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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Forgiveness and Beyond


Living up to the social psychoexemplaries that we have discussed will inevitably fail at times. What works best then? Usually, forgiveness is suggested as it can have social benefits for both the perpetrators and victims.


An example of how far forgiveness might go is in the ministry of James Lawson, Jr, who died at 95 on June 9. He was an important nonviolence strategist for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He even ministered to King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, in prison, including his 1978 prison marriage ceremony.

But when is forgiveness not enough?

The June 4 awarding of the Templeton Prize suggests something more. This is the lifetime achievement award, previously given to the likes of Desmond Tutu and Jane Goodall. The current recipient is the psychologist Pumla Goboda-Madikizela and her concept of “reparative quest.” Her idea came out of her experience in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Later, research led her to ideas about how countries can heal after violence.

She concludes that forgiveness can be insufficient. The psychological wounds and losses may be too much for closure by forgiveness. In her book she presents what might seem to be a counterintuitive concept.1 She views repair not as a 1-time act of forgiveness, but an ongoing movement up a spiritual spiral towards reconciliation via engagement and reflection.

This idea evolved from her 1990s interviews with the imprisoned commander of the government-backed assassination squads, nicknamed “Prince Evil.” Seeing his vulnerability and remorse, with her empathy and psychological skills he became more of a human being rather than a monster, confirmed for her with touching his shaking hand. She also applied her concept to the infidelity of her husband when she left him.

A similar process and concept, as described in the June 15 New York Times article “Jan. 6, America’s rupture and the strange, forgotten power of oblivion,” is an ancient mechanism when forgiveness seemed impossible.2 The reasoning is that the only viable alternative is to bury the wrong in oblivion, but know where it lies and the harm it caused. This is particularly challenging in a time when most everything online can be retrieved. Could that be applied to the invasion of our Capitol on January 6, 2020? There has been some movement toward individual clemency, as 12 states have passed Clean Slate laws that seal misdemeanors after a set amount of time.

The worthy goal for these alternatives beyond forgiveness is to preserve the dignity of the other.

Note: This article originally appeared on Psychiatric Times.

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