Some years ago a minister friend of ours was called to the bedside of a parishioner. When he got to the hospital he was shocked to find the woman writhing in some kind of torment. As soon as they were alone she told him, "I think I've committed an unforgivable sin." Alarmed, he said right back, "There is no unforgivable sin." The tension went out of her and she collapsed in peace. A short time later, our friend heard, she was home.
This is the burden of guilt -- and the power of its resolution. While we may not end up hospitalized over a guilty conscience, we are all burdened to some degree or other by feelings that we have done something seriously wrong, or we live in a society that does. Think of Martin Luther King's lament in his famous Riverside Church sermon against the war in Vietnam that his own nation was "the greatest purveyor of violence" in the world. Consider the ever more appalling number of military personnel who are taking their own lives because, as David Swanson recently wrote in War is a Lie, those "who survive war are far more likely now to have been trained and conditioned to do things they cannot live with having done."
When we were invited by Richard Meyer to put together the book that's now called Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement, we took to the project out of a conviction that, while we probably had our own problems to deal with, the society we are living in has a large problem of collective guilt, which is probably the biggest obstacle to our correcting course. In this sense, there is nothing more important to explore -- and effectively practice -- than atonement, which is the powerful combination of apology and making amends for the wrongs we've committed. We believed, and now do so even more, that many Americans are penned in by a degree of guilt that, absent any way to atone, leads them into denial and ultimately even the exacerbation of their destructive behaviors. When then-Vice-President George H.W. Bush was asked to comment on the fact that the U.S.S. Vincennes had shot down Iran Air 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 passengers, he famously said, "I don't care what the facts are; I will never apologize for the American people." Presidents with that surname were famous for not caring about facts -- and for carrying on violent policies as a consequence.
No American President, or anyone else for that matter, is going to release us from our collective involvement in these wrongs, the way our minister friend was able to release his parishioner. Rather, what we learned from the many and varied contributors to Beyond Forgiveness -- from legendary religion scholar Huston Smith, philosopher Jacob Needleman, to religious leaders Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rev. Heng Sure and Michael Bernard Beckwith, to activists Azim Khamisa and Diane Hennacy Powell -- that for atonement to happen we need to acknowledge that we have done something wrong, even if indirectly, and, more importantly, we need to get involved in some kind of concrete restitution. In this sense, atonement makes possible what Gurdjieff called "repairing the past" and in turn makes possible a much more enduring reconciliation. As the Vietnamese monks often tell returning U.S. soldiers who want to own and transcend their guilt for what they did in that country, "Change your karma through compassionate action." And compassion -- for both victims and perpetrators -- is at the very heart of atonement.
What does this mean for most of us, who have not fought wars or been "economic hit men" wreaking destruction in some less favored land? We think it means reach out to anyone. Preferably someone we've hurt; if not that, someone like or connected with such a person (the way soldiers who revisit Vietnam with Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt at Soldier's Heart set up schools or clinics); if not that, anyone. Make the world a better place -- which it then becomes for ourselves, of course, as well. It also means that we look at the revolutionary changes that are occurring across North Africa and in the Mideast in the light of collective responsibility. The cries from the streets in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are cries not only for change but for recognition of pain, as well as offers to "heal the past, make amends, and restore balance," as we say on our book cover.
Martin Luther King Jr. evidently paid the ultimate price for attempting to expose his country's destructiveness (and Private First Class Manning is at this point not far behind). We have neither the need nor the privilege of going this far. Turning away from our culture of vengeance and the vulgarity of the nation's popular media, we can and must learn all we can about the viable alternatives of nonviolence and atonement. In this way we can get involved on some project that can bring our family, our neighborhood and maybe the world some peace. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, there is no future without forgiveness; we might add there is no livable present without the possibility of repairing the past.
Michael Nagler is professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at University of California, Berkeley, and is president of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.