How Do You Solve a Problem Like Atonement?

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Atonement? August 25, 2013

Eve Tushnet visited “Atonement: Stories About Confession, Redemption and Making Amends” (a night of true stories told/performed in preparation for the High Holy Days) and she found that the stories touched on regret and error, but rarely on atonement and penance.

I wonder if atonement is especially hard to talk about–harder than sin, rationalization, or realization of wrongdoing. I’m doing this series on portrayals of penitence and it’s easier to find examples of artworks which should include penitence but don’t than to find artworks which include compelling, non-cliched portrayals of penitence. I’m not sure why this would be so hard to illustrate, which is why I’m posting this: to see if you people have any thoughts on whether atonement is harder to depict than other related topics and if so, why.

My own guess is that atonement requires us to make some kind of attempt to figure out what justice fully demands, which is difficult if not impossible to know, and the answer is always going to be more than we can give. You and I can’t actually atone or make amends. We can accept Christ’s atonement for us, entering into His suffering and death, but we can no more atone fully than we can simply avoid sin in the first place. (If you doubt this, go ahead and try it! I’ll wait.) Sinning is something I am fully capable of doing! Rationalization, ditto. Gaining self-awareness and beginning to grow something resembling a conscience: tough, but yes, people can do that. It’s only atonement which is impossible for the literary character or storyteller.

She’s looking for story or art recommendations that touch on atonement (and possibly it’s impossibility).  I know Noah Millman recently made the case that the darkness in Love’s Labor’s Lost comes from the difficulty of atonement.  I’d love to hear what your guys have to contribute.  I haven’t read the obvious title, does anyone think it matches what Eve is looking for?

The two recommendations that come to mind immediately for me are both Jewish.  E.L. Konigsburg’s About the B’nai Bagels involves several characters committing moral errors (along with infield ones) on their Little League team, and the narrator seems to go through something like the struggle to know justice (let alone put it into action).

The other story is a Jewish fable I’ve never heard attributed back to anyone in particular, so please tell me the citation if you know it.  Here’s how I’ve heard it told:

A woman went to a rabbi to seek guidance.  She told him she had gossiped about a neighbor, repeating true things not for the purpose of helping, but in order to humiliate and isolate the other.  She asked the rabbi how she could atone.

He told her to go to the market and to buy a chicken.  She should kill the chicken just outside the village, and then walk through the village to return to his house, plucking the feathers from the chicken on her way.

She did as he asked, and, when she showed up at his house, she asked if her penance was complete.  No, said the Rabbi, there was one thing remaining.  To atone, she needed to go out and collect every feather that she had scattered on her walk to his house.

But that’s impossible, she exclaimed.  The wind will have scattered them.

Yes, he replied.  And it is just as impossible for you to find and mend all the harm your words have done.


What else would people recommend to Eve?

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  • DontMindMe

    Not fiction, but the piece on reparative justice you posted a while back seems to fit here.

  • Eve

    Ha, I’ve heard that Jewish fable attributed to St Philip Neri! And thanks for the excuse to read “About the B’nai Bagels,” not that I needed one…

    • LeahLibresco

      I’ve heard people attribute it St Philip Neri, too, but I find the generic rabbi more plausible.

    • In Doubt it’s attributed to an Irish priest. That might not be at all accurate, of course.

  • Evan

    To quote Eve: “I sinned, I realized I was wrong, and I made amends, here’s how.”

    ON THE WATERFRONT and L’ENFANT mostly follow that trajectory. As a negative example, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS would work nicely.

  • LeahLibresco

    Additional suggestions: The Scarlet Letter, Ender from Ender’s Game

    And I would argue that Battlestar Galactica is an atonement-haunted show.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Only in the modern version where the Cylons were created by man. In the original 1970s version I remember from my childhood, the Cylons were just another alien species attacking (well, partially- cybernetic servants for a species that had evolved into just brains).

    • Scott Hebert

      Leah, does my life count? :p

  • oregon catholic

    The ultimate atonement is to give up or lose your own life in atonement for the taking of another. That covers capital punishment, some kinds of martyrdom and heroic sacrifice.

    • Slow Learner

      Capital punishment != atonement. If a loved one of mine were murdered, I would not feel that killing their murderer made everything fine and dandy. That’s idiotic – you now have two dead people, instead of one.

  • Adam

    Les Miserables
    Sweeney Todd
    Possibly Glinda from Wicked (the musical version of Elphaba could qualify as well)
    Severus Snape
    Darth Vader
    Heracles and his Twelve Labors
    The Doctor, for many things but one especially
    Friggin’ Spiderman (Batman too)
    Shepherd Book (The comic The Shepherd’s Tale especially explains this)
    Topher Brink of Dollhouse (only really the last few episodes)
    Woody of Toy Story, and Carl of Up
    Schindler’s List
    Zuko and Iroh of Avatar: The Last Airbender (Aang in many ways as well)
    Nobel for his PR spin after dynamite (which was safer than the nitroglycerine they were using before, people just realized it was good at exploding nonrocks too)
    Mike Tyson
    Theo Haser
    Kurt Gerstein, inventor of Zyklon B (the chemical Nazis used for gas showers; he was told it was for pest control)
    Frank Abagnale (Catch Me if You Can is based on him, but I haven’t seen it)

    I want to say CS Lewis ended up working towards much of this after his conversion, but I don’t know if he ever felt it was atonement or just the best use of his time.

  • Joe

    She might remember the parable of the onion in “The Brothers Karamazov”

    She also might want to check out the very creepy and disturbing movie “Young Adult” with Charlize Theron

  • Marmelodov

    I’ve read the The Obvious TItle. The main thread in the atonement theme is likewise not quite what Eve is interested in, in that the focus is on why the sinner committed the sin and her subsequent guilt more than on the nature of atonement itself.

    Both book and movie are a bit maudlin and and a bit gimmicky, but McEwan can write some damn prose.

  • Roonwit

    A Canticle for Leibowitz to me seems to treat a community (the Leibowitzian monastery) attempting to atone, over hundreds of years, for humanity’s atomic holocaust.

    A Swiftly Tilting Planet, IIRC, deals with fixing a wrong perpetuated over generations (I don’t exactly remember how, though).

    The Other Wind, the final book in LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle, seems to be about atoning for a sin none knew was evil at first.

    • Victor

      (((But that’s impossible, she exclaimed. The wind will have scattered them.)))

      Seems like a cycle which appears to be about atoning for sins none knew was evil in the first place so would it not make more sense to figure out what is right and/or wrong before “ONE” complains about “IT”?
      Go figure folks! 🙂

      • Roonwit

        I can’t make heads or tails of your comment – but any more detail would verge on a spoiler of the novel.

        • Victor

          (((I can’t make heads or tails of your comment – but any more detail would verge on a spoiler of the novel.)))

          Roonwit, me, myself and i don’t know if you truly know anything about U>S (usual sinners) and long story short, “ME”, “ME” and “ME” are gods and our trinity own 96% of this little retardo’s kingdom, “I” mean he only owns about four per sent age of his body whom Victor calls, mother, father, son and holy spirit but we 96% gods can’t make heads or tails of that comment. Longer story short, these four per sent age cells keep telling us gods that they believe that your sins are walking away with something at this moment but what do they really know? You have a right to be really proud of yourself for having indirectly told Victor to read more books before making a fool of us gods now. Listen Roonwit, we told the alien leaders of Elysium not to let these four per sent age retardo cells go down during his so called Canadian recess. Look Roonwit, don’t let your brains out smart your common cents and report this Victor to the authority before “IT” is too late for you, “I” mean humanity and…….
          END YA SAY sinner vic!?
          Go figure brothers and sisters in Christ! 🙂

  • I was going to say Hercules and his Labours, but Adam beat me to it.

    There has to be some detective or cop story focused on this, where some detective is atoning for past sins. Along Came a Spider is kind of like this, but it’s more guilt than atonement.

    • Oh, and Angel. Let’s not forget Angel. (I’m not saying that atonement is explored well in Angel, but it is the protagonist’s primary motivation. Also, by the end of season six it’s Gunn’s motivation, and for a while it’s Weasley’s main motivation, too, until he gets his SPOILERS memory wiped END SPOILERS.)

      Edited so I can comment again without overwhelming the “Recent Comments” section: Man on Fire is about atonement. Again, not sure how successful it is (hey, let’s atone for my failings with a violence spree!), but it is actually about atonement.

  • MeanLizzie

    Leah, that story on Atonement also was told about St. Philip Neri. I relate a brush with it, and with atonement, here:

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Mmmm – my problem with the fable about the feathers scattered by the wind is that I’m seeing (or it seems to me that I am seeing) a trend for a lot of this type of story, quotation or comment: you can’t undo the damage you did.

    Which is fine as far as it goes, but the next step seems to be: so don’t try, because it’s useless.

    Or: remorse and regret are useless. Asking for forgiveness is self-indulgence, you just want to feel better about yourself.

    My trouble, you see, is that the tendency seems to be that atonement is all about you so the better thing to do is learn from what you did wrong and resolve never to do it again, learn to recognise the danger of falling into the same trap the next time and don’t do it.

    Okay, but what about the damage you have already done? Certainly you can never make something the way it was before you did the harm, certainly the person you have hurt may not wish to forgive you – but does that absolve you of the necessity to try? If you never try to repair, just go on forward and don’t do the same thing again, the damage still remains but is not even mended that small bit by penance, by making satisfaction.

    I do see the dangers of making forgiveness all about oneself, but the new tougher-minded notion of ‘learn from your mistakes, keep striving’ seems to me to be just as self-centred and even less recognisant of our neighbour is the one we have harmed.

  • keddaw

    I damaged your car. So I went and bought you a new one.

    This atonement stuff is really quite easy.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    God is easy, men are hard. People carry grudges.

    • keddaw

      And the parable about God wiping out (virtually) all life on earth because he was annoyed at everyone except Noah wasn’t a grudge taken to a level only an omnipotent creature can?

      Ted, the only reason God is easy is because you believe in omnibenevolence or because he’s been posted missing since science started looking into what people claimed was God’s doing.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I’ve experienced the forgiveness myself. I’m sorry you have *entirely* missed the point of religion.

    • Brutus

      If God doesn’t carry grudges, why don’t we have the fruit of the tree of eternal life?

      • TheodoreSeeber

        We do- his name is Jesus Christ.

        • Brutus

          Oh, so on the face of it that grudge was carried for only 4000 years or so, or roughly two-thirds of history? The original reasoning was “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Gen. 3:21). There is no reason given why that reasoning should have changed.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Try Hosea, but I know, that’s not exactly a book that you were trained on by the fundamentalists.

          • Brutus

            Wait, when was eternal life (even if you limit it to the figurative kind) first appropriate to provide to people? (I say initially, you say at some point during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash, and also at the time of the sacrifice of Jesus.)

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Sheol came before Heaven and Hell; but it was still eternal life.

          • Brutus

            “[man] must not be allowed to … live forever.”

            I realize finding internal inconsistency in the scripture is trivial; but it’s pretty clear that living forever is the type of eternal life denied to humanity.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Who ever said that the truth was supposed to be consistent?

          • Brutus

            Thank you. I now know at least one core point where we disagree and both can neither change our own position nor explain why we hold it.

            I can’t even conceive of ‘truth’ being non-atomic, and divisible into parts that remain wholly ‘truth’.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Then you must not know the koan of the blind men and the elephant.

          • Brutus

            If the elephant is truth, then the trunk is not truth, nor the torso, nor the legs, nor the tusks, nor the tail, nor even the union of all of those things.

            Observations are not truth; observations are rarely even OF truth.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            “Observations are not truth; observations are rarely even OF truth.”

            Oh, so that’s where you are, the truth is completely unknowable to anybody. I tried that once, then I realized that if that was true, I did not exist.

          • Brutus

            The Sophisticate: “The world isn’t black and white. No one does pure good or pure bad. It’s all gray. Therefore, no one is better than anyone else.”
            The Zetet: “Knowing only gray, you conclude that all grays are the same shade. You mock the simplicity of the two-color view, yet you replace it with a one-color view…”
            —Marc Stiegler, David’s Sling

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Thanks, that’s going on my reading list.

  • First thing that comes to my mind is a movie: “Ostrov (The isle)”

    More obvious, but probably less on focus: Atonement:

    I’d guess that the theme of parent-paying-for-son’s-sin would be more amenable to a christian approach, but I hardly recall any novel or movie now…

    … except perhaps “Poetry”, by Chang-dong Lee? (best movie of the lot, BTW)
    (The old lady, with early symptons of Alzheimer, learns that her grandson has gang-raped a girl, who has commited suicide, and she is pressed to pay (money) to the victim family. She instead enrols on a poetry learning course…)

  • James_Jarvis

    I would recommend “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge and on a more pop culture level the TV series “The Equalizer”. Also am I the only one picturing Julie Andrews running through a field of flowers signing, “How do you solve a problem like atonement?”.

  • Beth Turner

    The saints and the suffering they offered in atonement for sin. I think of several episodes in Saint Maria Faustina’s diary: she often writes about various pains she experienced (pains in her head like the crown of thorns, pains in her hands/feet/sides like Christ’s wounds, agony like that which Christ experienced in the garden), and the sins for which Jesus told her the pains were to atone. One rather vivid one was three nights, in which she experience three hours of agony from 8p to 11p: vomiting, loss of consciousness, and utter fatigue the next day. She wrote that the thought of going through it again frightened her…and that’s saying a lot coming from someone who asked to drink Jesus’ cup of suffering to the dregs! Jesus told her that these pains were for souls murdered in the wombs of wicked mothers (Notebook IV, 1276).

    It’s not exactly literature, but it’s the only thing that came to mind.

  • Yvain

    I’d like to see a more explicit critique of the following argument:

    “Of course you can undo the harm you’ve done. Value the amount of harm you’ve done, then give that much value (and maybe a little more as interest) to the person you harmed. So if you break a $200 vase, and you give the owner $250, you have successfully atoned for your crime and then some. Even seemingly nonmonetary insults can be so valued – I would rather have status quo than have someone step on my toe plus I get $1, but I would rather have someone step on my toe plus I get $5 than status quo. Therefore, the value of someone stepping on my toe is between $1 and $5. If it makes you feel dirty to atone for stepping on my toe by giving me money, you can do something nice for me like bake me a cake that gives between $1 and $5 worth of utility to me. Then we’re even.”

    There are obvious cases where this fails (like killing someone, or destroying something priceless) but they seem to be only a limited subset of the general atonement problem.

    I’m not necessarily pushing this argument, but since it seems like the obvious counterargument to your claim, I’m surprised you don’t even mention it as something someone might believe or try to address it.

    • Iota

      > I’d like to see a more explicit critique of the following argument:

      You probably want Leah to tackle this, but would you like me, for example,. to accept this challenge and give a more explicit critique?

      • Yvain

        Yes, sure.

        • Iota

          Hold on tight Yvain, this is long. 🙂 Also, many of the examples I offer and intentionally low-stakes, everyday kind of things.

          The strategy of atoning in money (assuming that we have enough money/other resources):

          a) Assumes that the consequences of an action can be calculated. This need not be the case if, for example, the person who has been hurt realizes the full extent of their loss only later (e.g. if I keep my students waiting for 15 extra minutes because I’m late for no good reason and one of them ends up missing an important meeting five hours later). Or, if there’s no way to measure the resulting harm accurately. Damaged reputation through gossip, for example, is a tricky thing – how do you get data about the amount of harm caused?

          b) Assumes that compensation in money is preferable to other kinds. The problem is that money is generally a means to exchange work or service. There are things money never actually properly compensates for, such as time or health. For example, let’s say I did a sloppy job on a project I was working on and my co-worker has to fix things, staying overtime. They have a family. If they weren’t doing overtime, they’d now be with the kids. In a money based atonement scheme I pay them overtime and they should be happy. But what if they have enough money as it is and WANT to be with the kids? I might be able to e.g. take overtime for them at some point so they can go home early (repay in the thing they lost, to some extent). But if I can’t do that, my compensation is deficient.

          The more impersonal the damage (e.g. a broken car) the less significant this problem is. However, the more personal the damage, the worse it gets.

          c) Often implies that people should only atone for things they knew or could foresee, individually. In real life, however, we don’t simply interact 1 to 1 without a larger context. So, e.g., damage can be cumulative. In customer service or at a helpdesk a person who asks the question that is #1 in the relevant FAQ is no big deal. Cumulatively, when 100 people don’t read the FAQ and ask the same question it becomes a bigger deal. This is a trivial example, but the same mechanism can be seen with other things, e.g. being late or being mean. The problem with compensation at this point is that I am not responsible for all the cumulative damage, but I’m also clearly responsible for more than just the thing I individually did. And then there’s “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” If the cumulated damage led to a new outcome that would not have occurred if there had been less damage (e.g. a large overall delay led to a missed meeting, verbal aggression led to someone developing social phobia), I might be responsible for MUCH more than I did.

          d) Another thing that approach doesn’t take into account is missed special opportunities. Of which neither person might be aware. We know things like this happen, because we can see them in hindsight – “If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have met you”, “I was so lucky to bump into that guy, I ended up getting a contract!”. Because we don’t have foreknowledge, we cannot see opportunities we missed and include them in the calculation (there is also another kind of missed opportunity when one side knows they could do better, but the other side doesn’t).

          e) Usually ignores damage caused impersonally. If I buy products that are cheap because the company producing them exploits people, I don’t intend to harm anyone. But on the scale of a whole society, it’s clear damage is occurring (because lowering prices via exploitation is a working business model). And by generating demand for cheap goods, I’m clearly exacerbating that problem. An individualistic model of 1 on 1 atonement doesn’t really have an answer to this problem (I can’t tip a Bangladeshi textile worker).

          There are two ways, practically, you can use the system of compensating in money (or some other “objective” measure). You can aim for absolute justice, but then – given a-to-e – you end up with the problem that humans aren’t omniscient, impartial computers and can’t calculate complex damage across “currencies”.(and might not want to “convert” value from one currency into another)

          Or, you can assume that atonement is sufficient whenever the person wronged feels it’s sufficient. Then you don’t have to worry about factors neither of you knew about, but you can end up with scenarios where people obviously underrate the damage, grossly overrate it, change their assessment over time or demand compensation you cannot give.

          It could, kind of, maybe work (not without some misgivings) if you started every relationship with another person with a lengthy contract detailing how various goods you and they have should be recalculated for restitution purposes.

          A bonus problem is a potential cognitive bias. If you implement this system with the assumption that it solves the problem of atonement, you will have a reason to minimise input that tells you otherwise. Let’s take the example in b) – if my co-worker insists that any money I give them does not compensate for their time (because it’s a compensation different in kind) I have two choices: I can agree, accept that my compensation is insufficient and they are being magnanimous, or just treat it as a bid to increase compensation. I may offer them much more than their working wages and if they still insist it doesn’t actually compensate for time lost, I may think they are just a pretentious ass, because “everything has a price”.

          And the sentiment in the last sentence is, by the way, how you can eventually end up with blood-money as a method of compensation. Which is, decidedly, not a practice limited to pre-Christian Germanic tribes’ weregeld. Go have a look at this Wiki page and the “see also” links there…

          How’s that?

          • Yvain

            Thanks for the well thought out response. But:

            a) I feel like if everyone is acting in good faith, calculability is a pretty reasonable assumption. We can make an analogy to trade. I want to sell you my old jacket. You want to buy the jacket. There is a tiny chance that sewn into the liner is a map to a priceless pirate treasure, or that it is contaminated with a chemical that will slowly kill whoever wears it, but usually the tiny chances of these things get factored into a relatively normal price without disrupting it too much.

            b) Aside from very extreme cases like killing someone’s loved one, I don’t think this is true. Let’s take your example of making someone work overtime when they have enough money but REALLY want to spend time with their family. But suppose we gradually raise our level of overtime pay. Maybe at $25/hour they still prefer time with their family. Maybe even at $100/hour this stays true. But if we offer (a normal middle class person) $100,000 hour, the chance that they turn this down is essentially zero. That suggests that in fact there *is* some amount we can give to compensate them for their time, and that it’s somewhere between $100 and $100,000.

            c) I kind of think it’s true people should only atone for damage they could foresee. The classic example is the doctor who saves a dying child, and then that child grows up to be Hitler. As far as I can tell, that doctor does not need to “atone” for the Holocaust. This seems just as correct as the inverse argument: that if an axe murderer randomly kills a baby, and unbeknownst to him that baby would later have grown up to be Hitler, this doesn’t suddenly make him a wonderful person or mean he gets to take credit for saving millions of lives.

            d) Presumably these all cancel out. If I make you fifteen minutes late, it’s *possible* I prevented you from meeting your future husband, but also *possible* that I saved you from being in a deadly car accident. I wouldn’t want to demand restitution from you for all the car accidents I saved you from, so presumably you don’t deserve any restitution from me for all the husbands I’ve prevented you from meeting.

            e) This seems sort of like you’re saying this is impossible or undesirable, but it seems to be the principle behind for example carbon taxes or cigarette taxes, both of which seem like good ideas.

            I guess this kind of assumes good faith between everyone involved, but without that, this is a problem that far outstrips atonement. If a butterfly flapping its wings in China causes a hurricane in Florida, then probably every time you cough you’re preventing someone in the year 2120 from meeting their future husband. I don’t think you should feel guilty about this any more than you should feel triumphant about the fact that last time you stepped on a bug it prevented the Third Human-Mantis War in 2860. And the same sort of sanity-preserving mental heuristics you use to avoid those kinds of weird conclusions seem like they should suffice for the atonement problem as well.

          • Iota

            Do you want a response?

            (yes, I ask that a lot – I’d rather not pontificate in a combox just because I can, if it isn’t interesting)

          • Yvain

            If you want.

          • Iota

            Sorry for disappearing – real life intruded. Would you still like a response?

            [I actually have one ready to post, but after this amount of time I want to make sure if posting it makes any sense.

    • LeahLibresco

      Why is killing someone an obvious case where this fails? I mean, previously people were ok with weregeld

      • Jeff

        Doesn’t weregild show the limitations of atonement for Christians?

        Weregild is a pagan Germanic practice of recompensing people for the killing of their relative. It is meant, I think, to pay for “damages”, as it were. It replaces the practical value of the person lost to the family and makes up for the loss of honor suffered by the loss.

        I think most modern Christians would find the idea alien because we have a deep and abiding sense of the infinite worth of the person whose life was ended. Nothing can atone for the wrong of killing.

        But I think for most Catholics, the ground covered by atonement is mostly dealt with under parallel categories: penance and punishment.

        Socially, one must be punished for crimes committed. Spiritually, one must do penance for sin.

        Atonement, per se, is usually reserved for the doctrine whereby Christ redeems the human race.

      • I would say that killing is an obvious case where restitution fails because the dead person is also a victim and, by merit of being dead, has passed beyond any possibility of worldly restitution (that being the only kind of restitution a person is able to give in this life).

        • Yvain

          This, and also that for many people there is no amount of money/value that they would accept as equal to having their loved one back.

    • alexander stanislaw

      This sounds completely reasonable except for the fact that actual cash is being exchanged rather than favors. If I harm someone and do something nice for them and apologize, the reaction I have come to expect is “okay, your forgiven”.

      Am I totally oblivious to how normal humans act? I suppose it doesn’t seem to scale well with the severity of the offense, but that seems to be just an issue of settling on an appropriate price.

      • Brutus

        Apologizing to someone has a value, which varies among people and can be compared to cash.

        For example, if Bob steps on Charlie’s foot, but Bob is much higher status than Charlie, Bob might prefer to lose $20 than to apologize; meanwhile, Charlie might prefer to receive an apology than to receive $20.

        The naive economic theory breaks down at that point, because apologizes are not fungible.

  • introvert_prof

    Quite late to the party, but (as an attempt at semi-humor) what about Njal’s Saga? It’s full to bursting with offense and atonement, but the atonement typically takes the form of cash payment.

    There’s the bonus that, atonement or not, hardly anyone ever seems the least bit sorry.

  • Ronfar

    The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The title character does something horrible near the beginning of the first book; he tries to make up for it, but fails miserably.