Getting Revenge and Forgiveness: Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses
by Krista Tippett, host
I first began to gain a kind of respect for the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of this program, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge was the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to deter cycles of violence. I’ll never forget Sister Helen Prejean, a great campaigner against the death penalty, describing anger as a moral response. The question, of course, is where we let that anger take us.
Now, as Michael McCullough lays out passionately, science is able to document how normal, and purposeful, our instinct for revenge is. In the brain, the instinct for revenge looks like a “craving,” a felt need that begs for satiation. We do range into the realms of global geopolitics in this conversation — to the world around Joseph Kony in Uganda no less — Michael McCullough is just as interested in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our reactions to neighbors and irritating co-workers or to our political opposites.
The good news is that Michael McCullough’s research is also revealing that forgiveness is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. He says that to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about evolutionary biology. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — and even those we don’t love but need to work with — many times each day. Forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion. It happens constantly, and we rarely stop to glorify it with the lofty word “forgiveness.”
This science, in other words, liberates us from reductive analyses of ourselves and the world around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, and can see what triggers them both, we have more control over both.
On its cautionary side, it offers lucid explanation of why human societies remain vulnerable — physiologically, not merely politically — to falling back on retaliation and violence as a form of justice. When we cease to see our own well-being as linked to that of others, when we feel threatened by their very existence and are only able to see them amorphously as part of an opposing group, the forgiveness instinct becomes less possible and violence more likely.
This conversation with Michael McCullough heightens my sense of what is at stake in the present global and national moment. One the one hand, the interactivity of the globalized world should make it possible — even necessary — for us to know people far beyond our families and “tribes” as necessary to our survival and even our flourishing.
I am also deeply concerned, as we roll through another toxic election year, at how complete the chasms in American society have become. We have divided ourselves in countless ways — between red and blue, between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Such distinctions are surely inevitable. But the utter lack of communication, courtesy, and curiosity across these divides seems new to me. Alarmingly, the religious traditions that have been humanity’s moral respositories are also implicated in some of these divisions. How intriguing to imagine that we might harness lessons of science towards a more reconciliatory, peaceable future.
Science That Liberates Us from Reductive Analyses
Krista Tippett, host
We originally produced "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness" in the bitter midst of the 2008 election season. And when we first decided on the current program schedule just weeks ago, we had no idea that this show would land in another dramatic moment of recriminatory public emotion, over health care and other issues, in an already charged political climate.
Now, as during that first time, I am grateful for Michael McCullough’s decidedly real-world vigor and clear-sightedness. I’d been intrigued by what I knew of his research, and I was hooked by this line at the beginning of his book, Beyond Revenge:
"I wrote this book for people who want to bypass all of the pious-sounding statements about the power of forgiveness, and all of the fruitless sermonizing about the destructiveness of revenge. It’s for people who want to see human nature for what it really is."
As I’ve said many times before, part of my passion for the spiritual and religious aspect of life is my delight in the fact that here we dwell solemnly not only on God but on what is ordinary and human; we attempt to see human nature for what it really is, and find meaning and possibility right there.
I first began to gain a solemnity about the revenge impulse in human life when we worked, in the early days of Speaking of Faith, on a show about the death penalty. I came to understand that revenge is the original “criminal justice system.” For most of human history, prior to the rule of law, prior to structures of justice that transcend the messiness of human interaction, the threat of retaliation has been a primary tool humans possessed to pursue justice and also to regulate cycles of violence.
The ancient “eye for an eye” teaching of the Hebrew Bible — which is often cited as a justification for extreme revenge — arose in this context. It was not designed to champion extreme punishment, but to limit revenge in terms of equity and fairness — as in, “you may not slaughter the entire family of the person who harmed you or your loved one; you may only take an eye for an eye.”
And now, as Michael McCullough lays out expertly and passionately, science is able to document how normal, and in a sense, how sensible, our instinct for revenge is. It has served a purpose in human life and in the primate world. We are hard-wired for what looks in the brain like a "craving" for revenge, a felt need that begs for satiation. And though we do range in this conversation into the realms of global geopolitics and murderous revenge on a societal scale, Michael McCullough is more interested perhaps in the mundane forms this craving takes: in our interactions with obnoxious neighbors and irritating co-workers or, for example, the political candidates we oppose.
He notes 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 U.S. had revenge — often for bullying — as a trigger.
Here is the good news: science is also revealing how forgiveness, like revenge, is hard-wired in us — purposeful and normal. We tolerate and excuse the deficits and mistakes of those we know and love and work with — and even those we don’t love but need to work with — a hundred times a day without ever glorifying these moments with the lofty word “forgiveness.” School shootings, ethnic slaughter, and road rage garner headlines, skewing our sense of our collective character. But, Michael McCullough says, forgiveness doesn’t work in real life as it too often works in media portrayals of dramatic stories of conversion and high emotion.
Actually, he says, we forgive, in good part, because it is in the interests of our genetic pool to do so. The evolutionary pay off for the forgiveness of mistakes by people we are close to or whose work we depend upon, for example, is survival. Michael McCullough says to think of forgiveness as a trait of the weak and the vulnerable reflects a simplistic imagination about human nature and evolutionary biology. And he has the science to give us a more complex imagination about both.
This is science, in other words, that liberates us from reductive analyses of human nature; — that is to say, of ourselves and those around us. If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, we have more control over both. Among the practical tools McCullough offers for moving forward in this way, here is one of the most simple and challenging: we embolden the forgiveness instinct when we come to see others as having value. In this light, religious traditions have more than straight teachings on forgiveness to offer up to our culture. Perhaps more practically, they have rich, ancient, cross-generational resources for seeing, knowing, and honoring the dignity of “the other,” whether enemy or friend, neighbor or stranger.
On the cautionary side of McCullough’s insight, there is a realization that, under the right conditions, we are all vulnerable to falling back on revenge as a form of justice. This helps explain the fact that sectarian cycles of revenge often erupt after the fall of dictatorships, like that of Saddam Hussein; such regimes take all the revenge function on themselves and keep normal human dynamics artificially in check. McCullough’s science makes a sobering case for the necessity of the basic rule of law — in Iraq or in an American inner city — if human beings are to live up to their moral potential.
The need to understand the instincts for revenge and forgiveness, and to govern them, may be attaining a new urgency in a globalized world, and one that is in the midst of protracted economic turmoil. I know that Michael McCullough’s analysis has been ringing in my ears — anchoring both my concerns and my hopes — as I’ve watched that ongoing financial crisis unfold, and as I consider the unabated polarization of American political culture.
Skeptical, But Hopeful, on Vick’s Return
by Colleen Scheck, producer
From my peripheral vantage point, it’s been an interesting summer to consider the character(s) of sport. Roger Federer finally won the elusive French Open, prompting reviews that “nice guys can come first.” Now that the Tour de France is over, media attention has turned to the "drivel" between Lance Armstrong and this year’s champion Alberto Contador. I’m still pondering how Tom Watson must feel after coming so close to winning the British Open, just missing setting a record for the oldest player to win a major championship. Hailed as one of the classiest players in the game, Watson drew praise and respect while the tournament temper of the most beloved player, Tiger Woods, was not overlooked in the media this time. (I’ll skip the continuing saga of steroids and baseball - see Mitch’s post.)
And now comes the annual return of the NFL. As training camps open, I find myself monitoring the future of Michael Vick now that the NFL has reinstated him post-dogfighting conviction, and reflecting on how forgiveness and second chances take the field in the elevated world of professional athletes. I’m a dog lover, you may recall, and so this one tugs at me closely. I’ve heard several reports that Vick is “a changed man” and sincerely sorry for his participation in dog-fighting rings. He’s returning to the NFL under the mentorship of former NFL coach Tony Dungy, a magnanimous sportsman, who said of Vick:
"I think Michael deserves the chance to show people he has changed and learned from past mistakes, but my true hope is that he will make sound decisions about his future and, at the same time, let people know more about the person that I’ve come to know recently. I know the public will be skeptical, but I think, over time, people will find there’s a different side to him than what they’ve seen so far."
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, added:
"We support the principle that one should not only be allowed, but also encouraged to return to their chosen profession after fulfilling their debt to society. Michael Vick’s offenses were tragic and wrong and he has paid a debt through both prison and public ridicule. Now [Vick] can demonstrate that he can and will serve as a role model for young men in communities across the nation."
I think that’s the best possible outcome for this situation. Eventually a team will select him, so, a la Michael McCollough, I’m inclined to calm my revenge instinct (he should not be allowed to play or make big bucks in the NFL) and embolden my forgiveness intuition (give him a chance to prove himself and return to his profession). I’m skeptical, but I will hope Vick sets a new example and writes a redeeming chapter for modern professional sports.
A Poet of Love & Hate & Forgiveness & Revenge
by Kate Moos, managing producer
Marie Howe’s new book, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, is an amazing addition to our vocabulary of love and hate, forgiveness and revenge. As the poet Tom Sleigh says, “Her language is always deeply rooted in the social world, and it never turns away from the most difficult moral problems.” In this book, her poems about the war within us between light and shadow, vision and violence, are sometimes terrifying, often funny, and always illuminating.
After the Movie
My friend Michael and I are walking home arguing about the movie.
He says that he believes a person can love someone
and still be able to murder that person.
I say, No, that’s not love. That’s attachment.
Michael says, No, that’s love. You can love someone, then come to a day
when you’re forced to think “it’s him or me”
think “me” and kill him.
I say, Then it’s not love anymore.
Michael says, It was love up to then though.
I say, Maybe we mean different things by the same word.
Michael says, Humans are complicated: love can exist even in the murderous
I say that what he might mean by love is desire.
Love is not a feeling, I say. And Michael says, Then what is it?
We’re walking along West 16th Street—a clear unclouded night—and I hear
repeating what I used to say to my husband: Love is action, I used to say to
Simone Weil says that when you really love you are able to look at someone
you want to eat and not eat them.
Janis Joplin says, take another little piece of my heart now baby.
Meister Eckhart says that as long as we love any image we are doomed to live
Michael and I stand on the corner of 6th Avenue saying goodnight.
I can’t drink enough of the tangerine spritzer I’ve just bought—
again and again I bring the cold can to my mouth and suck the stuff from
the hole the flip top made.
What are you doing tomorrow? Michael says.
But what I think he’s saying is “You are too strict. You are a nun.”
Then I think, Do I love Michael enough to allow him to think these things of
me even if he’s not thinking them?
Above Manhattan, the moon wanes, and the sky turns clearer and colder.
Although the days, after the solstice, have started to lengthen,
we both know the winter has only begun.
(Poem reprinted with permission of the author.)
Singing about Revenge and Forgiveness
by Amara Hark-Weber, production intern
Over the past week, I have been collecting songs about revenge and forgiveness that were suggested by our listeners. Spending hours in the MPR (Minnesota Public Radio) music library, I thought not only about the artists and songs that I was looking for, but also about times in my own life were I have felt the sentiment of one of these songs or another. The most meaningful part of going through this music has been the reminder that I am far from alone in fierce rages that I have felt or gentle unclamping as I have let go of past wrongs. I’ve listened to scores of songs and looked across thousands of CDs, all the while thinking about the many ways that we think and talk about revenge or forgiveness. It has been startling to see how these complex sentiments apply themselves to my interactions with friends, family, and, of course, politics.
At the tail end of this project, I can honestly say that my thoughts about both revenge and forgiveness have changed greatly from the time when I set out. Several nights ago, as I received calls and texts from friends and family around the country and the world watching the election results come in and both candidates speak, I thought again about revenge and forgiveness. I cannot describe the spectrum of emotion that I have felt over the course of the past few weeks, and last night it came to a head when a Ghanaian friend called from Abuja, Nigeria where he is training with the BBC. He was weeping. We talked for some time about politics, but also hope and forgiveness, tolerance and revenge. We questioned the fine line separating our emotional responses from events that swirl around us, and the ways in which our gut reaction is often so far from the words that we use or the actions that we make.
As I spoke with my friend, I was glad to have these songs to draw upon as we discussed the many reasons why and how politics become emotional. By the end of the conversation we had agreed that forgiveness was not so different from tolerance, and revenge often like poison ivy — so satisfying to itch, but with each scratch spreading the rash. And politics, like religion, like love, family and so much else, is just a lens through which we see the others, ourselves, the past, our future.
Revenge and forgiveness are words of motion, although the songs that they inspire are emotional snapshots that do not move or change. Like the images in these songs, speaking with someone half way around the world about events that were unfolding in real time was something that I will not easily forget. This political season is not something that I cannot forget. This time in my life, when I am a newcomer in the city of my childhood is something that I do not want to forget. And the ties that we all have to people and events far, far away from ourselves is something that I must not forget ever.
I know that politics can be bitter, and that many people are elated and many disappointed. I also know that my emotional reaction is neither revenge nor forgiveness. It is not tolerance or hope or bitterness. It is still too raw for any of these polished words. It is something that will take time to shape. And eventually it will become polished. And then it will be tarnished. And I will move forward. And everyone will have moved forward. Emotion, events, persons, places, politics do not stand still, and although we may record songs that capture moments, and those songs remind us of this or that time, it is important to remember that everything is now different.
The Movie Montage That Didn’t Make the Cut
by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer
In the original interview for this week’s program "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness," our guest Michael McCullough mentioned the fact that human beings have been telling revenge stories for millennia. In a Greek tragedy like Medea, the main character kills her own children in revenge for her husband’s unfaithfulness. In Shakespeare, the ghost of Hamlet's father tells him, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love— / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” In Death Wish, Charles Bronson goes on an anti-crime rampage after his wife and daughter are attacked by muggers. Why are we so attracted to this plot line?
Michael McCullough argues that, as humans, we are hardwired to want revenge when we are wronged. Brain scans of people contemplating revenge resemble brain scans of people thirsty for a sweet drink. So perhaps there are few better ways to keep people listening to a story, reading a book, or watching a movie than to draw on their biological desire for retribution.
In working on this program, we put together a montage of movie clips to evoke both the appeal of revenge and its consequences. The montage got cut in the editing process — it just didn’t fit the tone of the show — but we thought you might enjoy it on its own. Let us know what movie clips would you have used, and what are your own stories about revenge and forgiveness.
"A Change Came Over Me"
by Kate Moos, managing producer
I spent a couple of hours Saturday morning rapt, listening to a woman named Mary Johnson talk about her spiritual path toward forgiveness after her son was murdered in 1993. We were gathered at St. Jane’s House in north Minneapolis, a neighborhood where street violence leads to the death of many young men each year. In Mary’s case, her spiritual path toward reconciliation brought her to found a small organization called “From Death To Life” that brings the mothers of people killed in street violence together with the mothers of those who have killed.
Mary told us there was a time she did not see her son’s killer as human. Then a change, she says, came over her heart. Now she knows him well and has visited him in prison several times. He’s preparing to transition back to the community, and she says when he does they will work together to end the cycle of violence.
Our program “Getting Forgiveness and Revenge” will be available here at onbeing.org later this week. We’re interested in your stories about forgiveness and revenge. Mary Johnson can be reached through her ministry called “Two Mothers” at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(photo: Kate Moos)
Forgiveness and Revenge, A Call for Music Ideas
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Yesterday we had our cuts and copy session for an upcoming program on forgiveness and revenge and today we recorded the script. I am now looking for music to use in the program and thought I’d reach out to you for help. What music do you find evocative in expressing forgiveness? How about the desire for revenge? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a song explicitly about these themes, and thus instrumental pieces are always welcome.
So, whaddya got? I am all ears!
Forgiveness is just a conversation away.
—Mike McCullough, from his interview with Krista
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Michael McCullough on Revenge and Forgiveness
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
A show we’re working on features psychologist Michael McCullough. He wrote a book about the evolutionary psychology behind the behaviors of forgiveness and revenge, and how that affects everyone from primates to politicians (huge gap, I know). He says we need to understand those origins in order to better serve our moral institutions today. Above is a clip from the rough cut of the show that makes the animal kingdom sound like The Godfather.
McCullough is a Ph.D. at the University of Miami in the departments of Psychology and Religious Studies. His many scientific papers focus on forgiveness and revenge, gratitude, and religious development in people’s lives. Some introductory ones:
- Forgiveness: Who Does It and How Do They Do It? — overview of his definition;
- An Adaptation For Altruism? — a similar primer about gratitude;
- Spirituality and Health — exploring the effects of spirituality on health, aging, substance abuse, and more.
He recently wrote something for The Huffington Post on the virtue of forgiveness — timely wisdom for the future president of the U.S., whoever that may end up being. “The ability to control revenge and broker forgiveness among groups in conflict is a crucial, though underappreciated, element of statecraft.”
The show should be online and on the air in two weeks.