Culture and Forgiveness


ForgivenessThe word “forgiveness” has been popping up a lot these days in the media.

Actor Mark Wahlberg is asking for forgiveness for committing racially motivated assaults as a teenager.  In filing an application for a pardon with the state of Massachusetts, the 43-year-old actor says when he attacked a Vietnamese man with a stick 27 years ago, he was a delinquent teenager mixed up with drugs, booze and the wrong crowd.

And after Islamic terrorists murdered 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo the publication featured a weeping Prophet Mohammed on its cover saying:“tout est pardonne” – all is forgiven.

It seems, however, forgiveness, is more easily asked for than given.

In his poem, An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope reminds us, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”  But are there some actions or behaviours, so egregious that they are unforgivable? And what role does culture play in how willing we are to forgive?

Researchers have found – yes there is such a thing as forgiveness research – that many people don’t know or understand how to forgive. Nor do they realize that forgiving someone can benefit both themselves and others.

Jonathan Boyer is the first American cyclist to race in the Tour de France. Thirteen years ago he was convicted of molesting an 11-year-old girl over a period of five years. Boyer served time in prison and it appears he has been on the road to redemption ever since.


Frederic Courbet Photo


Today Boyer is helping to create a cycling team in Rwanda. The documentary Rising From Ashes tells that story and how young athletes from former warring ethnic groups have come together to form a team.

I became involved in an interesting exchange of emails among cycling friends about whether Boyer was worthy of forgiveness. One of my cycling buddies said the documentary was an attempt to “whitewash” Boyer’s crimes. “I believe some acts and some people are indeed beyond redemption. Make of that what you will. Hell is too good for them,” he said.

Another had this to say: “There should be absolutely no tolerance, anywhere in the human family for this type of insidious crime. This man should have paid the supreme price for his crime no less than his life…the very act of appearing to be sympathetic towards him is a direct insult to children and undermines their personal safety.”

The Enright Forgiveness Inventory that measures the degree to which a person forgives another person, group or organization that has hurt him or her deeply and unfairly, has found cross-cultural differences in customs and rituals regarding forgiveness.

People from individualistic cultures, like my cycling buddies here in Toronto for example, are more likely to evaluate others’ behaviours on the basis of individual choice.  Those living in collectivist cultures like Rwanda are more likely to evaluate others’ behaviours on the basis of how likely the person will repeat the offence in the future.

I have never been to Rwanda but I and the rest of the world know that as many as 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority, were murdered by members of the Hutu majority. If there were ever a people or a country that’s struggling with giving forgiveness it would be Rwanda. Yet it appears, many Rwandans have chosen to forgive and move on.

In post-conflict societies in which victims and perpetrators continue to live together, researchers say empathy “rehumanizes” both victims and perpetrators and “nurtures healthy human relations.”

The Truth and Reconciliation process in post-apartheid South Africa still confounds many in the West. How can the blacks of South Africa forgive the whites? Granted, it can be argued that it was more about reconciliation (the restoration of friendly relations) rather than forgiveness (the act of excusing a mistake or offense), but some measure of forgiveness emerged from the process.




Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is now involved with the Forgiveness Project, says: “When I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person; a better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.”

If it’s true that failing to forgive –  in effect holding a grudge — can have debilitating effects on someone’s physical and mental health, what about the impact on a group, village, state or an entire country? Are forgiving societies, those that do not have the death penalty for example, healthier societies?

Yes, we all make mistakes; some of which can cause irreparable harm and even death to others. Obviously, to maintain civil society, the perpetrator must be punished. But the severity of the punishment may say more about those meting out the punishment than the individual who committed the offence in the first place.

Carl Thoresen, who has published extensively on science and psychology of forgiveness, spirituality, and health, offers a six-step model for forgiveness:

  1. Exposure to the situation – “re-experiencing” the trauma along with specific description of the situation
  2. Acknowledging negative reactions and effects – admitting bitterness, blame, anger, and resentment and recognizing the effects of these negative reactions
  3. The act of forgiveness – making a conscious decision to forgive before experiencing the emotional desire to do so
  4. Healing the hurt – as this process continues, negative emotions decrease
  5. Approaching the offender – gaining closure through contact with the person and acting with love
  6. Reducing future hurt reactions – see and react to others with more empathy, compassion and love when they act in potentially harmful ways.
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Showing 2 comments
  • Cynthia Reyes

    This is an important, thoughtful and lovely piece. Thank you.

  • laurenreyesgrange

    Love this. Thank you for writing it.

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