Feeling Sorry the Wrong Way – by Anthony Bash

Anthony Bash on David Lambert’s How Repentance Became Biblical

David A. Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture, Oxford University Press, 2016, 280pp., $74
David A. Lambert, How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture, Oxford University Press, 2016, 280pp., $74
Shop Indie Bookstores

In some ways, regret, repentance, and remorse are popular emotions in the modern world. Public apologies for personal wrongdoing or for national, corporate, or institutional wrongdoing are the vogue, especially if the apologies are seen to be apparently remorseful, with a good measure of tears and chest-beating.

Being sorry is, of course, not a new idea. David Lambert in How Repentance Became Biblical traces the history of the many and varied ways in the period of the Bible that people have been sorry, and the different ways they wrote about being sorry. Though people have always been sorry one way or another, what has changed in course of time is how and why and even when we say we are sorry. Lambert’s book elegantly illustrates this from the material in the Bible, from extra-canonical sources, and even from some secular sources that are contemporary to the biblical writings.

One should always be suspicious of an apology, and ask, “What’s in it?” for the person apologizing. Some people plausibly counterfeit remorse and shame. They are consummate actors, who deceive all but the most skilled in assessing and testing motives. This is especially true of those who suffer from ant-social personality disorders, such as psychopaths, who have the ability to mimic what appears to be repentance but whose repentance evaporates as soon as the goal of escaping punishment is attained.

In her response to Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, published with other responses and in the same volume with Wiesenthal’s text, Cynthia Ozick goes further and writes that a repentant and genuinely remorseful person deserves greater punishment than someone who has no moral conscience! This is because the person with the moral conscience knew (or could have known) that what he or she was doing wrong, whereas the person without remorse did not and could not. She implies there is greater mercy for the person who lacks “a moral temperament … conscience … sensibility … humanity” but, of a particular repentant wrongdoer who did not lack those attributes, she writes, “Let him go to hell. Sooner the fly to God than he.” She is surely right in logic, even though her conclusion belies what feels right.

There is, of course, a place for being genuinely sorry. Expressing sorrow may be integral to psychological growth and moral development. It may also be evidence of “moral backbone” and one of the morally virtuous responses that may result after a person realizes that he or she has done wrong.

This is an example of someone who is, I suggest, genuinely sorry. It illustrates the principal elements that are typical of deep contrition, namely, being appalled, bewildered, and sometimes even shocked at what one has done, and realising what its effect has been on someone else. The example concerns Steve Rannazzisi, a comedian. This is what Rannazzisi posted on Facebook:

As a young man, I made a mistake that I deeply regret and for which apologies may still not be enough.

… I told people that I was in one of the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. It wasn’t true. I was in Manhattan but working in a building in midtown and I was not at the Trade Center on that day. I don’t know why I said this. This was inexcusable. I am truly, truly sorry.

For many years, more than anything, I have wished that, with silence, I could somehow erase a story told by an immature young man. It only made me more ashamed.

It is to the victims of 9/11 and to the people that love them—and the people that love me—that I ask for forgiveness.

Sometimes, however, public expressions of sorrow may be no more than carefully crafted words in an attempt at damage-limitation, to win back favor or a lost reputation. They are little more than cynical manipulation, image-making, evasion, or obfuscation. Seen this way, they are “weasel words,” that is, statements aimed at suggesting that something meaningful is being said but which, on closer analysis, say little of value or meaning, or which are not sustained in the longer term by evidence of a change of practice or behavior.

The way to test apparently remorseful words is to see whether they lead to the desire for better things, such as a change of behavior. Those of us who are parents will probably remember that when our children were younger they may have been quick to say “sorry” to avoid parental displeasure but rather less quick to behave differently in the future! Of course, it cannot be proved that someone is repentant or remorseful; people may say they are deeply sorry, and the genuineness of their profession of sorrow can be tested for plausibility, coherence, and consistency. But only time will tell whether what they say is genuine and matched by deep, inner change. In short, it is easy to fake being sorry because no one can know what a person truly thinks and feels — and, despite our best endeavours, we ourselves may not even know what we truly think and feel.

Consider, then, the following example of supposed public regret. Jeff Skilling, former Chief Executive of Enron Corporation, was sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence for fraud. He said in words reported in The New York Times on 24 October 2006, “I can’t imagine more remorse” but also said that day that he was “innocent of every one” of the charges against him. It is hard to see how one can be both remorseful and continue to assert that one is innocent of legal or moral wrongdoing at one and the same time.

Despite the fact that some expressions of sorrow are palpably spurious, there is a place for sorrow, regret, repentance, and remorse in the twenty-first century. People are not always only sorry because they have been caught out for having done wrong. For example, when John Major, former British Prime Minister, was “outed” in 2002 for a former four-year affair with Edwina Currie, the BBC reported Major as saying his wife “had long known of the relationship and had forgiven him.” Contrast this with the many examples of those whose apologies for marital infidelities are made only when their spouses find out from press reports when the matter becomes public.

So what does it mean when we say we are sorry?

A moment’s reflection on Lambert’s book quickly makes us aware that being sorry the modern way can be different from being sorry in biblical ways. Lambert mostly writes about those whose penitence arises because they know they have offended a divine being or the ethical norms of such a divine being. Today’s penitence has a different aetiology: it arises because we realize and acknowledge that we have wronged other people. To be blunt, God does not get much of a look-in when it comes to modern remorse. God’s loss of place in modern remorse, however, has had the incidental effect of helping us to become more aware of the complexity and subtlety of interpersonal regret, and we now appreciate rather better than the ancients that being sorry is part of a medley of behaviors that include sorrow, regret, repentance, and remorse. Certainly the relative paucity of biblical language to describe interpersonal regret points to the fact that the biblical writers were rather less aware than we are of how to be sorry to one’s neighbor, and were rather more interested in how to be sorry to one’s neighbor’s maker.

It can be hard to identify the unique characteristics of each of sorrow, regret, repentance, and remorse, and Lambert’s book offers little help to do this. Of course, the distinctions between ways of being sorry may be over-simplifications, for emotions rarely exist in “pure” form except in the writings of theoreticians. Like other emotions, they are part of a range of feelings, which tend to merge into each other at their edges. The classifications we use to describe emotions are summaries of what we commonly observe as typical, but the classifications are not exhaustive and they do not comprise all there is in a set. We may even speak of sorrow, regret, repentance, and remorse, for example, without really knowing what we mean by each of these words or the extent to which some of them overlap. If I am remorseful and repentant about something I have done, I suspect that which aspect of my response might be “remorse” and which “repentance” is largely of interest to people who like describing and classifying things. (At this point, I plead guilty to being a describer and classifier, because I think describing and classifying what we observe can sometimes help us understand better the world around us.)

As a rule of thumb, and as we usually understand it today, remorse has more to do with emotions than behavior; in contrast, repentance, especially if we understand it through the traditional interpretations of the Old Testament and New Testament, is about deciding to act differently, and so more about behavior than emotions. In the case of repentance, presumably one decides to act differently because one knows that one has done wrong. The emphasis is on behavior, because one has decided to act differently, rather than on the feelings and emotions one has about one’s behavior. The point becomes clearer if we acknowledge, for example, that Kelly, a kleptomaniac, may be remorseful that she is a thief but unable to change her behavior (much though she wants to), and that Stella, a light-fingered employee confronted by her employer for stealing, is repentant because, as a result of her repentance, she has made a settled decision, which she carries through, that she will no longer steal from her employer. (Stella is probably also remorseful, and this serves to show that emotions and behaviors can overlap and even coalesce.) Similarly, Valerie may be sorry, even very sorry, that she accidentally broke your favorite and valuable vase. She may then decide in the future to be less careless when handling other people’s prized possessions. She may even offer to buy a replacement vase for you. We might then also say that Valerie is repentant. Altogether different is if Margaret were deeply ashamed in later life, long after she had lost contact with you, when she recalls that, several years ago, she broke your mirror. She did this deliberately and out of malice to upset and frighten you, and because she was jealous of your good looks. She also knew the mirror held special sentimental memories for you, because it was the first gift your partner gave you. In this example, remorse is not about changing anything or being different, such as by putting right the past or deciding to do or not do something in the future. It is too late to do that, and the opportunity has long gone. Rather, remorse is a moral emotion of the inner life that expresses, primarily to oneself, that one has judged and condemned one’s own aberrant behavior, and that one feels bad about what one has done.

Obviously, the words we use do not have fixed meanings; we give them meanings that can vary with culture, context, or time. We are foolish if we assume that what we mean by in the twenty-first century is the same as what is meant by a writer of more than two millennia ago whose Greek or Hebrew idioms have been translated into a word or phrase in current English usage. This is one of the central points in Lambert’s book.

Of course words, concepts, and emotions can play different roles in different cultures, and it is to be regretted that it has taken until Lambert’s book to see the point so cogently made when it comes to repentance and related responses. Though in the modern world, to apologize for past wrongdoing is generally regarded as a sign of moral calibre in the English-speaking West, in some contemporary cultures, there does not appear to be a cultural framework for treating apologies this way, with diverse cultural, historical, social, and linguistic understandings about regret, repentance, and remorse leading to confusion and even resentment.

An example illustrates the point. Japan has been persistently criticized in the West and by some East Asian countries for what people take as no more than Japanese expressions of regret for Japanese actions as a colonial power and in World War II. The Japanese have understood their statements to be expressions of deep contrition; others have seen them as little more than weasel words. What has been expected, but apparently never explicitly understood to have been freely given, is contrition not only in words but also in actions, such as generous reparations for people affected. In contrast, Japanese politicians sometimes appear bewildered that what they apparently intend to be Japanese expressions of remorse and regret for former crimes do not appear to be enough.

The differences between what the Japanese believe they have communicated and what others appear to have received arise for two principal reasons. First, the cultural framework for giving and receiving apologies in Japanese culture is different from the traditions about apologies that others hold, especially those to whom Japanese apologies are addressed. Second, the need for atoning actions in consequence of an apology is not widely expected in Japanese culture whereas, in contrast, those who hear Japanese apologies also expect atonement to demonstrate the integrity of the apologies. It is therefore not surprising that there is neither a meeting of minds nor a meeting of meaning.

This discussion takes us to the heart of the difficulty of words and their meanings: language is embedded in cultural traditions, and words do not have meanings; rather, we give them meanings, and even then, their meanings are not fixed, absolute, or definite. Wittgenstein made the point in his posthumous work Philosophical Investigations (1953), saying that words do not have “sharp boundaries” but rather they have “blurred edges” and are “uncircumscribed,” thereby rendering them without definitive boundaries.

If all this is true of modern cultures, it is also likely to be true of ancient cultures, whose points of difference are likely to be magnified by greater distance from our own traditions. David Lambert’s book illustrates this point elegantly. We may think we know what “repentance” means, and some of us may be persuaded that the meaning of “repentance” is the same whether we read the word in the Old Testament or the New Testament or follow a single supposed Christian tradition about repentance. Not so. As Lambert meticulously shows, the meaning of the word “repentance” develops — and changes — even during the period of the formation of the Old Testament, and is further developed in the late inter-testamental period. What we think is repentance in one part of the Old Testament, for example, may be because we have inadvertently imported or adopted an interpretive grid from a later period and so come up with an anachronistic reading. Expressed like this, it is obvious we misread the ancient texts that comprise the biblical and extra-biblical writings if we think the word “repentance” and ideas and language associated with that word all mean the same thing in all of the writings. They do not, and what we need is a subtle, contextual, and nuanced approach to language and its interpretation. Lambert expertly offers this, and it has taken until Lambert’s book properly to identify the semantic and historical range of the word “repentance.”

We can say that being sorry for having done wrong seems more or less a cultural universal, though what one may be sorry about and how one may be sorry are far from universal. After reading Lambert’s book, we may be sorry that until now we have been slipshod in the way we thought of repentance; we may even regret some what we said or wrote or thought. As for our former foolishness, it is time to repent, whatever that may mean and however we may want to express it. Lambert has done us a great service in helping us to repent with linguistic and cultural sensitivity.