This is our truth, tell us yours
After Jem and myself had blogged on forgiveness this weekend I came across this piece by Karen Ingala Smith.
Now, I don’t know Ms Smith, and I don’t know much about her work, but that’s OK – she doesn’t seem to know much about christianity either, and it hasn’t stopped her writing about it. Some of her comments merit a reply.
Let’s start with this statement by KIS (I apologize for abbreviating her name, but I really don’t know how one properly addresses someone who has three names with no hyphens to guide us as to their order or significance.) “If someone’s ‘god’ , or indeed another believer, can absolve someone for the choices that they make, their responsibility is erased.” Now, that’s the statement that hoisted a huge red flag that told me KIS doesn’t really know much about christianity; not merely on its own but because it linked to another crass over-simplification that anyone who’d been to the same confirmation classes I attended would have understood.
Desmond Tutu explained that he believed that the conversation he never had with his father was a conversation in which his father wished to confess that he knew he had done wrong in hurting and abusing his wife, the archbishop’s mother. KIS dismisses this in a paragraph that oozes contempt for Tutu and his experiences.
“Tutu has also, with difficulty he says, forgiven himself for not making time to respond to his father’s request to see him the night before he unexpectedly died, an occasion which, Tutu imagines, might have been the time when his father sought to apologise for the violence he inflicted on Tutu’s mother. There’s nothing to suggest that Tutu is correct in this belief. It’s a convenience upon which he can pin his forgiveness.”
Two things leapt out at me from that paragraph. The first was that KIS treated absolution and forgiveness as one and the same thing. They’re not, emphatically not, and to use the words as if they are synonyms is to misunderstand a key point in christian theology. We can all forgive those who offend against us, and god requires us to forgive, but only god, to a christian, absolves us of our guilt, and that absolution is achieved through penitence. Penitence is defined as
“In penitence, we confess our sins and make restitution
where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.”
The prayer of absolution that follows the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer order of service is not the grant of absolution, but a plea to god that, if those present are truly penitent, and truly change their ways, they might be granted absolution. Here are the words of the general confession –
Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
And following that comes the absolution – ALMIGHTY God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live, hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins. He pardoneth and absolveth all those who truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now, there’s a nice theological debate to be had about the confusion inherent in the absolution – the old BCP says that the priest has the power to declare absolution, but the prayer itself beseeches god to grant true repentance. I’m no theologian, but in that conflict, and that assumption by the Anglo Catholic tradition that priests can grant, by virtue of their ordination, that which belongs properly to god, seems to me to be at the heart of many of the non-conformist schisms, and at the heart of the uncertainty that plagues modern Anglicanism.
KIS doesn’t get any of this, not least because she believes that religion is always an instrument of patriarchy, and so she doesn’t engage with Tutu’s thoughts in any meaningful way.Worse still though, she misses the point that penitence is a prerequisite of absolution. As both Jem and myself patiently tried to explain, our forgiveness of those who abuse might be nothing more than a selfish act of self preservation, but absolution is a consequence of penitence.
If you’ve stuck with this so far, here’s the punchline. KIS has accidentally tumbled into the key argument, the key difference between old and new testament concepts of god, between the god who punishes and the god who absolves those who have rehabilitated themselves via penitence, and it has vital significance to our lives today. Government after government of the last thirty years has prized punishment and vengeance above rehabilitation, despite the fact that ever more punitive regimes have not prevented re-offending. There is no evidence that any of the changes of the last thirty years, the three strikes and your out rule, indeterminate sentences and the like, have had any impact on crime. We are blind to the need to rehabilitate those who offend, so that they do not offend again, to the extent that we now have a prisons minister who thinks banning books is a good idea..
Rehabilitation, like penitence, is not some kind of spiritual get out of jail free card. It is hard work. It requires patience, commitment and resources. It needs a willingness in each person who is penitent to examine the causes of their failings, to look inside themselves and understand why they did what they did. But the evidence is that penitence can work – see here for instance.
It hardly seems fair to pick up on what seems like a throwaway line by KIS, but I will. She says “Male violence against women is a cause and consequence of inequality between women and men.” Now, I don’t think for one minute that KIS meant to imply, in some recursive way, that each act of male violence is its own cause.Rather, I think she’s stumbling around the difficulty that anyone who cares about rehabilitation stumbles around – that some offences are specifically intended, and some are not. A man who hates women, for whatever pathological reason, and sets out to murder them, is not the same as a man who gets drunk, loses his temper and hits the first person who says a wrong word to him, which happens to be his wife. Both are offenders, but if you wish to rehabilitate them, to prevent them offending again, you need to treat them differently. KIS is right, for the wrong reasons – some men set out to cause patriarchy, to make it happen, to make it real, and some treat women badly as a consequence of patriarchal ideas they have learned, and can unlearn.* Confession and penitence offer a route out of the cycle of violence, as Desmond Tutu tried to prove by his witness and engagement in South Africa. Forgiveness and absolution may be parts of that too, but without penitence there can be no absolution.
That’s why Desmond Tutu felt so guilty about not going to his father that last time, because he feared that his unwillingness to put himself out denied his father the chance to make a step along the road of penitence. Not understanding that, not respecting that world view, is not my way – I do not believe in Tutu’s god, but I can respect his beliefs and acknowledge his life experiences as a black man in South Africa under apartheid. To do so requires more than a cursory skim over his ideas and words, and an active engagement with what he believes.
*There’s a whole debate here about marxism and patriarchy that I haven’t got time for, but it’s worth saying this – patriarchy serves the interests of the ruling class far more than it serves the interests of all men.