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Compassion and the posture of blame

© Andrew Knock (2000)


The ‘posture’ of blame

In this article I want to explore how compassion releases all kinds of prisoners, not by benevolent politics or good works but through transparency and solidarity with the disempowered.

When other people are stripped of power – usually when they are punished or blamed for a crime or wrong, or when they become ill, physically or mentally,  or when they become economically disadvantaged – most of us tend to stand back from them.   The loss of power puts people into sociological prisons, whether or not they are made of concrete and barbed wire or of broken flesh or loneliness and poverty.   Rather than reach out to them and remove the more damaging effects of the prison walls, we so often adopt a posture towards them which adds extra invisible walls of rejection and personal distance. 

We reinforce – unwittingly or perhaps intentionally – the prisoner’s sense of responsibility for his or her condition, the sense of being blamed: "No one else is acknowledging responsibility, so it must all be my fault."  It is this behaviour towards imprisoned people that I am calling the posture of blame.

Paradoxically, professionals in caring organisations can sometimes operate like officers in a penal system without being aware of it.  They have a very real power to help, bringing medical, therapeutic, economic and socialising skills to trapped people.   But it is a condition of using these skills that the person receiving them freely agrees to be passive.  Otherwise – if the help is imposed unilaterally by an ‘expert’ – it diminishes freedom for the one already in some way imprisoned, and increases dependency and a self-perception of inferiority.     Freedom is one of the core values implied by a primary commitment to forgiveness.

Of course, people can also damage the disempowered, imprisoned and outcast in many other ways as well.  What concerns me in this article is how people who are in a position to help them in fact hurt them.  I am using the word 'posture' deliberately here to denote a unilateral attitude – usually adopted by professionals – which gives a sense of role, identity and satisfaction to the 'helper.'  It means viewing the prisoner or helpless person solely within certain labels and terms.  Sometimes it is a habit, a sense of self, which professional carers carry into their marriages, families, and other social interactions, much to the irritation of their family members and friends.   Religious ministers seem particularly prone to this, as they seek to find meaningful roles in collapsing institutions.


Can there ever be an ‘innocent’ onlooker?

I want to first turn to our behaviour towards wrongdoers.  When faced with an example of someone else’s improper or illegal behaviour, whether displayed in the public media, or within their own smaller institution and/or group, most people exhibit a strong, apparently instinctive desire to blame and punish.  What the offender did may have no direct bearing on me at all, yet what he or she did has been labelled ‘wrong’ by other persons in authority, or by custom or a rulebook, and so I join in the herd-like reaction of pointing a finger, accusing – or at least accusing behind the offender’s back – and so on. 

There is a famous scene in the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the stoning of an old man for saying ‘Jehovah’, which for an audience reared in church congregations is made even more provocative and close to the bone by presenting a crowd of stoners comprised entirely of women dressed as men (and paradoxically played by male actors).  For some of us there seems to be a horrible glee in finding someone who can be ‘rubbished’ and ‘stoned’, without any apparent demand on us to help the offender back into the community or to make a new beginning elsewhere. 

And even if we don’t feel glee, the rest of us will usually take comfort from watching someone else suffer punishment or humiliation, and feel either reassuringly that ‘justice works’ or that ‘at least I turned out better than him/her’.  Being an onlooker at someone else’s demise is such a familiar experience for most of us that we scarcely think to question the morality of occupying such a role. 

In Life, the Universe and Everything (volume three of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)  Douglas Adams dreamed up a ‘Someone Else’s Problem’ Field.  This cloaked its spaceship or whatever with an invisibility based not on a physics of light, but on a physics which conveyed to people that the appearance of the craft was definitely somebody else’s problem, and therefore could be ignored:

The Somebody Else's Problem field is much simpler and more effective (than making something  invisible), and what is more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery.  This is because it relies on people's natural predisposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain.   (Complete edition, Hitch Hiker's Guide, p 335)   

The philosopher Stanley Cavell, in his great essay on Shakespeare's King Lear, The Avoidance of Love (in the collection Must we mean what we say?), explored the pleasure in being (allowed to be) an onlooker and voyeur as a definitive one in Western culture, a pleasure which theatre, concert and cinema intensifies more than television because it is entered in company with many other ‘normal’ people.

This does not often become so self-serving as to be called as sadism, but many people find pleasure and satisfaction in another’s punishment.  The glee of the British tabloid press either exacerbates or expresses this delight.  Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof notices that our global society ‘places a premium on revenge’:

Increasingly sentencing by a court is no longer enough; people want a personal role in the act of retribution. Several states (in the US) have even introduced legislation that gives murder victim’s families the right to be present at executions. (The lost art of forgiving, p 67)

Arnold quotes Bill Chadwick, whose son Michael was killed at twenty-one in a car crash when being recklessly driven by an acquaintance heavily over the alcohol safety limit.  Michael's best friend was also killed; the driver escaped with minor injuries:

I guess that I had bought into the belief that, somehow, things would be different after the driver had been brought to justice.  We think that if there is someone to blame, then we can put the matter to rest ... (But I found) no amount of punishment could even the score.  I had to be willing to forgive (the driver) without the score being even.   And this process of forgiveness did not really involve the driver – it involved me.   Ultimately it was my inability to forgive myself that was the most difficult.   There were many times in my own life I had driven Michael places when I myself was under the influence of alcohol.  My anger at other people was just my own fear turned outward.  (op cit pp 65-6)


What justifies punishment?

Duncan Forrester, Director of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Theology and Public Issues, brought together a group of judges, prison governors, prison chaplains and others connected with the judicial process to examine the ethic of punishment in our society, both practically for success and failure, and theoretically for its underlying motivation and spirituality.   Their 1991 report, called "The End of Punishment", authored by Chris Wood, strengthens or reinforces many of the ideas and approaches emphasised and developed on this website, and includes these observations:

To punish means to cause suffering.  Many books have been written, and arguments been raised, about the possible justifications for punishment.   Because punishment is unpleasant, because it is uncomfortable, society needs to feel that it is justified.  Is there a possible theological justification for punishment?

The reality of punishment in our experience of the criminal justice system is that:

  • it does not deter effectively;
  • it antagonises offenders and excludes them from society;
  • it creates scapegoats, and bonds society together against offenders;
  • it often hinders offenders from confronting their offending effectively;
  • instead it forces them to deal with the punishment inflicted upon them;
  • it may encourage the baser instincts of society;
  • it creates feelings of frustration, anger, and humiliation in offenders.

Whatever the philosophical or legal or moral cases that can be advanced for punishment, we have found that the criminal justice system is in fact a system of social control, heavily punitive, and very concerned with blaming, scapegoating, and exclusion.  Much punishment is about maintaining boundaries between "us" and "them" – criminals, dangerous offenders, or whatever. 

The wrath of the community is visited upon the wrongdoer. (pp 69-70)

The group then returned to the issue of whether there can ever be an ‘innocent’ onlooker:

Possibly the most telling story in the New Testament bearing on our concern with offending and punishment is that of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53, et seq.)

The woman was brought to Jesus and there was no doubt as to her guilt; the penalty appears to have been death by stoning.  The response to her offending – underlining a point that recurs throughout this section on theological exploration – was Jesus’ remark, ‘Let him that is without sin cast the first stone’.  It is also worth bearing in mind another teaching of Jesus to the effect that you do not necessarily have to do the deed to be as good as guilty: he spoke on another occasion of man ‘already having committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew, 5:28).  So the standard Jesus sets of what is wrong is a very high one, but there is an even higher standard about the right to punish.

In the story about the woman, no one did cast the first stone.  But the story did not finish there.  There is no question of Jesus undermining either the law or questioning the prescribed penalty.  He affirms the law, but does not condemn the offender.  He simply says, ‘go and sin no more’.  Justice and forgiveness are intended to lead to a change of life style!  That is the nature of divine justice. (p 75)

Alan Paton put this very acutely in Too Late the Phalarope:

An offender can be punished.  But to punish and not to restore, that is the greatest of all offences … If a man takes unto himself God’s right to punish, then he must also take upon himself God’s promise to restore. (pp 264-5)

Some of the ways in which non-penal institutions adopt a punishing posture towards their members or ex-members include:

  • ejecting an offender from a community and maintaining boundaries
  • abandoning the offender, placing him or her in isolation or in the ‘village stocks’
  • walking by on the other side, both literally and metaphorically
  • and also providing a rationale for the avoidance and abandonment, when speaking to others or inside one’s group, by labelling the offender as ‘beyond help’, reducing the offender to his or her visible faults, or even demonising the offender  (see my article Good judgement and bad judgement).


The heart of compassion solidarity in sin

In most cases the simple yet great step that would have initiated aspects of forgiveness was simply talking to the offender, who is invariably rendered even more powerless by his or her rejection and abandonment: talking to the offender rather than talking about him or her, exploring with him or her what would lead to the ‘change in lifestyle’ Forrester’s group speak of, and assisting him or her to take some of those new steps, whether by practical aid or through discussion.  Simone Weil wrote that, in the medieval Grail legend, the one who is worthy to take the Grail, the cup of Christ, is the one who, on finding it, does not take the divine power for himself or herself but turns to its guardian (a sick king) and shows compassion for him.

But then we should realise that compassion springs from a readiness to acknowledge (publicly) a basic solidarity in sin.  The word com-passion means ‘feeling-with’: it is a quality of relationship among equals who know they are equals, who know that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23) even though this offender is the most recent or the most public.   Compassion is not the action of a do-gooder towards those whom one believes deep down are in some way inferior or more sinful.  The measure of compassion is not how much external help you achieve, but how ready you are to acknowledge your own offences and wrongs. 

Adrian Hastings speaks wisely of a ‘community of guilt’:

We need to recognise that it is an inevitable part of our moral being as humans that we are sinners, sharing every one of us in a quality of guiltiness.  It is from within a community of the guilty that we have to approach guilt, not as people who stand outside or think that it is even possible to stand outside.  There is no us and them ... We may then be empowered to help others discover another community far beyond guilt, a community of the genuinely humane, of hope, of forgiveness, of love.  Theologically, the universality of guilt is but the backdrop to the universality of forgiveness. (The Shaping of Prophecy pp 173-74)

Because ‘humility’ can so easily be mis-represented simply as a passive quality like shyness, a better way to understand what is the opposite of pride - always the cardinal sin - is to understand it as compassion.   Splanchnizomai – one of the New Testament words for compassion – is applied only to Jesus and conveys his readiness to be stopped in his tracks by the suffering of others, except in three cases when he used it himself in parables.  Strikingly they are the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18.27), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.33), and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.20). 

The response to someone’s confession of sin, or even the accusation of their offence, can be to point the finger, and keep pointing – or it can be to initiate, to confess one’s own sinfulness alongside the offender’s, and stand in solidarity with him or her, expressing a hope and belief in mercy and forgiveness which the offender – by himself or herself and without that life-giving solidarity - will almost certainly lose, becoming (in Paul’s precise phrase) "overwhelmed by excessive sorrow." (2 Corinthians 2.7


When caring becomes a posture

In the caring professions, counselling, listening and diagnosis all require detachment and objectivity, and often an imaginative empathy which is a rare and precious gift.   When counselling is provided in a mutually agreed environment and contract, it is a good, helpful and sometimes even a transforming endeavour, and I have no desire to belittle this kind of freely undertaken relationship. 

But as I noted at the beginning of this article, sometimes the power given by the roles can become a posture with some striking similarities to the posture of the stone-thrower.   This happens when counselling turns into a habit that is imposed on a client or even a friend in order to ‘help’ him or her, regardless of whether they have agreed to seek help in this way. 

This posture is particularly inappropriate when a carer is faced with someone being punished or blamed by others, for whom most powers have been removed and whose confidence and ability to help himself or herself has radically diminished.  Ironically, the desire to ‘help’ turns into a reinforcement of blame.  For an offender or sick person with markedly diminished powers, the inability to help oneself becomes - through the 'advice' of the self-appointed counsellor - an additional implication of guilt.  As we will see below, Job’s comforters provide a salutary illustration of this.

The notable US pastor Francis Frangipane gave a vivid description of what I am calling the ‘counselling posture’:

And let me tell you what ‘discernment’ is not:  People get into a position, where they lean in and say slowly, "I sense ... that there is something wrong ... under the surface."  Doesn’t it sound spiritual?  But how many of you have something wrong under the surface? Of course there’s something wrong under the surface!  The surface is wrong, on top is wrong … that’s no revelation, that’s no gift, to say there’s something wrong under the surface!!

Paul said, "I pray that your love may abound in real knowledge and all discernment (Philippians 1.9)."  We don’t even have real discernment until we have abounding love.  Abounding love shows us what God wants to do – not just what is wrong but how God wants us to correct it.  (Taped address TACF, 3.5.97)

Because so many members of the caring professions in the UK are middle-class, they have the basic freedoms and power to make significant changes in their lives, as and when seems appropriate.  Consequently ideas about helping another in need tend to be formed and expressed in terms of this power dynamic and an assumed self-help ethic.   ("Surely you will quote this proverb to me, Physician, heal yourself!" Luke 4.23) 

Well-meaning people tend to see help for another in terms of encouraging them towards self-analysis and self-powered career steps or relationship steps.  The underlying assumption is that both helper and helped, counsellor and counselled, share much the same level of empowerment and the same self-help ethic.

I was very struck, listening to Lesley Chamberlain provide an 'end-of-century' assessment of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams on Radio 3 (Sunday 24 October 1999), by the prosperous and luxurious position from which she could speak.  No matter for her that Freud’s own clinical work has been shown to be so disastrous, or that his claim to scientific method has been undermined.  She enthused about his analyses by comparing them with constructing and appreciating an imaginative art form, like poetry and reading into a poem, pleasurable in its own right.  A very post-modern perspective.  And one anticipated by W H Auden in his poem In Memory of Sigmund Freud (d. Sept. 1939), collected in Another Time:

He wasn't clever at all: he merely told

    the unhappy Present to recite the Past

like a poetry lesson till sooner

    or later it faltered at the line where


long ago the accusations had begun,

    and suddenly knew by whom it had been judged,

how rich life had been and how silly

    and was life-forgiven and more humble ...

Fair enough, if you have autonomy and some degree of power, health and wealth.   For some people a Freudian approach can be valuable.  But it's not one to be imposed or applied to everyone.  It is useless if you need powerful help from others, including what I have called active forgiveness.  Saying, "Sort yourself out," "Stop feeling sorry for yourself," or even "Go away and find an analyst," is almost exactly how Job’s comforters responded to him.  It assumes a level of confidence, power and initiative that for a growing number of us is not there, or has been stripped away.

For the economically and medically disadvantaged in Britain, whether through background, class or unemployment, a different kind of approach to help is needed.    As I have tried to set out in the article The power to initiate forgiveness, people with genuine power are needed as initiators of new possibilities. The recent example in the UK of Chancellor Gordon Brown deciding to make computer internet access available to the poorer families in the country at £5 a month illustrates this. 

Abuses of power can often creep into the very idea of helping someone in need, when well-meaning carers choose to adopt a counselling posture towards the needy person.    For example, one of the great misuses of power that a ‘counsellor’ can take is to keep people being counselled in the dark about one another, making encouraging noises to all parties.  Adopting this posture of benevolence, as a self-appointed counsellor, makes it even harder for the powerful middle-class to enter into solidarity with the needy, who almost always believe themselves to be failures, at fault, sinful and punished by life, and to say to them, "We stand with you as sinners also, hoping for mercy and new life."  

In The Stature of Waiting, W H Vanstone profoundly explored the way God did not say to humanity, "Sort yourself out," "On your bike and get a job," or even "Go away and find an analyst," but entered into solidarity with the needy, the victims, the passive who have lost the ability to help themselves. 

But by focussing advice towards steps in self-help, the posture of ‘benevolent’ counselling inevitably implies that, just as the solution lies in the trapped, abandoned, ill, imprisoned person achieving release, so too the cause of the imprisonment etc. lies in that person’s action.  In other words, help that is imposed rather than freely agreed to, help that serves the helper’s needs or arrogance, concentrates the power of helping in a single, individualistic framework rather than applying power to institutional wrongs, injustices and abuses. 

One of the signs of this tendency is a facile use of transferred questions.  For example, when a client tries to describe how the behaviour of the representative of an economic power or institution has damaged them, it is usually good to ask, "How did that make you feel?" etc.  But if counsellors ask, "Why do you think he/she did that?" they can easily convey to an already vulnerable client that the 'problem' is the client's failure to understand the powerful institution, rather than the failures of the powerful.  Often it's both, of course, and much more ... but when counselling fails to accommodate and explore both, and concentrates on the client alone, it can quickly become abusive.

It can also subtly affirm the counsellor as a person of power when he or she feels disempowered. This tendency is explored well in Clint Eastwood’s recent movie True Crime, in which a prison chaplain fabricates a confession from a condemned inmate on death row, in order to make himself appear to the authorities (and to himself) to be relevant and successful at ministering to the inmate, who has previously rejected his ‘ministry’.


‘Job’ how not to counsel

Russ Parker, a director of the Acorn Trust and Christian Listeners, wrote tellingly of Job’s friends as self-appointed counsellors, in his book Free to Fail:

This story of Job could almost be subtitled "How not to counsel."  Job’s friends’ failure in ministry was basically a breakdown in their ability to really listen to Job and not necessarily have any answers but to stay in touch with his pain.   As Job complains of his inability to cope with the unrelenting pain and his longing for a swift death to end it all he confesses, "Do I have the power to help myself, now that success has been driven from me?" (Job 6.13) (p 127)   Job, in fact, stated that one of his greatest desires was that his friends would really hear what he was saying: "Listen carefully to my words: let this be the consolation you give me." (21.2) (p 140)  It becomes more and more apparent that the friends cannot face their own failure, and they respond in varying degrees; they either accuse Job of rebellion or satisfy themselves that he is under the judgement of God and nothing so more can be said. (p 123)

Eliphaz illustrates one source of failure in ministry, the fact that we start with the assumption of what is wrong and see ‘our need’ as moving the other through a procedure by which we feel they will arrive at our predetermined destination of blessing.   This becomes paramount for the counsellor, who soon completely loses sight of any ability to be in touch with the client’s pain and trauma.  Yet what determination Job shows in refusing to repent of things he honestly believes do not refer to him.  He is not claiming to be sinless either; he is basically saying that his sins amount to the same as is common to all men and therefore they do not explain why he is suffering so horrifically.  The kindly Eliphaz responds by openly accusing Job of letting his sins run away with him: " a man who is vile and corrupt, who drinks up evil like water" (15.16); "you stripped men of their clothing, leaving them naked.  You gave no water to the weary … you sent widows away empty-handed and broke the strength of the fatherless." (22.6-10) … Eliphaz allows himself to be more concerned about his own ability to minister to this friend than being of real help to a man in personal agony. (pp 134-5)

Theodore Robinson (in Job and his friends, SCM p 80) sees Bildad undergoing a kind of metamorphosis as he listens to Job’s outcries.  He notes how people who are naturally kind and sympathetic can be stirred emotionally into opposition and almost hatred by a shock to their feelings and a denial of their creed.  This is an all too common feature of our ministry.  When those whom we seek to help inadvertently challenge our own beliefs by the honesty or forcefulness of their own sharing, we feel compelled to defend our own agendas.  In doing so we lose sight of the very reason we are there, which is to help them. (p 136)

I am struck here by another parallel with Freud, who although proposing that the analyst suggest interpretations which it is up to the patient to use or reject depending upon whether they seem to unlock neurosis or not, in fact often insisted the patient accept his own interpretations as ‘right.’ 


Professional pride inhibits solidarity

In the middle-class, bourgeois world-view, pride is actually not seen as the cardinal sin at all, but an unspoken shared motivation in a success-driven ethic.   In the bourgeois world-view, citizens define themselves by their professions, rather than acknowledging their personal complexities, their mixtures of competence and incompetence, skill and failure. When we meet a stranger, we ask, "What do you do?" rather than, "Tell me the story of your spirit."

Because the emphasis is on doing, on achieving, on measuring people by what they have done, it is also easy and comfortable to concentrate on sins of commission, visible mistakes and wrongs which people make in public. There will be very little understanding in this world-view of the abuse of power by ‘sins of omission’.    

In a jealous, competitive environment, we use the visible sins and misfortunes of others to exalt ourselves (as the Pharisee said, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector." Luke 18.11), often subtly rather than explicitly.  To accept and to operate within a success-driven ethic and institution, whether a school or an industry or a church, implicates us in a web of sins of omission – hidden sins of pride, envy, cowardice, malice, gossip, back-biting, inertia, avoidance, etc.  And how like a quote from one of Paul’s letters that list sounds!)

The additional cost to the powerful of standing in solidarity with the needy or disempowered is that of transparency.  In the posture of blame, I do not need to disclose my own failures, fears and fragilities.  In a position of solidarity, I give them to you, believing this will be of help, placing you however briefly in a position of power towards me, admitting my own hope for help for us both. 

A simple example of this kind of transparency was contained in a message from a friend and professional colleague a while back:

"Thank you for your lengthy message with news of you all. It makes such sad reading.  I do not know where to start in response.  So I’ll start by saying simply that I am still here ... we are still here ... by the grace of God it must be.  I still have my job, my wife, my children.  I believe at this moment that things will get better, though I realise I have a lot still to do to restore better relationships. My mind and emotions have been on a helter-skelter these last five months ... Very different, no doubt, from your experiences, but perhaps there is some little overlap along the way.

"It sounds like hell where you are ...  I have no great words of comfort or consolation, for you or for your wife.  I feel very sad for you both.  And I hope, yes I do hope very much, that you will come in time to a place of rest and peace and green pasturing rather than this present arid, wasteland survival ... and that your children will gain sure footholds in their learning, loving and living." 

I remember entering a hospital ward many years ago, as a very green hospital chaplain, and sitting with a middle-aged man who was facing major heart surgery and believed he would die during the operation.  He asked me to explain why God wanted him to die.   I hesitated, wondering what form of religious theology would best speak to him.  

All I could do with to tell him about my own father’s years of suffering with heart disease, and the awful diminishment of personality he experienced when his heart stopped for several minutes during an operation yet he was resuscitated.  My father died (fully) six months later.

I felt out of my depth with this patient, but warmed to him.  He told me very emotionally that my words had given him a courage and trust when years of listening to sermons about heaven had not.  And he survived the operation.


God’s transparency to Job

Perhaps the greatest example in literature of this transparency and solidarity is that of God’s self-revelation to Job, at the end of the Old Testament book of that name (chapters 38-41).   Although Job is humbled by God’s enormous words to him, he also recognises and lives in a real "I-Thou" relationship with God which his friends have failed completely to understand or to hope for.  Like the visitor who came to Martin Buber and triggered the Jewish thinker’s understanding of "I-Thou" relationships, Job expects God to be real to him.  Nothing less will do. 

As we have seen above, all the mannered forms of counselling which his friends try to bring to his situation are irrelevant.  When your life is largely destroyed in its material and practical terms, you want people to be real, not to adopt a counselling posture.   You want solidarity ... and – where possible – practical help, restoration, restitution or some empowerment for a new venture.

In God’s final speech to Job, God does not answer Job’s questions but speaks from his own heart, just as Job has done.  He tells of his deeds, the immensity of what concerns him. He takes Job at his own level and tells him something of the story of what it’s like being God … and in doing so, in sharing his heart with Job, overwhelming and blindingly immense as it may seem to us, he declares himself to be with and alongside Job.  He does not ignore Israel’s values of family, prosperity, material success – but he places them as secondary compared to wanting a real relationship with himself.

A lot of people suffer cruelty at the hands of others.  Even good people, as well as institutions, can inflict extraordinary cruelty on others.  Karl Barth’s maxim, "The more successfully the good and the right assume concrete form, the more they become evil and wrong - summum jus, summa injuria," applies, sadly, to many well-intentioned people and organisations.  We often don’t even notice it in ourselves. 

The readiness to say, "I am a sinner, too," is a good indicator of the solidarity that is the antidote to such cruelty.  For the powerless and those who have lost power, the first steps in the resolution of suffering do not lie in self-help procedures but in the depth of fellowship, honesty, transparency shown to them by others, and thereby also through vulnerable companionship or solidarity.   n


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