Making Amends & Forgiveness

17 Sep

The Lessons of Yom Kippur

In the Jewish tradition of midrash, there is the expression "davar akheyr," which means "another thing," a story. Rabbis have always told stories as a central part of their teaching. So today, I will tell you a story.

It’s not my story. But I can relate. Instead, it’s a true story from one of my very favorite storytellers, Anne Lamott. This one comes from her book Traveling Mercies. I’ve abridged it just a little, but it’s called "Forgiveness."

The fruit of forgiveness. Annie says that God was trying to tell her, trying to point out that if she could just step back and allow a little forgiveness into her way of seeing, things would change. It’s like that, though, forgiveness. Usually, we have to be forced to give it a try. But whenever we do, for whatever reason we might do it, things change. They always change. Oh, other people might not change. But we change. Our experience of the world changes. Our way of seeing changes. Our heart changes.

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement in the Jewish tradition, is the last chance to make things right with God for the year, the last call to enter into right relationship with God before the Shofar is sounded and the year ends and God closes the Book of Life. However, it is important to consider that Yom Kippur is the seal of the work of the people for the year – the atonements made on Yom Kippur are directed to reconcile oneself, and the Jewish people, with God. Yom Kippur does not and cannot make amends between human beings, and human beings out of relationship with one another cannot properly enter into whole and healed relationship with God. So before Yom Kippur, you must go to your neighbor and make amends. You must seek forgiveness, and you must offer forgiveness.

In one of the earlier readings, Marianne Williamson pointed out that one of the basic elements in any 12-step healing process is to identify, understand, and confess where you have damaged yourself and others, and to make amends where possible. This is a scary step for many people. It is the painful, difficult work of accepting responsibility for your actions. None of us are perfect, and yet even knowing this, we find it so difficult to say "I was wrong. I made a mistake. I did this harm. I am sorry. What can I do to make this right again?"

I remember one time not so long ago when I apologized to someone for a mistake, for a harm I had done. The response given to me was, "Yeah, you should be sorry!" I had offered the apology in front of several other people. I had offered the apology even though the conversation had been initiated because I had felt that damage had been done to me and a community I cared about. Yet I took that first step and said "I’m sorry," only to be responded to with a hostile "Good."

My anger was intense. It flushed my face and I knew I needed to excuse myself and recover or else I would add nothing but negativity to anything that happened after. I took a break. I talked myself over the shock, pain and insult. It was real. It is very hard to take a risk only to be rebuffed. It’s even harder to say sorry first to someone you believe has harmed you, only to meet with more insult or injury.

But I stayed away long enough to calm myself down and remember that I had not apologized in order to get someone to do something I wanted. I had not apologized in an attempt to have another person do the same in mere reciprocity. I had said I was sorry because I believe in the healing that comes from taking responsibility for making amends, regardless of what other people do. If I had said "sorry," and the other person had said "sorry" back because it was the "thing to do," we might have achieved, at best, what has been called by some theologians "cheap grace." Like two children on a playground who have been fighting, whose mothers stand behind them with threats of withheld treats or room restrictions and demand the sullen "sorry" /"sorry" that comes from their mouths, apologies are meaningless unless offered with respect for what an apology means. It means, "mea culpa" – I recognize I have done wrong."

Now, it happens that after I excused myself, the person who was so ungracious in response to my apology recognized the impoliteness of the response, or perhaps this person saw the rush of emotions that overwhelmed me and sidelined me, and something changed. It changed between us. My apology had caused me to change, though not easily. It reminded me of where I was going, what my values were. And between this person and myself, it was a call to be more aware of feelings and one another’s humanity, in all the pluses and minuses that involves.

It would be a wonderful end to the story if I could say that everything resolved happily after that. It didn’t, really, for lots of complicated reasons, just like real life. But one thing I can say with joy is that it was a part of doing what I could do to make a healing possible. It was a reminder that just because I am brave enough to look at myself and try to make amends or do better, it doesn’t mean that work will be easy. Accepting your faults, forgiving yourself, committing to doing better is a way to heal yourself. Full healing of a relationship requires at least two people.

I have preached before on forgiving other people. Annie Lamott’s metaphor, "not-forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die," is so very right on target. Forgiving others heals us.

Marianne Williamson made an aside comment in her reading earlier. She pointed out that it’s easier and much more tempting to catalogue the sins of others rather than look to ourselves. "Why do you point out the speck in your brother’s eye, while overlooking the beam in your own?" the Bible tells us Jesus said. Well, to be honest, because it’s more pleasant. It gives me that little jolt of superiority. It’s definitely much more comfortable.

Spending our time investigating and pointing out the beams in others’ eyes is spiritually damaging. It is related quite directly to another Biblical injunction: Judge not, lest ye be judged. There are those who hear that and think it means, "Don’t judge other people or God will judge you." I don’t cotton to that, myself. Among many other problems, such as the anthromorphism and personalism imbedded in the theology, it is terribly arrogant – God will base God’s behavior on what I do. Hmmm.

No, I have always preferred the interpretation that Jesus was getting at quite a basic psychological truth: that if we are judgmental, we will experience the world as judging. Human beings have a strong tendency to assume that other people think as we do, make decisions using the same criteria as we do, and many other related assumptions. In psychological terms, we "project" our own insecurities and concerns, our faults and sometimes our best aspects, out onto other people. Therefore, if Jesus said "judge not, lest ye be judged," he was stating a relational fact and an important call to spiritual discipline.

Richard Carlson has a chapter in his Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff titled "Resist the Urge to Criticize." In it, he says:

"When we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical. If you attend a gathering and listen to all the criticism that is leveled against others, then go home and consider how much good all that criticism actually does to make our world a better place, you’ll probably come up with the same answer I do: ZERO! But that’s not all. Being critical not only solves nothing; it contributes to the anger and distrust in our world. After all, none of us likes to be criticized. One reaction to criticism is to become defensive and/or withdraw. A person who feels attacked is likely to do one of two things: retreat in fear or shame, or attack and lash out in anger. How many times have you criticized someone and had them respond by saying, "Thank you so much for pointing out my flaws. I really appreciate it"?"

Being critical and judgmental of others often is an important signal to us to look within. There are some telling bon mots about forgiveness: W. Somerset Maugham said "People will sometimes forgive the good you have done them, but seldom the harm they have done you." Joseph Roux commented, "The folly which we might ourselves have committed is the one we are least ready to pardon in another." So it is indeed an important call to turn back and see what amends you might need to make, yourself.

Quite often, the Ann Landers and Annie’s Mailboxes of the world deal with the age-old question: I had an affair. I feel guilty. Do I confess? The most common answer to that question, in advice column wisdom, is "no." Why would that be? Shouldn’t we confess and make amends?

In 12 step programs, the whole idea of admitting fault and making amends is predicated on one important caveat: that the admission of harm and attempt to make amends not inflict more pain, harm, or suffering on the injured party. In the case of undisclosed infidelity, unless there are extenuating circumstances such as disease or pregnancy or something equally damaging, the revelation is considered by many to inflict harm, not to promote healing. Sometimes, we must atone on our own. We must not ask others to forgive us; we must determine how to forgive ourselves and change. The amends one makes when confession is not the right course of action have to do with that change. In the case of a one-time infidelity, for example, the confession would cause further harm but the amends are still needed. The amends lie in not again violating the sanctity of the love relationship to which you have committed. Of course, this answer is not the right one for all people in all situations. There are of course many times when confession is very much a part of what needs to happen before healing can truly take place.

A confession. We have so many negative connotations with that word. For non-Catholics, confession tends to conjure up images of crime and punishment. It’s no wonder we don’t gravitate toward it willingly, as individuals or as a group.

In an earlier reading, Marianne Williamson suggested openly that the U.S. has a need to heal through the practice of confession and atonement. In a proud country, this is even harder. Yet the lessons of other countries and even our own history tell an interesting story, one worth considering.

Take South Africa, post-apartheid, for example. A significant component of laying the civil war to rest lay in the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission adopted the understanding that the greatest healing would come from these considerations: first, that uncovering the truth about atrocities and injuries that occurred during apartheid was a central component of healing; that truth would not be able to be found without the co-operation of the perpetrators; and finally, that the hatred and retribution had to begin to end with one side or the other, and the new South African government under Mandela decided to try taking the high road in that effort.

I’m sure it’s not hard to see how difficult that was and still is. For an injured people to say, "We will forgive" without having even been asked? With no clear evidence of repentance on the part of their abusers? As a woman in South Africa said not too long ago:

"Reconciliation after war and a hideously grotesque pattern of gross violations of human rights is a matter of creating peace in the present, and of sustaining peace in the future…In and of itself, no Truth Commission can create reconciliation. Much less can a Truth Commission create peace. However, they do create conditions which make reconciliation and peaceful coexistence possible… The TRC has made it possible for the citizens of this country to begin to understand why people participated in such grotesque actions, and it has made clear what must be done to prevent such things from happening again…This was accomplished [by the TRC choosing] to work with a restitutive, rather than a retributive concept of justice." (From "Harrowing the Ground so That Others May Build," by Colleen Scott,


It is important that we recognize that not everyone feels that confession and amnesty, in the pursuit of truth, is adequate response to the crimes committed. And to simply state that everyone who committed a crime during apartheid was acquitted unconditionally if they confessed to the TRC would be an improper and grossly inaccurate simplification of the process. But the story of the TRC, or the national atonement courses that Germany has pursued since the second World War are important models for what nations can do to take responsibility and work toward healing through making amends.

No person, no community, no region nor country is innocent. It is not possible. If I said, slavery, or the genocide programs directed at Native Americans or the interment of Japanese Americans or pre-emptive bombing or any of a number of other activities which our country has engaged in, the question emerges: have we atoned? Do we still need to make amends? Have we healed, is it possible to heal from grievous civic wounds without confession and atonement, without making amends? One thing I will say for sure: I believe we should talk about it. Talk about it openly and honestly. Consider it, argue it, understand how we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future as we have in the past.

On Yom Kippur, observant Jews accept their failings as a people. In the services, the response is "we have done wrong," not "I have done wrong." The Day of Atonement is a time set aside for saying "We are together. Where one has sinned, we all have sinned, for You have offered us into the care of one another." Individuals Jews come together for a day of fasting and prayer, with the understanding that they have already done their personal amends-making and now is the time for the people to reconcile with their God.

It seems to me much in line with what we’ve reflected on together so often – that willingness to neglect neither the individual nor the community. We should consider personal atonement and national atonement. Not just the U.S. Every nation. I speak only for the U.S. because this is my country. I am a part of this land, and I feel responsible for what we do as a nation. I don’t sleep easy at night, dismissing the actions of my government as "other." We are not other. The U.S. is us.

Robert Kennedy said,

"Ultimately, America’s answer to the intolerant man is diversity, the very diversity which our heritage of religious freedom has inspired."

I believe that this same diversity, which pulls us in many directions, is what can help us find the best way to pull together and to ask forgiveness of one another, to offer forgiveness to one another, to build a foundation strong enough to see us into a better future.

In closing, I offer this: there is true healing in accepting that we all make mistakes, large ones and small ones. There is no honor, no grace, no worthiness in denying or hiding our flaws and misjudgments. There is power and strength in being brave enough to say, "I have erred. I will do better."

May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. Shalom.

2003 D. Audette Fulbright, Roanoke VA.


 the above blog was copied  (with the exception of 2 corrections I made – the decapitalization of one word & the relocation of a space) from a newsletter I opened from Barbara’s Tchatzkahs today, right when I needed it the most, believe it or not!  

2 Responses to “Making Amends & Forgiveness”

  1. LAIRD September 20, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

    an annual day of Atonement or a weekly catholic \’confession\’ make it too easy for sins to be repeated ad nauseum. There can be no excuse or forgiveness for, let us say, burning witches or shooting pregant palastinians.Fascinating the mention of german warcrimes yet ignore the rape of Nanjing – just one instance of japanese genocide on mainland asia. Do I exaggerate ? read "THE FORGOTTEN HIGHLANDER"by ALISTAIR URQUHART.

  2. Elektra Magduhlana Marie September 20, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    Thanks, Laird, for your views. I\’ll try to pick up a copy.I sympathize with every woman, child, person & living creature, regardless of race, creed or colour, who\’s been a victim of abuse, myself included but I choose not to dwell over it too much. There\’s a lot of good stuff a survivor\’s life can offer. I choose to see mishaps as accidents from being in the wrong place at the wrong time;what happened to me could have been caused by a reckless driver.Some things are unforgiveable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: