Research News

UW-Madison’s Enright looking to plant seeds of forgiveness in Middle East

January 31, 2017

It was a little more than a year ago when Robert Enright was approached by a superintendent of schools in the Jerusalem and West Bank areas with a request.

Could he deliver a series of workshops for teachers on the topic of forgiveness?

The administrator, who was familiar with Enright’s groundbreaking forgiveness work, explained to the UW-Madison professor how “resentment is in the heart of so many people here (in the Middle East). It is destroying individuals, families and communities.”

Much of that resentment, in the administrator’s view, has emerged because of the animosity between Israelis and Palestinians that goes back to land disputes over the past 70 years -- and possibly to worldview differences going back over a thousand years within the Middle East.

At the same time the superintendent was approaching Enright, peace organizations in the Jerusalem area -- including the Elijah Interfaith Institute and the Interfaith Encounter Association –- also began speaking with him. These organizations were similarly looking to pull together a conference to aid people in reducing resentment, recognizing how resentments in the heart can destroy.

Robert Enright
UW-Madison Professor Robert Enright is playing a leading
role in pulling together the Jerusalem Conference on
Forgiveness for Peace. Enright says he believes it is the first
conference ever held in the Middle East that focuses on
person-to-person forgiveness.
It is from these concerns for individual, family and community well-being that Enright and others developed a first-of-its-kind conference that teaches about forgiveness and forgiveness education to be applied within the Middle East.

Enright, who has pioneered the study of forgiveness in locations across the globe for three decades, is playing a leading role in assembling the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness for Peace, which is scheduled for July 12-13 at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center in Israel. Enright’s forgiveness model is based on the premise that letting go of feelings of anger and resentment can be liberating.

The professor with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology explains that this unique, two-day conference is open to all who wish for a deeper understanding of forgiveness across the three best-known Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

“We focus on forgiveness as expressed in one’s faith in this region of the world because, within this culture, faith is a large part of people’s identity,” Enright explains. “If we can filter the understanding of forgiveness through the world view of faith, then the learning may be deeper and more relevant than if we simply gave psychological explanations of how to forgive.”

“We want to highlight the fact that forgiving is held in high esteem in all of these faiths,” adds Enright, a licensed psychologist and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. “Forgiveness is a part of each religion’s ancient wisdom literature, so all of these cultures share this concept of forgiveness. It’s my hope that forgiveness can be the basis for softening tensions within individuals and communities. We are not setting our sights on the larger political realm at this time.” 

Enright has constructed a framework for teaching people how to forgive and how to see inherent worth in others. He has developed a 20-step forgiveness program that he regards as essential for achieving the forgiving life. This program is divided into four phases: uncovering your anger; deciding to forgive; working on forgiveness; and discovery and release from emotional prison.

Enright has researched the effects this program can have on emotional wellbeing in regions across the globe. This step-by-step forgiveness process has been tested on groups ranging from incest survivors and children of alcoholics, to kids in classrooms in inner-city America, Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Seoul, South Korea, to name a few.

And in each instance, Enright says that forgiveness has proven to be successful in improving themes such as anger, anxiety and depression. It’s this track record of favorable outcomes that is garnering Enright the unique opportunity to bring his forgiveness work to Jerusalem.

The two-day conference this summer in Jerusalem will begin by featuring highly respected speakers from Judaism, Christianity and Islam discussing what it means to forgive, the importance of forgiveness and how to better interact with others through forgiveness.  Highly regarded international speakers will include: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (via video), who is this year's recipient of the Templeton Prize; Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Archbishop of Manila; and Dr. Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia.

The second day will focus on helping participants learn how to bring forgiveness to children in school and at home. The program includes academic presentations, personal testimonies and opportunities for everyone to contribute their ideas. Educators from around the world who have been applying forgiveness will lead the instruction.

Enright says that, as far as he knows, this is the first conference ever held in the Middle East that focuses on person-to-person forgiveness.

Enright, who will speak at the conference about forgiveness and what he has learned over the past 30 years researching this topic, stresses that this event is both politically and religiously neutral in that no one view will be given emphasis.

“My intent is to get different groups of people to examine forgiveness for themselves,” says Enright. “My hope is to get people to understand the value and power of forgiveness. Hopefully, we can plant the seeds of forgiveness and then those who attend the conference will bring forgiveness education to others across various communities within the Middle East and beyond.”

To learn more about this event, visit this conference web page.