s, Dr. Glen Mack Harnden went to the University of Kansas library and looked up the word forgiveness in Psychological Abstracts. He couldn't find a single reference.
This earlier neglect is being remedied at a startling pace. Former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot are leading a $10 million "Campaign for Forgiveness Research," established as a nonprofit corporation to attract donations that will support forgiveness research proposals.
In May of 1998, the John Templeton Foundation awarded research grants for the study of forgiveness to 29 scholars. Some of the projects now being funded include Forgiveness After Organizational Downsizing; Forgiveness in Family Relationships; Secular and Spiritual Forgiveness Interventions for Recovering Alcoholics; The Effects of Forgiveness on the Physical and Psychological Development of Severely Traumatized Females; Forgiveness, Health, and Wellbeing in the Lives of Post-Collegiate Young Adults; Challenges to Forgiveness in Marriage; and Healing, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation ...