Friday, October 07, 2005


i had the occasion recently to ask two friends about the Jewish holidays falling this week and next. they kindly forgave my non-Hebrew ignorance of such important events as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because, for one thing, i come from the least ethnically diverse place on earth and, for another, i'm genuinely interested. my friend J's explanation of Yom Kippur led us into a discussion of atonement. behind all the platitudes about forgiveness and amends that we live with every day is a more problematic idea of atonement that posits it as a communicative act between two people. from what i understand, there is, in the Jewish tradition, a great deal of importance put on the verbal act of atonement. in some ways this seems similar to christian confession or the discourse of penitence.(i capitalize the J and not the c because, as a christian by default, it's up to me whether or not to properize my religion. it's not up to me whether or not to properize somebody else's). but the way that Foucault analyzes the discourse of penitence and its institutionalization both signals its difference from atonement and also points to significant problems with apologizing. "the confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement," writes Foucault in _the history of sexuality_. but in terms of the christian confession's role, and the penitent's position, in the deployment of sexuality, this is precisely the point. and that's part of the problem - not to oversimplify, but, according to Foucault, that's how the hell we got into this situation in the first place: "this discourse of truth finally takes effect, not in the one who receives it, but in the one from whom it is wrested."

on one hand i appreciate the implicitly communicative aspect of atonement, and it seems to me that, as with many things, the Hebrew sensibility is markedly more forward looking, even more "modern," than prevailing christian ideology. that in the Jewish faith there is a day set aside to atone for your sins, ideally verbally and directly to those against whom you have sinned, emphasizes the importance of human relationships in instilling good in the world (i am trying hard to stay away from actually talking about a divine being here, because that is something about which i am wholly unqualified to speak). i like that. and i think that this idea has crept into secular uses of atonement in a way in that differentiates it from the more christian "forgiveness."

BUT. practical uses of atonement tend to assume this kind of communicative act in a way that doesn't recognize the difficulty of overcoming the fact that the "speaking subject is also the subject of the statement." and so we have the modern-day, secular apology, which seems to THINK that it takes part in a discourse of atonement when really it's often no more than a confession, taking effect in the one from whom it was wrested. that is, atonement actually takes work to do right, because if it is not enacted as the communicative dynamic that it's meant to be, the apology and the forgiveness are two separate acts, and the burden for the desired result falls not upon the sinner but upon the abused. and then it takes an almost-divine kind of grace on the part of the abused to be able to forgive the sinner. well, christians would say, that's exactly the point. i'll take that, but it seems a bit archaic for actual praxis and, as Foucault might argue, is that not what the hell got us into this mess in the first place?

in more practical terms: apologies are designed to make the apologizer feel better. for most people, apologizing has become an easy way out of being able to treat others however they want, to sin freely, as it were. look at the 12 steps of AA. one of the final steps (i believe, although never having actually "worked the steps" i am perhaps not as familiar with them as i ought to be) is admitting your wrongs to the people you have wronged and making amends for these wrongs. although AA is deeply entrenched in christian mythology, these steps seem to be trying to put the more ancient idea of atonement to work. except that practically, consider this: these steps, as with all of the 12, are meant to work in favor of the alcoholic. to require a person to further their salvation by calling up the ex-friend/girlfriend/boss that they threw up on/cheated on/stole from ten years ago shows absolutely no regard for that ex-friend/girlfriend/boss who I ASSURE YOU is not waiting for an apology. but they are put in the position of knowing that they are jeopardizing the addict's entire recovery if they don't comply. i personally wouldn't want to be responsible for anyone's relapse and probable death, even if it was someone who had done me wrong. and to my way of knowing, this is the predominant version of atonement circulating these days. i can't speak for my Jewish friends, but i know i wouldn't want my sacred tradition kicked around like this. just call it what it is: confession. apologizers don't actually want to DO anything, they're just hoping for a few hail marys and let's move on so that they don't have to feel bad. or so they can get their 6 month chip and not die from cirrhosis, or whatever.

my point is this: i like the idea of Yom Kippur. i really respect a day for atonement. i wish my religion had something more theoretically rigorous and well-meaning to offer than a fat man in a red suit and rabbit who delivers eggs. but atonement is a lot more difficult, and, like any true act of communication, more important than our common conception of it. if you're not going to somehow atone the right way, i say don't bother. the sinner feels better, but the abused feels worse, not least because of the added pressure she feels to forgive. how to truly atone is another question. i'd start answering it by saying that maybe to truly atone the sinner should shoulder the burden for the guilt; she should not apologize as an easy way to feel better. you sinned, you should live with it in your life. maybe your future actions will be in part determined by the fact that it is there next to you every day. whatever happens then is sure to be more than just passing the buck in the lamb of god's clothing.

before i get too preachy. just saying.


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