The Mystery of Forgiveness

By Gottlieb, Roger S. | Tikkun, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

The Mystery of Forgiveness

Gottlieb, Roger S., Tikkun


by Michael McCullough, Jossey Bass, 2008


by Michael Henderson Baylor University Press, 2008

Review by Roger S. Gottlieb

EMEMBER THAT NERVOUS feeling you have after a fight with your spouse and before you've made up. Or the hidden relish you feel at the thought of payback for some coworker who complained about you to the boss. These are not emotional quirks or moral failings. Such deep attractions to both forgiveness and revenge are, psychological researcher Michael McCullough tells us, hard-wired aspects of our brain and personality. They are experiential and behavioral tendencies created by evolutionary selection that have proved beneficial in the long-term struggle to carry our genes from one generation to the next.

McCullough confronts head-on the widespread idea that revenge issomekind of disease, for which forgiveness is the proper cure. Rather, both revenge and forgiveness are necessary aspects of human development and, in many cases, the development of other animals, as well. The threat, even the practice, of revenge keeps aggression in check and motivates individuals to take equal responsibility in their groups' tasks and dangers. Forgiveness promotes close ties among families, animal groups, and human communities-ties necessary for mutual support in the fight for survival. McCullough supports his account with various types of evidence, describing how certain Latin American fish have strategies to encourage each other to take equal risks in scouting out predators, or how some of the higher primates are more likely to engage in reconciliation activities like hugging, kissing, and grooming after a conflict than before. He also refers to ingenious computer simulations of the outcomes of various strategies of forgiveness and revenge: a cautious program that allows for the judicious use of each is the most successful in the long run, according to these simulations. Finally, he cites neurological studies that associate feelings of revenge and forgiveness with particular parts of the brain.

Beyond Revenge also targets what McCullough calls the "myth of social science"- the idea that human behavior is totally determined by culture, education, and social pressure, and that we have no hard-wired determinants of how we act. Over the course of the book, he compiles evidence to refute this myth.

The irony of McCullough's position is his conclusion: since we are hard-wired to both forgiveness and revenge, it turns out that social, cultural, and historical contexts determine which will predominate. If the context leads us to the three necessary steps of forgiveness- seeing former enemies as people who are worthy of care and with whom we can empathize; feeling that they are no longer a significant threat; and witnessing some kind of apology or self-abasement from them- then forgiveness can arise. If the context doesn't meet these conditions, forgiveness is unlikely to arise. In practice then, both with and without the idea that forgiveness and revenge are built in, the context is allimportant.

McCullough's book is intriguing and well written, but at times I wonder if he is really confronting the problem of forgiveness as we face it in real life. While he pays a little attention to social conflicts like the one in South Africa- where the truth and reconciliation commissions seem to confirm some of his claims about the necessary stages of forgiveness- the vast majority of his examples come from animals who try to discipline group members or experimental subjects who, for example, get insulted by an experimenter.

Are these kinds of examples really germane to understanding the dynamic of forgiveness in dreadful flare-ups like the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza, with its attendant nearly 1,500 deaths; or the less publicized but clearly much more severe violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, with more than 50,000 deaths; or the civil wars in Lebanon, El Salvador, and Guatemala with over 100,000 deaths in each; or ethnic strife in Darfur, with over 300,000? …

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