By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Founding Editor, bSci21.org
On June 17th, 2015, Dylann Roof attended Bible study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Approximately one hour into the meeting, he opened fire killing nine people before escaping. Last Friday, at his bond hearing, the family members of the victims forgave Dylann over a video feed for his heinous acts.
The acts of forgiveness sent shockwaves through the Internet. For example, ThinkProgress.org cautioned against “Cheap Grace” and providing forgiveness at the expense of justice. The Guardian expressed concern that forgiving Dylann for his actions would risk society forgetting about the incident after a short while.
The Mayo Clinic succinctly describes forgiveness as a letting go of resentfulness and vengefulness towards the transgressor. They are quick to point out that forgiveness does not absolve the transgressor of his/her responsibility for committing the act. In order for society to function, those who commit violent acts must be held responsible for their actions in the sense of facing consequences through the justice system. But justice is not incompatible with forgiveness.
In my opinion, forgiveness implies a recognition that forces outside of the transgressor’s control had a role in the act. Interestingly, such a recognition is compatible with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as well as Christianity. From an ABA perspective, behavior is a function of its consequences. Skinner (1981) discussed this as an interaction between one’s learning history within a lifetime (i.e., operant selection), the evolutionary history of the species across generations (i.e., natural selection), and one’s cultural conditions (i.e., cultural selection).
From the standpoint of Christianity, humans are plagued by “original sin” originating from Adam and Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Before the serpent (Satan) tempted them to eat, humans were perfect and without sin. Afterwards, humans would be forever endowed with a sinful nature. This “original sin” lead to the repeated failures of the Jewish people to please God in the Old Testament, and lead to a “new covenant” in the New Testament with Jesus preaching love and forgiveness, with an explicit recognition or acceptance of our sinful nature.
Both perspectives lead to forgiveness, but they do not imply the transgressor is immediately “off the hook.” From an ABA perspective, the behavior of the transgressor must meet consequences that serve to correct the behavior in some way (e.g., a prison sentence and/or rehabilitation), or protect society from the behavior itself (e.g., a life sentence or the death penalty). However, the transgressor can be forgiven in the sense that he/she was not acting as an autonomous agent. From the standpoint of Christianity, the sinner must repent in order to be forgiven or else face judgment from God.
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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com. Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues. He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.