Sunday, April 13, 2008


"Sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than to feel forgiven." (The chaplain in ER ).

I'm not an ER watcher myself, but the 'Atonement' episode was being watched in my household while I was writing an article. It involves a Catholic patient infected with inconsolable guilt for his past involvement in administering lethal injections at state executions. He has a row with a consolingly inclusive post-denominational chaplain; or, rather, he bawls her out because she has nothing to say to what he is confronting. It's very poignant. Neither the accumulated self-loathing of a certain kind of 'traditional' religiosity nor the morally evasive balm of spiritual self-therapy quite cuts it when the wounding is so deep. What is needed is redemption, which along with forgiveness is neither bargainable nor humanly manufacturable. It is a matter of a grace that is anything but cheap or easy, as the chaplain does realise underneath the protective veil of rhetoric. It also stands and falls by the reality or otherwise of the God beyond manipulative deity, which she doesn't, apparently. Her creed is her instincts. So is his, unfortunately. No one wins. Not that its about 'winning', mind.

(Apparently this clip has produced a bit of debate in certain church circles, albeit a rather bogus one, as Steve Knight points out.)


Pejar said...

"What is needed is redemption, which along with forgiveness is neither bargainable nor humanly manufacturable."

What do you mean by the bit about humanly manufacturable? I'm pretty sure both notions (redemption and forgiveness) existed pre-Christianity and were not always embedded in a religious context (feel free to correct me). And many non-religious people don't need the religious context to get the psycholodical benefit of both. Some get it from traditional religiosity, some from spiritual self-therapy and some without any kind of call on the transcendent. I can't help thinking that it's a certain kinf of traditional religion which makes it harder to accept for some though...

Simon Barrow said...

By redemption I mean the capacity to reclaim what has been lost, and by forgiveness I mean the capacity definitively to break a cycle of death and retribution by finding no need to replicate it. This is a disposition not of doing or conceptualising something but of discovering something - that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them. Only a goodness not constrained by the world of competitive difference in which we are inescapably bound can offer forgiveness as a disposition rather than an effect (something to which “benefits” can be attached). The political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who was from a secular rather than a religious background, was clear that forgiveness in this sense (overcoming enmity in the face of humanly irretrievable loss) was indeed an distinctive discovery of Jewish and Christian experience. Rene Girard’s work on mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism (to which forgiveness is the antidote) has illustrated the same point. To acknowledge this is not to claim, of course, that Jews and Christians are better exponents of forgiveness than others. Sometimes the reverse, sadly. Indeed, my comment was a critique of two dominant but inadequate religious paradigms – a conservative one which turns God into a tyrant, and a liberal one which proposes an ideology of human self-improvement… something which, frankly, looks rather feeble when left to wrestle with monumental evils like the death rows and death camps we human beings keep setting up. On that point, I have much more sympathy with the guilty Catholic executioner – at least he realises that there is something at stake which goes way beyond therapy, even if his (mis)conception of God is, sadly, guilt writ large. In both cases the problem is that God is negatively confused with ‘religion’. See also: