This interview on revenge and forgiveness, from NPR’s Speaking of Faith, is a disaster throughout. To summarize: Michael McCullough argues that revenge and forgiveness are best understood via their social/evolutionary roots and implications. Revenge is natural and understandable via this framework, as is forgiveness. Forgiveness is in our self-interest as it makes us more likely to be successful in the end, more able to cooperate in the face of others’ failings, better able to build society and make progress. As we grow in understanding it will become increasingly clear that forgiveness is in our species’ self-interest, and the way forward to creating a more peaceful society is to tap into our evolutionarily-trained capacity for forgiving.
Particularly disturbing is the discussion of Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombings, who came to forgive McVeigh, spoke against his execution and continues to be an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. McCullough seems to argue that Welch’s forgiveness is explainable in terms of his recognition of shared self-interest with McVeigh’s father in caring for their children. No mention or explanation of the obvious counter-cultural nature of Welch’s stance is made. (Welch can speak for himself; find some links here, including his statement on the McVeigh execution.)
Perhaps worse is the discussion of forgiveness in the conflicts in northern Uganda, which is discussed mainly as arising out of fatigue and attrition.
Some selections from the interview. First from Tippet’s introduction:
Krista: This hour, we bring the lofty moral concepts of revenge and forgiveness down to earth… Western religious and therapeutic mindsets have come to imagine revenge as a disease that can be cured by civilization. It hasn’t been seen as a natural, biologically driven impulse to which we all remain prone under certain circumstances. And at the same time, the seemingly colder eye of evolutionary biology has analyzed ruthlessness as an advantage in the relentless arc of the survival of the fittest. Forgiveness in both of these scenarios is a rare transcendent quality, a cure for revenge albeit one that would never help human beings really triumph.
McCullough on the evolutionary underpinnings of forgiveness:
Mr. McCullough: You can’t get organisms that are 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 if we’re cooperatively hunting ― let’s say we’re some sort of animal, that we’re some sort of animal that works together to hunt ― 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, and across the animal kingdom many animals’ ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that they can’t do on their own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.
And both in the only passage that touches with any concreteness on forgiveness as linked to any particular faith tradition.
Ms. Tippett: Something that I’ve been aware of also is that this word “forgiveness” I think has a really Christian ring in many ears. But, um, I’ve been very intrigued at, uh, you know, I remember speaking with a Holocaust survivor who said that, you know, for him the word “forgiveness” just didn’t do it and it has this cultural connotation of forgive and forget, but the Jewish phrase “repair the world” compels him in the same way he feels the word “forgiveness” compels Christians.
Mr. McCullough: I like that. I like that. I wish we could come up with a completely new word for what this human trait is.
I am extremely doubtful that McCullough’s arguments explain the forgiveness pictured in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or (though I am not knowledgeable enough to judge) most other faith traditions. Rather I think he at best can explain a fairly weak and limited forgiveness. I’m unqualified to comment on the merits of his social/evolutionary arguments (and I haven’t read his book); they may be useful in some ways. I’d like, instead, to note what’s happening in this interview.
Tippett states their program from the outset: to bring lofty moral concepts down to earth. And this is what they do, though likely not in the sense Tippett means. Forgiveness leaves the realm of moral imperative and is justified in terms of its usefulness and effectiveness for our security and self-interest. In the second quote above (and elsewhere in the interview), McCullough re-motivates forgiveness along lines of social self-interest and progress. These are lines not based in any religious tradition’s approach to forgiveness, and, I suspect, not strictly in evolutionary biology either. Rather these are lines founded in something that looks a lot more like the American democratic project, like democracy, capitalism and nationalism tempered by a slight nod towards the fact that solely pursuing immediate self-interest is not always the best way to secure self-interest and security in the long run. Whence Tippett’s “help[ing] human beings really triumph.” Resources for forgiveness are no longer to be found in any outside moral authority, but instead are already within us, waiting to be tapped in to. In their momentary foray into Judeo-Christian speech regarding forgiveness we see explicitly the desire to unmoor this universal human potential from grounding in the particularities of any faith tradition.
The overall project here is accommodation. It is the pacification of forgiveness. It is to take what was hard and foreign (not lofty, or expected only of the great, Krista, at least not in the Judeo-Christian tradition!) and make it acceptable and natural within the world of the listeners. It is to confirm the listener in what he or she in already doing while sending out warm, fuzzy encouragement to do a little bit more because, deep down inside, you want to and it will be better for you in the end. The end product is a vision of forgiveness that looks, on the one hand, weak and toothless and, on the other, (despite Tippett’s obliging attempt to help McCullough dance around this near the end of the interview) utopian. For those of us who are people of faith this vision is obviously wholly untrue to our traditions. For those of you who aren’t, I have a hard time seeing why such a vision is ultimately appealing or convincing.
It seems like Tippett, after spending so much time speaking of faith, should be able to do better. But maybe a critical attitude is never a part of Speaking of Faith. One wonders if this habit of accommodation, on the other hand, is.