“Atonement is the making right, the reestablishing of balance, the restoration of sanity, alleviation of grief and the resumption of life.”
“The goal in atonement is to relieve offenders of their guilt and victims of their resentment ….the healing must involve some kind of restitution for what we have done.”
Atonement is an act that rights a wrong, makes amends, repairs harm, offers restitution to victims, clears the conscience, and takes the vital next step from forgiveness to full reconciliation.
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 the pain they themselves have inflicted upon others.
Over and over, we are confronted with the dilemma of how to react to the cruelty and pain that can pervade our lives. Do we forgive or do we retaliate? Should we make peace or exact revenge? Can we live together with our enemies or 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?
Throughout history 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 is compassionate and cooperative. While retaliation has earned the lion’s share of the 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 towards 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 are easy. Nor do we find much encouragement in a world riven by violent conflicts for us to be humble enough to ask for forgiveness, nevertheless 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 we are bound to the wheel of endless cycles of hurt and revenge.
Going beyond forgiveness, the steps of atonement include contrition, compassion, and restitution. Atonement can happen on every level, at home and in workplaces, with soldiers and victims of war, with parents or priests, on an individual and interpersonal basis, or with tribes or nations.
Atonement is relevant to all human relationships, because it corresponds to a deep human need: the need to heal. Atonement honors the secret part of us that needs to prove we are sorry for committing a terrible wrong, to show some evidence that our words—“I’m sorry”—are not empty, but are backed up by an action that stops the soul-rust that threatens to corrode our lives.
In the long run, atonement is the next and indispensable step in the difficult and often grueling reconciliation process, the one step that can finally bring peace of mind to those who are imprisoned in pain and conflict. While forgiveness is an essential tool for the offended parties of a conflict to heal themselves and more forward, atonement offers that same opportunity to the offender. And we are all victims and offenders. Every human being will find his or herself in both roles in this life, and by understanding forgiveness and atonement as complimentary processes in the reconciliation process, we can fully heal our selves, each other, and our world.
Acknowledgment. Apology. Amendment. Atonement.