Absent Absolution (a triptych)

I was struck recently by a similarity between three articles on three different topics: the experiences of people who accidentally kill someone, problems with the disease model of addiction, a soldier who tried to contact the family of a civilian he killed in Iraq. Each of the articles is worth reading in full, but I’ve pulled out a passage that I found arresting from each.


From Alice Gregory’s “The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer,” published in the September 18, 2017 issue of the New Yorker:

Green learned about Accidental Impacts from a therapist, who told her, at the end of their first session, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the resources to deal with this.” Green appreciates the site but isn’t surprised that there’s so little out there. “People just don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “When someone is raped, you can tell them, truthfully, ‘It’s not your fault.’ Well, in my case, that really can’t be said. My brother tells me, ‘You don’t deserve this.’ That’s nice and all, but it doesn’t fix it.” Green explained, “It’s a sob story, with no ‘and then.’”


From Eve Tushnet’s “5 Things the Disease Model Gets Wrong About Addiction,” published at The American Conservative on February 12, 2004:

If someone genuinely did not choose to do wrong then compassion for that person isn’t mercy—it’s justice. And conversely, if you can only have compassion on someone if you believe she did not choose her misdeeds, then you’ve defined mercy out of existence. You’re not forgiving—you’re saying there was never anything to forgive.
And I think this narrative, in which addiction destroys the will, exists precisely because we don’t trust others to have mercy on us or on those we love.
Adam Smith had this cute little tagline, which I admit I am taking out of context, “Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.” Now first of all, mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is, see above for details. But we might also add, “Cruelty to the guilty creates pressure to declare everybody innocent.”


From Dexter Filkins’s “Atonement: A troubled Iraq veteran seeks out the family he harmed,” published in the October 29 & November 5, 2012 issue of the New Yorker:

Without the Marines, Lobello found himself cut off from the main source of his identity. “The Marine Corps is like a church, and I felt excommunicated,’’ he told me. His buddies who stayed in appeared far better adjusted than those who got out—not because of the counselling or medical services they were offered but because the other marines could understand what they had been through. “You’re only as crazy as the people around you,’’ Lobello said. Like the police or the F.B.I., the Marine Corps represented its own moral universe, an institution that gave you license to kill and absolved you of your sins. Without it, Lobello had to figure things out on his own.
In the Bible, Numbers 31 prescribes a purifying ritual for soldiers returned from war: a cleanse of fire and water. American culture has no such rituals. Instead, it has legal constructs, like the rules of engagement—printed on cards to fit in your wallet—that allow soldiers like the men in Lobello’s unit to feel that they have merely done what they should. They are absolved even before they come home.

In each story, there seems to be someone with a tremendous pain who is looking for someone who won’t respond to their very real wound with “It’s ok” but “It’s not ok, and…”

But, in most of these stories, it’s not clear what could follow the “and…” since there’s no expectation that sin and pain can be forgiven and transfigured.

For friends outside the church, who don’t believe the Sacrament of Reconciliation can help, how can we offer reassurance that mercy exists—that it isn’t a matter of ignoring serious sin, but of fiercely loving the person we hope to see delivered from it? Has anyone offered a witness like this in your life?


Addendum: if you liked Eve’s essay on addiction, you may want to check out her novel Amends, which is set at a recovery center for alcoholics. Tushnet brings both her wit and her compassion to bear.

Second addendum: The impulse to squash repentance by saying “There’s nothing to forgive” seems related to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, where, per my reading, the protagonists’ friends deepen his wound and fracture their own friendship by trying to jolly him out of mourning his divorce.

Final addendum: Crux has an excerpt from my book, Arriving at Amen, on the topic of confession, where I discuss what “It’s not ok. and…” means:

The way Jesus mends me reminds me of a Japanese ceramics technique called kintsugi, in which valuable ceramics that are cracked or broken are fixed using a very unusual glue. The craftsman mixes gold dust with a special resin and uses this adhesive mixture to fill in the new cracks or to piece the entire pot back together. After the bond has set, the crack is still visible, but now it resembles a vein of pure gold. This is a kind of mending that draws attention to itself.
In Confession, God mends the wound of my sin with his grace, and the resulting scar can be beautiful. The shining brand that remains is a gift; a reminder that I depend on God’s mercy, and that his mercy is free for the asking. This kind of healing means that I can’t think of my original sin in isolation from the forgiveness that was offered to me. The vein of Christ’s love twines through my regret and penitence, keeping them from sliding into despair.