Saturday, April 15, 2006

Editorial: Redemption deserves a better deal

At the heart of every society in this world there is a religion. Its influence might not be acknowledged by most people today but it is there in the values they share.

Professed non-believers are usually the first to remind conservative Christians that tolerance and good will are supposed to be their guiding principles. But there is one Christian precept that seems to have disappeared from modern values though it is the defining principle of Christianity. It was the whole point of the events commemorated by Easter. It is the notion of redemption.

Redemption has a clear meaning in religious terms. Christ is said to have sacrificed his human life for the sake of everyone, so that offences may be forgiven and a faithful life may earn an eternal reward. The metaphysical elements of the story may be difficult to accept but the redemptive intention is not. It accords with many modern values yet redemption is not a word in secular use.

"Rehabilitation" is the nearest we get, when talking of criminal offenders and most people are sceptical about it even then. Rehabilitation usually means that a youthful offender has been helped to mature belatedly, and realise his own welfare is better served by obeying the law. Redemption has a more active and admirable quality. A person given the chance to redeem himself has an opportunity to re-assert a finer character by some act that overwhelms a previous error. It is an opportunity rarely given or taken these days.

Redemption is nearly as elusive in political life. Politicians might survive an embarrassment or misdemeanor but opponents will ensure we never forget it. This is the age of the political penitent, when the resurrection of any incorrect thing an elected person has ever said or done is liable to produce a bout of verbal chest-beating and apologies as abject as any medieval religious offender might utter. Yet it seldom softens the public reception.

This is also a time of the professional apologist known as a public relations adviser. When a commercial project encounters criticism a company is advised to roll over and run away on the principle that controversy is not worth winning. In the eyes of social puritans there is no redemption for private enterprise, even when it spends a small fortune on sponsorship and donations.

Charity is conscience money, they say, as if that discredits it, and sponsors are merely concerned for their "image", as if anyone is not. Redemption in a worldly sense is about earning a desired reputation and any company that does so deserves as much credit as a public- spirited individual whose work attracts notice.

Cynicism is the enemy of redemption. It makes the effort not worthwhile. Yet there is no sound reason to hold people to their occasional errors rather than their better efforts. Education is one area of life newly imbued with the spirit of Easter. Schools follow the principle that pupils respond best to relentless reinforcement of their self-esteem, to the point that their new assessment system is reluctant to recognise failure. That may be taking redemption to the point of delusion but the intention is good.

It might even produce a generation of adults ready to think the best of people, more willing to give credit where it is due and recognise that human beings are far from perfect creations. They are creatures with the appetites of animals and a brain that, for all its finer development, can be an instrument of greed, envy and the rest of the deadly sins. To err is human, they say, to forgive divine. The mistakes people make should be less memorable than their redeeming qualities but it is human to see it otherwise. Easter can raise our sights.

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