251. "Civic Repentance: Just and Effective," Introduction to: Repentance: A Comparative Perspective, (Eds.) Amitai Etzioni
and David Carney, (1997), pp.1-20.

When my children were young, I tried to encourage them to be virtuous, to appreciate when they lived up to their commitments, and to celebrate their achievements. Focusing on the positive came readily to me, as I remembered all too vividly the experience of growing up in a very strict home. While positive inducements for my children were effective, they did not suffice; occasionally a punishment seemed unavoidable. However, punishments were structured in such a way that after the children received their penalty and made amends, there was a ritual of reconciliation. It was made clear to the children that they had fully regained good standing in the family and that bygones were, well, bygone.(1)

I am struck by the absence of concepts and processes of repentance (and of reconciliation) in Western civic culture. Civic culture refers to the set of shared values, mores, and rules that guide our life, especially but not only in our public life.(2)

Currently, in Western civic culture, we condemn people who violate our values; we drive politicians out of public office; we send those who offend our sensibilities into the social isolation of Coventry; we incarcerate criminals. Yet even after these offenders have paid their dues to society in full, there are still no established social processes through which they can be restored to full and legitimate membership in the community. For example, convicts who have served their term become "ex-cons"; their status is permanently diminished both in terms of citizens' rights and socioeconomic rights (e.g., membership in several professions is denied to them). Further, their social standing remains inferior, as is evidenced by the suspicion and rejection with which they are treated. In other words, their crime stays with them. This is true also for public figures, who often remain under scrutiny, semi-ostracized, decades after they were driven from public office, even if they have engaged in no additional behavior that offends the community.

Case in point: Senator Gary Hart had to withdraw from the presidential race in 1988 when he was caught having an extramarital affair. (He was also criticized for lying to the press, and thus to the public, for maintaining that he had had no affairs, before he was caught red-handed.) His penalty was considerable, having to give up a chance at the highest office in the land; and while his remorse might not have been in strong evidence, he seems to have led a "normal" life ever since. Still, seven years later, when Senator Hart tried to become politically active again, he met with almost universal derision. Responding to a 1995 report that Hart might campaign for a Senate seat, Colorado GOP chair Don Bain declared, "We want him to run. . . . The polls we've seen show that anybody beats him." National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director John Heubusch added, "We know our counterparts . . are desperate . . . , but we never suspected they'd try to dredge up a liberal and discredited political retread like Gary Hart."(3)

The difficulties inherent in attaining civic repentance, and the lack of structured processes by which to seek such repentance, are illustrated by a description of Nightline, a television program--hardly a place where one would typically seek or expect to find repentance, nor a place accessible to most members of the community who violate mores. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post observes, "It has become an almost religious experience: the sinner appears, confesses to Father Ted [Koppel] and seeks absolution from the television audience."(4) The report continues that one "supplicant" was Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter who "vanished in disgrace" after a prize-winning story she wrote was exposed as a hoax. "Koppel, sitting in judgment on behalf of the media establishment, was not letting her off easy."(5) The fact that we allow a television personality to play such a role indicates to sociologists that we are craving opportunities for structured repentance within the civic culture.

The actual story of Janet Cooke further illustrates my main point. Despite considerable remorse and attempts at a reconstructed life, Cooke has had great difficulties in finding employment over all these years; she claims to have resorted to working for six dollars an hour at a department store in Kalamazoo, Michigan, since no one would hire her as a journalist.(6) She admits that what she did was "horrible," but expresses bitterness toward her seemingly permanent status as an outcast. She laments, "I've . . . lost half my life. I'm in a position where cereal has become a viable dinner choice."(7)

Much more complicated case studies in the lack of structured repentance are those of Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara. While Nixon's Watergate offense was quite a bit more serious than having an extramarital affair or concocting a press report, and his remorse was somewhat scant, he worked rather hard at manipulating a self-rehabilitation. For example, he pursued only 'selected' biographers who would paint him in a favorable light, such as British Parliament member and longtime friend, Jonathan Aitken. In the book, Nixon, A Life, Aitken touts the ex-president as having "a strong claim to being America's finest foreign policy president of the 20th century."(8)

In the years following his resignation, Nixon also worked hard to serve as an "unofficial" presidential adviser.(9) Nixon had to improvise, however, because there were no obvious steps in the civic culture that he could undertake to pay his dues, make amends, and be forgiven. He died without being reintegrated into the community, at least under some cloud if not in a state of disgrace. Tourists at the Vietnam Memorial, when asked what they would remember Nixon for, gave the following replies. First man: "Watergate." First woman: "Watergate." Second woman: "Unfortunately, Watergate." Second man: "I think its ludicrous that the entire country will be shut down on Wednesday to honor a man who was forced to resign from the presidency."(10) I am not suggesting that Nixon was remorseful, or that his repentance was adequate, or that the society was at fault in its attitude toward Nixon even at his death. I am only pointing to the fact that there was no well-defined avenue to guide him, steps to follow, or reintegration to hope for.

Robert McNamara tried to make his way for the role he played in Vietnam by writing the book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, but his efforts, too, were not well received, to put it carefully.(11) Many felt that his apology came too late (after nearly thirty years) and was far from expansive. In a review of the book, David Halberstam comments, "Twenty-eight years ago, [McNamara] was deceiving millions . . . of . . . Americans. Now with this book, he is merely deceiving himself."(12) Charles Colson is one example of a public figure who did find his way back into the good graces of the community, yet this was largely the result of following a religious, rather than a civic, course.

From a sociological and human viewpoint, this deficiency in civic repentance is damaging to the moral foundations of society and unjust to those involved. We must expect that individuals who violate society's mores and who pay their dues in full, but continue to be denied full membership in the community, will be resentful. We must expect that they will feel unfairly punished, as if their sentence is interminable, and that they will react by limiting their contact with law-abiding members of the community (who treat ex-cons as second-class citizens and persons) and narrowing their focus to others who violated the law or are somehow considered deviant or inferior. Subsequently, they are likely to be less motivated to complete their social rehabilitation, and to have less incentive to avoid new acts that might further undermine their standing in the community than they would if full restoration to good citizenship were available. I say all this hypothetically because there seems to be no direct evidence for these points. Indeed, it might be said that there could not be, because, given that there currently exist no structured opportunities for civic repentance in our culture, one cannot compare those who availed themselves of such opportunities with those who did not. It seems reasonable, however, to expect that such assertions are true.

A Sociological Perspective

There is a considerable amount of sociological thinking behind the preceding analysis of civic repentance and social order that should be briefly explained. Social science in general, and sociology in particular, has long been preoccupied with the question of how to account for social order, since the traditional, religion-based social order has weakened with the onset of modernity and rise in secular thinking.(13) Theories that have been proposed include a reliance on the state and its policing powers, and economic inducement (contracts and negotiated agreements). Alternatively, I join those who emphasize values, arguing that unless the members of a society share a set of core values, internalizing them in their personalities and having them further reinforced by social rites and institutions, social order will be unreliable.(14)

According to this line of reasoning, it has been assumed that if the members of a community internalize a given set of shared values and embody them in social institutions, then the members will seek to abide by the behavioral implications of these values, that the values will act as a powerful motivational force. It has been understood, however, that even under very favorable social circumstances, some members of most communities will not live up to the mores of their culture, the normative expectations of their peers, and in many cases, even those they hold themselves. Thus, there arises a need to deal with behavior that conflicts with the moral culture.

To begin, we must recognize that if mores-violating behavior is ignored, it will expand. If one tolerates loud playing of boom boxes in public squares, for example, more and more people will bring their radios along. The same holds for drug abuse, driving at dangerous speeds, and much more serious offenses--hence the continuous need to curb offending behavior.

True, not all behavior that a community frowns upon is damning or should be exorcised in one way or the other; some of it is morally innovative, such as desegregation. In other words, sometimes it is to the benefit of society to allow a change in mores to legitimize behavior that was, until then, considered illegitimate. But this opens a whole different subject; here I focus on the violation of those mores that are deemed just both by the community itself and by considered ethical judgment.(15)

Responses to unacceptable behavior take the form of penalties, incarceration, and even execution. But these are all problematic in that they lead to further alienation, and are costly and often ineffectual, as the war against drugs demonstrates.(16) (The inability of authorities to curb drug transactions in prisons is particularly illuminating, since it suggests that even in a police state, there would still be a considerable amount of drug dealing.)

To take another approach, we learn from studies in social science that people deeply seek the approval of others. One can assume that offenders (I use this word to refer to violators of laws and violators of mores) at some time receive approval from other offenders, such as members of a gang, fellow inmates, and companion drug abusers. But what of the offender who wants to reform his deviant behavior? Once he departs from a life of crime, he loses the affirmation of other miscreants. If he then finds that the doors to acceptance by law-abiding members of the community, those who uphold mores, are, in effect, locked, his rehabilitation is paralyzed. This "locked door" is one reason that offenders are pushed back, as indeed they often seem to be in our society, into their previous, deviant, social circles. By contrast, if offenders could complete the steps of repentance, and then be fully accepted by the upright community, this would serve as significant incentive for offenders to embark on the road to repentance, see it through, and become and remain productive members of the community.

Of special interest to this discussion is the impact that the new "information age" has had on the possibility of civic repentance. In past, more communitarian ages, people lived in small communities and knew each other personally. If a fellow member of the community transgressed, but then restructured his or her life, people had a fairly detailed understanding of these events, and could treat this person accordingly. In the complex modern society, however, people change residences frequently and often know each other rather little. This makes the reliance on documentation and former statuses much greater, and contributes to the staying power of the notation, "ex-con," as opposed to more communitarian ages.

Further along these lines, the development of new instruments of communication technology introduces another major change: it gives the general public relatively easy access to personal records. Thus previously, an ex-con could relocate to another part of the country and gain de facto rehabilitation, since poor communication and information retrieval systems allowed a virtual escape from the past. (A fear of being recognized by someone by his or her previous life was usually quelled by some change in appearance.) These individuals, while "on the run," were often found to be leading exemplary lives--arguably as much as the result of a desire not to be detected, as of the unique opportunity to be reintegrated into a community, which an altered identity affords. Contemporary criminals, by contrast, face the technological advances of fingerprint tracking, DNA analysis, and rapidly growing databases. Without formal rehabilitation, it is much more difficult to achieve civic repentance in today's world, and, I fear, one is even less inclined to try.

While this discussion emphasizes the need to adapt social processes to technological advances, we should not trivialize the significance of criminals who successfully alter their public identities and restructure their lives. Those in hiding can be considered experiments of what might happen if offenders were given a chance at full repentance.

Note that it is not assumed that all or even most offenders will seek to regain the good graces of the community and to be reintegrated into it; it is only suggested that if offenders do seek to embark on such a repenting course--for whatever utilitarian or principled reasons--the lack of civic repentance will make their course harder, furthering the detriment to the community and persons involved.

Support for this analysis of civic repentance comes from the fact that unending social punishment offends our sense of justice. People who have truly repented, our moral sense informs us, have redeemed themselves with respect to a particular violation, and should cease to be judged in light of it. On a personal level, the ethical view that instructs us to "do unto others as we would have done unto us" allows us to conceive of a life in which we are ourselves subject to unjust treatment and excessive--above all, interminable--penalties; this empathy increases our awareness of the moral merit of finding or evolving a vehicle of civic repentance.

In short, then, civic repentance, if it were available when the proper prerequisites were met, promises to be a strong element of a good social order. We expect that it would motivate people to abide by shared mores, and do so at low economic and psychological cost.

Transposing Religious Rituals into a Civic Culture

Repentance in a religious context is a rather clearly understood concept, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition and several others, as the essays collected in this volume show. Yet, as we saw, civic culture contains no explicit definition of repentance nor of the social processes that it requires. We occasionally make loose reference to the idea in a civic sense: for instance, after a reluctant Donald Wubs, thirteen-million-dollar embezzler of a Christian savings club, faced the courtroom and declared, "I admit to the fact that I lied and mislead people," a district judge considered him "repentant" and lightened his sentence.(17) However, to the extent that the term is being applied at all, civic repentance has no generally agreed upon meaning, legitimacy, or above all the needed social specification of the processes that an "ordinary" individual or public leader must undergo to be fully restored to membership in the community. The notion of "rehabilitation" comes close--we say that an offender who has mended his ways is "rehabilitated"--but this term is loaded with other meanings such as physical rehabilitation (the regimen required to get a person up and walking after a crippling illness) and the former Soviet rehabilitation (the ritual of confessing to political transgressions in public, often under the threat of being otherwise shipped off to a labor camp in Siberia or worse). For the sociological reasons already stated, then, it seems evident that the civic society and its members would be better off if the concept of repentance could be more effectively transposed from the religious to the moral culture.

Other religious concepts have made a similar journey of transposition, and have become such an integral part of the civic culture that we often overlook their religious origins and meanings. An example is the notion of "stewardship." In the Christian tradition it embodies the concept that "the Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15); it is the idea that since all of creation belongs to God, and that humans only possess things on a conditional basis, we should be "stewards" of the earth--tend to it--while devoted to the higher purposes of the Lord.(18) Recently, "stewardship" has been used by environmentalists, with little reference to its religious connotations, to refer to our moral obligation to pass the earth on to our children at least not in a worse condition than it was given to us. Organizations that have adopted the idea include the World Stewardship Institute, whose mission is to alter the environmental behavior of the world's international corporations in "benign and restorative" ways, and the Environmental Stewardship Program, which aims at teaching young people ecological terminology and environmental awareness.(19) Likewise, the concept of "reconciliation," found in various religious traditions, is frequently employed by conflict resolution and mediation mavens in the absence of any religious attribution. Gestures of reconciliation, for instance, were attributed to both the Americans and the Japanese in the aftermath of World War II: Japan formally apologized for wartime activities before the United Nations General Assembly, and the United States sought to compensate Japanese Americans who were interned during the war with small, but symbolic, cash payments.(20)

When I write that I favor the transport of repentance from the religious to the civic realm, I do not mean to imply that we should here, too, ignore or deny religious sources. One may well be able to adapt the concept and acknowledge its roots. The concept and the processes it entails, though, will need to be modified to some extent in the process. This is best understood if the elements of religious repentance are examined one at a time.

The Elements of Religious Repentance

What defines repentance? Much of this volume shows that different religions approach repentance in rather different ways. For the purpose at hand, to enhance transposition, I focus on three elements that seem crucial; two are commonly recognized even by those who do not study religious concepts or are otherwise unfamiliar with them, while the third one is surprisingly often overlooked.

True Remorse

Those who seek repentance must first of all show true remorse as a way of paying homage to (i.e., recognizing the legitimacy of) both the mores that they have violated and the fellow members of the community whom they have offended. Without this evidence, the community will not validate the offenders' claims of being ready to abandon their deviant conduct, mend their ways, and seek a return to full membership in the community. Furthermore, those who are not remorseful are viewed as if they offended the community twice: once in whatever offense they have committed, second, by their refusal to acknowledge that mores were violated.

Here a dilemma immediately arises: How can one determine that remorse is true? Many people, when faced with the apologies of politicians, criminals, and even friends and spouses, have doubts as to the motivation behind such expressions. One might think that a possible reason why civic repentance is so rare is that remorse is doomed to be suspect in a world of public relations experts, spin doctors, and a jaded and cynical population. Actually, before passing judgment about the sincerity of remorse, one should recognize a whole range of repentant behavior.

At one extreme are violators of mores who make little effort to disguise their lack of remorse. An example of this is the Menendez brothers during their trial for the murder of their parents. Lyle and Eric claimed that, in effect, the murders were their parents' own fault, that the brothers resorted to the use of machine guns in response to repeated sexual abuse. (No reliable evidence to this effect was presented.) Referring to others who show no remorse, James Q. Wilson describes "youngsters who [commit crimes and] afterwards show us the blank, unremorseful stare of a feral, presocial being."(21)

Many public figures, when caught red-handed, present a Menendez-like defense: to prevent the blame from falling on their shoulders, they attack the laws by which they are charged and the public mores that they violate. President Reagan's former political director Lyn Nofziger, when convicted for using White House contacts for influence-peddling, trivialized his crime (it's "like violating a stop sign") and attacked the law as "lousy" and "stupid."(22)

Such behavior leaves little doubt about the lack of remorse.

Other offenders utter apologies, but with defeating qualifications. In response to accusations of sexual harassment, former senator Bob Packwood said, "Am I sorry? . . . Of course, if I did the things that they say I did."(23) Following his trial, the infamous Oliver North declared that he was repentant--up to a point: lying to Congress was a mistake, but only because maintaining the deception "created a whole bunch of new responsibilities."(24) Former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane remorsefully admitted to deceiving Congress and being involved in the Iran-Contra cover-up, but claimed that he was pleading guilty to four misdemeanors only because a long and costly trial would have made any ultimate victory a hollow one.(25)

Linguist Deborah Tannen reports that her husband said to her one day, "I am sorry I hurt your feelings." But because he was grinning as he spoke these words, this "left open the possibility--indeed strongly suggested--that he regretted not so much what he did but my emotional reaction."(26)

Before continuing, though, one should note that even faked remorse might--at least under some conditions--be better than no remorse at all. Fake remorse shows that the party is at least aware of the community's censure and seeks to make amends, even without truly accepting responsibility for the aggrieving act. The advantage of false remorse stands out when one compares it to brazen displays of unremorseful self-righteousness.

Fortunately, true remorse does have its indicators; on many levels one can find signs that help to validate or invalidate remorse. Prolonged remorse, for example, is more compelling than short-lived remorse. Also, one can draw upon personal knowledge of an individual, as Tannen does when she refers to her husband's grin. While others may not be quite sure what a grin means in this context, Tannen knows him, she writes, as someone who "thinks that the earth will open up and swallow him if he admits fault."(27)

In other cases, the affect of those who express remorse provides a clue: those who fake it sound empty, rehearsed, and unconvincing, while those who are truly sorry seem humbled. A relevant case is that of a sixteen-year-old Maryland boy who was serving time in a juvenile-detention center for the sexual molestation of his nine-year-old sister. When told that his release was contingent upon feeling genuine shame for what he had done, the boy's first response was flippant, nominal, affect-less: "Sorry, Sarah" [name changed]. Yet this was judged to be insincere, and the boy's retention continued. In a following therapy session, the boy dropped to his knees and uttered with much pain, "Sarah, I'm sorry for taking advantage of you. I'm sorry for sexually molesting you. I'm sorry for getting on top of you. I'm sorry for blaming it on you. And I'm sorry for not apologizing last time."(28)

Granted, there is not definitive proof that the second expression was authentic and not conjured up or rehearsed in order to win release. However, it is clear that such expressions are more likely to reflect remorse than the first dismissive reaction, and there is some reason to suggest that even if such remorse is initially produced for self-serving purposes, it may have some rehabilitative effect.

In another example, Lee Atwater, on his deathbed, sought forgiveness from Michael Dukakis for making Willie Horton his running mate, and for other dirty tricks that Atwater employed. Deathbed confessions are often granted special weight, and the same might be said about deathbed remorse. One can of course argue that Atwater became remorseful merely to build up points for his next "campaign," but those who believe that there is an afterlife probably understand that fake remorse is not going to add to their standing in that world. Indeed, Atwater, facing death from brain cancer at age forty, seemed to be seriously consumed by misgiving. All this is not to deny, however, that remorse that is offered when there is little to be directly gained from its expression is often the most convincing of them all.

A final note on the topic of remorse as an element of repentance: With remorse, as in all matters of repentance, there are clear cultural differences. Tannen reminds us that remorse is highly ritualized in Japan, while it is much less a part of Western culture.(29) It is more formal and external in cultures that emphasize shame, but more internal in those that focus on guilt as a mechanism of social control. We can conclude, then, that there is no single process for the expression of remorse by repentant persons, but that most cultures recognize, to some degree, that it is essential to the process of forgiveness.

Doing Penance and/or Making Amends

The second component of repentance involves "paying one's dues." Those who transgress must pay their dues to society by making restitution to the victims and/or to the community; they must be punished and get their "desert." Punishment serves several functions including deterrence (discouraging nonoffenders from offending and the offender from repeating the offense) and making the victims and the community whole (e.g., by exacting financial penalties from the offenders). Punishment also provides structured opportunities to recommit to the values that have been offended.

Careful attention to repentance reveals that the process of punishing offenders often entails making them feel guilty, subjecting them to public criticisms for their offense, and so on. While at the end of successfully completed repentance, there is forgiveness, reconciliation, and reintegration into the community, during the process itself those who repent are made to suffer, which is an element of the penalty. Religious repentance often concurs, with punishments that range from social isolation to self-flagellation.

While not formally committed to remorse, the civic culture is quite clear about the need for punishment, focusing more on the punitive model than on the restorative one. If an offender is properly punished according to the prevailing mores, some members of the community often seem quite satisfied, as if punishment were an end in itself. This optimism is defeated, though, when confronted by the fact that rehabilitation in prison occurs infrequently.(30) Indeed, one might argue that prisons serve as the finishing schools and colleges of crime for young offenders; convicts "graduate" hardened, more committed to a life of crime, and equipped with more criminal skills, knowledge, and contacts than when they entered prison. There are now only the first signs of interest in a rather different model of criminal justice, one that pays attention to ensuring that offenders will be not only punished but also "changed" and reintegrated into the community.(31) Those interested in restorative justice will find the study of repentance of special value.

Restructuring One's Life

Many discussions of repentance include only these two elements, remorse and punishment. Take, for instance, the often told narrative of Canossa, part of religious education for centuries.

Canossa is a castle in northern Italy, made famous by an encounter of longtime enemies, Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV. The background is this: In 1072, the emperor usurped the church's authority by appointing a relative as archbishop. The pope's swift response was to excommunicate the emperor and install another man in the archbishop position. Five years passed. At last, having lost his following, Henry crossed the Alps in midwinter and presented himself to the pope barefoot and in penitent's garb. The emperor spent three days suffering in the inclement weather, at which point he was granted pardon by the pope and restored to his throne. In other words, the emperor was judged to be sincerely repentant by having displayed remorse and being humiliated and exposed to the cold; accordingly, he was forgiven.(32)

A third component, often overlooked, is actually of critical importance: To fully repent, "sinners" must restructure their lives in line with the prevailing mores.(33) It is not enough for an adulterous person to show remorse on Sunday and recite twelve Ave Maria's as punishment; the person must stop committing adultery. Otherwise, the first two elements of repentance will not suffice to reinforce the moral culture; we risk that showing remorse and absorbing penalty will simply become part of the cost of doing whatever crooked business an offender is involved in. In order to avoid this type of truncated repentance, true reintegration must not be granted until a period has passed in which guilty parties have had a chance to demonstrate that they have restructured their lives and themselves.

This element is the one that is most lacking in the civic culture. Take, again, the example of ex-cons. Even if all three conditions of repentance are met--perhaps in the case of a young offender who dealt drugs in college but deeply regretted his misdeeds, served a long jail term, and then, ten years later, has had no new scrapes with the law, holds a legitimate job, pays taxes due, takes care of his children, and does volunteer work--in short, leads an exemplary life in civic terms--that person will still not be fully integrated into society.

This is evident in several ways. In many states a criminal offense is sufficient cause to be denied a license in the occupations of accountant, barber, real estate broker, pharmacist, physician, and embalmer, to name a few.(34) A majority of jurisdictions refuse felons the right to vote or run for public office. Barring the rare examples where offenders are granted legal pardon by the governor or president, or the conviction is overturned, ex-convicts are permanently marked by records that seriously affect their life chances. If ex-cons show on their resumes that they were incarcerated, this is held against them. If they leave a lacuna in their resumes, this raises suspicions. If they lie to try to hide their ex-con status, they are committing a new moral and legal violation of mores.

A point I leave for future deliberations is whether this unending "branding" of violators takes place because the culture lacks rituals of closure that certify one's completed repentance. Many religions may not have such a ritual because they never consider a person free of sin, never completely repentant. One religion that provides some ritual of closure is Judaism: the end of fasting at sundown on Yom Kippur, in a sense, marks the end of that round of atonement; there is no assumption, however, that from then on, the person who atoned is on a different plateau until he or she explicitly sins again.

In summary, while civic culture is rife with punishments and has a few opportunities for showing remorse (especially at sentencing and in some rare opportunities for reconstructive justice), the third, missing, element is the one that is most needed if civic repentance is to be fostered.

Free Will in Religious Versus Civic Repentance

There is much to be gained from transposing the concept of repentance from the religious realm to the civic one, yet it cannot, and need not, be simply a transfer. At issue is an important distinction between religious and civic culture that stems from the built-in assumptions about free will. Several religions have a very complex and nuanced view of the relationship between the person who seeks to repent, and a redeemer--such as in Christianity, Jesus Christ--who elevates the person to be more virtuous than he or she would be otherwise. The specifics of this relationship are critical, for the more a theology relies on the redeemer to attain repentance, the less room there is for free will, individual action, and personal responsibility. Some religions, as essays collected in this volume show, lean fairly far in the direction of presuming some superior force that shapes the direction of our lives. (It is this kind of thinking that inspires the questions, "Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?" and "If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then how could He allow a Holocaust or genocide to take place?") The implicit assumption here is that human beings are relatively powerless to control their fate. No religion, however, intends to provide a blanket exemption to its members that releases them from efforts to abide by mores and contribute to the common good. Hence, complicated formulas have been evolved by various religions according to which people must choose what is "right" in order to be redeemed, yet which allows for the fact that there are limits to the extent to which they can affect their destiny, at least in this world.

Civic culture, especially in the West, tends to be much more voluntaristic. It assumes that people have the ability to control their behavior and that they must take responsibility for their intentions and the consequences of their acts (although it makes various exceptions for categories of people: children, mentally handicapped patients, and people acting in great passion are presumed to be less in control of themselves). True, in recent decades there has been a tendency to draw on the sociological and psychotherapeutic notions of blaming "the system," the parents, the culture, the media, or the government for people's misconduct. But a functional civic culture cannot countenance such deterministic approaches. Therefore, a strong communitarian reaction to "victimology" has been to acknowledge that while there are external factors that mitigate guilt, no one is wholly exempt from taking responsibility for his or her wrongful acts, or from achieving repentance with regard to them. In short, while religious and civic culture's versions of free will are not entirely distinct--religions allow for some free (human) will, and civic culture for some determining factors--the shift of emphasis to the importance of personal responsibility is essential for the transposition of repentance from one realm to the other.

Developing Civic Repentance: Megalogues and Policies

To proceed with the transposition of repentance, two developments must take place. First, we need a moral megalogue on civic repentance. A "moral megalogue" is a moral dialogue projected onto a larger scale; a "moral dialogue" is the process by which we identify shared fundamental values that guide our lives.(35)

One may wonder how societies could possibly come together to affirm a set of values by means of a moral megalogue. The process occurs by linking millions of local conversations (between couples, in neighborhood bars or pubs, in coffee or tea houses, next to water coolers at work) into societywide networks and shared public focal points. The networking takes place during regional and international meetings of many thousands of voluntary associations in which local representatives participate in dialogues; in political party caucuses; and increasingly via electronic links (such as groups that meet on the Internet). Several associations, including the National Issues Forum, the Public Agenda Foundation, and the League of Women Voters are explicitly dedicated to nourishing megalogue.

Megalogues are often fueled, accelerated, and affected by events such as public hearings (the Thomas-Hill hearing focusing attention on what constitutes sexual harassment and the morally proper response to it), trials (the 1925 Scopes trial challenging the teaching of evolution), demonstrations (the efforts to undermine the normative case for the war in Vietnam), and marches (marches in the 1960s to change views on racial discrimination). While fireside chats and other speeches from the "bully pulpit" of the presidency play much less of a role than is often attributed to them, especially when one expects that a president could change the direction of a country with a few well-honed speeches, they do serve to inspire nationwide dialogues. The discussions are often extensive, disorderly (in the sense that there is no clear pattern to them), and have an unclear beginning and no clear or decisive conclusion. Nevertheless, in societies that are relatively communitarian, megalogues lead to significant changes in core values.

A brief illustration will serve. Until 1970, the environment was not considered a shared core value in Western societies (nor in many others). This is not to say that there were not studies, articles, and individuals who saw great value in it; but the society as a whole paid it little systematic heed, and it was not listed among America's core values.(36) As is often the case, a book--Rachel Carson's Silent Spring--triggered a nationwide dialogue.(37) A massive oil spill and the ensuing protests in Santa Barbara, California, and the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant incident further impressed the subject on the national normative agenda. Thousands of people gathered in New York City to listen to pro-environment speeches and to pick up garbage along Fifth Avenue. Two hundred thousand people gathered on the Washington Mall in 1970 to demonstrate concern for the environment on "Earth Day."(38) The same process of moral megalogue could strengthen any one country's commitment to civic forgiveness.

Also necessary for the transposition of repentance are changes in policy; these changes have been little studied and even less often experimented with. We must establish whether it will set back the justice system significantly (there are always a few instances) if criminal records could be "sequestered" after a period of, say, twenty years if the person has no record of having committed additional crimes. I suggest sequestered rather than expunged, because the records should be available under certain circumstances (for instance, if a previous offender has been convicted of a new crime after the given period, before sentencing, it might be proper to reopen the file).

Other policy changes would include full readmission to the rights to vote, run for office, and practice all professions after a given period that may be shorter than the one at the end of which files will be sequestered. The reason rehabilitation should be staggered is to provide a continuous stream of approbations, recognitions, and rewards for those who repent.

The next step would be to deem colleges and places of employment as engaging in discriminatory behavior if they reject ex-cons who have repented by the given standards. No such antidiscriminatory laws seem to currently exist in the United States; not only is it an employer's right to refuse to hire a convicted felon, but in some cases, the employer would be considered legally negligent if employment were offered.(39)

Most difficult would be to change the social connotations of being an ex-con. The sociological record of the way we speak of and view people of different races, gender, sexual orientation, and people with disabilities (among others once considered inferior or deviant), shows that one can largely edit culture through moral megalogue. Only after we develop the concept of civic repentance, highlight the new orientation with said changes in public policy, and accompany these processes with a recognition of the social and personal losses that are inflicted when full repentance is not available--might the elevation of status from "ex-con" to "normal" member of the community be possible. The same holds true for other offenders of the law and mores.


The art of redirecting societies is still a rather primitive one. Societies that seek to correct their course often end up grossly overcompensating in the opposite direction. This is illustrated by public policy debates, which are too often couched in simplistic dichotomous terms. When we debate if we should rely on the private sector or the government, for instance, we ignore huge and important third sectors that include hundreds of thousands of not-for-profit corporations and a similar number of community-based action groups, as well as numerous hybrids. In fact, most successful social entities are some mixture of the three elements--for instance, our best hospitals, universities, museums, and charities. In deliberating repentance, there is a similar danger that we are thinking about it as being lacking or present, rather than being in need of extension (to include the third element of recalibrating one's life and reaching a point of closure). As a result we tend to force the corrections to the corrections system to go overboard.

A demonstration of this is the District of Columbia, which seems to assume repentance is synonymous with time spent in prison, and restores most of the offender's rights as soon as he or she exits the prison door. In the specific field of practicing law, for example, the District of Columbia has no published character and fitness standards, no ban on felony convicts, and no special conditions for applicants with chemical dependencies.(40) Additionally, the District of Columbia restores full franchisement rights upon completion of one's sentence. Thirteen other jurisdictions are similarly quick to do so, including Florida, Nevada, and New Jersey.(41) These local authorities do not fully whitewash the offense, but this is largely because some elements of the process are not under their control; the federal government mandates certain levels of punishments and limits some conditions for parole. The moral message such lax local standards send is that, given half a chance, some authorities would make civic repentance rather easy to acquire, long before ex-offenders have the chance to reconstruct their lives and show that they have been rehabilitated.

The danger of moving from the unavailability of full civic repentance to easily acquired reintegration is the same that arises when repentance is turned into amnesty by which violators' transgressions are wiped out without requiring offenders to go through the three steps of repentance (or when they are allowed to zip through them). France, for one, has an established tradition of granting amnesty to thousands of minor offenders and millions of violators of traffic laws at the time of presidential elections. The result? Significantly increased speeding and parking offenses, plus a sharp increase in the number of deaths on French roads, in election years.(42)

In short, the three elements of repentance serve a dual purpose. They identify the opportunities that ex-offenders should have access to, in terms of opportunities to gain full membership in the community, and they outline the steps that must be undertaken (with no small effort) before repentance can take place. True repentance cannot be attained without genuine remorse, some punishment, and above all, opportunities to show that one's life has been reconstructed. While religious repentance guides the evolution to civic repentance, it will have to evolve in its own way, stressing personal responsibility without ignoring--indeed respecting--forces that exist beyond any one individual.


1. 1. For additional discussion see John Braithwaite, Crime, Shame, and Reintegration (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

2. 2. For the origins of this term, please see The Civic Culture by Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1963). Also of interest may be Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World by Robert N. Bellah (New York: Harper & Row, 1970) 168-189; in this book Bellah defines the now-famous concept of "civic religion."

3. 3. "Hart Unlikely to See Issues-Oriented Campaign," Hotline, 24 August 1995, Senate Watch section.

4. 4. Howard Kurtz, "Ted Koppel Firmly Anchored," Washington Post, 28 May 1996, 2(B).

5. 5. Ibid.

6. 6. Bernard Weintraub, "Of Politics and News: Two Films from Life," New York Times, 15 August 1996, 11(C).

7. 7. Leigh Behrens, "Shortcuts," Chicago Tribune, 9 June 1996, 10.

8. 8. Robert Shogan, "The Jury Is Still Out on Nixon's Place in History," Los Angeles Times, 26 April 1994, 1(A).

9. 9. Ibid.

10. 10. Howard Berkes, "Varying Views and Memories About Richard Nixon," National Public Radio (All Things Considered), 24 April 1994, transcript number 1462-5.

11. 11. Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (New York: Times Books, 1995).

12. 12. David Halberstam, "Dead Wrong," Los Angeles Times Book Review, 16 April 1995, 11.

13. 13. See Dennis Wrong, The Problem of Order (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

14. 14. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (New York: McGraw Hill, 1937); Robert Bellah, The Good Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

15. 15. For a discussion of the way such judgments can be made see Etzioni, The New Golden Rule, chapter 8.

16. 16. For documentation see Amitai Etzioni, A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations, rev. ed. (New York: Free Press, 1975), 28-30.

17. 17. Matt O'Conner, "Head of a Religious Savings Scam Gets Four Years," Chicago Tribune, 26 July 1994, 1(D).

18. 18. Loren Wilkinson et al., Earth Keeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources, ed. Loren Wilkinson (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 75, 224.

19. 19. Internet addresses: http://www.sonic.net/wsi/ and http:www.fourhcouncil.edu/wenvtop.htm.

20. 20. Nicholas Tavuchis, Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1991) 106-8.

21. 21. James Q. Wilson as quoted by John J. DiIulio, Jr., "Stop Crime Where It Starts," New York Times, 31 July 1996, 15(A).

22. 22. Amitai Etzioni, "Say 'I'm Sorry' Like a Man," New York Times, 23 March 1988, 178(B).

23. 23. Wire Reports, "Packwood, In Interview, Still Refuses to Repent," The Baltimore Sun, 11 September 1995, 3(A).

24. 24. Doyle McManus, "Ollie North: Semper FI; Iran Contra: The Former Marine Still Believes in the Reagan Legacy, but His Cloak-and-Dagger World is No More," Los Angeles Times, 24 October 1991, 1(E).

25. Etzioni, "Say 'I'm Sorry,'" 178.

26. 26. Deborah Tannen, "I'm Sorry, I Won't Apologize," New York Times Magazine, 21 July 1996, 6.

27. 27. Ibid.

28. 28. Jonathan Alter and Pat Wingert, "The Return of Shame," Newsweek, 6 February 1995, 21.

29. 29. Tannen, "I'm Sorry," 6.

30. 30. See D. A. Andrews et al., "Does Correctional Treatment Work?," Criminology, 28, no. 3 (1990): 369-87.

31. 31. See Burt Galaway and Joe Hudson, eds., Restorative Justice: International Perspectives (New York: Criminal Justice Press, 1996).

32. 32. Diana Butler, "Dole and Robertson Repeat Mistake Made by King, Pope in 1072," Star Tribune, 28 September 1996, 7(B).

33. 33. The conditions under which mores may be legitimately challenged has already been addressed.

34. 34. David Rudenstine, The Rights of Ex-Offenders (New York: Avon Books, 1979), 171-94.

35. 35. For further discussion see Etzioni, The New Golden Rule, chapter 5.

36. 36. Robin M. Williams, Jr., American Society: A Sociological Interpretation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952).

37. 37. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

38. 38. Marc Mowery and Tim Redmond, Not in Our Backyard: The People and Events That Shaped America's Modern Environmental Movement (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1993), 39.

39. 39. Personal correspondence with Stephen Saltzburg, George Washington Law School professor, 28 September 1996.

40. 40. American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar and the National Conference of Bar Examinations, A Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admissions Requirements 1995-96 (Chicago: American Bar Association, 1995), 6-9.

41. 41. Brian Hancock, ed., Federal Election Commission Journal of Election Administration, vol. 17 (District of Columbia: Federal Election Commission, 1996).

42. 42. "A Quaint Custom," The Economist, 22 April 1995, 50.

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052