Murderers, Psychotherapy--and the Flight Into Forgiveness

Psychiatric TimesVol 32 No 8
Volume 32
Issue 8

May we forgive a murderer on behalf of his victims?

“Forgiveness” is much in the news these days, focused mainly on the horrific murders of 9 parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Many commentators heaped praise upon some surviving family members and other parishioners of the church, for their almost immediate willingness to “forgive” the identified gunman-despite any direct expression of contrition or remorse on the part of the alleged (and self-confessed) shooter. This communal spirit of forgiveness was generally viewed as a shining example of Christian ethics in action, and the power of a community to heal itself. But a dissenting view was voiced by some, including the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam,1 who wrote:

Almost immediately after [the suspect in the deadly shooting] allegedly slaughtered nine parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, Christians stepped forward to forgive him. Most astonishingly, some of his victims’ relatives spoke out at [the shooter’s] first court appearance and forgave him for his acts. The relatives’ forgiveness may play a role in [the] sentencing. Because “victims’ statements” have wormed their way into American jurisprudence, they might save [the shooter] from capital punishment. But suppose we don’t want to forgive? I don’t. It’s nowhere in my heart. Houses of worship aren’t always sanctuaries, but they should be. He killed people in the one place where they could reasonably expect to find shelter with their friends, with their beliefs, and with their God. His sick motives don’t interest me very much. I forgive him nothing.

Beam’s column drew many passionate responses, pro and con-the latter consisting largely of the usual anonymous slurs and accusations we inevitably see on the Internet (so much for the spirit of forgiveness!). Beam was accused, for example, of “holding on to hatred,” merely because he refused to forgive. But a refusal to forgive a particular person for a particular act is not the same as hating the person-though it may mean hating the person’s act. Sometimes, refusing-or at least, deferring-forgiveness is the sign of a mature moral sensibility, and it also has important implications in psychotherapy. And when forgiveness is bestowed upon an evildoer despite his apparent lack of remorse, this is ethically-and psychologically-troubling. As New Republic writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig2 put it:

There is perhaps a second source of unease surrounding [the shooter’s receiving] forgiveness, namely that he has shown not even a vague sign of remorse, which makes the victims’ families’ decision to forgive him seem all the more harrowing.

Moreover, as Psychiatric Times’ Ethics Section Editor, Dr Cynthia Geppert, observes: “When we immediately ‘forgive’ people without their showing any remorse or repentance, we are co-opting their autonomy and not fully respecting them as moral agents.” Furthermore, “. . . rapid forgiveness without corresponding responsibility as a condition does not invite offender[s] to open themselves to morally serious reflection and change . . .” (personal communication, July 12, 2015).

Furthermore, as I discuss below, the almost immediate bestowal of forgiveness in the absence of the malefactor’s remorse raises another troubling question: do some communities of faith “short-circuit” the inner process of forgiveness, by putting undue pressure on their members to “forgive” some heinous act?

Forgiving by proxy?

Then there is the thorny moral issue of forgiving on someone else’s behalf. As an ethicist raised in the Jewish faith, I was glad Alex Beam1 brought up Simon Wiesenthal’s refusal to forgive a Nazi war criminal who murdered 300 Jews-a refusal that reveals an important element of rabbinical ethics. In Judaism, one is prohibited from “forgiving” an evildoer on someone else’s behalf (absent the latter’s consent to do so). One can forgive only the harm and injury done to oneself. Murder victims, of course, cannot forgive their killers, at least in this life. And in the Jewish ethical tradition, a blanket of “forgiveness” should not be extended to the murderer by surviving friends or family, except in so far as they forgive the harm done to them.

I agree with this view. Forgiving someone for a heinous act committed against somebody else is, in my view, a kind of “boundary violation.” Even when done out of compassion, such forgiveness amounts to an incursion into the “moral space” of another person-who, in the case of a murder victim, can’t express a view one way or another. There may be rare exceptions, of course. A particularly prescient or pessimistic person might say to her loved one, “Mama, if I am ever murdered, I want you to forgive the person who killed me!”-but I’m guessing this scenario is exceedingly uncommon. (Family members may believe they have great insight into their deceased loved one’s wishes, but this is not always the case-and in any event, such insight does not necessarily give the family member “standing” to forgive the one who took their loved one’s life.)

So, am I condemning the members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or surviving family members, who have chosen to forgive the shooter, despite his apparent lack of remorse? No-in fact, I think these very decent people expressed great generosity of spirit. Furthermore, as freelance writer Rhonda Swan3 wrote in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “To forgive is not to condone. It doesn’t let an offender off the hook. Forgiveness heals the one who forgives. It is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.”

Just so. But then, Swan3 goes on to say:

Only a strong person can look into the eyes of a murderer who took the life of a loved one and say, “I hold no malice against you in my heart.” It is this strength that has enabled black Americans to endure slavery, Jim Crow and the systemic racism that too often denies us the civil rights to which we are entitled.

Swan may be right historically, but perhaps not psychologically. Holding “no malice” is not quite the same as “forgiving,” in the full, ethical sense of that term.* One can let go of hatred for an evildoer while still choosing to withhold complete forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness is not a single act or pronouncement, but a gradually unfolding process. Indeed, in rabbinical ethics, forgiveness is not an isolated decision on the part of a “forgiver”; rather, it is a dialectical process that takes time to evolve and reveal itself-sometimes, over many years. Forgiveness is a kind of ethical dialogue in which, ideally, the offending party should have a voice. In rabbinical ethics, full-blown forgiveness cannot occur until the wrongdoer expresses genuine remorse, asks for forgiveness, and takes steps toward repentance and reparation. One might say that, from the rabbinical perspective, forgiveness is not bestowed, but earned.4

This idealized process, of course, may never come to pass-and yet, the aggrieved party may nevertheless decide to forgive the transgressor. But one can forgive only the harm done to oneself-there is no “forgiveness by proxy” in rabbinical Judaism.4 Thus, surviving family and friends of the slain parishioners may justifiably forgive the murderer for the terrible emotional pain he inflicted on them, the survivors-but not for committing murder.

Indeed, the daughter of one of the murder victims seems to have internalized this distinction. According to a report in USA Today, the daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the nine church members killed on Wednesday, was the first family member to speak out during the shooters bond hearing. She said to the man who confessed to the crime: “I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people but God forgive you and I forgive you.”5

It seems to me that Ethel Lance’s daughter was expressing forgiveness for the immense pain and loss that the murderer had inflicted on her-and was not forgiving him for his act of murder. This is a qualitatively different moral act than saying, “I forgive the man for murdering those nine people.” The nine victims themselves, of course, can never authorize such vicarious forgiveness.

Forgiveness in psychotherapy

We all bring our own ethical, religious and spiritual “baggage” with us when we enter the mental health field-and I certainly bring mine. But as psychotherapists, we recognize that patients come to us from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions, and many come from no faith at all. Still others have combined elements from various faiths into their personal “blend” of religion or spirituality. As therapists, we often have personal feelings about our patient’s religious views, and we have an obligation to understand “where the patient is coming from,” religiously speaking-especially when we don’t share that perspective. Thus, working with Orthodox Jewish patients, those of a Christian fundamentalist background, an Islamic background, etc, may pose special challenges in psychotherapy-particularly for the non-religious or secular therapist.6,7

To be clear: it is not our role, as psychiatrists, to dictate when or how our patients ought to forgive. Rather, it is our job to explore the nature and meaning of forgiveness with the aggrieved, abused, or traumatized patient. In so far as forgiveness may be part of a powerful and positive healing experience, we will understandably encourage it in our patients, as my colleague, Dr H. Steven Moffic, discusses in his article.8 But at the same time, it is within the therapist’s purview to explore the depth and maturity of the patient’s forgiving process.

Just as some patients may exhibit a “flight into health,” some abused or victimized patients may demonstrate a “flight into forgiveness.” They may feel obligated or pressured-sometimes by virtue of upbringing, sometimes by reason of religious inclination-to “forgive” an abusive parent or spouse, without having worked through the process on a deeper level. For example, “forgiving” an assaultive partner a day after being assaulted-without first having dealt with one’s feelings of rage, helplessness, or self-blame-is unlikely to yield lasting peace of mind or spirit. And if instant, superficial “forgiveness” leads only to passive acceptance of further abuse, we have probably not done our job as therapists. As marriage and family therapist, Dr Athena Staik9 observes:

Too often, the pressure or advice of family, friends or church to forgive merely contributes to the emotional baggage the person wronged already carries. Just as harmful, if not more so, premature forgiveness can hinder the unique emotional-growth needs of each person in the relationship.

Indeed, Dr Geppert observes that an unreflective or reflexive forgiveness on the part of a victim may signify a defense mechanism that “. . . enables the hurt, wounded, angry, and grieving person to restore his self-esteem without doing the hard work” of fully confronting and moving beyond his anger and grief (personal communication, July 12, 2015).


When asked to describe how the virtuous person deals with anger, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, described someone who “. . . becomes angry on the right occasions, with the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time.”10 While there may be no single “right” way to forgive, perhaps, as therapists, we can reformulate the Aristotelian teaching roughly as follows: genuine and lasting forgiveness occurs on the right occasions, for the right reasons, at the right time, and after a sufficient process of self-reflection in both the forgiver and the forgiven.

This article was originally posted on 7/23/2015 and has since been updated.

Acknowledgment-My thanks to Dr Cynthia Geppert for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. Thanks as well to Dr H. Steven Moffic for his essay and for his comments on some aspects of this piece.

*Note: Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD, makes an interesting distinction between forgiveness, which he defines as “the refusal to hurt the one who hurt you,” and reconciliation, which he describes as “. . . a larger process of which forgiveness is but one part.” In partial contrast, I am using the term “forgiveness” in a broader sense that overlaps with Richmond’s concept of reconciliation. See:


1. Beam A. We should not forgive alleged Charleston shooter. Boston Globe. June 23, 2015. not-forgive-charleston-shooter-dylann-roof/G3t9esqJXdQdJ0fq3JwdtK/story.html. Accessed July 14, 2015.

2. Bruenig ES. Should we forgive Dylann Roof? The roots and purpose of Christian forgiveness. New Republic. June 22, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2015.

3. Swan R: Why it’s OK to forgive Dylann Roof. Sun Sentinel. July 10, 2015.

4. Telushkin J. The Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living. New York: Bell Tower; 2000.

5. Families to Roof: May God ‘have mercy on your soul.’ USA Today. June 19, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2015.

6. Pies RW, Geppert C. Ethical issues in the psychiatric treatment of the religious ‘fundamentalist’ patient. Medscape. March 19, 2013. Accessed July 14, 2015.

7. Pies R. Jewish and rabbinic perspectives on psychiatric ethics. In: Sadler JZ, Fulford KWM, Werendly van Staden C, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Psychiatric Ethics. Vol 1. October 2014.

8. Moffic HS. Another great moment in forgiveness history. Psychiatr Times. July 10, 2015. forgiveness-history. Accessed July 14, 2015.

9. Staik A. Four approaches to forgiveness, ranging from ‘cheap’ to ‘genuine.’ PsychCentral. approaches-forgiveness-ranging-from-cheap-to-genuine. Accessed July 14, 2015.

10. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Book IV. Accessed July 14, 2015.

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