Speaking of accomodation

This interview on revenge and forgiveness, from NPR’s Speaking of Faith, is a disaster throughout.  To summarize: Michael McCullough argues that revenge and forgiveness are best understood via their social/evolutionary roots and implications.  Revenge is natural and understandable via this framework, as is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is in our self-interest as it makes us more likely to be successful in the end, more able to cooperate in the face of others’ failings, better able to build society and make progress.  As we grow in understanding it will become increasingly clear that forgiveness is in our species’ self-interest, and the way forward to creating a more peaceful society is to tap into our evolutionarily-trained capacity for forgiving.

Particularly disturbing is the discussion of Bud Welch, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma City bombings, who came to forgive McVeigh, spoke against his execution and continues to be an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.  McCullough seems to argue that Welch’s forgiveness is explainable in terms of his recognition of shared self-interest with McVeigh’s father in caring for their children.  No mention or explanation of the obvious counter-cultural nature of Welch’s stance is made.  (Welch can speak for himself; find some links here, including his statement on the McVeigh execution.)

Perhaps worse is the discussion of forgiveness in the conflicts in northern Uganda, which is discussed mainly as arising out of fatigue and attrition.

Some selections from the interview.  First from Tippet’s introduction:

Krista: This hour, we bring the lofty moral concepts of revenge and forgiveness down to earth…  Western religious and therapeutic mindsets have come to imagine revenge as a disease that can be cured by civilization. It hasn’t been seen as a natural, biologically driven impulse to which we all remain prone under certain circumstances. And at the same time, the seemingly colder eye of evolutionary biology has analyzed ruthlessness as an advantage in the relentless arc of the survival of the fittest. Forgiveness in both of these scenarios is a rare transcendent quality, a cure for revenge albeit one that would never help human beings really triumph.

McCullough on the evolutionary underpinnings of forgiveness:

Mr. McCullough: You can’t get organisms that are willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen despite the roadblocks and the bumps along the way if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes. Sometimes if we’re cooperatively hunting ― let’s say we’re some sort of animal, that we’re some sort of animal that works together to hunt ― sometimes I’m going to let you down. And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake. And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done. So, really, our ability, and across the animal kingdom many animals’ ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that they can’t do on their own is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.

And both in the only passage that touches with any concreteness on forgiveness as linked to any particular faith tradition.

Ms. Tippett: Something that I’ve been aware of also is that this word “forgiveness” I think has a really Christian ring in many ears. But, um, I’ve been very intrigued at, uh, you know, I remember speaking with a Holocaust survivor who said that, you know, for him the word “forgiveness” just didn’t do it and it has this cultural connotation of forgive and forget, but the Jewish phrase “repair the world” compels him in the same way he feels the word “forgiveness” compels Christians.

Mr. McCullough: I like that. I like that. I wish we could come up with a completely new word for what this human trait is.

I am extremely doubtful that McCullough’s arguments explain the forgiveness pictured in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or (though I am not knowledgeable enough to judge) most other faith traditions.  Rather I think he at best can explain a fairly weak and limited forgiveness.  I’m unqualified to comment on the merits of his social/evolutionary arguments (and I haven’t read his book); they may be useful in some ways.  I’d like, instead, to note what’s happening in this interview.

Tippett states their program from the outset: to bring lofty moral concepts down to earth.  And this is what they do, though likely not in the sense Tippett means.  Forgiveness leaves the realm of moral imperative and is justified in terms of its usefulness and effectiveness for our security and self-interest.  In the second quote above (and elsewhere in the interview), McCullough re-motivates forgiveness along lines of social self-interest and progress.  These are lines not based in any religious tradition’s approach to forgiveness, and, I suspect, not strictly in evolutionary biology either.  Rather these are lines founded in something that looks a lot more like the American democratic project, like democracy, capitalism and nationalism tempered by a slight nod towards the fact that solely pursuing immediate self-interest is not always the best way to secure self-interest and security in the long run.  Whence Tippett’s “help[ing] human beings really triumph.”  Resources for forgiveness are no longer to be found in any outside moral authority, but instead are already within us, waiting to be tapped in to.  In their momentary foray into Judeo-Christian speech regarding forgiveness we see explicitly the desire to unmoor this universal human potential from grounding in the particularities of any faith tradition. 

The overall project here is accommodation.  It is the pacification of forgiveness.  It is to take what was hard and foreign (not lofty, or expected only of the great, Krista, at least not in the Judeo-Christian tradition!) and make it acceptable and natural within the world of the listeners.  It is to confirm the listener in what he or she in already doing while sending out warm, fuzzy encouragement to do a little bit more because, deep down inside, you want to and it will be better for you in the end.  The end product is a vision of forgiveness that looks, on the one hand, weak and toothless and, on the other, (despite Tippett’s obliging attempt to help McCullough dance around this near the end of the interview) utopian.  For those of us who are people of faith this vision is obviously wholly untrue to our traditions.  For those of you who aren’t, I have a hard time seeing why such a vision is ultimately appealing or convincing.

It seems like Tippett, after spending so much time speaking of faith, should be able to do better.  But maybe a critical attitude is never a part of Speaking of Faith.  One wonders if this habit of accommodation, on the other hand, is.

8 Responses to “Speaking of accomodation”


  1. 1 Lauren December 22, 2008 at 11:35 am

    So I don’t have an argument for ya, but I do have some thoughts.

    As a baseline, please let us take that this was a bad episode. So I’m going to talk about why I like SOF in general, not try to justify a bad episode.

    1. SOF listens to people of faith from where they are, rather than trying to convert anyone. As someone who felt burned by over-zealous conversion theology growing up, this is healing for me.
    2. SOF introduces the audience to mighty people of faith. It’s only an hour long, and suffers the level of complexity possible in an hour (though I think in general it does a nice job introducing complexity into the discussion), but Tippett has done the hard work of figuring out who is a major person in a different religion that should be listened to. If the listener is intrigued, the website is there guiding him/her to what has been written by that person. This is how I became introduced to Majora Carter, who is now a major figure in environmental, sustainability efforts in blighted urban areas. I want to know more about other religions–this gives me a quick way to become acquainted with major figures.
    3. Tippett does a nice job of letting the interviewee speak for him/herself. She’s not trying to get them to say what she wants to hear, but rather draw our their point of view on a variety of subjects. For this episode, the failure is more this scientist’s shadowy theory of forgiveness than it is Tippett. (Granted she does sound like she agrees, but having listened to many episodes, I think that is her way of drawing out the interviewee).
    4. It is waaaaay better than the Guideposts style of inter-faith discussion. There all differences between denominations and Christian/Jewish/agnostic are smoothed away into a bland presentation of vaguely super-natural experiences and people who are generally good/have an interesting story. Tippett does not expect her interviewees to ignore or paint over hard parts of theology. But neither is she interested in an argument over theology.
    5. Maybe that last bit gets at why I really like the show–there aren’t any arguments. I’m so much more a fan of interested discussion, even when you don’t agree, than hard-hitting, I’m right you’re wrong discussion. To me, this doesn’t mean the show in general (remember my base assumption) suffers from a lack of critical perspective, though maybe it does to you.

  2. 2 withastone December 24, 2008 at 12:14 am

    I quickly read the transcripts of the last 4 SOF episodes to get a larger sample size. I think the forgiveness episode was a poor episode, but I still think the approach demonstrated there is indicative of some things about the show as a whole.

    Some responses to your points:

    On 1 & 5: There’s a huge space for critical perspective outside overzealous conversion/I’m-right-you’re-wrong. I think it can happen via something with the flavor of interested discussion that could still be appealing. (Perhaps you disagree?) But I don’t see it happening on SOF. Can you point me to a spot where Tippet has significantly disagreed with a guest, questioned a conclusion, standpoint, assumption, or introduced a dissenting opinion? Something along these lines would be critical perspective and I think this can be done in a non-hostile way. As far as I can tell, this is quite rare on SOF. Are we sure she isn’t cultivating the pleasant atmosphere of the show by basically shirking her responsibility as an interviewer?

    On 3: I agree that she lets the guest speak for him or herself (in fact, she usually just sounds like an extension of the interviewee). But does she do anything to force the guest to refine opinions or comments, meet challenges to his or her position? And when a guest’s position consists in denigrating the faith and praxis of others (as with Bud Welch or the Ugandans in the forgiveness episode) where the heck is she? I disagree that the problem with the forgiveness episode was primarily due to the guest’s opinions (which, like I said, I am not really expert enough to critique). I’m sticking to my guns here: That entire interview was constructed to pacify a religious concept for the audience’s easy consumption and Tippet did everything she could to help this project along. That’s the real problem.

    On 2: I agree that she finds interesting folks, only some of which I would describe as mighty people of faith.

    On 4: Fine, but I’m still not convinced that she’s not basically selling faith as a universally human potential for self- and community-improvement, which is, maybe in some ways, not so far off your description of Guideposts?

    A question for you: You said in your post that sometimes SOF is the only thing that makes you feel connected to the faith community. What faith community does SOF connect you to? Who are its members, what is asked of them, what commitments do they make, what responsibilities do they have to one another, what defines a shared identity?

  3. 3 Lauren December 27, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Hmmmm, Let me try to respond.

    There are many levels of interested discussion that are outside of the extremism of conversion or accomodation. I am perhaps more comfortable with discussion that roams around the positive aspects of a thing rather than criticizing the negative aspects. For example, the episode on Studs Terkel didn’t really get into how biased he was in his interviews (being a socialist, he sought out subject matter that highlighted class oppression), but it did include some of his wonderful insights and great stories he told. Why is this ok with me? (asking myself)…in my classroom I would demand a more critical attitude. Perhaps I find it restful to give up that critical perspective for an hour a week?

    I will agree with you that some of her episodes suffer from mushiness–then I just stop listening. I think one of the places where critical thinking comes in is the way the whole show is constructed. Long time listeners get a wide range of perspectives and can construct their own opinions.

    Perhaps SOF does lack a critical perspective–but can you suggest an alternative where I can learn as broadly about different faiths in a succinct way, without a lens of conversion, as this show?

    Tippett does not ignore suffering. She does not ignore the places where faiths and theologies are incompatible. She does come to each interview with a lot of respect for those she interviews–including someone she probably disagrees with a lot (like Rick Warren). In the Rick Warren episode she stuck with the places that would lead to fruitful discussion (like their activism on Aids in Africa) rather than places that would lead to dead end discussions. I think I do remember her challenging them on some things, but I’m not sure. She also had two episodes this semester–one from a Republican and one from a Democrat–exploring the ways faith interacts with politics.

    I just don’t find a lot of other models for fruitful discussion in this world of ours–mostly we stay inside our own boxes and talk to others who agree with us. I’m so afraid of conflict, maybe the gentle way that Tippett does address disagreement suits me better than it would someone more comfortable with conflict.

    As to your last question…I think I said (or meant) that SOF keeps me positively connected to the idea of faith. I almost never find sermons I sit through emotionally, intellectually, or religiously satisfying. Somehow, I often find SOF episodes thus. Perhaps this will seem strange to you, given how I much I have just conceded to your points. I’m sorry I can’t explain it better. Perhaps it is that whole thing that I scored exactly in the middle when it came to thinking/feeling on my personality test–there is enough emotion, and enough thoughtfulness, in SOF episodes to satisfy me.

    All the Christians in my life also keep me connected to a faith community–and indeed are my emotional community, for whom I am abundantly grateful–but more often than not I am the lone voice of discontent (I will not say dissent, since my whole relationship to faith is so a-intellectual). And for all our years of bible study, I still have the same stupid questions wandering around my head. SOF makes me want to find the answers, makes me believe that faith can be a positive element in my life, instead of something so intimately bound up in my self-hatred.
    (The community that SOF connects me to is the “imagined community” of my podcasts–and sometimes it is others that I know and share the episodes with. The imagined community is asked to be strong enough individuals that they can hear about other faiths without immediately clamming up and rejecting them for being different. They are responsible to learn more and to be good to each other–there is a strong sense of morality throughout the show, even if it is too amorphous a morality for you).

    Perhaps this is one more indication of my terribly mundane liberal middleclassness….I figure my attraction to NPR, New York Times, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker in general shows I am no radical. It makes me sad I cannot be one, because so often they seem more moral–foresaking their comfort zone to live radically and all that. Yet 28 years and counting, and I always make the safer decision, the more cerebral one, the one that avoids the ants and smells the roses.
    (I know this is an unfair way to answer your questions–I forget the philosophy/argument term–something about making the thing about the person instead of the argument. But it is how I think and there it is).

  4. 4 rosessupposes December 28, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    Given how often I react critically to different books, articles, movies, pieces of art, people, etc., it really surprises me to realize how much I had missed in SOF broadcasts. I think this probably points to a larger problem within my work–my struggle to find a comprehensible thesis that can be easily explained and yet is complicated enough to sustain a chapter or a book. And also, my tendency to play up the positive aspects of those I study (I note the negative personalities, sexual misadventures, and the failed bits of activism but usually don’t comment on them….when I have to, as in my first chapter on the NAACP (which sets up the problems in the organization), I get bored and confused….It’s like, at least they tried to make things better–more than I’m doing–so how can I criticize? Bleck…not the makings of a scholar. I don’t understand why I lack this facility. It first came to my attention during my comps, when I was praised for doing an excellent job synthesizing, but grilled to find out which scholars I disagreed with ….

  5. 5 withastone December 28, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    You’re probably justified in leaving your critical faculties on the shelf once in a while — probably not such a bad idea. I think you’re also likely right that SOF in its entire construction and selection of guests does some good things.

    I can think of two examples of a generous and interested interaction with other faiths that is not ‘conversionist’ and is still solidly based in a real commitment to orthodox Christian belief. One is Thomas Merton’s dialogues with Eastern religious leaders (Dalai Lama, D.T Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hahn…). The other is the framework for the Christian proclamation in relation to other religions presented by Lesslie Newbigin in his *Gospel in a Pluralist Society*. (He was a missionary in India, and I liked his reflection on missionary work in the second half of that book much better than the first half). That second is more of a framework, not an actual place to learn about another religion. I don’t know if he has other writings that describe how he specifically interacted with Hindus etc.

    Maybe you could re-conceive your critical activity as something that isn’t necessarily negatively directed. Critique that only knows how to point out flaws and holes and never bothers with a positive or constructive proposal isn’t worth much more than a completely uncritical acceptance of everything. If you think of your ‘critical role’ as interested curiosity or something like that, rather than relentless criticism maybe that would be more suited to your personality and skills? Then when it’s necessary to point out the negative it’s in service to better curiosity and understanding, rather than an inherently negative approach to everything?

  6. 6 rosessupposes December 29, 2008 at 11:15 am

    This is probably why I have been fabulously unsuccessful in picking third readings for bible study.


  1. 1 Silence revisited « Roses Supposes Trackback on November 19, 2008 at 9:59 am
  2. 2 Questions for community « conversations with a stone Trackback on December 31, 2008 at 3:56 pm

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