Turning over the coin of forgiveness, we discover atonement, the half-hidden, much-overlooked other half of the reconciliation process.
Beyond Forgiveness Study Course Introduction
In partnership with the Association for Global New Thought and the 14th Annual Gandhi King Chavez Season for Nonviolence, a Study Course with seven lessons has been created to accompany the groundbreaking new book, Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement. These course materials can be used for self-study as well as with groups.
As indispensable as forgiveness has been throughout human history to the healing process, there has been another equally profound action vital to reconciliation, one that Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, calls “the other side of the coin” of forgiveness. Turning over the coin of forgiveness, we discover atonement, the half-hidden, much-overlooked other half of the reconciliation process. Throughout history people have had to make difficult, even heartrending decisions about how to respond to the suffering they have endured at the hands of other human beings—or to the pain they themselves have inflicted upon other people. Over and over, we are confronted with the dilemma of how to respond to the cruelty and suffering that can pervade our lives. Do we forgive, or do we retaliate? Should we make peace or exact revenge? Can we live alongside our enemies, or do we seek retribution? And what about the harm we have caused? Is it possible for us to ever undo or make up for the damage we may have wreaked on the world? From the earliest times different cultures have resolved their conflicts and meted out justice in their own way.
Traditionally there have been two widely diverging paths—punishment or reform, which are rooted in retribution and forgiveness, respectively. The first is antagonistic and adversarial; the second, compassionate and cooperative. The difference between the two is dramatic. As the Chinese proverb has it, “If you are hell-bent on revenge, dig two graves”—one for your enemy and one for you. Revenge buries us in bitterness; hate immerses us in anger. While retaliation has earned the lion’s share of attention over the centuries, more measured responses to both personal and collective conflicts have also been practiced. The instinct to be vindictive may be as old as stone, but the impulse toward reconciliation runs like an ancient underground river. And like water dissolving stone, if it flows long enough, so too can acts of compassion dissolve anger, the showing of remorse prompt forgiveness, and the making of amends alleviate guilt. None of these paths is easy. Nor do we find much encouragement, in a world riven by seemingly endless cycles of violence, to ask for forgiveness, still less to offer our own to someone who may have hurt us. But if we miss the moment for real reconciliation, we miss the chance to heal and move beyond the bitterness or guilt that can suffocate our lives.
Despite all the injunctions to exact revenge, from the hijacking of religious beliefs to testosterone-driven media violence, an impressive range of alternatives remains. Many distinguished scientists and philosophers now call into doubt the long-held belief that human beings are hardwired for violence.
The Root Meaning of At-one-ment
Dag Hammarskjöld, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said, “Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.” In the spring of 2009, Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American woman and founder of Women for Women International who works with women victims of war, said, “I think we need to forgive for our own health and healing. Without forgiveness, it’s hard to move on.”
And yet there lingers a disturbing feeling. To forgive is noble; to be forgiven can be a reprieve. But surely there must be more to reconciliation between aggrieved peoples; otherwise, individuals, families, and entire cultures wouldn’t have been whiplashed by cycles of violence throughout history. Atonement is the act that proves the depth of our desire to be forgiven, or to forgive; it is the process of making things right, the restoration of some semblance of balance in our lives. Without offering those who wrong us, however seriously, the chance to make amends, or granting ourselves the opportunity to atone for any hurt we have caused, we remain stuck in the past; we suffer from a kind of “soul rust” and are unable to live fully in the present moment. The real work in conflict resolution is bringing these two practices of forgiveness and atonement together, whenever they have been split apart like cordwood, until we can say, in the spirit of the Irish bard Van Morrison, that “the healing has begun.”
Early in the fourteenth century, the word “atone” appeared in print for the first time. At that time it simply meant “to be in accord with, to make or become united or reconciled.” Two centuries later, the word was adapted and expanded by William Tyndale (1494–1536), a leader of the English Reformation and an early lexicographer. Tyndale had been frustrated by the lack of a direct translation of the biblical concept of reconciliation with God, and to better convey this core belief of his faith he combed ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts before finally combining two words, “at” and “onement.” Today, to atone generally means “to make amends for” but also carries connotations of being “at one with, in harmony.” Over time the understanding and practice of atonement has evolved from its theological underpinnings to more generally refer to an act that rights a wrong, makes amends, repairs harm, offers restitution, attempts compensation, clears the conscience of the offender, relieves the anger of the victim, and serves justice with a sacrifice commensurate with the harm that has been done.
What all the above stories, anecdotes, and reflections have in common can be compressed into a single observation that the late mythologist Joseph Campbell told me in an interview, in 1985, which he felt was the core truth of all the great wisdom traditions throughout history: “The ultimate metaphysical realization is that you and the other are one.”
Let us now embark on this healing journey of forgiveness and atonement together! Move on to Lesson One of the Beyond Forgiveness: The Wisdom of Atonement Study Course. Click through to each lesson below, where you will also find corresponding practices and affirmations:
(Lesson 1) Forgiveness as Spiritual Liberation: Michael Bernard Beckwith
(Lesson 2) Atonement the Gandhi Way: Arun Gandhi and Stephanie Van Hook
(Lesson 3) My Offer of Forgiveness and Atonement: Azim Khamisa
(Lesson 4) At-One-Ment: Becoming Whole: Diane Hennacy-Powell and Katharine Dever
(Lesson 5) Healing the Wounded: War and the Soul: Douglas George-Kanentiio, Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt
(Lesson 6) The Wisdom of Atonement: Huston Smith, Jacob Needleman, and Rabbi Michael Lerner
(Lesson 7) Creative Atonement in Times of Peril: James O’Dea and Michael Nagler
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.