Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Forgiveness as a Catalyst for Psychological, Physical, and Spiritual Resilience in Disasters and Crises

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Forgiveness as a Catalyst for Psychological, Physical, and Spiritual Resilience in Disasters and Crises

Article excerpt

In this conceptual article, we argue that some people are resilient in the face of disasters while others are not. Resilience may necessitate forgiveness--of perpetrators of interpersonal harms (e.g., Rwandan Genocide in 1994); of inadequate responder assistance (e.g., Hurricane Katrina); or in situations where community members perceive themselves as victims of offense by virtue of their group affiliation, although they themselves were not actually harmed (e.g., survivors of school shootings). Victims may experience unforgiveness toward others in human-caused disasters and may deal with unforgiveness toward God in natural disasters. Forgiveness may be an effective response to disaster-related injustices that promotes resilience. We used a meta-analysis of forgiveness interventions and an empirical study of awareness-raising campaigns on college campuses to estimate the effects of forgiveness on public health, public mental health, relationships, and spirituality across society after disasters. We advocate for forgiveness as one of many potential resilient responses. Specifically, forgiveness could potentially transform unforgiveness into a stronger sense of purpose and improved social relations.

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In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people and resulted in millions of dollars of damage (Cook, Aten, Moore, Hook, & Davis, 2013). The social and economic fabric of communities along the Gulf coast was disrupted by the pandemonium and confusion that followed. Although many people pulled together to promote recovery, those who were caught up in this tragedy experienced substantial hatred, unforgiveness, and blame. Victims blamed the local governments that should have protected people, the federal government for their tardy and meager responses, and others for the chaos that ensued regardless of whether those people were blameworthy.

These reactions are similar to responses to disasters in non-U.S. locations. For instance, during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, people were hunted down with machetes, approximately 800,000 people died, and property was damaged or destroyed. The social fabric of Rwanda was also damaged. Longstanding resentments about colonial policies, hierarchies, wrongs, and privilege boiled over, and social mob mentality often was fueled by and yielded a product of hatred and unforgiveness. The Rwandan government was blamed for failing to prevent (and even inciting) the mass murders and genocide. Other governments were blamed for not interceding or not providing enough aid during the recovery period. The same arguments could be made for wars within other nations (e.g., Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Southeast Asian wars of liberation), for systemic oppression within nations (e.g., the South African apartheid era), or for wars between nations (e.g., World Wars I and II).

Whether disasters are natural and unpredictable or human-made conflicts, the people's experiences and responses are similar: Lives are destroyed, and blame is often assigned to others or oneself for the losses encountered. Forgiveness also might be one of many responses to these massive injustices along with seeking revenge or seeking divine or societal justice. It is not just repair that is needed when disaster occurs. Rather, Aten (2012) suggests:

Disaster is much more than just an "event," such as a tornado striking. A disaster reflects the sum of a community's vulnerabilities, the realities of catastrophe, and possibilities or challenges to resilience. Disasters give us insights into the gestalt of the social systems and needs within a community. Disasters inevitably bring both strengths and weaknesses of a community to the forefront. Acute weakness at a systems level are forced to the surface after a disaster, which can help us begin to better recognize the larger social injustices and systems embedded in our communities that affect spiritual and emotional health. …

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