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Where forgiveness fits in the Charleston tragedy

June 22, 2015
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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There are so many important mental health aspects to discuss within the tragic event at the Charleston Church in South Carolina. Among them are:

  • Possible mental illness underlying the behavior of the perpetrator;
  • Psychological aspects of racism and crosscultural hate;
  • Opinions on gun control;
  • Public and professional opportunity to prevent threatened violence;
  • The Confederate flag as a trigger to trauma; and
  • The challenge to maintain the love and concern exhibited immediately after such a tragedy.

However, what caught my attention the most was forgiveness.

Whenever I worked with patients who suffered from PTSD, the final healing that took place was in forgiving the perpetrator. Sometimes, that phase was never reached as the patient felt forgiveness was impossible or inappropriate, at least at the time.

Others could go through the process, whether the perpetrator was there to ask for forgiveness or not. This tragedy makes me wonder about the reverse process, too.

Because Charleston so values its houses of worship, it calls itself the “Holy City.” It’s no wonder, then, that Emanuel A.M.E. Church—even though once burned to the ground for opposing slavery—continued to exemplify the Judeo-Christian tradition of welcoming strangers like Dylann Roof. However, this time the welcome was returned with gunfire.

Many observers seemed amazed by the congregation’s forgiveness after the tragedy, and wouldn't be able to find that in themselves in a similar situation. But it is no wonder that some of the family members of those killed told Roof: "We forgive you. Hate won't win."  Their message of forgiveness seems to follow their long faith tradition of forgiving their enemies.

Early forgiveness

PTSD commonly develops after a severe trauma. Debriefing has been a popular strategy, but research has not confirmed its long-term effectiveness. Prescribing the beta-blocker medication propranolol as soon as possible has also been tried as a prevention strategy, but also with unclear results.

It’s interesting that forgiveness for the perpetrator offered by victims and/or their loved ones has never been studied, as far as I know. We do have firm and extensive research that later forgiveness is generally good for one's physical and mental health. Perhaps early forgiveness can—and does—do the same. Some people will do so automatically, as we've seen in Charleston.

In addition, clinicians and researchers might carefully and cautiously consider such a strategy in their work and study of those traumatized.

Then there is also the potential value of the other side of forgiveness. We know even less about what forgiveness does psychologically to those who are ultimately forgiven: Either it does nothing; helps them to act more appropriately; and/or gives them a sense of free reign to act out again. If forgiveness helps Roof and his various, indirect accomplices become less hateful, it will be invaluable.

Such forgiveness would then not only be holy, but therapeutic.

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...