Karl Aquino is a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
When I saw the poignant video of relatives of some of the shooting victims in the church in Charleston, S.C., offering forgiveness to the alleged killer, Dylann Roof, I could not help feeling moved, but also fascinated by their actions.
I have been doing research about forgiveness for more than 20 years. I have published numerous academic papers, read hundreds of forgiveness stories, and lectured on the topic at the Sauder School of Business. I confess that although I study forgiveness, I do not always understand how people like those in Charleston can do it. Forgiving seems so antithetical to the demands of justice and our experience of moral outrage toward those who do us wrong. Yet people sometimes show that they can forgive even those who seem most undeserving of this gift.
Why? From my research, perhaps the common reason is that forgiveness is prescribed by the forgiver's religious or spiritual beliefs. So it is not surprising that devout people forgive, for that is what God would want them to do. But non-believers also forgive. What these people often share with their religious counterparts is a humble recognition that if we are honest with ourselves, we know we are all sinners. Research also shows that the type of people least likely to forgive are narcissists, meaning they have a sense of moral superiority coupled with a grandiose belief in their own perfection and unique ability to discern what is right and just.
The forgiveness displayed by those who lost loved ones in Charleston offers an interesting comparison to the responses of a fair number of people to another recent news item, the story of the British Nobel-prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt, who became the target of considerable social condemnation for a joke he made about how female scientists respond to criticism. I do not wish to debate the moral rectitude of his attempt at humour; I simply want to note how starkly the strident, uncompromising, and even hateful voices arrayed against him contrasts with the anguished, yet compassionate, expressions of mercy emanating from those whose suffering few of us will ever experience.
In comparing these two cases, the question is, which of the responses makes the world a better place and offers an example worthy of emulation? One answer is provided by a study my colleagues and I conducted a few years ago in which we asked participants to watch a video about the parents of Amy Biehl, a young American murdered in 1993 by a group of black South Africans, a people whom she had been trying to help make the transition to democracy. In the video, her parents forgave their daughter's killers. Their forgiveness went so far that they set up educational programs in the neighbourhood where her killers were raised, and acted as surrogate parents for two of them.
What we found was that after seeing the Biehls' example, study participants said they wanted to become better people, felt more motivated to help others, and had more positive views about humanity. These findings tell us something about why, despite its maddening irrationality, forgiveness remains part of our repertoire for responding to those who trespass against us.
Punishment, revenge, and sanctimonious condemnation may be satisfying and even just, but it is forgiveness, by showing us what human beings are capable of in their finest moments, that will always be divine.