Religions Reflect Different Points on Moral Compass


The diverse reactions to the politics of penitence now playing out across the country, as President Clinton scrambles to control the legal and political fallout from his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, illustrate the sometimes radically different ways in which faiths grapple with the age-old issues of wrongdoing, repentance and redemption.

All religions have some kind of moral or ethical codes and a belief that violating them will cause negative consequences, said Robert Ellwood, a USC professor emeritus of religion. How we react to violations of those codes--and the way we seek forgiveness--varies greatly among cultures and religious traditions.

The belief in one all-powerful God characterizing Christianity, Islam and Judaism, for example, has shaped an approach to penitence that contrasts sharply with the natural law of cause and effect--karma--that governs the cosmos in the Buddhist and Hindu world view, scholars say.


Similarly, the emphasis on personal accountability and redemption that characterizes Christianity and Judaism, and has greatly shaped the American moral tradition, is in sharp contrast with other religions, such as Islam, that emphasize the stability of society.

Jews, Christians Emphasize Penitence

With each apology for his sex scandal becoming ever more specific and profuse, Clinton is moving closer to satisfying the requirements of penitence upheld by Jewish and some Christian faiths.

Among Catholics, penance, which might include reciting prayers or making a church visit, is not a prerequisite for forgiveness but a “sign of sorrow and reparation,” said Father Thomas Rausch, professor and chairman of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Forgiveness can also be obtained by honestly acknowledging sin, confessing to others or participating in a penitential rite at the beginning of the liturgy, he said.

For Jews--now approaching the annual season of repentance that centers on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement--an exacting path of repentance has developed over centuries of Jewish law.

The course of t’shuvah, Hebrew for turning, involves specific steps of confession, remorse, a commitment not to repeat the behavior and a concrete plan to make amends to the injured party.

Clinton’s initial public expression of regret fell far short of those requirements, Jewish scholars said, but his moves this week were improvements: heartfelt apologies, pleas for forgiveness and pledges of “trying to make it right” and “never to let anything like that happen again.”

But the furor surrounding the president is befuddling some followers of other religions.

Right and Wrong Not Absolutes

For Japanese Buddhist priest Nobuo Miyaji, the whole spectacle is a bit puzzling. Buddhists have no concept of absolute right and wrong and are hesitant to rush to judgment, Miyaji said. Nor do they believe in a personal, monotheistic God to whom one confesses sin, asks forgiveness--or swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, under oath.

“I have been here 20 years, and I still don’t understand what is absolutely bad and absolutely good . . . in this country,” Miyaji said, adding that the scandal would probably not have come out in Japan.

Among Hindus and Buddhists, wrong actions cannot be corrected merely by appealing to some ultimate judge or savior, scholars say. “In the Hindu tradition, there is no sense that someone else can save you,” said David Frawley, director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in New Mexico.

Western religions may view repentance as a way to cleanse one’s soul to reach the final goal of heaven, he said. But Hindus see a heavenly state as merely the first step in a long path to transcend the cycles of birth and death.

Religions also differ in the importance they assign to exposing individual sin in relation to the overall social welfare. In Western religions, where individuals are answerable to a personal God, individual moral actions are considered to be critical for society to function well, said Barbara McGraw, an ethics professor who, along with Ellwood, wrote a major text on world religions.

By contrast, she said, such Eastern philosophies as classical Hinduism and Confucianism emphasize the necessity for people to fulfill their prescribed roles--such as allowing leaders to lead--in order for society to reflect the divine order.

“There is more of a tendency to look at the overall good functioning of society, so the question that would be asked is whether exposing a leader in this way serves the greater good of society,” McGraw said.

Muslim scholar Anwar Hajjaj has asked that question--and answered it with a resounding no. By contrast with Jewish and Christian traditions, where wrongdoing is expected to be confessed, keeping transgressions such as adultery a secret is “wholly encouraged” in Islamic society, said Hajjaj, chairman of the American Islamic Information Center.

The reason: An erring couple can make their amends to a merciful God privately--and always win forgiveness--without harming the greater public. But once word leaks out, Hajjaj said, the ensuing scandal would ravage the social fabric.

As a result, while Islamic law exacts harsh penalties for the offense of adultery--death by stoning--it also poses nearly insurmountable standards of evidence: from two to four witnesses must observe and confirm the act by trying to pass a hand between the couple, said Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America.

Those who expose the issue without the requisite direct witnesses are themselves guilty of harming society and in need of penitence, Hajjaj said.

“The paradigm in Islam is 180 degrees different from the paradigm in non-Muslim countries,” Hajjaj said. “You always have to protect the society more than the individual.”

Many Japanese also subscribe to such a world view. The greater emphasis on the social group results in apologies not specifically for personal moral failings, but for causing a nuisance to society or shame to one’s family or group, said Miyaji.

Western-inspired concepts of sin, repentance and forgiveness are not common among Japanese, who speak more in terms of regret for causing shame and typically resign from posts of authority to “take responsibility.”

The Japanese reticence at offering public, emotional confessions and a tendency to see both the positive and negative in all actions is a probable result of centuries of Buddhist influence, Miyaji said. It has often been taken by people, including Korean and Chinese victims of Japanese war deeds, as a lack of penitence or attempts to justify wrong actions.

Emotional shows of remorse and vows not to repeat the behavior are neither expected nor encouraged. For example, when the president of Yamaichi Securities made a tearful apology last year in announcing the firm’s insolvency, many Japanese perceived it as a weakness, said University of Illinois economist Koji Taira. By contrast, the terse and stoic resignation announcement by former Premier Ryutaro Hashimoto in July was favorably viewed.

“Americans speak in terms of love, remorse and other emotional terms. But most Japanese probably don’t understand this obsession with feelings,” Taira said.

“The first reaction Japanese have to emotional display is embarrassment, and embarrassment is a close cousin of shame,” he notes.

Jewish rabbinical student Mark Borovitz, in contrast, has openly embraced shame, embarrassment and the full, messy spectrum of emotions. In a study of one faith’s process of repentance and return, Borovitz says he had to rectify two decades of white-collar crimes that landed him in federal prison twice.

Two people helped give him the resolve to straighten out for good, he said. The first was his prison rabbi, Mel Silverman. The second was his then-6-year-old daughter, who sent him a letter in prison saying: “I hate you and I love you. When you’re in prison, part of me is in prison. And I hate being in prison and I hate being without you.”

Borovitz plunged into the path--confessing his sins, expressing his deep remorse and crafting a plan of amends to those he wronged. And now he helps hundreds of others do the same as spiritual director of Beit T’Shuvah, an agency of the Jewish Federation that combines Judaism and the 12-step process of recovery to help addicts of all kinds--gamblers, alcoholics, junkies--repair their lives and the societies they have harmed.

In 1995, Borovitz finished the bachelor’s program he began in 1969. In 1996, he was accepted to rabbinical school at the University of Judaism. He also received a certificate of rehabilitation from the California courts acknowledging that he had redeemed himself.

“The end of the process is that we take the negative energy and transform it into something holy and positive,” Borovitz said.