Thought for the Day: “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness” – Clashes in Egypt, Release of 104 Palestinian Prisoners, Bombings in Iraq . . .

When people fight, when countries fight, how can the cycle of revenge end?

Some do seem to forgive and move on.    An Amish community forgave the gunman and his family after the October 2, 2006,  wounding of five and killing of five other little girls in the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The Community says it leaves judgement to God.  (Read John L. Ruth’s Forgiveness; the book focuses on the built-in aspects of forgiveness for the Amish).  Another good example of forgiveness after great loss is Bud Welch.  His 23-year-old daughter was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, yet Welch said, “I finally [have] come to realize that the reason that Julie and 167 others were dead is because of vengeance and rage.  When we take him out of his cage to kill him, it’s going to be the same thing.  We will keep the circle of violence going.  Number 169 dead is not going to help the family members of the first 168” (Tippett 181).  Then there is South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Many struggle to end the cycles of violence.  Will the Israeli-Palestinian crisis be resolved? Recently, Israel’s Cabinet agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly attacks.  See <;.  Hopefully,  Israel and the Palestinians will again talk about how they might live together.

What about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony who forces children to kill their own parents and mutilate their neighbors?  In the slums of Kampala, the songs tell about the  awful war in the north and how their women are raped, but also the same songs will say, “Kony, come talk with us.  Come talk with us.  Let’s get it settled” (189).

Every day news  stories report clashes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. . . . Is there hope that we can get  beyond the cycles of violence and revenge?

One source has given me new ideas (and hope).   Krista Tippett in Einstein’s God  interviews Michael McCullough on his  ideas about revenge and forgiveness.  McCullough,  a professor of psychology at the University of Miami  directs the Laboratory for Social and Clinical Psychology.  He has written Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.

McCullough says, “Throughout most of human history we have not lived in complex societies with governments and states and law enforcement and prisons and contracts we could enforce in a court to get people to do what they agreed to do.

Author Michael McCullough

Author Michael McCullough.  Image: <;.

McCullough notes, “The mechanism that individuals relied upon to protect themselves and to protect their loved ones and to protect their property was fear of retaliation.  If they could broadcast that fear of retaliation to the individuals they lived with, to their neighbors, to the people on the other side of the hill–if you could cultivate a reputation as a hothead so people knew not to mess with you–that was like an insurance policy.  . . . [I]n a lot of the world this is still going on.

Solomon Island skulls - If you were greeted on a beach with these skulls, you might quickly go back out to sea to avoid those who had killed these people.

Solomon Island skulls – If you were greeted on a beach with these skulls, you might quickly go back out to sea.   From:,202,0_0,Search,20130730,17094,0,74,0

And any time you disrupt that system–that system of government, that system of policing, that system of law enforcement–so people can’t trust that their interests are going to be protected, that desire for revenge comes back.  People will take revenge back into their own hands to protect themselves” (177). . .

“Anger in response to injustice is as reliable a human emotional response as happiness is to winning the lottery, or grief is to losing a loved one. . . [However,] a lot of biologists have been trying to figure out what allows human beings to be the cooperative creatures that we are.  We’re cooperative with each other in a way that really makes us pretty unique among mammals.  We cooperate with our relatives, but lots of animals do that.  We go further and we cooperate with people we’ve never met.  We cooperate with people we’re not related to.  And by virtue of our ability to cooperate with each other, we can build magnificent cities and radio stations and do all kinds of wonderful things.  But one of the ingredients you have to have to get individuals to cooperate with each other is a tolerance for mistakes. . . .

You can’t get organisms willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen, despite the roadblocks and the bumps  along the way, if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes.  Sometimes I’m going to let you down.  And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake.  And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done.  So, really, our ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that we can’t do on our own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defects and mistakes” (179).

“Evolution wasn’t kind to individuals who would seek revenge against their genetic relatives. . . So we have this natural tolerance for the misbehavior of our children.  At that level it [forgiveness] is incredibly mundane.  . . we do it over and over again” (181).

“Tippett: So this is getting to one of the really important points I think you make with your work: that if we can understand this forgiveness instinct, even in terms of evolution, we can start to create conditions where it can be empowered.

McCullough: The first is safety.  Human beings are naturally prone to forgive individuals they feel safe around.  So if we have an offender apologizing in a way that seems heartfelt and convincing and has really convinced us that he can’t and won’t harm us in the same way again, that’s a point for forgiveness.  Again, the human mind evolved for forgiveness to be something worth its while.  And any successful organism is unlikely to have a mechanism in it that says, ‘Just keep stepping on my neck.  It’s okay.’

But if you can convince me that you’re  safe, that I don’t have to worry about being harmed in the same way a second time, maybe I’m willing to move a little bit forward.

Sometimes safety comes through things like the rule of law.  Sometimes safety comes through you as a small-business owner dusting off that employee manual and asking yourself, what is in here that would instruct an employee on what to do if they were being systematically harassed by a coworker?  And what would insure that if there was a serious infraction, it would be dealt with in a way that restored that employee’s sense of safety?

What can you do in your associations?  Your condo association, say, when somebody has a grievance, when the neighbor has hired a band for a party at 12:30 on a Friday night.  You need to know how to make sure that doesn’t happen a second time, so that you don’t then have to say, ‘I’m going to get back at that guy myself.  I’m going to leave my garbage cans out all weekend long, which I know he hates (183-184). . .

[What’s the second condition we can create to make forgiveness easier, after safety?]

Value.  We are inclined to forgive individuals who are likely to have benefit for us in the future.  We find it relatively easy . . . to forgive our loved ones or forgive our friends or forgive our neighbors or our business partners, because there’s something in it for us in the future.  And the costs sometimes of destroying a relationship that’s been damaged are just too high, because establishing a new one is so difficult to do.  So relationships with value in them are ones in which we’re naturally prone to forgive” (184). .  .

“Michael McCullough observes that Americans have a tendency to see revenge as a mark of cultures more primitive than their own.  But he points out, provocatively, that between 1974 and 2000, 61 percent of all school shootings in the United States had revenge, often for bullying, as some kind of trigger.  His perspective also helps illuminate why partisan rancor seems to spin out of proportion during an election cycle, as political campaigns accentuate the differences between candidates and constituencies. . .

We replaced one of the truly awful dictators of the late twentieth century when we removed Saddam Hussein. … And yet it is also true that when we did that, and particularly when we disbanded the army, we did away with the only structure capable of holding a lot of very old tribal and ethnic and sectarian grudges in check (189). . . .

There’s something about how the mind works and how it processes groups.  When we think about people from over there, that other group, we don’t really view them with the same sort of humanity that we afford our own groups.  If you think about an issue that you feel strongly about, and that you know a lot about, you can see that actually there are a lot of people who have different views, that they’re not exactly the same, and that allows you to view them as human beings” (184-185). . . .

Then you can begin to say, ‘Well, they’re just a group of human beings, too, trying to muddle their way through to a position that’s going to work for them'”(186).

[Also] sometimes the costs of maintaining grievances are so high that individuals and their groups will decide that they’ve pushed themselves to the brink.   Perhaps that is what is finally happening with the  Israelis and Palestinians.

McCullough says that on the basis of lots of research, “if you put societal structures in place where people feel their rights are protected, and they see a way forward for making a living in a peaceful way, and there’s security, they prefer peace over war, every time” (193).

“I’m so optimistic about our future.  Because, again, if you look at that long arc of history . . . what you see is –for example, the homicide rate.  We worry about the homicide rate, as we should.  It goes up some year, it goes down other years, and we worry.  But over the long arc of history–take western Europe–homicide rates are a twentieth and some countries a fiftieth of what they were six hundred, eight hundred years ago.  Right?  So if we take this long perspective, actually we’re getting better and better control over human beings’ potential for aggressiveness.  And a lot of that homicide six hundred to eight hundred years ago was in fact vengeance motivated.  But when we get control over those instincts and give people other tools to deal with heir grievances, they will restrain themselves.

So Iraq may look dismal.  It’s  been terrible for our country and the world in so many ways.  And yet I see coming out of it, whenever that is, a society that’s going to rebuild itself into a peaceful society.  I don’t know how long it will take . . . but this is what societies tend to do.  They tend to find the best way to rebuild in the aftermath of these kinds of collapses in ways that will promote cooperation” (192-193).

And what about our personal relationships?  McCullough says it is really important to acknowledge our mistakes because so much of forgiveness comes down to interaction.  If we can own up to our mistakes, it’s a healthy way to build and then keep relationships intact.

Also, McCullough says, “One of the best things we can do with religious faith is give people an appetite for difference. . . . [I]n the scriptures and traditions of every world religion that has been successful on a grand scale, there is a story about the love of difference [of compassion towards difference] (194).

For McCullough, “Forgiveness is a brawny muscular exercise that I imagine someone with a great passion for life and a great hardy disposition being able to take on” (195).

Being able to forgive involves personal and geopolitical challenges for us all.  Let’s look for the light within each person.

Aloha, Renée


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About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

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