Pondering forgiveness after McVeigh justice

WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times

Everett Worthington, a Virginia Commonwealth University psychology professor, had become one of the nation’s leading researchers in promoting the act of forgiveness.

Then his 76-year-old widowed mother was murdered by a teenage burglar.

As his brother relayed the police’s description of the killing, forgiveness was the last thing on Worthington’s mind. “I was so angry. I pointed to a baseball bat and said, ‘I wish whoever did that was here. I would beat his brains out.”‘

Worthington had come up against the spiritual dilemma that confronts the nation Monday morning as it awakens to the anticipated execution of Timothy J. McVeigh: whether to forgive.

Like many of those who lost loved ones in McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, Worthington was torn between fury and forgiveness. As a devout Presbyterian elder and director of the Campaign for Forgiveness Research, he knew what his faith required of him.

Living up to it, he would find, was another thing entirely.

Is forgiveness possible or even appropriate in the face of so heinous a crime? Should forgiveness be unconditional? Is forgiveness always an individual act, or does the community have a stake?

Answers to such questions have long been the stuff of biblical epics and theological discourse. But now academicians and researchers such as Worthington are venturing into what had largely been a theological preserve. They are trying to unravel the psychological and physiological dynamics of human forgiveness.

Interest in this research appears to have been sparked by the Oklahoma City bombing and other events of the ’90s: former President Clinton asked the American public to forgive his dalliances with Monica Lewinsky; Pope John Paul II asked Jews to forgive the Catholic Church’s wrongs committed throughout its history; and South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which granted pardons even to those who committed the cruelest of acts during the apartheid era if they publicly confessed.

“There’s an interest because not one of us escapes this life without feeling hurt,” said researcher Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, a psychology professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Before 1985, only five scientific studies of the effects of forgiveness had been completed.

Today, Worthington’s Campaign for Forgiveness Research, aided by a US$4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is funding 38 forgiveness projects.

In one study by Witvliet, Thomas E. Ludwig and Kelly L. Vander Laan, published in the March issue of Psychological Science, 35 women and 36 men were asked to recall a real-life person who had hurt them and then react both in unforgiving and forgiving ways. Unforgiving thoughts triggered stress responses such as higher blood pressure and faster heart rates. Forgiving thoughts resulted in milder physiological stress responses. The researchers concluded that prolonged feelings of unforgiveness could be hazardous to one’s health.