The Wisdom of Atonement lesson for week 7: Creative Atonement

Download 60.98 Kb.
Size60.98 Kb.

The Wisdom of Atonement


Creative Atonement

Michael Nagler and James O’Dea
In preparation for this lesson, please read

Chapter 3 and the conclusion of

Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement

Healing the Past, Making Amends and Restoring Balance in Our Lives and World by Phil Cousineau (ISBN 978-0-470-90773-3)
For this final week of study we would like to review the central ideas of our time together, as well as refine them. Michael Nagler, founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Education, begins his fine essay in Beyond Forgiveness with a brief but poignant anecdote.

“I was traveling in Atlanta some years ago,” he writes, “and heard that a black church had been burned to the ground by four racists. When I picked up the story, they were being duly sentenced—to rebuild the church. It struck me then, and I have often observed since, that in the spreading movement of reconciliation and atonement this is not always the case.”

What is not always the case?

The actual act of atonement, the restitution, the rebalancing of wrongs. In contrast, Michael Nagler points out how difficult this can be, even with the best of intentions. To make a fine point of it, he feels that we continue to face the shortcomings of the peace process in post-apartheid South Africa, whose Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) became the paradigm for more than twenty such efforts around the conflict-tormented world today.”

But you say, wait a minute, wasn’t bloodshed avoided in that great victory for democracy? Yes, Michael Nagler, would say, but at a high price because something serious has gone lacking, which is, he writes, “precisely this element of concrete action, of physical restitution, [that] was missing.”

Although some compensation has been offered and accepted in South Africa, such as land returned, some homes rebuilt, some children sent to college, most of the most egregious offenders were simply asked to confess to their “political” crimes during the apartheid era and, when they did so, were promptly pardoned. In Michael Nagler’s view, a major component was missing: the perpetrators were never asked to make amends, which in his opinion is the only way to satisfy both the victims and their offenders. (Please read pages 36-39 in Beyond Forgiveness for more information about the TRC process, preferable to vengeance, but not uniformly successful.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: If you were given the chance to go beyond forgiveness, how far would you go? With all that you have learned about forgiveness and reconciliation do you feel your spirit strengthened?

Michael Nagler’s ruminations about the reconciliation may be surprising to some of you. Most of us have grown up believing that emotion, and deep feelings play a serious role in the peace process. But he argues here that it can be an obstacle and uses the TRC documentary film called Long Night’s Journey into Day to make his case.

“Alongside many truly heartwarming episodes of genuine repentance,” he writes, “offenders, both white and black, who exploited the opportunity cynically, without any real change of heart… While the TRC must be given credit for a great deal, there is reason to think it could have done much more, for even when an emotional transformation is genuine, it is somehow only complete when it’s expressed in action—ideally, as in Atlanta, in rebuilding what one has destroyed.” (Please read pages 37-39 of Beyond Forgiveness to learn more about his ideas regarding reservatio mentalis (a mental reservation), deep within oneself, that can prevent us from making the final and deep gesture.)


“Failure to grieve over its shortcomings is a serious problem for the United States and contribute[s] to anti-American attitudes in the rest of the world.” This is a soul-damaging failure; an explicit intention of this volume—or at least my main purpose for contributing to it—is to address just this problem.”

And where does the collective grief stem from? Michael Nagler suggests it is from our “backlog of debt”—toward Native Americans and Native African, just to mention two glaring examples. His suggestion is powerful but controversial, saying that America cannot move into the future until we face and deal with this dubious legacy; in a word, to atone for it.

Of course, that sounds intellectually sound, but it doesn’t miss a key point? Emotionally, it is hard for individuals, nevertheless nations to confront guilt.

(Please read pages 37-39 in Beyond Forgiveness to learn more about reformers in justice systems, Arnold Toynbee’s thoughts on Gandhi’s role in England’s departure from India, which helped them leave without rancor and without humiliation.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: What stands in your way of confronting your own guilt—shame, embarrassment, pride?
As a renowned Gandhi scholar, Michael Nagler looks to the Mahatma for an antidote to the obstacle of pride, saying what is needed is restitution. Those who bring harm must be made aware that what they perpetrated was wrong—but at the same time must be reminded there is an opportunity to atone for it. From there Michael Nagler points to most dramatic case (to my knowledge not historical though certainly characteristic) is in one of the final scenes of Gandhi, where the Mahatma tells a guilt-stricken Hindu who has killed a Muslim child in revenge for the murder of his own son, “I know a way out of hell,” namely, to adopt an orphaned child about the same age as his own son, “but be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as such.” (Please read pages 39-40 of Beyond Forgiveness for more insight into the Gandhian way of peacemaking, which is centered in making a distinction between the criminal and the crime, the torturer and the torture.)


And still it is difficult for many people to believe that a sense of looking out for each other is ingrained, or necessary, to use Diane Hennacy Powell’s term. But let’s listen again to Swami Vivekananda who has said, “Western civilization has in vain endeavored to find a reason for altruism. Here it is. I am my brother, and his pain is mine. I cannot injure him without injuring myself, or do ill to other beings without bringing that ill upon my own soul.”

This is a law of nature, it would now seem, not a lofty, unrealistic sentiment. But Michael Nagler makes a distinction here that could help peacekeepers working for the United Nations, as well as those negotiating the shoals of difficulties with their own families. His essential point here is one person cannot carry the whole load of atonement; it takes two to dance and two to complete atonement.

“While it is counterproductive to rouse an offender’s guilt feelings without giving him a concrete way to atone (that is to own the offense without being identified with it), the victim of an offense wants to be heard; he wants his suffering to be acknowledged relationship is paramount, not justice—whatever that is. As Gandhi discovered when he was still practicing law in South Africa, the real point of the law is to “unite parties who have been riven asunder.” This is part of the reason that victims want recognition of their suffering rather than revenge for it: they want the reality of their feelings acknowledged so that the other can be in genuine rapport with them. (Please see page 41 of Beyond Forgiveness for more of Gandhi’s insights.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: How can you better work with others to complete atonement?

From decades of work in the nonviolence movement, Michael Nagler has created a list four principles of atonement that he teaches all over the world: 1) Think amorally. Abandon revenge and retribution. 2) Relieve offenders of their guilt and victims of their resentment. 3) Restore relationships. 4) Action with emotion must be part of the healing process. (Please read page 44 in Beyond Forgiveness for more on these principles.)


Confronting head-on one of the great debates in discussions about collective atonement, Michael Nagler relates how his friend, writer and social activist, Marianne Williamson, has preached to her congregations for years about the moral need to make reparations to descendants of African slaves. When resentment arises from some of her parishioners she tells them, “Look, when you take over a business, it has certain assets and liabilities, and you take on both. It’s like that: America has many assets, but this tragic legacy of slavery is one of its liabilities.” (Please see pages 46-47 of Beyond Forgiveness for Michael Nagler’s explanation of reparation and its relationship to redemption on broader level, as a source of deep change.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Can you personally make some kind of reparation for the inequities of the world you have been born into?


James O’Dea

The former president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences and a speaker in world forums on peace and reconciliation, James O’Dea provides a welcome sobering perspective on our atonement studies. He reminds us of a central reason why many modern people have shied away from it, living in denial that there may be a second component to the reconciliation process.

“Atonement,” he writes in his essay in Beyond Forgiveness, “is a word whose weight and solemnity evoke images of Methodist meetings in Victorian England. It has slate gray tones and ominous undercurrents. It seems to belong to a time when very upright people with moral fortitude atoned for their sins and those who didn’t lacked that essential ingredient of moral fiber—a spiritual commodity that was held in good supply by “the civilized” and “the saved.” Failure to atone implied severe retribution and even today is often accompanied with more than a whiff of brimstone.”

That said, he goes to say that any modern consideration of atonement must break that mold or precedent; it must be creative, in the sense of new, relevant, timely, and true or continue to carry echoes of “fear, punishment, and damnation.” (Please read pages 199-201 in Beyond Forgiveness for more insight into the traditional theological meanings behind the word atonement.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: Do you carry a residue of resentment or misunderstanding towards the word or the act of atonement to the extent it could prevent you from forgiving and atoning?

We have saved the clinching argument for atonement until the very end. With one poetic phrase O’Dea clears away the smoke of brimstone or Puritan guilt, when he writes that “The path of redemption is one in which the threat of punishment is removed, and replaced by an outpouring of “amazing grace.” Making a conscious effort to be compassionate and move beyond forgiveness can be difficult for people in the Western world because of notion of punishment is so grimly ingrained in us, on the other side, reward is so depicted as abstract and almost vapidly serene.

James O’Dea vigorously recommends that we be creative, innovative, and spirited. To accomplish this will require, he adds, moving beyond the old way of looking at forgiveness and atonement as ways to avoid punishment. We need “a paradigm shift,” a new way, a new pattern, a new life of the spirit. (Please read pages 200-204 in Beyond Forgiveness for more insight on James O’Dea’s perspective of the relationship between forgiveness, atonement, punishment, and reward.)

PERSONAL REFLECTION: How often do you want to punish yourself or others, rather than try to clear the slate with forgiveness and atonement?

For our closing considerations, we want to now ask what “fear-less” atonement would look like? How could we move past a theologically based practice of retaliation and retribution, and toward a modern and compassionate approach that would help us solve social problems and challenges?

James O’Dea suggests that we move past a black and white, them or us, dualistic view that demands either damnation or redemption. As we all know any behavior prompted by threat or manipulation is not authentic or facing up to the consequences of our actions. Instead, he calls for atonement actions that are born out of deep insight and self-reflection, which in turn may lead to new understanding, and genuine change of behavior. (Please see page 202 in Beyond Forgiveness for a review of the negative consequences of “carrot-and-stick psychology with the stick of punishment attempting to exert control.)

James O’Dea goes on to write some provocative things about the dangers of what he calls psychologically or theologically coerced atonement, which can only provide temporary relief for the offender. The problem is that it doesn’t reach the depths in past cycles of intergenerational wounding and violent behavior, and the urgencies of history that can often generate repetitive hatred.

But there is good news from scientific research has been telling us that while we have evolved with “flight or fight” mechanisms solidly ingrained in our emergent design as a species, we are also made for love, deep collaborative play, social cooperation, and cultivating peace.

What James O’Dea deems to be creative atonement has the capacity to overturn the status quo, if enough people find it in their hearts to share their success stories about healing and reconciliation. If enough of us band together, he concludes, the human adventure will no longer be in peril. (Please read pages 211-215 in Beyond Forgiveness for information about studies on the effects of altruism, forgiveness, positive influences of higher consciousness, and the dialogue between science and spirituality.)


Let’s review our course work. Every week of our course we review the Seven Practices of Atonement, which are based on the life work of the fifteen contributors to the companion book to this study series, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement. Together, they can lead to a genuine change of heart, and can lead to a more compassionate life for everyone who practices them: 

Seven Practices of Atonement
1) Acknowledge the hurt, the harm, the wrong
2) Offer apologies, ask for forgiveness
3) Try to make amends commensurate with the harm done
4) Help to clear the conscience of the offender
5) Relieve the anger and shame of the victim
6) Practice compassion for victim and perpetrator alike
7) Establish a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation
Together, these practices reveal the journey-like quality of the work that links forgiveness with atonement and healing.

PERSONAL REFLECTION: What are your reflections on these practices? Are there other possible steps we might take to help bring about healing ourselves and our world?

After seven weeks of studying the spirit-renewing practices of forgiveness and atonement, what have we learned? How could we use this age-old knowledge that has been buttressed by some of the boldest new thought in the world today? What can we say about coming full circle in our studies, coming home again in our journey of reconciliation?

Let’s give the last word to Professor Needleman, who says warmly and soulfully, “But sometimes just living with a real question makes you more human than getting an answer. When you really live with a great question, it opens your heart; it opens your mind. We’re most human when we’re in question. Man does not suffer from his questions but from his answers.”

To have pursued the question of deep reconciliation personally and together, in our homes, our groups, and our hearts, is the beginning of a new world.


  1. After seven weeks is your spirit lighter? Has some healing begun?

  2. Are you more open to sharing your personal stories of forgiveness and atonement with those who are important to your life?

  3. Do you feel more hopeful about coming to grips with some unresolved issues?

  4. Can you feel the strength and promise in the idea and practice of repairing the past? Can atonement make the human adventure easier and more rewarding?

  5. Should there be ever be limits on our forgiveness or offers for atonement—can love conquer all?

  6. Do you feel the spiritual relief in you after leaving behind the pain, letting go of thoughts of revenge and retribution?

  7. Can you embrace the joy that comes with the healing process? Do you feel the “amazing grace” is that goes with atonement?


Select those that resonate for you

  • I affirm that atonement is a wisdom path.

  • I affirm the need to be more creative in my reconciliations.

  • I accept the gifts of forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation.

  • I accept the inevitable fallibility of people everywhere.

  • I accept responsibility for the grief of the world that has come down to me.

  • I practice loving, generous, compassionate behavior.


  • I resolve to repair the past whenever it is within my power.

  • I resolve to practice what I have learned and to open my heart to forgiveness and atonement.

  • I resolve to remind myself that atonement is an act of strength.

  • I resolve to lovingly accept that others are fallible, and to accept my own fallibility of people.

  • I resolve to life my spirits through daily acts of loving kindness.


Stories are the oldest known form of healing, a universal response to conflicts that threaten to bring life to a standstill. To share one’s story is the beginning of a journey to the end of isolationthe first step on the path toward forgiveness, atonement and reconciliation. The growing collection of stories and reflections on the www.reflectionsonatonement website provide a global glimpse of the “ancient future” of making amends, a merging of indigenous notions of restorative justice and innovative modern thinking about new ways to move beyond revenge, and beyond forgiveness, to a new understanding.

We hope these stories will inspire you to think more deeply, to reflect upon your own life’s journey, and move you to share your own. Sharing stories is gift we can give to each other; it is a means of nurturing community.

NOTE: These study course materials were prepared by Phil Cousineau, and were created to be used hand-in-hand with the book, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement, with permission of the book’s publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint. Copyright © 2011 by Phil Cousineau and Richard J. Meyer.

Download 60.98 Kb.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page