Vengeance, Forgiveness, and The Culture of Politics

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a Feb. 2 press conference in response to the discovery of the racist photo in his medical school yearbook, alongside Virginia first lady Pamela Northam. Photo by Georgia Geen

Georgia Geen/VCU Capital News Service

Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a Feb. 2 press conference in response to the discovery of the racist photo in his medical school yearbook, alongside Virginia first lady Pamela Northam. Photo by Georgia Geen

Revenge or restitution? I’ve been thinking of Paulo Freire’s powerful notion of a thematic universe. He wrote that every epoch is characterized by “a complex of ideas, concepts, hopes, doubts, values and challenges in dialectical interaction with their opposites.” This complex, interacting whole—our thematic universe—weaves the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times.

Conventionally, historians propose a single theme for each epoch: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. But human history isn’t so simple. In each age, a top-down controlling force contests with an irrepressible assertion of human value and human rights, side-by-side with other themes. For example, today the certainties of fundamentalism clash with the certainties of science. The character of each time emerges not from a single winning idea, but from the encounter of opposites.

And our own thematic universe? Revenge or restitution is one of the starkest dialectics. “Dialectical” is kind of a dry word for the interaction of opposing forces, especially today, when that interaction resembles a bloody brawl. The image in my mind’s eye is a beautiful blue-green planet defaced by red wounds, knives always drawn.

When bad acts surface in the public sphere, who are we as a people? Those who can be satisfied only when their opponents are destroyed? Or those whose compass points to healing and repair and away from vengeance?

The United States is Incarceration Nation, with the highest incarceration rates and largest prison population on the planet. African Americans are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. We imprison more young people than any other nation. We have normalized a culture of punishment, adjusting to the cruel and absurd notion that locking people away increases safety, spending more than $30,000 per year per inmate to punish the incarcerated via overcrowding, substandard food, hygiene, and health, offering little or nothing to counter the recidivism such conditions breed. The trend toward prison privatization makes things much worse, cruelty without accountability. And the truth of collective responsibility for this collective transgression is hidden behind a veil of self-regard: the greatest nation on earth.

We continue operating this machine despite zero evidence that the system achieves its stated goals. Most people I know decry the prison-industrial complex; many of them work very hard to change it. But mostly, we Americans seem to see Incarceration Nation as another country, the other side of a border wall. In nurturing and feeding this culture of punishment, we spread an appalling moral corruption. Our official thirst for vengeance isn’t contained by prison walls; it also increasingly contaminates every part of public life.

At the podium for a press conference this past Saturday to discuss the blackface yearbook photo that triggered near-universal demands for his resignation, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia also described blackening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest, mentioning the challenges of removing shoe polish from the face. (Wesley Morris deconstructed the hell out of that gesture in the New York Times; please do read his column.)

Northam’s remarks offer a particularly keen insight into the consciousness formed by white supremacy. No photo of Northam as Michael Jackson has so far surfaced, but his costume for the dance competition included the glove, the penny-loafers, the fedora, perhaps some sparkles. The symbols that said “Michael!” were so ubiquitous and universally understood by that time, Northam’s decision that blackface was needed to complete the impersonation telegraphs a nauseating ease with white supremacy and indifference to its consequences.

That was 35 years ago. Last Saturday was Northam’s opportunity to repent in earnest, whether or not repentance led to forgiveness. Instead, in the place that should have been held by shame, he displayed an utter lack of awareness of the meaning of his acts, and an appalling desire to turn insult into entertaining anecdote.

That is one big reason why he should step down immediately.

Forgiveness and vengeance are both challenges for me. Forgiving someone who has done serious harm requires me to shake off the fear that forgiveness will license that person to repeat the despicable behavior. Calling for revenge requires me to conclude that harming another is justified—but only when I do it, for reasons that satisfy myself. I easily get lost in the nooks and crannies of that dialectic. But I don’t want to stay lost.

I believe in the ever-present potential of repentance and transformation, in the possibility of forgiveness that follows. I have to. The alternative is a world in which no evil deed can be expunged by contrition and restitution, in which each misguided act risks a life-sentence of ostracism. Yet no one is perfect. We all mess up, and everyone with a heart and brain has the potential to learn far more through mistakes than through exercising mastery or repeating what we know to be sure or safe.

I think back to the time I was on the board of a Jewish organization considering charges against a rabbi of serious and repeated sexual misconduct. Understanding the impact censure could have on the rabbi’s future, no one wanted to act precipitously; understanding the impact abuse had on the women who accused him, no one wanted to ignore their call for rebuke and consequences. Spiritual leaders on the board—especially those having come into that status during the sixties and seventies “sexual revolution”—reminded everyone that ours was a “t’shuvah movement.” They meant that the mostly young Jews then seeking to renew and refresh traditional Jewish practice and learning had come to their spiritual path through personal trial and error. They crossed boundaries, including some that should have been respected. Awakening to their errors had animated their movement with the power of t’shuvah—awareness, repentance, reorientation, restitution.

It is a core Jewish teaching that each person is constantly subject to two competing pulls, the good inclination (yetzer hatov) and the evil inclination (yetzer hara). This is not uniquely Jewish, of course. Gandhi put it this way: “All religions teach that two opposite forces act upon us and the human endeavour consists in a series of eternal rejections and acceptances.” But Jewish teaching goes further to suggest that the t’shuvah of a person who is deeply susceptible to temptation, who must struggle hard to defeat those forces, matters more than that of a sage who through spiritual purification is far less subject to the pull of the evil inclination. More healing energy flows into the world if I miss the mark through my own my shame, grief, and restorative action than if I had risen beyond the reach of temptation, never erring at ll. So we want to see the signs of genuine t’shuvah, to honor them for their healing power, and to make room for harmful acts to be converted to acts for the good through four steps: awareness, repentance, reorientation, and restitution.

Like Northam, the rabbi in question did not truly make t’shuvah. He just issued a series of confusing denials, excuses, and dissemblance. It took quite a while, but eventually he was made to step down. Even changing his name did not remove the stink.

True t’shuvah is the easier part of the revenge versus restitution equation. Transgressors understand their wrongdoing, acknowledge it, bear their shame, accept consequences, take concrete steps to right their wrongs. Even extreme turnarounds can be accepted. For instance, late last month Derek Black—brought up in a closed-off and deeply vicious white supremacist context and converted by a remarkably patient Jew into a crusader for equity and justice—joined Dove Kent and Eric K. Ward in a discussion of Antisemitism in America. I’m not hearing an outcry that he should be shunned for his past misdeeds; his subsequent actions ensure that his t’shuvah is seen as sincere.

But what about vengeance? I understand the emotion. I can summon vivid mental images of the pain I have imagined inflicting on personal and public malefactors. I can taste the desire to see them suffer for the anguish they have caused, measure for measure. But I can’t believe in its efficacy, believe that punishment makes things right. I’ve seen too often how those who are severely punished for their transgressions turn around and wreak vengeance on their punishers, how the cycle perpetuates itself without fixing the problem. In the criminal justice sphere, I advocate restorative justice, which actually offers the hope of healing. This is a principle that applies equally to the personal and political.

Today the choice—revenge or restitution?— is being played out in the largest public arena. The most challenging case for me is when a single prior bad act is inflated into grounds for permanent condemnation, which is happening more and more often. I think Al Franken was guilty of juvenile stupidity, for instance, but he paid a price befitting a lifetime of sexual abuse. Our thematic universe is characterized by a culture of politics that equates rape or sexual blackmail with a moment of idiocy, treating them equally as grounds for banishment from civil society. Over and over again, punishment trumps repair.

The current atmosphere of vengeance is being fed by a failure to understand the value of restorative justice. If racist and sexist acts are understood purely as lapses in personal conduct, if transgressors understand their responsibility as beginning and ending with public contrition, punishment appears to be the only remedy that carries consequences. Sadly, though, consequences are there for the punishers too. When we’ve deposed, exiled, locked up, or bankrupted all the perpetrators of past bad acts, will the beloved community remain? Or will the habit of revenge overwhelm the desire for healing?

It’s hard to imagine the actually existing Northam doing what I’m about to suggest, but just try it on as a thought-experiment. Imagine he acknowledged his past harm, expressed his shame without excuse, and committed himself to a concrete program of restorative action, could true justice prevail? Imagine (to suggest just one example among many possibilities) a new curriculum requirement making the study of racism and its impacts a core subject in Virginia high schools and colleges, not a single course but an eight-year stream to promote both historical and self-awareness.

What if the transgressor in question were capable of more awareness and compassion than Northam has shown? What if this thought-experiment happened in real life, if healing action were catalyzed by one man’s racism and the t’shuvah it triggered? Would it be enough?

The path to restitution is open, but it takes two to walk it, the perpetrator and the harmed. The transgressor must convert harmful acts to acts for the good through four steps: awareness, repentance, reorientation, and restitution. So long as the mealy-mouthed pro-forma personal apology/justification is the accepted standard, true t’shuvah is impossible. And the body politic injured by harmful acts? We must not only demand restitution, but sincerely accept healing action in the place of revenge.

The demand must be made explicit. First, drop the default that says bad acts can never be expunged, merely punished. Second, make clear that forgiveness must be earned through all four steps, including true restorative justice and the sacrifice it entails. Third, understand that how we treat transgressors—whether Hollywood execs, governors, or those serving time for criminal acts—is our rehearsal for a world in which collective t’shuvah leads to collective transformation. I can’t know for certain we’ll get there, but I am absolutely positive that without practice, we will not.

I don’t say this is easy. In fact, it is very hard. But I’d really like there to be a blue-green planet left spinning and supporting life for future generations to populate with a gentler thematic universe. So we make the path by walking—or else.

Shemekia Copeland performing a song by J.B. Lenoir, “God’s Word.” (Yes, that’s Charlton Heston in the video, but you can always close your eyes.)

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