Readers Mailbag No. 9,236: To Forgive, Divine

The readers mailbag used to be a regular feature at SJ, which died out somewhat after most of the emails consisted of young public defenders writing, “fuck you, traitor. DIE!!!” But an interesting, unsolicited query arrived the other day that might provoke some useful answers from anyone but Barleycorn, so I thought it prudent to post here.

Scott,

I’ve spent some time reflecting on Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent tweet about forgiveness and atonement; specifically, she said our current environment is unsustainable: we demand atonement but disdain forgiveness.

I don’t know whether you follow her but I’d just appreciate getting your take on my reaction. I’m happy to have you disagree with me. I’m reaching out because I’m trying to keep an open mind and I’ve always admired your push back on twitter. So, push back. I’m open to conversation.

I would argue that there isn’t disdain for the concept of forgiveness itself, but instead a well-warranted disdain for the idea that black people should be the ones to offer white people forgiveness. The onus of forgiveness should not be on victims, nor do victims owe perpetrators their forgiveness, even if perpetrators atone.

I guess it depends on what she thinks the point of atonement is. Is the point to acknowledge when you’ve been in the wrong and work to do better, because that’s the right thing to do? Or is the point to relieve your own feelings of shame and guilt? When is forgiveness warranted (at what point of atonement, I suppose), when is it necessary, and from whom?

I’m reaching out to you in particular because I’m hoping you can put the issue in a legal framework. I’m a law student and hope to be a criminal defense attorney, so I realize I should perhaps be better on this issue. I’d want my clients to be forgiven for an act of violence. But then again in that situation their wrong isn’t necessarily part of generations of racism.

What do you think?

To provide some additional context for this query, consider this twit:

The problem, of course, is that the person being canceled might not be “guilty.” It may be nothing more than a baseless accusation that gets the mob’s blood boiling. It may be that someone decided that an opinion, a word choice, was racist or sexist, such as black bird watcher Christian Cooper’s decision not to cooperation with the New York County District Attorney’s prosecution of Amy Cooper because he decided she’s suffered enough, which evoked outrage by white allies who grasp what the black guy fails to see.

And if the wrong in fact happened, and in fact was a wrong, and putting aside the lack of any due process in the court of mob opinion, or proportionality in punishment, which invariably is social death plus social cancer, and if one has redeemed oneself according to the rules of the “Queen,” what then?

My inquirer, of course, takes all of this for granted as well, as did Elizabeth Bruenig.

It’s an interesting question, given that we shouldn’t believe the cops, but the mob can’t be wrong. Pushing past this dilemma, can the mob forgive? How would that happen? Who would decide? What would forgiveness mean? What if one duly grovels, but doesn’t dedicate one’s life to being an “anti-racist” by stoning others condemned by the mob to death?

To err is human, but that doesn’t mean the human who errs shouldn’t be condemned. To forgive, divine, but can the mob ever be divine?

When I first read the email, I couldn’t get past the underlying assumption that if the mob condemns someone, they must be guilty, must be punished and, if there’s to be any hope of redemption, must atone in the manner prescribed by the high priestesses of the religion of social justice. My thought was that this person is not cut out for criminal defense if they’re an adherent of mob justice, but then, it seems to be the overwhelming view of young public defenders these days, so what do I know? They see no conflict with believing their poor client is worthy because they’re victims of generational racism, but the mob’s target must be crushed.

The onus of forgiveness should not be on victims, nor do victims owe perpetrators their forgiveness, even if perpetrators atone.

But my inquirer, a law student with whom I’ve never engaged before and who wrote me out of the blue, has graciously allowed me to offer a different view.

I’m happy to have you disagree with me.

How kind of her. Now, would you be so kind as to give me a hand in answering her query?

46 thoughts on “Readers Mailbag No. 9,236: To Forgive, Divine

  1. Turk

    I guess it depends on what she thinks the point of atonement is. Is the point to acknowledge when you’ve been in the wrong and work to do better, because that’s the right thing to do? Or is the point to relieve your own feelings of shame and guilt? When is forgiveness warranted (at what point of atonement, I suppose), when is it necessary, and from whom?

    The question is Talmudic. When we atone, who are we doing it for?

    We have a little control over the feelings of others and how they will receive a heartfelt attempt to right a wrong, but we do have control over our own actions.

    When atonement is necessary, we do it for ourselves. Then hold our heads high and hope for the best

    Reply
  2. Bear

    The mob never forgives anyone including their own members. See the French Revolution. Although not a lawyer, I wish the young woman good luck. She’s going to need it, especially if she never learns the above.

    Reply
  3. Skink

    “I’m reaching out to you in particular because I’m hoping you can put the issue in a legal framework. I’m a law student and hope to be a criminal defense attorney, so I realize I should perhaps be better on this issue. I’d want my clients to be forgiven for an act of violence. But then again in that situation their wrong isn’t necessarily part of generations of racism.”

    The inquirer asks how atonement and forgiveness of the SJ kind fit into the law. There’s the assumption of our times. But that she asks gives this lawyer hope.

    The job, the duty, of lawyers is to operate the due process machine. Atonement, forgiveness and the mob have nothing to do with the job or duty. They sometimes matter if you run over your neighbor’s cat, but lawyering has no place for feelings.

    Well, atonement might have a place at sentencing, but no one really buys the authenticity.

    Reply
    1. Richard Kopf

      SHG,

      Your law student correspondent might properly be advised: “We all got it coming kid.”

      PS to Skink: Particularly true at sentencing, if, as a judge, you wish to stay reasonably sane.

      All the best.

      RGK

      Reply
      1. SHG Post author

        When I was a baby lawyer, I was at a bench conference bitching to the judge about the injustice of a decision on appeal. He was a former LAS lawyer who had turned very cynical. He looked at me and said, “You’ll see plenty of injustice before you’re done. Get over it or you can’t do this.”

        Reply
  4. phv3773

    Traditionally, forgiveness was an alternate to revenge. It stops the cycle of injury and revenge that causes feuds to go on forever, and it relieves the forgiver of the burden of actions that may be proscribed by, for example, the Ten Commandments.

    In this view, your sentence “I couldn’t get past the underlying assumption that if the mob condemns someone, they must be guilty, ” should be interpreted as “if the mob condemns someone, the mob must be guilty.”

    Reply
      1. phv3773

        I should have emphasized that forgiveness is self-defense, not magnanimity. Christian Cooper’s mild stance helps protect him from the splash back that might arise if Amy Cooper suffers too much indignity at the hands of the authorities.

        Reply
  5. B. McLeod

    The whole thing is a scam by which some appoint themselves to tell others what they “must” do. This is why those stupid enough to buy into “atoning” can never be absolved. Once “forgiven,” they would be released from bowing and scraping to every batshit crazy demand. That would never do.

    Reply
  6. jeffrey gamso

    “The onus of forgiveness should not be on victims, nor do victims owe perpetrators their forgiveness, even if perpetrators atone.”

    That’s just silly. Of course “victims” don’t have a duty of forgiveness. But on whom might “the onus” be if there is one? On the “perpetrator” with an obligation to self-forgive? Of course anyone who causes actual harm (note the word “actual”) should atone. That’s why prisons were called penitentionaries, places for penance.

    But as I’ve explained repeatedly over at the blog I seem not to be writing these days, mercy is about us, not them. It has nothing to do with deserving. It has everything to do with generosity of spirit, something we’re seriously lacking these days.

    We named our dog Portia after the character in “The Merchant of Venice.” You know, the one who gives the best explanation ever:

    The quality of mercy is not strained;
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
    ‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
    The throned monarch better than his crown:
    His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
    The attribute to awe and majesty,
    Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
    But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
    It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
    It is an attribute to God himself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
    Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
    That, in the course of justice, none of us
    Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
    And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
    The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
    To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
    Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
    Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.

    Reply
    1. Jill P McMahon

      Actually, I just printed that out for my dad, a longtime CDL, at his request. Begging forgiveness, more or less, is all that he has left for one of his clients.

      Reply
  7. Kathryn M. Kase

    The questions of atonement and forgiveness are very live topics for discussion in capital defense, in the restorative justice movement, and — this may surprise some readers — the victims rights movement. There is robust writing in each of those spheres about atonement and forgiveness, and the impact they should have on the decision to carry out a death sentence. I’d recommend that your law student consider a class on capital punishment, regardless of whether she wishes to prosecute or defend such cases, to be exposed more deeply to these ideas.

    While readers of this blog reference the left’s refusal to recognize atonement or offer forgiveness to those who oppose its agenda, it is my experience that the left are pikers when compared to social conservatives who are intent on seeing death sentences carried out and belittle atonement and forgiveness. If the lefty Twit-O-Sphere had access to lethal injection, I might change my mind about that. Still, I’m hard-pressed to identify a lefty among the legal crowd that rabidly supports capital punishment and refuses to consider whether atonement and forgiveness have a place in doctrine.

    Reply
  8. Dan

    > The onus of forgiveness should not be on victims

    On who else would it be? The offender can’t forgive his offense. A third party can’t forgive the offense. Only the victim can forgive. Whether the victim should forgive is not a legal question but a religious one (and he should).

    But more fundamentally, it’s interesting to me that your interlocutor is wanting the issue addressed “in a legal framework,” because it’s not in any way a legal issue. Forgiveness and atonement aren’t (with very narrow exceptions) legal terms–they’re religious terms, and specifically Christian terms. And that’s not really surprising, because social justice is a religion, and one that in many contexts is trying to masquerade as Christianity (while in other contexts it’s denouncing it). There’s a lot more to be said, and I might manage more later, but for now I’ll only say that she’s fundamentally asking the wrong question.

    Reply
      1. Scarlet Pimpernel

        I was of the mind that no there weren’t offenses against humanity until I realized that someone had to have invented maple bacon donuts.

        Reply
    1. jeffrey gamso

      Ah, third-party forgiveness.

      I think it was C.S. Lewis who said (but I’m too lazy to look it up) that Jesus was either crazy or god when he said that he was forgiving folks not for what they did to him but for what they did to others.

      Reply
      1. Dan

        It was indeed Lewis. He didn’t limit the “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” trilemma to only Jesus’ claim to forgive sins (as there are many other statements and acts recorded which would give rise to it as well), but this was a major part. “A lunatic, on the level of a man who believes he is a poached egg.”

        Reply
  9. Elpey P.

    Judging by the general tone of the response to Phillipa Soo’s tweet, she has assigned to herself a fair amount of work.

    Reply
  10. Brien

    If your young lawyer wants to understand the dynamics of atonement and forgiveness, she doesn’t need to look to the criminal law, she just needs to get married.

    Reply
  11. Rendall

    “…disdain for the idea that black people should be the ones to offer white people forgiveness. The onus of forgiveness should not be on victims, nor do victims owe perpetrators their forgiveness, even if perpetrators atone. … I’m hoping you can put the issue in a legal framework.”

    I find curious this automatic conflation of black people as “victims” and white people as “perpetrators”. It seems to come from this idea that all white people have benefited from the oppression of people of color? All white US citizens have benefited from the effects of slavery? That claim could use some unpacking, and there are so very many questions.

    Just so we’re clear, I understand the topic to be a legal framework for racial atonement and forgiveness. I have a tendency to wander off topic, so if that’s *not* the topic, we can all stop reading now.

    What have white people perpetrated, exactly? Muggings? Slavery? Colonialism? Genocide? Microaggressions? Unearned privilege? Unconscious bias? All of the white people or only some? On all black people or only some?

    What is the temporal scope of the proposed legal Framework? Are we talking only about descendants of US slavery and those whose ancestors owned slaves? Everyone else gets a pass? Or does it apply to all white people and black people in the US now, irrespective of ancestry? Does this include recent immigrants? If not, when would the framework begin to apply to them?

    How is it determined whether a specific person falls on the “perpetrator” or “victim” side of the Framework? Is it strictly whether someone is “white” or “black”? How would this be determined? By melanin content? By European or Sub-Saharan African ancestry? What about people of other ancestries and heritages (neither European nor Sub-Saharan African)? Do they “forgive” or “atone”?

    Does the level of atonement required change according to ancestry? For instance, does a wealthy descendant of a Southern slave plantation owner owe more, or the same, atonement as the descendant of Quaker conductors on the Underground Railroad? What level of atonement is owed by a descendant of Irish serfs who arrived long after the Civil War?

    Let’s examine two edge cases. These are thought experiments that may help us understand the boundaries of this proposed Framework.

    There are an estimated 200,000 slaves in Mali today, most of whom are owned by the Tuareg ethnic group. If a black, slave-owning Tuareg were to emigrate to the US and come under the ambit of the Framework, on which side would they fall? Are they “perpetrator” because of the slave-owning, or are the “victim” because they are “black”?

    The Votes are a very poor and uneducated people who now live in Russia, in a region that has been the site of genocide and slavery for centuries, many having literally been sold down the (Volga) river, to the Kazakhs, Turks and Arabs. Many of the other peoples of the region were driven to extinction because of this kind of depredation. There are exactly 63 Votes surviving in the world today. The Votes are very pale, and look “white”. Were a Vote to emigrate to the US, would they come under the Framework and on which side? Would she be “victim” because of the heritage of enduring slavery and genocide, or would she be “perpetrator” because she benefits from the effects of US slavery?

    I ask these questions earnestly, in the same spirit you asked your questions.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      You started out okay, then spiraled out of control. Your question accepted the premise that every black person is a victim, having suffered generations of racism, and every white person is a perpetrator, by definition. You want to tweak at the edges, so you’ve already established what you, but are now just dickering over price.

      Reply
      1. Rendall

        It is true. I could have stopped at the first paragraph.

        I have been mulling this topic for decades. I should start a blog.

        Reply
    2. LocoYokel

      Consider this, by this time nearly every single descendant of an African slave in the US is also the descendant of a white European descended slave owner. How does that play into the equation?

      Reply
  12. grberry

    The core meaning of atonement is is to be united or reconciled. The preacher’s trick of stating atonement as “at – one – ment” works because that is what the word means, with the now archaic Enlgish use of “one” as a verb meaning “to unite”. And the special meaning here is explicitly religious – unity between God and man. Forgiveness is closer to legal in origin. The predecessor word in Old English included the meanings of remission of a debt or pardoning an offense.

    Making it right, reparations, awards of damages, and the sorts of things courts of equity can do, if done on a voluntary basis by the offender, may help the one who was offended to become willing to forgive and signal a desire on the part of the offender to be at one. But they are not atonement. Atonement requires a meeting of the hearts/minds of the two people, and thus requires willingness on the part of both. (It does not require forgetting. If grberry has proven he can’t safely do something because of a medical limit, there is no need to forget and allow him to do it. You can be at one while keeping him from attempting what is too dangerous.)

    It is logically impossible for two parties to be in unity when one is not pardoning an offense by the other. This logical impossibility exists because the offended party is harboring the offense and keeping it as a barrier between them. If forgiveness will not be given, atonement is impossible. The reason for the offense is not relevant to this impossibility. Even the tiniest of offenses, if neither forgotten nor forgiven, destroys the unity. Whether there was an actual victim is also irrelevant.

    I don’t think our current culture “demands constant atonement”. Unity is not what is desired. That the culture “disdains the very idea of forgiveness” is quite compatible with seeking tribal division and/or wanting the perceived offender to suffer.

    Reply
  13. PseudonymousKid

    For, as thou urgest justice, be assured
    Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest.

    From our dear Portia. Justice doesn’t leave much room or time for mercy, but mercy isn’t so constrained.

    This was a great discussion. Way better than the TT this week. There’s mentions of both the Talmud and the Merchant of Venice. It’s great. Thanks, Pa.

    Reply
  14. Leo Beilin

    another perspective on forgiveness is that of Maimonides:
    1.admit to yourself your bad act
    2.apologise to the person you have offended–no proxies e.g. relative,friend,etc of the offended person.
    3.make restitution to the offended person—no proxies e.g. relative,friend,etc of the offended person.
    4. forgiveness can only come from the offended person–no proxies e.g. relative,friend,etc of the offended person.

    Under these conditions there could be no forgiveness for certain bad acts,e.g. homicide,,destroying somebody’s good name,diddling somebody else’s spouse,etc.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      On the one hand, religion might be the worst possible paradigm here. On the other, given that social justice ideology is very much a secular religioun in the sense that it’s an irrational belief held on blind faith, it could explain a lot about why they are incapable of forgiving.

      Reply
  15. KP

    You have forgiven the perpetrator the moment you enter the legal system, by default. People who were not at the scene of the crime will determine guilt and punishment, which will automatically include atonement by the perpetrator towards the victim and/or society as a whole and they will be rehabilitated.

    That’s why we have a legal system, otherwise a lack of forgiveness would lead to revenge. (although that may turn out to be a more efficient system)

    So if blacks, en masse, sue ‘The People’ through their Govt for reparations, once the Govt decides how guilty the taxpayers are then the perpetrators have paid the price for their transgressions and are forgiven.

    Sad the system doesn’t work, the whiners will return time and time again for more reparations.

    Reply
  16. Julia

    The onus of disagreeing should not be on email receivers, nor do email receivers owe email senders their disagreement, even if email senders say “I’m happy to have you disagree with me”.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments are subject to editing or deletion if I deem them inappropriate for any reason or no reason. Hyperlinks are not permitted in comments and will be deleted. References to Nazis/Hitler will not be tolerated. I allow anonymous comments, but will not tolerate attacks unless you use your real name. Anyone using the phrase "ad hominem" incorrectly will be ridiculed. If you use ALL CAPS for emphasis, I will assume you wear a tin foil hat and treat you accordingly. I expect civility from you, but that does not mean I will respond in kind. This is my home and I make the rules. If you don't like my rules, then don't comment. Spam is absolutely prohibited, and you will be permanently banned.