by Melissa Brotton | 12 January 2023 |
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9 NKJV)
There is something called the science of forgiveness, which my colleague Dr. Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson and I teach through La Sierra University’s general studies program. The science of forgiveness is wonderful. It tells us about the physiological and psychological benefits of forgiveness as well as about the detrimental, and sometimes fatal, consequences of unforgiveness. It motivates us towards forgiveness as a benefit to the self. It alerts us to what happens to the heart when we harbor unforgiveness, how the heart responds in the same way to unforgiveness as it does to chronic anger. (1) The science of forgiveness shows us how unforgiveness leads to resentment and hatred, which get continually recycled through angry rumination, a focused obsession on the injury and a need for revenge. (2)
Yes, we have plenty of information from science about the benefits of forgiveness on well-being to motivate us to forgive, and yet the mere knowledge of these facts does not always translate to acts of forgiveness. We can repeat mantras of science: “It is healthy to forgive, healthy to forgive,” and yet never actually get around to forgiving someone. Something beyond science is needed.
While it is great to know that forgiveness helps our physical and mental health, the requisite biblical forgiveness stated by Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, for one instance, is more a matter of heart than brain. As explicit and insistent as the Bible is that we must forgive, it is just as seemingly silent on the how-to part. I know I must forgive in order to please God, but how do I do it? For the how part of forgiveness, I’d like to suggest that forgiveness as art may fill in gaps that science leaves behind. Because the concept of forgiveness often comes to us through story, I wonder if studying stories of forgiveness offers a more potent medicine for the human heart than the mere mention of scientific findings can exert. Is it possible that the role of imagination, so integral to art, can serve us on our forgiveness journey in a way that science can’t?
Stories exert a power of human-to-human relatability that is different from what applied science does. Stories, with their suspended tension-building and anticipated resolutions, captivate our attention. We see the characters in stories as like us, and we have a natural wish to have the narrative lines end in satisfying ways because we want satisfying resolutions in our own lives.
When we hear a story of forgiveness, we empathize with the victim and identify with their loss and grief. We are touched by their testimony. We are amazed and moved by their decision to forgive in the face of great pain and loss. Their stories provide us with hope and inspiration to rise above our typical way of dealing with human-inflicted pain and resolving conflict. We admire their courage and see our own forgiveness situations in a new light. We say inside, “If that person can forgive such a great injury, then why can’t I forgive this much smaller one?” And hearing someone else’s forgiveness story fires our imaginations to the point we can envision ourselves offering forgiveness to someone who has wronged us. Hearing these stories inspires us to create our own forgiveness stories. Dr. Morales and I have seen this happen again and again, not only with the students in our forgiveness class, but also in our own lives.
One of the most gripping stories we share in the forgiveness class is that of Transylvania-born Eva Kor, who at age ten encountered the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Because they were twins, Eva and her twin sister, Miriam, were selected on the train platform, separated from their parents, and taken to Dr. Josef Mengele’s twin-studies laboratory, where they were subjected to various painful and humiliating experiments. They barely survived this nightmarish time. On a daily basis they were subjected to body measurements, blood-draws, eye-drops, medical exposure to typhus and tuberculosis, transfusions and surgeries without anesthesia, and mysterious injections. After one of these injections, Eva came down with a serious illness and was taken to a hospital where she heard Dr. Mengele glibly pronounce that she had only two weeks to live. Through sheer determination, Eva pushed through her illness by crawling back and forth on the barrack floor to a water faucet. Miriam suffered long-term effects on her kidneys, which remained the size of a ten-year-old’s into her adult life. Years later, Miriam’s kidneys failed, and Eva donated a kidney to her sister. Miriam eventually developed bladder cancer, and her physicians asked Eva to locate the sister’s medical files from Auschwitz to try to understand what the injections contained, but the files were not discovered before Miriam passed away in 1993.
Through a speaking opportunity by a professor in Boston, Eva got into contact with another Nazi physician, Dr. Hans Munch, who had signed death certificates of Jews consigned to the gas chamber in Auschwitz. Eva was able to obtain Dr. Munch’s signature and a public admission to his role in Auschwitz, including what he knew about the uses of the gas chamber, at the 50th-year celebration of camp liberation in 1995. After Eva returned home, she wanted to thank Dr. Munch, but she could not figure out how to do so from the standpoint of her victimhood. Ten months later, she decided to write Dr. Munch a letter of forgiveness. In doing so, she was surprised to find herself feeling empowered by offering the gift of forgiveness. She connected with her former English professor to proofread the letter before sending it. After the third meeting, her English professor challenged her to also forgive Dr. Mengele, the one who had truly wronged her. Eva went home that night, and, speaking to Dr. Mengele as though he were in the room, she read off twenty nasty words to him from a dictionary. Then she forgave him. She felt immediate relief upon realizing that, in her words, “I even had the power over Josef Mengele, that the last relationship between me and Josef Mengele was my forgiveness, and there was nothing he could do about it.” (3)
Eva, along with her children, took her declaration of amnesty back to Germany to meet Dr. Munch and his family, where both of them signed the document, which was Eva’s personal act of forgiveness not only to Mengele but to all Nazis who took part in the murder of her family. Though other survivors denounced Eva for her decision to forgive, Eva liked her newfound forgiveness. “I was free of Auschwitz,” she said, “and I was free of Mengele.” Eva passed away in 2019 leaving behind a strong legacy in forgiveness studies.
Forgiveness creates a feeling of wholeness in thought, spirit, and action, going in the same direction, creating a force for good. It’s free. I like that idea. Everyone can afford it. It works. It has no side-effects, and if you don’t like the way you feel as a free person, you can go and take your pain back. No one will stop you. . . . I call anger a seed for war. People who forgive the way I have forgiven are at peace with themselves and the world. Therefore, I call forgiveness a seed for peace. (4)
The science of forgiveness plays an important role in motivating us to think seriously about the need to forgive, but I suggest that forgiveness as art has more power to move us toward true heart forgiveness. That is because the concept of forgiveness first came to us as a story, the most powerful story in the universe. The story of the Creator God’s providing a way of forgiveness for each of us through the gift of Jesus into the world, the story of a father who went as far as giving his only child into the world to be cruelly treated, and even beaten and killed, in order to offer forgiveness to us.
Humans are capable of doing terrible things to each other. Even those of us with forgiving personalities are overchallenged when it comes to forgiving people who commit terrible deeds against us. Listening to others tell their forgiveness stories moves us to construct our own forgiveness stories and to act out these stories.
Jesus said that anything less than full-hearted forgiveness is not true forgiveness. (5) The human heart wishes for peace. Encountering forgiveness in story form allows God’s love for the offender to soften the human heart. For this new year, I pray that peace and health will permeate our hearts as we choose to compose our own forgiveness stories.
1 Lawler-Row, Kathleen A.; Johan C. Karremans; Cynthia Scott; Meirav Edlis-Matityahou; and Laura Edwards. “Forgiveness, Physiological Reactivity and Health: The Role of Anger.” The International Journal of Psychophysiology. 68, no. 1 (April, 2008), 51-58. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2008.01.001. Rasmussen, Kyler R.; Madelynn Stackhouse; Susan D. Boon; Karly Comstock; and Rachel Ross. “Meta-Analytic Connections Between Forgiveness and Health: The Moderating Effect of Forgiveness-Related Distinctions.” Psychology & Health, 34, no. 5 (January, 2019), 515-534.
2 Burnette, Jeni L.; Keli W. Taylor; Everett L. Worthington; Donelson R. Forsyth. “Attachment and Trait Forgiveness: The Mediating Role of Anger Rumination.” Personality and Individual Differences. 42, no. 8 (June, 2007), 1585-1596. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid. 2006.
3 Kor, Eva. “Surviving the Angel of Death.” Endowed Symposia in Jewish Studies. University of California Television. University of California, Santa Barbara. Jan. 6, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCVZPSzTqZU.
4 Kor, Eva. “Surviving the Angel of Death.” Endowed Symposia in Jewish Studies.
5 Matthew 18:34-35.
Melissa Brotton teaches writing and literature courses at La Sierra University. Her special areas are nineteenth-century British literature and religious studies. She has published on the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Biblical ecology. She spends a lot of time outdoors, paints, and writes nature stories and poems.