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Karen, R. (2003). Two Faces of Monotheism. Contemp. Psychoanal., 39(4):637-663.

(2003). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 39(4):637-663

Two Faces of Monotheism

Robert Karen, Ph.D.

ONE WEEK after September 11, National Public Radio broadcast a strained and solemn interview with three clergymen concerning their religion's response to terrorism that ended on the subject of forgiveness. The three men all favored it (“Christ forgave those who crucified him …”), the Muslim alone holding out for the necessity of punishment, but none expressing his own hatred of the terrorists or their wishes for revenge. We are accustomed to such bland acts of dissociation when the subject of forgiveness comes up and usually take no notice (“That's just what clergymen do”). But dissociation like this does harm to nuanced discourse, creating an apparent split between muscular realism and ineffectual do-goodism. It is not unrelated to the dissociations, splitting, and quest for purity that we associate with the mind-set of the terrorist.

Terrorists do it differently, of course. They dissociate from their human concern rather than their rage, which enables them to do terrible things to those they perceive as enemies (Segal, 2003). They also view the world as split into good and evil, which entitles them to a hatred and aggression undiluted by doubt. Their passion and certainty, their woundedness and fixation on righteous revenge, can be contagious among people who experience themselves as downtrodden. The pious ideal of forgiveness, in contrast, has very little appeal to anyone, especially in times of strife, and is quietly dismissed as preachy and irrelevant. Bland compassion and piety are no match for paranoia and revenge, which are hard to beat in the best of circumstances. It's rare that a leader like Gandhi emerges who can even temporarily turn this equation into something else.

Because forgiveness is almost always conceptualized in tame and pious terms, its fate since September 11 has not been a happy one: to be spoken about in platitudes and tossed aside as wholly irrelevant to the sort of person one actually is, or to life as one actually lives it. And yet, the subject “Can we forgive?” does keep popping up in public discourse, as if there is an itch in the body politic that needs a scratch. I think the itch is important, but the conceptualization is usually wrong.

The

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