Atonement and Remorse

So how does forgiveness come about? Paul van Tongeren mentions the conditions of ‘confession, remorse, atonement’. Which he then dismisses, since forgiveness is not conditional, but unconditional: we do not forgive on the condition of some act or atonement by the other,  and revoke forgiving if the condition is not met: that is bargaining, not forgiving. Paul van Tongeren rightly noted in his talk that just saying: ‘Yes, I did that terrible thing, I don’t understand why, I’m different now’ cannot bring about forgiveness.

Avishai Margalit, whose views I’ve covered in a previous post, quotes Wittgenstein on the Temple Ritual of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), where a goat was sent into the desert to atone for the sins of all. Here atonement is presented as a kind of magic, where our sins are removed by a simple trick. Margalit notes: ‘…the problem is not the actual use of magic, provided the magic … is conceived only as the expression of a wish to be cleansed of sin … but (when the action) is seen as causing purification, it becomes a superstition’ [EM, p. 187]. A codification of sin-cleansing, for the ritual contemplation of sin, is perfectly OK; the same ritual as actual sin-cleansing is not. Forgiveness is not that easily earned. From my own background: saying three Hail Marys and giving a token fee to the church parish cannot, on its own, be considered a true cleansing of sin. Margalit goes on to say ‘remorse offers us a nonmagical way to undo the past’ [EM, p. 199]. Through remorse a sinner does not deny the deed, but shows regret over it, creates a distance between deed and sinner, and this distance makes forgiving possible. Forgiveness is not an entitlement after expressing remorse, but remorse is a precondition for forgiveness, a human precondition, without magic.

I think Margalit misses a point here. Remorse is only a precondition for forgiveness if it is sincere remorse. If I’ve hurt somebody, and just say ‘Yup, I did that, oops, sorry, regret that now, please forgive’, I’m not likely to be forgiven. Remorse must be sincere; to be sincere it must be felt. Remorse must hurt the offender. If I’ve hurt someone, and I realize the pain I’ve done, and feel pain myself because of it, that is sincere remorse. And this reciprocal pain is in fact a form of atonement. Atonement in itself is a reparation of a wrong, maybe a compensation in money for a damage inflicted; or a payment in suffering, as in Ian McEwan’s famous novel, where Briony spends a lifetime trying to atone for a crime committed at thirteen. The second form of atonement, where the perpetrator feels pain, and suffers, is the form of atonement that in inherent in true remorse. So atonement and remorse are no opposites, no ‘magical’ versus ‘nonmagical’ undoing, but atonement is a necessary component of true remorse.

What about the first form of atonement? The payback, the scapegoat. The meaning of forgiveness is overcoming vengeance. And vengeance is certainly one of mankinds curses. Wars, vendetta’s, feuds, relational fights: the ‘I’ll get even’ mechanism can be responsible for perpetual conflict. Atonement as a payback is a codified form of remorse: I’ll pay reparations, I’ll sacrifice a goat: it shows I’m willing to suffer in response to a wrong I’ve done. If the payment is substantial, if it hurts me to give this sum or object, I’m showing that I am willing to suffer in response to the suffering inflicted. This codification of remorse makes it possible to atone, and overcome vengeance, in situations where remorse may not do: the other party is to far removed for remorse to matter. In societies without a well-established penal system, such codifications of remorse are the oil that keeps the machinery of society going, instead of stalling through perpetual reciprocal vengeance.

Immaterial atonement – grief – is a component of remorse, material atonement – sacrifice – is codified remorse. True remorse with emotional atonement is fitting between those close to us: friends, lover, relatives. Atonement as codified remorse is fitting for God, or the villagers on the next hilltop.

[EM] The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2002

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