Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine

As a kid, I went to Catholic school for several years. In addition to our lessons in traditional educational subjects of reading, science, math, history, and social studies, we also got regular lessons in Church teachings. Although I consider myself atheist or agnostic today, I distinctly remember that some of the religious lessons – particularly some of the parables of the New Testament – simply “felt” good.

In particular, I remember that the parable of the good Samaritan said something to me – try to help others in need, even if there is risk, and even if they are somehow different from you. Likewise, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (at least to me) emphasized the importance of being humble. The parable of the prodigal son contained themes of contrition, mercy, and reconciliation.

When we read those lessons – in class or in Church – they often came with a pleasant physical sensation. At the time, I interpreted that feeling as evidence that the parables were divinely inspired. After all, other stories didn’t give me the same emotional response (though at that age, I didn’t have many examples to compare). Of course, now I interpret things differently. The biological anthropologist in me would say that the pleasurable sensation is part of a human neurobiology that promotes pro-social behavior. This, in turn, reinforces the rewards that we gain from being connected to others.

Does that sound too cold? “Oh, you materialist!”  I hope it doesn’t. Whether the sentiments are divinely inspired or a part of an evolved emotional response, the effect is the same – they help maintain our connections, which we absolutely need. No human being is an island. Instead, we are obligatorily social primates. And, regardless of whether we take a religious or secular perspective, we are still left with the angel and devil on either shoulder (whether we interpret that literally or figuratively). We all make our choices that are based on a combination of character, the information at our disposal, and our surrounding circumstances.  

I have to admit that I still get that inspirational feeling whenever I read about extraordinary acts of compassion, forgiveness, or simply someone who’s made an effort to seek out another’s humanity. I’ve collected them for a while. After a few accumulate, I feel the need to share them. Below are a few fairly recent examples, followed by a more comprehensive list. Collectively, they all give me hope, as they span the range of humanity – secular and religious – from many societies.

The mother of Abdolah Hosseinzadeh removes the noose from around the neck of her son’s killer, sparing his life, April 15, 2014. Image via Arash Khamooshi.

In April 2014, the parents of Abdollah Hosseinzadeh, an 18 year-old man who had been stabbed to death in northern Iran, spared the life of their son’s killer. In the Iranian legal system, a victim’s family members are sometimes allowed to personally initiate the execution their relative’s murderer. Instead, Abdollah’s mother, Samereh Alinejad, slapped the face of the man convicted of killing her son just before he was to be hanged. She then pardoned him, and the noose was removed from his neck. In an emotional scene, the families of the convicted and the aggrieved then embraced and visited Abdollah’s grave. Samereh then said:

“I am a believer. I had a dream in which my son told me that he was at peace and in a good place. After that, all my relatives, even my mother, put pressure on me to pardon the killer.” The “slap was the space between revenge and forgiveness…Now that I’ve forgiven him, I feel relieved.”

In June 2015, Nadine Collier, the daughter of one of the nine victims of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina (70-year-old Ethel Lance) confronted her mother’s killer in court, saying:

“I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

In June 2016, Pope Francis stated that Christians owe apologies to homosexuals and others who have not been protected by the Church, stating:

“The Church must ask forgiveness for not behaving many times — when I say the Church, I mean Christians! The Church is holy, we are sinners!… I believe that the church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended, but has to apologize to the poor, to exploited women, to children exploited for labor; it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons.”

In October 2016, Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger presented a TED Talk: “Our story of rape and reconciliation.” The two had dated twenty years earlier when Tom left Australia to be an exchange student in Iceland. After a dance, Tom raped Thordis. The event scarred Thordis for years, who later sought out Tom to find some measure of forgiveness. As she said:

“Given the nature of our story, I know the words that inevitably accompany it — victim, rapist — and labels are a way to organize concepts, but they can also be dehumanizing in their connotations. Once someone’s been deemed a victim, it’s that much easier to file them away as someone damaged, dishonored, less than. And likewise, once someone has been branded a rapist, it’s that much easier to call him a monster — inhuman. But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it? And how can we empower survivors if we’re making them feel less than? How can we discuss solutions to one of the biggest threats to the lives of women and children around the world, if the very words we use are part of the problem?”

In February of this year, Hassan Guillet, an imam in Quebec City where six people were killed and several others were injured when a gunman stormed a local mosque during evening prayers, gave this extraordinary eulogy at the funeral:

But Khaled, Aboubaker, Abdelkrim, Azzedine, Mamadou and Ibrahima they selected the place they wanted to live in. They selected the society they wanted to be their society. They selected with whom they wanted their children to grow. And it was Canada. It was Quebec.… It is up to the society to choose them the same way they have chosen this society. They had their dream to send their kids to school, to buy a house, to have a business and we have to continue their dreams. We have to continue their dreams the same way they extended their hands to the others. It is up to others to extend their hands toward them. Now unfortunately, it is a little bit late. But not too late. The society that could not protect them, the society that could not benefit from their generosity still has a chance. The hands that didn’t shake the hands of Khaled or Aboubaker or Abdelkrim or Azzedine or Mamadou or Ibrahima, that society can shake the hands of their kids. We have 17 orphans. We have six widows. We have five wounded. We ask Allah for them to get them out of the hospital as soon as possible.

Did I go through the complete list of victims? No. There is one victim. None of us want talk about him. But given my age, I have the courage to say it. This victim, his name is Alexandre Bissonnette. Alexandre, before being a killer he was a victim himself. Before planting his bullets in the heads of his victims, somebody planted ideas more dangerous than the bullets in his head. This little kid didn’t wake up in the morning and say ‘Hey guys instead of going to have a picnic or watching the Canadiens, I will go kill some people in the mosque.’ It doesn’t happen that way.”


Being fallible, people make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes harm only ourselves. Sometimes they impede on the lives of others. Sometimes this is by negligence. Sometimes it’s by malice. In all of the above examples, people have demonstrated compassion and understanding for others who have wronged.

Of course, things are not always so simple. It is a matter of debate as to whether forgiveness should be given or earned. For example, Nadine Collier demonstrated tremendous grace and magnanimity by forgiving the Charleston shooter. But it is also true that the shooter showed no remorse for his actions. Therefore, Collier’s grace and the murderer’s lack of contrition are independent strands.

In the case of Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger, Liv Wynter argued that there are other issues to consider. For one, Thordis (the aggrieved) had to seek out Tom (the offender), instead of the other way around. This came after years of emotional pain for Thordis. In addition, there is the possibility that Tom will profit from the book they co-authored about their journey toward forgiveness, while also remaining free from legal punishment. Wynter suggested that he may also be free from feeling guilt or shame, though it’s not easy to know concretely about someone’s inner emotional life. Most importantly, Wynter added that:

“The thing is, admitting you fucked up is beneficial, but it is not radical. What’s radical is the work that goes in after, the attempts to better yourself and attempts to go out of your way to make others around you feel safe.”

Wynter emphasized that for justice to be truly “transformative” (rather than merely throwing the offender away into the penal system), the priority should be to centralize and support the victim while also educating the perpetrator so the offense does not happen again. In other words, transformative justice requires effort.

Along those lines, Barbara Eve Breitman wrote about the idea of tshuvah in Judaism. Tshuvah can be translated as “repentance” or “turning one’s life in a new direction,” which requires a series of steps from the offender in order to earn forgiveness:

  1. Acknowledge that one has done something wrong.
  2. Confess one’s wrongdoings to God and community.
  3. Express remorse.
  4. Resolve not to transgress in this way again.
  5. Compensate the victim for injuries inflicted and do acts of charity for others.
  6. Sincerely request forgiveness by the victim…with help from community or friends…and do so up to three times. 
  7. Avoid the conditions that caused the offense.
  8. Act differently when confronted with the same situation.

Breitman added that if the offender has completed tshuvah, then there is an obligation on the part of the aggrieved to forgive, though that will always be up to the individual and the specific circumstances involved. 

In an earlier post, I considered how forgiveness and reconciliation might have evolved by looking at work others have done with computer models of aggressive and peaceful behavior:

“In simulated population models of animal behavior, hyper-aggressive individuals (‘hawks’) will thrive at the expense of docile pacifists (‘doves’). However, doves that have a retaliatory streak (‘tit-for-tat’) will fare better in that they incur the benefits from cooperating with each other, while simultaneously keeping hawks from those benefits when they meet. Better still, a ‘generous tit-for-tat’ program will forgive another’s occasional defection and absorb the blow – the logic being that it could be a mistake rather than a character defect or a pattern of behavior. This keeps the door open for future cooperation and all the benefits that entails. These models reinforce the notion that altruism, cooperation, and forgiveness could evolve under natural conditions.”

Therefore, being “generous” toward an offender could have evolved in order to provide future benefits from cooperation, at least in computer simulations. But I don’t think this explains everything. In the above examples, people have forgiven others who have committed murder and rape, even though they will likely never see each other again. Their forgiveness did not stem from the desire to forge a new, mutually beneficial relationship. Instead, it may derive simply from the wish to feel a sense of relief, to shed the emotional burden of traumatic past events, to forgo a desire for revenge, and perhaps because we wish to believe that people really can be redeemed if forgiven, even if they’ve stolen from a Bishop.

Below are other examples I’ve briefly written about before. The list isn’t comprehensive, but I compiling them all here in once place if you’re in need of examples. It’s true that they stand out because they seem somewhat rare and extraordinary. At the same time, by placing them alongside each other, maybe they aren’t so rare after all. Maybe they’re simply within our capacity as a species. And even if they are rare, as Gandhi once wrote, “Is it impossible to multiply the exceptions so as to make them the rule? Must man always be brute first, and man after, if at all?”


Other examples from previous posts

Making Peace with the Past (April 2010)

Joshua Blahyi (AKA ‘General Butt Naked’) confessed to being responsible for killing 20,000 people, as well as engaging in cannibalism and sacrificing children in cold blood during the war in Liberia in the 1990s. He has since became an evangelical pastor preaching reconciliation and peace.

Mark Cronin forgave the woman who cost him his leg (and almost his life) as a result of her driving while intoxicated.

The Croatian President Ivo Josipovic apologized to the Bosnian parliament, stating “I’m deeply sorry that the Republic of Croatia … has contributed to the suffering of people and divisions which still burden us today.”

Serbian parliament apologized for the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.

In San Diego, an Air Force pilot lost control of his F-18 during a training exercise, which subsequently crashed into a house, killing the wife, two daughters, and mother-in-law of Dong Yun Yoon. He forgave the pilot the following day, saying that he understood the pilot “did everything he could” and did not intentionally mean to harm his family.


Reconciliation and the 2nd Indochina War (March, 2011)

Kim Phuc, who forgave John Plummer, the man who believed he was responsible for the bombing of her village decades earlier.

Pham Thanh Cong, who extended an offer of friendship to William Calley (involved in the My Lai massacre) The

The Japanese government’s apology for colonizing Korea.

The British apology for Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland.

The U.S. Senate’s apology to African-Americans for slavery and segregation.

The Danish government’s apology for the Viking raids of Ireland, which occurred 1,200 years earlier.


Further Strides Toward Reconciliation (Jan, 2012)

Colombia vowed to spend $30 billion to compensate war victims.

El Salvador apologized for the El Mozote Massacre that took place 30 years earlier.

The Netherlands apologized to Indonesia for its role in a 1947 massacre there.


Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman and Apology (April, 2012)

Sybrina Fulton, Travyon Martin’s mother said: “If I had an opportunity to talk to George Zimmerman, I would probably give him the opportunity to apologize. I would probably ask him if there was another way he could have helped settle the confrontation that he had with Trayvon, other than the way it ended, with Trayvon being shot.”


Acts of Reconciliation in Rwanda (April, 2014)

This post gives several examples of Tutsi victims in Rwanda who have forgiven their Hutu perpetrators. In one case, Vivianne forgave Jean Pierre, who had been part of a group that killed her father and three brothers.


Love for My Enemies (Jul, 2014)

Also in Rwanda, Wellars Uwihoreye asked his former childhood friend, a Tutsi man named Innocent Gakwerere for forgiveness for being responsible for his mutilation, near death, and destroyed home.  The two men became friends again.


More Reconciliation: Multiplying the Exceptions  (May, 2015)

Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant living in Dallas who advocated for the life of Mark Stroman, the man who shot him in the face for a twisted version of “revenge” soon after September 11th, 2001.

Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor, confronted and forgave Oskar Groening, a former camp guard.

Prince Charles shook the hand of Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein (the former political wing of the IRA).


Primates and the Day of Atonement (Oct, 2016)

Among the Aranda of Australia, unsanctioned violence is considered the least favored path to justice. Instead, alternatives include holding hearings before community elders, paying compensation to the aggrieved, non-lethal duels, public venting of emotions and insults at the offender, and actual reconciliation. Among the Aranda of Australia, a penis-holding ritual among men of different groups served as a means to resolve disputes.

Thanks for reading.

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