“I know he is hurting just as much as we are,” she told CNN. “Him and Jerry were like brothers.”
This extraordinary act of forgiveness was echoed a week later by Robbie Parker, whose 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, was shot to death in Newtown. In an interview aired on national television, Robbie sent tearful condolences to the family of the shooter.
“I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you,” he said. “Our love and support goes out to you as well.”
Forgiveness lies at the heart of Christianity. Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, who taught the importance of obtaining forgiveness for our sins — and of forgiving each other. But the roots of forgiveness are universal. Nearly every language in the world has a word for it. One Native American tongue even has a special verb tense to convey that an offender has been pardoned, that an upside-down world has returned to normal again.
According to Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, the instinct for forgiveness and vengeance trace back to our earliest days of becoming human. His book, “Beyond Revenge,” explains why we thirst for the chance to strike back at those who do us harm. In a world without governments or police, the only protection from violence was the certainty of revenge. A reputation for retribution was necessary for survival. That’s the reason that people who are abused or humiliated in front of witnesses are far more likely to strike back. Revenge is so natural that even chimpanzees practice it, finding ways to punish chimps that have wronged them in the past. The philosophy of “an eye for an eye” developed over millennia; those who lived by it were more likely to survive a violent world and pass on their genes.
But if we are hard-wired for vendetta, so too are we endowed with the capacity to forgive. Social groups, which are marked by daily conflicts, would not have survived very long if aggrieved parties wiped out everybody who offended them. Revenge spawns more harm and more vengeance, a destructive cycle that can threaten an entire family or clan. That’s why so many cultures have established traditions that restore a victim’s dignity through the acceptance of apology or reparations.
In the Balkans, blood feuds between tribes can be stopped by rituals in which the family that fired the first shot crawls toward the family that suffered the first victim. In Kenya, a transgressor in the…