On Atonement and Amends

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

The Day of Atonement, which was just last Wednesday (Sept. 26th), has brought to the fore the ideas of apology, regrets, forgiveness, and atonement. We are all aware of the importance of forgiveness but often do not think it through to the realm of atonement. The distinction between forgiveness and atonement (at-one-ment) has been extensively explored by award-winning TV host, writer and filmmaker, Phil Cousineau. Cousineau makes a critical distinction between apology and atonement.

It is important for the offender, whether an individual, tribe, or a nation, to move beyond expressions of regret and apology for their transgressions. The step beyond is the act of atonement. The key word here is “act” which means taking action. It is this action which has the potential to bring about healing in both the victim and the transgressor.

A unique and memorable interview with Phil Cousineau by Dr. Dave Van Nuys is available as an audio recording:
Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement

The recording is part of our recent online course, composed of 11 audio interviews:
Meditation & Psychotherapy
8 CE Credit Hours

The transgressor and the victim(s) of that transgression are two sides of the same coin. Sincere acts of atonement, making amends, are necessary for the healing of the transgressor. These acts of atonement have the potential to bring healing as well to the victim(s), but only if they are able to activate their deep capacity for forgiveness. Forgiveness, like atonement, is an active process, one that demands empathy and compassion and, ultimately, the ability to overlook the transgression.

A few notes on Forgiveness and Atonement
  • The word “atonement” can be broken down into at-one-ment which highlights that ultimately we are talking about a relationship between victim and victimizer. Healing requires coming together.
  • The first step in forgiveness is to identify something in the other person that is human.
  • Huston Smith is quoted as saying, “So the power of the act of forgiveness is the recognition of the flaw in all of us.”
  • Greek mythology teaches us that everyone is flawed, even heroes and gods.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs have long been aware of the importance of taking concrete action to “make amends.”
  • One of the meanings of the word “forgiveness,” is to “give for,” which implies a gift. We have to find the flaw in ourselves to activate empathy and compassion and to be able to offer the gift of overlooking the transgression.
  • Forgiveness/Atonement find expression at the international/political level in the Justice Movement or Reconciliation Movement as we have witnessed in South Africa.
  • Victims who hang onto resentment and hate risk inflicting psychological and physiological harm to themselves. One definition of resentment is, “when you take the poison but hope the other person dies”.
  • The call to exercise compassion is central to all of the world’s great religions.
  • One understanding of “compassion” is that of struggling with one’s passions. The Dali Lama, for example, has had to struggle with his own passions to hold an attitude of compassion toward the Chinese, even as he stands up to them for having killed and tortured the people of Tibet.
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