Is forgiveness healing?
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
We have entered the third sentencing stage of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Mass Shooter trial. It will be an opportunity of sorts for the family and loved ones of those killed or injured to present how they felt they were affected psychologically. They will continue the important psychological work of witnessing that has occurred in Holocaust survivors. Inevitably, the anguishing possibility of forgiveness of the perpetrator will emerge.
A statement by a leader of 1 of the 3 synagogues located in the building attacked, the New Light Congregation, was made right after the jury decision to consider the death penalty1:
“These can be no forgiveness. Forgiveness requires 2 components: that it is offered by the person who commits the wrong and it is accepted by the person who was wronged. The shooter has not asked—and the dead cannot accept.”
In a psychological sense, forgiveness can be unilaterally considered by anybody who felt wronged.
Historically, a somewhat similar challenge occurred in the mass shooting in the Mother Emanuel Charleston Church on June 17, 2015. The perpetrator also lived, was sentenced to death, has not asked for forgiveness, and maintains that “there is nothing wrong with me psychologically.”
Many, but not all, of the family members almost immediately during the bond hearing expressed forgiveness of the shooter. Forgiveness was described by one family member as a “superpower” of “spiritual resistance.”2 Such forgiveness is culturally congruent, and there is also the possibility of empathy and compassion with the troubling backgrounds of any given perpetrator.
There also seem to be similarities with other white supremacist shootings in El Paso and Christchurch New Zealand.
Moreover, there was another synagogue mass shooting, that of a Poway synagogue north of San Diego on April 27, 2019. The perpetrator also believed in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He was caught and sentenced to life in prison. I asked a psychologist who has helped the families of that synagogue about forgiveness. It seems like there was nobody known who actually forgave the perpetrator. The day after the shooting, their Rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, who was injured in the shooting, called to “battle darkness with light.” Can the light include forgiveness?
Even if there is some tendency for religions to differ in their views on forgiveness, usually there are always some offenses that are viewed as unforgivable.3 There certainly is also individual variation in what is involved in forgiveness.
It might be too sensitive to conduct long-term studies on how loved ones do after such tragedies in comparing those who forgive early on and those who do not, and I do not know any such research. One important consideration is whether such forgiveness helps prevent future posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and related problems, or not.
What clearly voluminous recent research results tell us is that forgiving in general is beneficial for physical health, mental health, and overall functioning. A pioneer in such research, the psychologist Everett Worthington, whose own mother was murdered in 1996 in the midst of his studies, confirmed that in a recent study across 5 countries. He offers specific tools to do so in the REACH method involving Recall, Empathy, Altruism, Commit, and Hold.4
When forgiveness is considered, it is important to separate it from justice and remembering. One can forgive a perpetrator, but still desire them to face any appropriate legal justice and to not forget the trauma.
In our clinical work, my own experience is that forgiveness was often the last challenge in a patient recovering from PTSD. Sometimes that was possible at the time and sometimes not.
Although it is controversial whether groups of people can forgive, there certainly are groups that are targeted. The Church and Synagogue represented racism and anti-Semitism, and the ongoing goal of the perpetrator was further escalation of violence against those groups. That is when individual psychopathology overlaps with social group psychopathologies. However, the individual is subject to legal processing, but how to address the associated offending social group is much more uncertain, but ultimately necessary.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.
1. Land O. Pittsburgh synagogue gunman convicted in mass shooting that left 11 congregants dead. The New York Post. June 16, 2023. Accessed July 18, 2023. https://nypost.com/2023/06/16/pittsburgh-synagogue-shooter-convicted/
2. Hawes JB. Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness. St. Martin’s Press; 2019.
3. Cohen AB, Malka A, Rozin P, Cherfas L. Religion and unforgivable offenses. J Pers. 2006;74(1):85-118.
4. Parker-Pope T. Are you ready to forgive? A new study show letting go is good for health. The Washington Post. April 20, 2023. Accessed July 18, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/04/20/forgiveness-mental-health-benefits/