Have We Forgotten How to Repent - and to Forgive?

ashesCambridge, MA. The recent spate of sexual harassment cases has led to an unprecedented toppling of powerful men from their hitherto secure positions. May the exposures and oustings continue for a long time to come!

But we need to be careful, about who we become in the face of exposed evil. As Americans, we seem to swing wildly from bland tolerance of injustice to the abrupt ejection of abusive men from their positions of authority and harsh final judgments. If there is a middle ground for compromise, it seems to have to do, as is often the case, with calculations, payoffs, confidentiality agreements, political calculations Such cynical deals are condemned by those who wish no mercy for the wicked. So many of us are still ready to hurl invective at one another, damning sinners for their now exposed crimes. But is this not a situation where justice itself can do harm, if it is judgment bereft of mercy? Yes, we are in a sad state, as a nation, if public figures merely deny their sins and get away with it; but yes too, we are also in a sad state, if sinners must always live in fear that confession of sins means the ruin of a life, the abrupt and irreversible ending of a career, a lifetime of shunning.

It is not clear that we still know how to repent and how to forgive. Our lack of habits of repentance and forgiveness can itself degrade into another pervasive societal illness, and it seems indeed that we are becoming harsher and harsher, and careless about the price many of our citizens pay. We lock hundreds of thousands of people in prison; we refuse to forgive felons beyond what the law demands, and released prisoners are ostracized by society and not welcomed back; prisons are fortresses of cruelty, not places for the reform of life; even young people may be locked up for life without parole; refugees and visitors from other countries may be rounded up and expelled, with no care for the damage to them and to divided families; sexual sins merit condemnation for life, with a fierceness that goes beyond legitimate fears about the danger of still further predations.

Dare we forgive those who insult, harass, molest, and rape vulnerable persons? Yes, even them, if they know how to repent, and if we know how to forgive. As a Catholic, I think here of the sacrament of penance – reconciliation, going to confession – which has fallen on hard times even in the Church. It is a venerable vehicle of the exposure of sins, repentance and reparation, and restoration. Be clear: this mercy does not come for free, it is not bought by a quick visit to a confessional on a Saturday afternoon. That there should be mechanisms of repentance and forgiveness does not mean that anyone gets off easy. As I mentioned not long ago to a friend, Catholic confessions — despite the pathetic repeat-sinning and repeat-confession of Kichijiro in the movie Silence, and despite the apparently easy and bland absolutions offered to abusive clerics who abused children — are not quick fixes that let the sinner off the hook, in a private deal with God and the priest: sin as much as you want, since confession is quick and easy. I pointed out that the current Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that there are tough standards that demand much but also extend hope to the sinner:

Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens sinners themselves, as well as their relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, sinners must still recover their full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: they must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ their sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1459)

Nor need private confession in its current form be the only model, even among Christians. One thinks of communal rites of contrition, so evident in the Hebrew Bible, as in Joel 2; the public shaming and repentance of King David after his betrayal of Uriah and seduction of his wife Bathsheba in 2 Samuel. I think too of the stories I heard as a child, of medieval kings and rulers repenting in sackcloth and ashes, standing barefoot in the snow outside churches during Lent, to show repentance and gain the lifting of an excommunication. Since the beginning of the world there have been habits of sin — but also of repentance, judgment, forgiveness — in societies that were realistic about evil and hopeful about repentance and reform.

And to the issue at hand right now: public officials, in power and seeking power, expose themselves as public and unrepentant sinners, if it is true that they have abused women and children, and then smugly hidden behind their public relation strategies, cloaked in casual “you can’t prove it” denials, refusing to confess because they think they can get away with sin, as if there is no God and no human mortality. We can rejoice if, as the Gospel proclaims, "the mighty are cast down from their thrones." (Luke 1)

Yet we too will stand judged, if we merely condemn them, merely wait with secret delight for their downfall. Even the powerful, if they confess and do penance, can be forgiven, and we, Americans of all faiths, must grow up spiritually, so as to be ready to forgive and restore to society those who repent and do what they can to do good where they had done harm. But for this, we need to recover – and reinvent – public rituals of repentance, penance, and forgiveness.

Those of us who try to be spiritual beings need to rehabilitate a language of sin, so that evil in God’s eyes and human eyes can be denounced, but without entirely ruining the lives of sinners. Such a language and the rites it entails need not an entirely Catholic or Christian renewal, since people of every tradition can look to their scriptures and ancient traditions for rites of confession, repentance, penance, and purification.

This is something Jews and Christians and Muslims, along with their Hindu and Buddhist sisters and brothers, might talk to one another about, creating rituals of confession, repentance, and forgiveness for today - in each of our traditions, rejuvenated, but also in the new common spaces of our society that are detached from traditional communities, yet still spiritual even if not religious. We can't leave the realities of sin, judgment, and mercy to the media, the courts, and the latest mood swings in public opinion.