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Penance and Public Shaming

What do we do with people who have committed a wrong that they themselves cannot put right? And can I make full amends for the wrongs that I’ve done?
May 29, 2021
Penance and Public Shaming
Casting stones: Detail from a twentieth-century replica of a fifth-century Byzantine mosaic depicting the stoning of Moses, Joshua, and Caleb. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Cycles of public shaming ebb and flow through our public discourse. Some implicate public figures in scandals or crimes, while others entangle formerly private individuals whose errors are placed before a national audience. We need a way to find an answer to the following questions: What do we do with people who have committed a wrong that they themselves cannot put right? And is it possible for me to make full amends for the wrongs that I’ve done, whatever their size?

As a Christian watching these cycles of shaming, I see half of the Gospel story. Secular culture agrees with the apostle Paul that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That truth is proclaimed not just in the controversies, but in more nuanced discussions of such subjects as racial reparations and structural sexism. The trouble is that secular discussions of justice and reconciliation necessarily stop before the next verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

By secular lights, we are sinners without a savior—an untenable situation. To avoid facing the full ramifications of this form of the Bad News, people often fudge the truth, making some combination of these three errors: We deny the universality of sin; we deny the seriousness of sin; or we admit both, but deny the possibility of full reconciliation.

In the first case, we affirm that some people have done evil that is too big for them to set right. Think of an abuser like Jeffrey Epstein, whose evil was monstrous and baroque. We can try to write him off as an exceptional case. Some people are moral monsters, but most are muddling through. The former need to be identified and cast out. Everyone else is expected to be capable of avoiding getting into trouble they can’t get out of.

There is a poorly mapped line that, once crossed, shifts the perpetrator from good person to bad. The best feature of this model is that it takes the weight of sin seriously, but it errs in thinking that only a small, purgeable number of people have sinned seriously. It leads to a temptation to destroy.

The second error is to deny that people (at least the ones we like best) can be genuinely guilty and responsible for their acts. This error is driven by a fear that if people had truly done wrong they could not put right, we would have to treat them as discardable and cast them out. So, to keep them safe, we deny the gravity of their fault.

In the individual case, this looks like the sympathetic judge who lets someone like Brock Turner off easy for a rape, lest this “nice guy” have his future spoiled. At the level of a larger community, it can look more like a certain kind of opposition to reparations. The impact of redlining and other forms of discrimination is downplayed, because it feels too harsh to “punish” people who benefited from an unjust system. This approach intuits that we can’t live in a mercilessly just society, but it errs when it minimizes sin and its victims in order to get perpetrators off the hook. It is a temptation to excuse.

Finally, there is a stranger and rarer error, which manages to believe in both the weight of sin and our own inability to expunge it, but, lacking Christ, loses hope in the face of the insoluble problem. At one extreme, it’s the approach taken by negative utilitarians who believe in minimizing suffering—by minimizing the number of people who exist. Since sin and suffering exist and can’t be fixed, they decide it would be better not to be.

There’s a less radical kind of self-obliteration lived out by a some effective altruists, who reckon up the worth of their existence in malaria nets purchased and lives saved, and view every moment spent not maximizing their impact as murder-by-neglect. These people feel they’ve inherited a moral debt they can’t pay back, but, rather than exaggerate their own capacities or minimize what they owe, simply do as much as they can. It isn’t enough, and it comes with a temptation to despair.

Each of these three approaches is wrong, but there’s something I admire about each of them. They are compelling because they hold firmly onto a part of the truth. The exilers hold to a love of justice that refuses to deny that evil is evil. The minimizers refuse to relinquish the hope that the worst of the prodigals can come home. And the frantic debtors do the best they can, no matter the cost to them.

Each fragment of the truth, because it is only a fragment, is dangerous. The Christian claim that Christ died to free us from slavery to sin—that it is possible to participate in His Atonement and make amends for sins we cannot ourselves expunge—is the whole truth that each of these errors reflects only a facet of.

Christ’s death is the solution, but it’s still challenging to live out in practice. Our sacrificial acts of penance can come off as misguided at best (how can the fasts of laypeople be a response to the crimes of clergymen?) or glib at worst (tweets of “thoughts and prayers”).

But the paradox of disproportionality is threaded through the Gospels. Christ commends the widow who gave a few cents, because “she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood” (Luke 21:4). In a way, the third group, the anxious debtors, are closest to the truth. We are called not to give enough but to give all, and then what we give is transformed by being offered through Christ.

In practice, this looks like making penance and repentance a part of daily life, especially when we unite our offerings with the corporate Body of Christ. It’s not that our small sacrifices add up in the aggregate to enough—after all, it’s absurd to ask how many meatless Fridays add up to repentance for adultery. However, as Eamon Duffy points out, a repeated, shared penance (like abstention from meat on Friday) testifies to our shared need for penance.

Penance is for everyone; “sinner” is not a category one suddenly slips into. A regular, universal practice of repentance is the answer to the excesses of the exilers and the minimizers, for all have fallen short. Making amends isn’t triggered by one particularly large transgression, it’s an ordinary part of life. The Church weaves it into our calendar, with Lent and Advent as the two major seasons of penance, but penance is always at our elbow, just as our errors are, prompting us to return again to confession and ask for help to “go and sin no more.” Our own efforts to set things right are rarely commensurate with evil in the world. And yet our work is not wasted—we cannot give enough, but we can give wholeheartedly.

Being called out as complicit in sin is not an accusation, it’s a simple fact, true of all of us. The question is whether (and by Whom) we can be delivered.

Leah Libresco Sargeant

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of the books Building the Benedict Option and Arriving at Amen and runs Other Feminisms on Substack. Twitter: @LeahLibresco.