Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Monday, January 5, 2015

Guilt, Shame, and the Birth of Forgiveness

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights a moment that changed the world:

“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:4-8)
This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.  Forgiveness does not appear in every culture. It is not a human universal, nor is it a biological imperative.  Alternatively . . . the perpetrator may beg, plead, and perform some ritual of abasement, humiliation, or appeasement. This is a way of saying to the victim, “I am not really a threat.” The Greek word sugnome, sometimes translated as forgiveness, really means . . . exculpation or absolution.  It is not that I forgive you for what you did, but that I understand why you did it.

Appeasement as a form of conflict management exists even among non-humans. Frans de Waal, the primatologist, has described peacemaking rituals among chimpanzees, bonobos and mountain gorillas.  There are contests for dominance among the social animals, but there must also be ways of restoring harmony to the group if it is to survive at all. So there are forms of appeasement and peacemaking that are pre-moral and have existed since the birth of humanity. 

[W]ithin Judaism a new form of morality was born. Judaism is (primarily) an ethic of guilt, as opposed to most other systems, which are ethics of shame. One of the fundamental differences between them is that shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. In shame cultures when a person does wrong he or she is, as it were, stained, marked, defiled. In guilt cultures what is wrong is not the doer but the deed, not the sinner but the sin. The person retains his or her fundamental worth.  It is the act that has somehow to be put right. That is why in guilt cultures there are processes of repentance, atonement and forgiveness.

Forgiveness only exists in a culture in which repentance exists. Repentance presupposes that we are free and morally responsible agents who are capable of change, specifically the change that comes about when we recognise that something we have done is wrong and we are responsible for it and we must never do it again. The possibility of that kind of moral transformation simply did not exist in ancient Greece or any other pagan culture. Greece was a shame-and-honour culture that turned on the twin concepts of character and fate.  Judaism was a repentance-and-forgiveness culture whose central concepts are will and choice. The idea of forgiveness was then adopted by Christianity, making the Judeo-Christian ethic the primary vehicle of forgiveness in history.

Repentance and forgiveness are not just two ideas among many. They transformed the human situation. For the first time, repentance established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent I show I can change. The future is not predestined. I can make it different from what it might have been. Forgiveness liberates us from the past. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of reaction and revenge. It is the undoing of what has been done.


It seems to me that this is what redemption is all about.

In my experience I have found that many of the missed opportunities which we later regret, whether large or small, often present themselves again in similar contexts, graciously affording us the opportunity to boldly discharge our duty in a situation where we may have previously shrunk back. Where would any of us be without our mistakes and failings and the opportunity to grow and learn from those failings?

We are grateful that we will be standing before the Judge of all the earth on the merits of Someone else’s record, and yet at the same time we are just as grateful for the opportunities we are afforded by His grace and power in this life to improve our own records in the light of His redemptive work.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which the Messiah took hold of me . . .  I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which G-d has called me heavenward in the Messiah.  (Phil. 3)


2 comments:

  1. This is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another.

    I had not considered that. What do you make of Job praying for the forgiveness of his friends so that God would forgive them?

    One of the fundamental differences between them is that shame attaches to the person. Guilt attaches to the act. In shame cultures when a person does wrong he or she is, as it were, stained, marked, defiled. In guilt cultures what is wrong is not the doer but the deed, not the sinner but the sin.

    An interesting distinction. I will have to give this some thought. The implication is profound.

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  2. And so it was, after the L-RD had spoken these words to Job, that the L-RD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has. "Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has." Job 42:7-8

    Although offerings are being made (on Job's behalf as well as the two friends) and forgiveness may be implied, there is nothing that explicitly demonstrates that Job forgave his friends for anything. There is not really any implication that Job's friends sinned against him. G-d mentions twice that their sin lies in not speaking of the L-rd what is right. Though Job is asked to pray for his friends and make burnt offerings, there is nothing in the text that tells us the content of his prayer or indicates that the friends had sinned against Job.

    Beginning with chaopter 37 and through 50 it is clear that the brothers have wronged Joseph and the entire saga really culminates in forgiveness, forgiveness that is explicit. The brothers were clearly concerned that Joseph would seek vengeance after their father had died, and Joseph was certainly in a position to do so, but Joseph, like Yeshua, forgave. It is a beautiful picture: Joseph, the beloved of his father, forgiving the brothers who would eventually become the nation of Israel. Almost one third of the book of Genesis is devoted to the narrative of Joseph, and no wonder, the parallels between Joseph and the promised Messiah are numerous and varied.

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