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Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur–Can Anyone Really Atone For Anything?

Conrad’s Lord Jim is a tale of tragedy, guilt, and a search for atonement.  Jim abandons ship with eight-hundred pilgrims aboard, leaving them to sink with the Patna, alone, foundering in high seas, and frantic.

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The ship, however, does not sink. The pilgrims are rescued, the ship towed shore, and delivered to its owners. 

From the moment he sets off in a lifeboat with the Captain of the ship and its officers who all have abandoned the ship and its human cargo, Jim feels tormenting guilt and unassailable regret. Facing trial for dereliction of duty, Jim refuses to escape justice, faces the charges against him, and accepts the punishment of the court. 

As soon as judgment has been rendered (only a rescission of his license), he begins his journey of atonement.  At first he only wants to escape notice, and travels from place to place looking for a refuge, never to find it, for news of the Patna incident, the trial, the renegade captain and officers, and the plight of Jim.

All through his long hegira of guilt and recrimination, Jim wants only to expiate his sin, to make up for his cowardly and inexplicable cowardice.  He can never reverse the past but he can surely atone for it.

The island of Patusan in the South China sea offers him the opportunity. He joins with native rebels in their fight against the corrupt, venal regime of the local rajah. In fact he leads them and more importantly gives them the moral and military will to succeed in their struggle.  Jim is more than a military leader or even an inspirational one. He sees himself as an incarnation of righteousness, and the rebellion as a holy, just vindication of his sins.

The tale ends badly.  Jim, for all his heroism, is still a dreamer, a fantasist, and a selfish idealist. He has never dealt with the practical, real affairs of leadership and governance nor has he ever been confronted with the pure evil of Gentleman Brown.  Jim, in an exaggerated act of charity and final expiation of guilt, gives Brown free passage away from Patusan, never expecting him to return and kill all of Jim’s native friends and their families.

In humiliation and disgrace he faces the leader of the rebel tribe and the father of his closest friend and accepts the death sentence he knows he must receive.
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra prepared for her death by dressing in the most elegant and expensive silks, adorned with gold and silver, all to meet Antony in the afterlife, but more as her final, and most spectacular scene.

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Jim stood before his executioner not with humility but with the same naïve, boyish, romanticism that he always had.  This, like Cleopatra’s, is his last act, and he goes to his death confident that his battlefield victories were enough to atone for his sin, and that defeat at the hand of an evil adversary was not failure but a righteous and noble outcome.  Failing to see the duplicity of Brown despite his Christian generosity was not a fault or a failing. It was only the eventually of evil.  Jim had done what he was destined to do, and felt himself a righteous, holy man.

Conrad asks the question, ‘Can anyone ever atone for a heinous sin?’.  What is the calculus? How many rights equal a wrong? Was Jim’s guilt-ridden suffering enough? If Christ died for all the sins of all humanity in an act of total redemption and forgiveness, then would not a confession of guilt and a worthy penance be sufficient?  Or are some sins impossible to be forgiven? And that perpetual suffering is the only legitimate human response?

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These existential questions are rarely asked in an age of moral relativity.  Guilt is a questionable premise given the many social, economic, and cultural exceptions to any moral rule.  Antisocial behavior can be explained away by invoking past abuse.  Black men, oppressed and abused for centuries by white overlords, have every reason to turn to violence. 

Faithful husbands, left on the curb of social advancement by aggressive, dismissive, feminist wives, have every reason to turn to infidelity.  Politicians who believe in the righteousness of their political mission have every justification for turning to opportunistic lobbyists and wealthy donors.
Children are given every excuse for misbehavior – ADHD, abusive teachers, a lack of opportunity – anything but responsibility. The cult of parental ‘understanding’ is fundamentally detrimental to the establishment of fixed moral principles and a culture of adherence to them.

Every dereliction has an excuse.  Every sin has mitigating circumstances.  Every moral failing can be attributed to external, exogenous factors, and never to the moral cowardice of the individual.

How can this be otherwise in a culture which lionizes individualism and identity? If the individual can do no wrong; if his frustrations, anger, and resentments are considered legitimate a priori and supersede any more general concerns for the commonweal or society at large; and if his identity is sacrosanct no matter how much such self-centeredness damages the community around him, then how can a fixed set of moral principles be even articulated let alone respected?  And how can anyone be judged guilty, required to atone and do penance?

Many of those who have aborted a child years ago, now, upon reflection realize that they have committed an unpardonable sin.  How to atone for it?  The baby is long dead, a collateral victim of feminism and individualism; but it cannot be forgotten by its mother and father who profoundly regret their decision.  How can they expiate their guilt, and more importantly atone for their sin?
A commitment to pro-life causes might be one way; and the more financial, physical, and political support, the more one’s sin might be forgiven; but taking a life and marching for the rights of the unborn seems to be a horribly unbalanced equation.

A special, devoted love of grandchildren or all children might be another way to expiate guilt, but certainly not atone for abortion.  Such love is adoration not forgiving. 
Similarly no amount of contribution to UNICEF or Save the Children can possibly compensate for the death of a potential human being.

Confession may be convenient for Catholics, but those who have committed abortion know that the confessional cannot possibly end their guilt.  The must do much more, but what?

Image result for images catholic confessional medieval

The issue of forgiveness and atonement has been distorted by today’s culture of apology.  Every day a politician, a general, a preacher, or a teacher apologizes for their behavior.  “I should never have made untoward advances….I should have known better….I crossed the line…I had been drinking…I was in a state of depression…my wife was about to leave me…”

In most cases these ‘apologies’ are nothing of the sort and no more than convenient excuses for reprehensible behavior.  Apology, so goes the common wisdom, is enough to erase the past.  “I am sorry”, so please let’s move on and let me do the job for which I was appointed.

If guilt is not recognized, if facile apologies are all it takes to remove past transgressions, then atonement is never an issue.

The only time atonement is ever addressed concerns ‘retribution and compensation’ for past social wrongs.  The United States should pay all black people a certain sum in acknowledgement of its support of slavery.  Queen Elizabeth should pay Kenyans a fixed sum in recompense for their brutal colonial rule and massacre of the Mau Maus.

Image result for Jomo Kenyatta and Mau Mau

If one were to follow that route then Mongolia certainly should pay compensation to the millions of descendants of Genghis Khan, one of the most murderous leaders in history.  Cambodia has a lot to atone for given the bloody history of Pol Pot, and compensation might rightly be expected by the survivors of his internment camps.   The list goes on.

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In short, atonement is a tricky business. Even for those who accept the gravity of their moral failings and wish to compensate those aggrieved, deciding on how, how much, when, and for how long is complex and almost impossible.

Moreover, given the psychological nature of human guilt and the spectrum on which individual responses fall, it is impossible.

Angola State Penitentiary is a maximum security prison in Louisiana, and only the most hardened criminals – repeat murderers and rapists – serve life sentences there.  Within the prison there is no morality, for the incarcerated have nothing to lose, and additional murders or rapes mean nothing.  Not only did inmates have no sense of traditional morality when the entered Angola, they have less and less as their sentence wears on.

Image result for images angola state prison

There are those for whom righteous moral behavior is everything, the most defining feature of their lives.  Alyosha, one of the three Karamazov brothers in Dostoevsky’s epic is profoundly moral, but he is isolated and protected from the real world of moral complexity by the walls of his monastery.  He is pure, simple, and ideal, at the far, righteous end of the spectrum.

The rest of us muddle through, try to avoid morally compromising situations, are genuinely sorry for our transgressions and try to make amends; but fall far short of atonement because we never really believe that we were totally wrong or misguided.  Whether because of moral cowardice or social and cultural influence and pressure, we are unwilling to prostrate ourselves before our victims, beg forgiveness, and commit ourselves to atonement.

Atonement, then, is an idealistic proposition.  At best we understand our sins and are willing to apologize for them; but few of us feel the guilt so profoundly that we are willing to atone for them.
Nothing more can be expected in an increasingly amoral world.

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