Is Forgiveness the Only Option to Heal From Historical Trauma?

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

I recently attended a play put on by a Native production company under the command of the acclaimed Lakota playwright, Larissa FastHorse. Titled “Urban Rez,” the players interacted with the audience as part of the play, to create an experiential event that examined the diverse realities of Indians in Southern California, including the history of genocide. The most significant moment for me was when the question was posed: Can you forgive?

What was meant was, can you as a Native person, forgive what was done to your people by the United States? One audience member, a non-Native, turned to me said “You have to forgive if you want to heal.” I have been thinking about it ever since.

Forgiveness is, of course, a foundational principle in Christianity, and naturally the concept of forgiveness has permeated American society. We hear a lot about forgiveness being a necessary part of individual healing, whether it is healing from being wronged in a personal relationship, or even from the violence of rape or other kinds of sexual or physical assault. Forgiveness is trendy these days among new agers and psychologists as well. Underpinning arguments about forgiveness is a sense of moral obligation.

However, not all psychologists agree that forgiveness is necessary to healing. Some argue that we haven’t been given the freedom not to forgive, and that sometimes forgiveness is not possible, or even the best option, especially when the person who has committed the wrong hasn’t earned the right to be forgiven. Others see the imperative to forgive an abuser as itself abusive for the way it shames those who have been victimized when they aren’t able to forgive. In a framework where forgiveness is a moral obligation, the inability to forgive is thus a moral deficiency.

As a survivor of domestic violence early in my adult life, I learned that forgiveness was not needed for me to overcome my trauma. What I needed was to get away from the abusive relationship. Once I did, I learned behavior patterns to avoid repeating those kinds of relationships. If the goal was healing and emotional well-being, forgiveness was irrelevant.

Healing from trauma is not only about liberation from the circumstances of mistreatment, but also from a mental state of victimization, to not be stuck in a state of trauma. The ultimate objective in order to achieve peace of mind is acceptance. Forgiveness might be one path to acceptance, experts tell us, but it isn’t the only one.

Things become far more complex at the group level. Communities or nations who are surviving wars or other conflicts face the extremely challenging prospects of having to rebuild their communities, as well as heal from the psychological trauma inflicted by violence in its many forms. Even more complicated is when peoples who engaged in violent conflict must continue to coexist with each other after the cessation of violence.

Some conflicts are so deep, pervasive, or old that they are said to be intractable, or endless. And that the psychological damage caused by extreme violence may never be overcome in many individuals. Yet intractability does not imply hopelessness. Innovative approaches toward resolving conflict continue to evolve. In recent years, for example, we have seen the trend toward truth and reconciliation commissions (TRC’s).

TRC’s have been applied in numerous contexts, perhaps most famously in South Africa after the defeat of the oppressive apartheid regime. In that case, the majority black population, having come to power, resolved to promote national unity with its minority white population who had committed extreme human rights violations during its rule. It was conceived in the spirit of restorative justice, rather than “retributive” justice, and those who admitted to committing politically motivated atrocities were offered the possibility of amnesty (though few were actually given it).

The South African TRC has been hailed as a remarkable step toward the healing of the nation, but was not the ultimate panacea for national unity, and not without criticism. One of the problems was identified by secularists who condemned the religious centrality of some of the commissioners (who were clergy) and the confession and forgiveness framework.

The TRC process has also been applied in Canada, but limited its inquiry to the abuses of the residential schools. The commission found the Canadian government to have committed cultural genocide, and although recommendations were made to “redress” the schools’ legacy, it remains to be seen how it will benefit aboriginal communities in the long run.

It’s crucial to point out that unlike in South Africa where the aggrieved populations came into political power, gaining control over their own destinies, First Nations people in Canada still live in a system of colonial domination and have gained no real power as a result of the TRC process. The abuser, in other words, is still in charge, just as is the case in the U.S.

It seems to me the better question to ask than “can you forgive” is “what will it take to heal from historical trauma, and heal the relationships between indigenous peoples and settler governments and societies?” This way the oppressed aren’t held to what may be an impossible standard—and thus blamed for their wounds. And it also implies a shared responsibility for healing, by recognizing both the oppressor’s role in the inflicting of trauma, and the victim’s responsibility to take healing into their own hands.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.

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Liam DFeather's picture
What the heck does that mean ". . . we haven't been given the freedom not to forgive."? Who is giving you freedom? What do you mean by freedom? The freedom of Sir William Wallace? The concept to forgive is not necessary in the acceptance of wrongs or misdeeds. To say "I forgive you" imparts the appearance that I am on the moral high ground and am superior because I can forgive but it really only provides acknowlegement and substantiates the deed of the doer, maybe even assuage their feelings of guilt. My choice is not to say "I forgive you".
Liam DFeather
jaytaber's picture
In her essay Living with the Enemy, Susie Linfield argues that reconciliation after genocide is just another form of torture. https://www.guernicamag.com/features/linfield_7_1_10/
Sammy7's picture
jaytaber, I read the requested article and walked in the deepest of dark places only partially described as incomprehensibly destabilizing and psychologically scrambling. It took me back to David Stannard's book American Holocaust. It revisits unknown realms of trauma far worse than death and leaves one with an uneasiness about the nature of human darkness capable of delivering us to places of horror beyond conceiving, a kind of disconnection and suspension in horror. How fragile our lives are and how important it is to find the balance.
Mojo Hand's picture
My answer to the question of this titled essay, ‘Is Forgiveness the Only Option to heal From Historical Trauma?” is no. From my (Buddhist) perspective, it is not about moral obligation. That is just an additional burden placed upon the aggrieved. Nor is it about being able to claim any moral high ground. So this kind of moral ethics or ethos in regards to healing and moving on is irrelevant to me. It is about transforming your mind and self from the event. It is about dealing with one’s anger/depression/fear regarding the trauma. Tenzin Gyatso (14th Dalai Lama) said: “Forgiveness does NOT mean forget what happened….practicing forgiveness does NOT mean accepting wrong doing….Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” ----------People mistake what forgiveness is. It doesn’t mean everything is all better once you forgive someone, or allowing yourself to be in a position to be harmed again. Especially if you, yourself, are not ready to change your mind and your thoughts. Instead, one must let go of anger and resentment and sadness to be free and then move forward. The Buddha said, “ One of the hardest lessons in life is letting go. Whether it’s guilt, anger, love, loss or betrayal. Change is never easy. We fight to hold on and we fight to let go.” ----------Having said that, collective healing is not a one way street. It is also INCUMBENT upon the offenders to try to redeem themselves. That cannot happen if the offenders are in denial and won’t recognize the harm they’ve done and seek to make reparations. Marginalized minority groups may heal themselves, but still, the problem exists if the offenders take no responsibility for their harmful actions. The karmic cycle will remain. --------- I am not trying to preach here (especially as a non-Native), but just sharing a perspective in overcoming sadness and unhappiness that doesn’t include this kind of touchy-feely forgiveness trend we see today. Moreover, I’m suggesting if we can cultivate our minds to not always view ourselves as carrying this burden of trauma around, healing might begin.-------- You can’t deny the past, but as the Buddha said: “No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again. YOU, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection…We are what we think, all that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” -------overcoming trauma and injury is not easy. Again, I hope this doesn’t come across as preachy, as it isn’t my intent. And if it does, I apologize in advance for offending people.
Mojo Hand