<preform>Faith & Reason: True atonement means never having to say you're sorry</preform>

Apologies are everywhere in vogue - but they mean nothing if our bad habits and destructive inclinations remain unchanged
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow evening ushers in Yom Kippur, the most solemn date in the Jewish calendar. It is a day spent by most Jews in fasting and prayer. The liturgy of the prayer book emphasises human sinfulness and our need for divine forgiveness, which can only be achieved through sincere repentance.

Tomorrow evening ushers in Yom Kippur, the most solemn date in the Jewish calendar. It is a day spent by most Jews in fasting and prayer. The liturgy of the prayer book emphasises human sinfulness and our need for divine forgiveness, which can only be achieved through sincere repentance.

For both Judaism and Christianity, the doctrine of sin and repentance presents difficulties. If, as Judaism asserts, we are born with what the ancient rabbis called "a good impulse" and "an evil impulse" continuously struggling for mastery over us - or if, as Christianity maintains, we are born tainted with Original Sin - then what is the purpose or efficacy of repentance, when we know that we are condemned by our very nature to keep on sinning? To come down from the lofty heights of theological discourse and put it in everyday secular language, what is the point of saying sorry?

Saying sorry for past misdeeds is selectively in vogue among countries, organisations, and even politicians - except when it might be interpreted as having a reverse gear and therefore appearing weak. This is especially so where the reason for giving that apology is safely buried in the past. Thus the Prime Minister had no difficulty saying sorry for the Irish potato famine, the Queen for the Amritsar massacre, Canada for its treatment of indigenous tribes, or the Pope for the persecution of Galileo. Not long ago, a synagogue that had selected, then withdrawn, the appointment of a homosexual rabbi (shades of Canon Jeffrey Johns), wrote a letter of public apology to the Jewish Chronicle. One doesn't know what good it did for the humiliated appointee, but presumably it made the synagogue feel better.

That is the nub of the issue. Is saying sorry a verbal acknowledgement of wrongs committed, thereby paving the way for specific restitution to the injured party? Or is it merely an empty exercise in self-indulgence? Since the end of the Second World War, many Christian denominations have shown welcome contrition for centuries of malignant church teaching about the Jews that played a part in sanctioning the Holocaust. Humbly, they have sought forgiveness from the Jews. But "feel-good" factor apart, I am sceptical what moral value there is in one set of people, who weren't perpetrators, asking forgiveness 60 years after the horror from another set of people, who weren't direct victims of it.

Also questionable, for different ethical considerations, is the reluctance of some Jews to accept the proffered apology, on the basis that the living have no right to grant a posthumous pardon on behalf of the millions of Holocaust dead. That may well be so. But a contemporary gesture of repentance cannot be judged retrospectively. Its sincerity has to be gauged and responded to in the here-and-now, taking into account the weight of past experience and history, but also bearing in mind the effect that granting or withholding forgiveness might have for the ongoing and future relationship of both parties.

According to the old proverb, to understand all is to forgive all, which is a dangerous form of moral relativism. But forgiveness that is granted prudentially is not necessarily a bad thing. That is why the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa were so therapeutic. Of course there were witnesses who denied, or were evasive, or tried to exculpate themselves. But individual moral accountability was reaffirmed, by forcing living people to confront the reality of their recent actions, without inferring a moral equivalence between subjugators and subjugated or applying the easy gloss that everyone had been guilty. If ever peace eventually comes between Israelis and Palestinians, a similar kind of commission will be essential, in order to restore a modicum of trust between both sides and remind them of the terribly fallible fragile, but recognisable, humanity of the other.

It is fallacious to try to justify such commissions, or the more legally contentious war-crimes tribunals, with the glib statement that they enable us to learn lessons from the past so that we do not allow the same horrors to be perpetrated again. One sure lesson of history seems to be that we don't learn from the past; each generation commits its own crimes and follies and chooses to learn (or not) from them.

How, then, can we judge when there has been genuine repentance that is deserving of forgiveness? In moral terms, and whether as an individual or collectively, that is by taking responsibility, just as we are ready enough to do with our good deeds, for any action of ours that may have had good intentions but bad results, or deliberately or unwittingly may have harmed a fellow human being in any way.

And, in theological terms, the ancient rabbis had a reassuringly common sense way of deciding about sins they defined as being "between man and God". The proof of the pudding was shown not by protestations of contrition, but by holding back when a similar situation recurred. A Talmudic rabbi asked, "Who is truly penitent?' and answered, "One who, when the same opportunity for sin presents itself, refrains from sinning" - adding succinctly, "The same woman, the same season, the same place."

Our bad habits and destructive inclinations barely change from year to year. But self-awareness can teach us to control them, at least. That is what we pray for when we repent and seek divine forgiveness at Yom Kippur.

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