Guilt, Purification, and Redemption

Rise Jane Samra
Barry University


Guilt, purification and redemption: these three elements are the culmination of Kenneth Burke's dramatistic process. In order to define these terms effectively, this writer sought the sources of some reputable interpreters of Burke, religious web sites, a rabbi's account of guilt, Nixon's resignation speech, and a textbook case study of the Chrysler Corporations disconnected odometers. Why would one pursue this eclecticism when addressing Burke, you ask? The answer comes from Burke himself:

A rhetorician, I take it, is like one voice in a dialogue. Put several such voices together, with each voicing its own special assertion, let them act upon one another in cooperative competition, and you get a dialectic that, properly developed, can lead to the views transcending the limitations of each (Burke, 1950).
Marie Hochmouth Nichols, the first major scholar in rhetoric to recognize Burke's significance, succinctly stated in her classic essay, "Kenneth Burke and the New Rhetoric:"
To read one of [Burke's] volumes independently without regard to the chronology of publication, makes the problem of comprehension even more difficult because of the specialized meanings attached to various words and phrases. . . . One cannot possibly compress the whole of Burke's thought into an article. The most that one can achieve is to signify his importance as a theorist and critic and to suggest the broad outlines of his work (Nichols, 1952).
Thus, simplicity will reign supreme in this discussion in order to achieve clarification.


In Permanence and Change, Burke explains the terms: guilt, purification and redemption as representing the effects of acceptance and rejection of a hierarchy. He tended to see all hierarchies and social order as perpetually engaged in dramas. Dramatic action occurs because people object to the functions and relationships imposed by the hierarchy. Whenever a person rejects the traditional hierarchy, he/she feels as if he/she fails and consequently acquires a feeling of guilt. Burke compared rejection to original sin and he believed that guilt is inherent in society because people cannot accept all of the traditional hierarchy with all the demands it places on them. When conditions change, rejection of some of the tradition occurs. Each social institution--family, church, school, clubs, relationships, and political systems--has its own hierarchy. When the demands imposed by one hierarchy conflict with those of another, rejection is inevitable (Burke, 1965).

In order to deal with rejection so common in the social drama, Burke suggests society uses two forms of ritual purification, mortification and/or victimage, as a resolution for guilt. The first is mortification, which involves personal sacrifice by the guilty. The individual or group experiencing guilt makes a symbolic offering to appease society and thus restore balance and social order. A person accused of wrongdoing acknowledges it publicly and may offer an explanation or perform some act of remorse. Dramas are frequently based on the principle of victimage, a purging of guilt through a scapegoat that symbolizes guilt (Scott & Brock, 1972).

The act of purification then must be appropriate to the sin of the guilty for the drama to succeed as an act of redemption. The extent of self-sacrifice or scapegoating must equal the degree of guilt caused by the rejection of the social order (Scott & Brock, 1972), otherwise redemption is not achieved. The removal from office or loss of position in the hierarchy may be either insufficient or excessive punishment relative to the disruption suffered by the social order.

Often, the scapegoat is an outsider. Once the rite of purification has been performed and is commensurate with the guilt, the individual feels redeemed or made acceptable again by
his/her accusers. He/she is then able to function in the hierarchy until the burden of guilt
becomes overbearing again and the process repeats itself (Rohler & Cook, 1998).

The religious overtones in guilt, purification and redemption and its similarity to concepts of sin, confession and absolution are achieved through the mystery of priesthood. Burke's dramatistic process is based on the notion that we are imperfect creatures who appeal to an authority higher than ourselves for absolution from our own weaknesses (Ruekert, 1963).

Here we are reminded of Burke's famous definition of man:

Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative) separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order) and rotten with perfection (Burke, 1966).
The religious metaphor explains why society is in a continuous state of enacting dramas.
Because they are created by imperfect humans, social hierarchies always have flaws that lead to their rejection. Sometimes the muddle of rejection and guilt is so great that only deus ex machina, an artificial or unexplainable intervention, can perform the purification act (Rybacki & Rybacki, 1991).


In the process of defining guilt, purification and redemption, this writer first pursued the technological and current approach: she surfed the web. Much to her dismay, when punching in these simple terms, there wasnt the abundance of information that she had expected. However, she did encounter an intriguing place entitled Welcome to the Ultimate Redemption Web Site (The Best Redemption Site in Cyber Space). Of course, one could not help but stop and take a closer look at this as it related to a pertinent issue in any church. Excerpts from Subtle Religious Guilt by Michelle Amirault reveal the frustration of a woman having to choose between following the spirit of the pastor of her church and her own conscience to resolve her guilt:

I began seeking a [new] place of worship. . . . After attending a few places, I eventually felt I had found the right place and began to rest in regularly going there, trying to find what God wanted to teach me. . . . When I began to come under this church's pastor, I found myself losing my own intimate awareness of the Presence and direction of God for me. I found I was really trying to flow with the pastor instead of flow[ing] in the Spirit. My trust was being switched to the pastors leading, rather than the leading of the Holy Spirit. Something inside of me resisted this, and guilt told me, You dont want to submit! But I know that I do want very much to submit to the Holy Spirit. But the pastor and many of us still have quite a mixture of the Holy Spirit, pride, religion, control, [and] confusion...
One Sunday I felt a tug to go to a different [church]. At first, I did not recognize the subtle guilt which was at work in me. . . . I found myself thinking, What will the pastor think if I'm not there for awhile? Will [the members of the church] mistrust me? How will I explain where I was? All this guilt blocked my ability to hear what the Spirit was saying.
[Then I asked myself]. . . do we ever so subtly allow individuals to usurp the position which only the Holy Spirit should fill? Very often people are used in this process, but they are to simply model and be instruments that, like the written word of God, just point those sensitive to the Holy Spirit toward Christ, Who points to the Father. . . . Be aware of the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit within, and dont allow guilt to rob you. Guilt and fear can be the doors to religious bondage (Subtle religious guilt.)
As far as one can determine, Amirault did not publicly display guilt, purification, and redemption though it was evident that she internalized and/or spiritualized each element bringing them all to the full cycle needed to clear her conscience.

In his book Whats So Bad About Guilt? Learning to Live With It Since We Cant Live Without It, Rabbi Harlan Wechsler concurs with Burke when he explains how religion imposes guilt:

Read the story of Adam and Eve. It is a story about guilt! Read the prophets of Israel and their endless condemnations of their people for oppressing the poor or for committing idolatry. Their story is a story of guilt. The prophets threaten exile and destruction, calamities that, in fact, changed the course of history. Their entire approach was designed to induce deep feelings of guilt. Guilt, the tool of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos . . . (Wechsler, 1990).
The words, the feelings, the presentiments of Biblical doom are today borrowed, taken from contexts that spoke to [humankind's] loftiest confrontation with the weaknesses of the human spirit and the precarious nature of the human condition, and, lo and behold, they are out on loan nearly exclusively to the domain of rich foods. How many times will people react to chocolate mousse with the full store of classical religious vocabulary used formerly for weighing the sins of human deeds and the guilts of human shortcomings? (Weschler, 1990).
Wechsler definitely gave this writer food for thought; the ideas started flowing: sinfully rich, decadent, death by chocolate, devils chocolate, heavenly hash, or All of the pleasure. None of the guilt, an advertising slogan for TCBY Frozen Yogurt that delivers us from the sins of food.

When we ponder the cycle of guilt, purification, and redemption, the word repentance comes to mind. The Hebrew term for it is teshuvat, which means turning back and carries with it the sense of returning to the point of departure after completing a full cycle. In the Biblical context, Rabbi Wechsler tells us that teshuvat  refers to the completion of the annual cycle of seasons (Chronicles 20:1; 2 Samuel 11:1; 1 Kings 20:26). Or, in another text, the Hebrew root refers to a return to God (Hosea 7:10 & 14:2; Nehemiah 1:9). It implies that there is a place to go back to--a point of reference and an anchorage which can resist the winds of great storms.

And come the day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the theme of repentance returns once again. The emphasis is clear: Change your ways. Become better people. Consider the emotional motivations for your deeds and consider the rational need to control your actions. That is what God wants from His people (Wechsler, 1990).

As we return to the Ultimate Redemption Website, a popular psychological perspective with biblical overtones offers a seemingly simple prescription for purification:

If you wish to be free from a habit, thought, idea; if you wish to be rid of past associations, guilt or blockages; take the symbols of that problemwhatever they may beand throw them onto a raging fire. The fire will consume the symbols and so shall it consume the power they had over you. For the symbols think a moment if you overeat, take a portion of your favorite food and throw it onto the fire. Smoking, drinking, the same. For problems which utilize no concrete objects, draw a symbol or image and burn ( A purification.)
From this prescription we might assume that the process of burning purifies us and once the items are burned, especially in our minds, we will be redeemed.

Redemption is the focus of many sermons. One sermon, in particular, found in the aforementioned web site, is entitled Redemption by Christ: Isaiah 63:5. Don Fortner, a pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Danville, Kentucky, tells us that the only hope for fallen, guilty, depraved sinners is redemption, a redemption which includes atonement for sin, satisfaction for justice, and effectual deliverance from the guilt, power, dominion, and consequences of sin. Such redemption could be achieved by only one Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior. Not only could He alone do it, He has done it; and He has done it alone (Redemption by Christ.)

Fortner concludes with the words of Isaiah: I looked, and there was no one to help; and I wondered.that there was no one to uphold: therefore mine own arm brought salvation unto me; and my fury, it upheld me (Isaiah 63:5).


These religious elements of guilt, purification and redemption are alive and well in the political arena. Unfortunately, the cycle is not always completed due to the players, or as Burke would say, the agents choices. It is here that the many allegations regarding President Clinton come to mind, but because the verdict is not in yet, this writer does not feel justified in utilizing the elements to make a valid evaluation of the situation. Instead, one might look back at one of the most compelling speeches given in the latter part of our century and its impact on our nation: The Presidential Resignation of Richard M. Nixon. On August 8, 1974, President Nixon delivered his final Presidential address to the American public. The scandal created by the 1972 break-in at the national headquarters of the Democratic Party in the Watergate apartment complex brought the Nixon administration to an end. Nixon's own release, three days earlier, of taped recordings which directly implicated him in the cover-up of White House involvement in the affairs and subsequent loss of support by Republican leaders in Congress led to his demise.

In Richard Katula's "The Apology of Richard M. Nixon," he tells us that Nixon attempted to deny guilt in the Watergate cover-up by a denial of intent strategy. He denied that his resignation was prompted by guilt by arguing that the process of proving his innocence would be long and agonizing and would deprive the nation of a full-time President. Thus, he was resigning in the best interests of the nation (Katula, 1975). Instead of publicly addressing his guilt, his actions revealed it. His release of taped conversations with H.R. Haldeman showed that Nixon sought to use the CIA to slow FBI investigations of Watergate, which was conclusive proof to the American public of his guilt. Even prior to this, so much evidence had been developed during the Congressional hearings on Watergate that two bills of impeachment had been passed (Katula, 1975). The closest Nixon came to showing any remorse in his speech was in a brief statement:

I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong and some were wrong they were made in what I believed at the time to be in the best interests of the nation (1974).
Moreover, his action as expressed through this statement was scapegoated by his restrictive clause: in the best interest of the nation (1974).

In an attempt to purify himself, Nixon reiterates the nations victories during his administration, victories which emphasize his foreign policy of peace and which he would like us to view as transcending the minor setback of Watergate. He reminds us that We have ended the longest war [Vietnam]. . . .We have unlocked the doors that for a quarter of a century stood between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China. . . . We now have friends in the Middle East, and a new relationship with the Soviet Union. Nixon concludes:

As a result of these efforts, I am confident that the world is a safer place today, not only for the people of America, but for the people of all nations, and that all of our children have a better chance than before of living in peace, rather than dying in a war (1974).
Katula tells us that when a speaker defends him/herself against an accusation, the audience needs to feel closure, the sense of completeness communicators feel when they sense that some reality has been shared. Until closure has occurred, there is unfinished business. The publics mixed emotions over President Fords pardon of Nixon clearly indicates that closure was not achieved, but was most needed (Katula, 1975). The New Republic wrote:
Who is there who does not want the wounds of Watergate to be healed? But they wont be healed by concealing the infection, its nature and cause; it will only fester. . . . Justice has not been done, and mercy has been shown for behavior that has not been identified or admitted (Osborne, 1975).
Katula contends that closure did not occur simply because Nixon failed to address the questions that had forced the farewell speech. Because he did not engulf the controversy centered on the Watergate affair, the speech did not improve the acrimonious political climate . . . or the sense of well-being and peace within the nation (Katula, 1975). Thus, the speech did not vindicate Nixon and public redemption of his role in Watergate was never realized.


In 1987, the Chrysler Corporation and two of its executives were indicted on criminal charges for selling cars as new when they had, in fact, been driven with their odometers disconnected. According to the indictment, Chrysler executives routinely took new cars off the assembly line and drove them as many as 400 miles with the odometers disconnected. Initially, on legal advice, the company responded by arguing that it had done nothing illegal (Seitel, 1992).


However, when it saw that public opinion was running decidedly against it, then Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, known for his plain and straight talk, called a news conference at the corporate headquarters in Michigan and termed the action dumb and unforgivable. Did we screw up? Iacocca asked rhetorically. You bet we did, he answered. Iacocca said that he had been personally unaware of the disconnecting of odometers until a few months before the indictment. He said that even though disconnecting odometers was standard industry practice, it was still dumb. He even admitted that Chrysler employees had sold as new 40 cars that had been seriously damaged in accidents, repaired. Simply stated, Iacocca said, that's unforgivable, and we have nobody but ourselves to blame (1987).


At the news conference, Chrysler announced that it would give new cars to the 40 owners of the affected models. Other owners would be offered longer warranties with broader coverage. Our big concern is for our customers, the people who had enough faith in Chrysler to buy a vehicle from us, Iacocca said. These charges and the press reports about them are causing some of those customers to question that faith, and we simply cannot tolerate that (1987).


In a follow-up survey after the news conference, 67 percent of those contacted believed Chrysler had adequately dealt with the issue. Moreover, Chrysler officials said that the company experienced no ill effect on vehicle sales or stock prices (Seitel, 1992).

A few days after the news conference, Chrysler was fined $1.5 million for alleged health and safety violations at a Newark, Delaware plant. Ordinarily, this fine, on top of Chryslers $300,000 fine in the odometer case, would send public opinion plummeting (Seitel, 1992). However, Iacocca seemed to have restored his companys image when he apologized for his company, called the odometer tampering dumb, the selling of damaged cars stupid, and made major amends for wrongdoing, thus bringing guilt, purification and redemption to full cycle.


As evidenced in this paper, Burke's concept of guilt, purification, and redemption provides a wide range of interpretation. Religious roots and connotations give the terms a sense of sanctity. In fact, this writer would even go so far as re-labeling the elements/terms as the holy three or the Burkean trinity. When one examines a speech or an event, one gets great satisfaction when he/she discovers that all three elements in communion complete the cycle. On the other hand, the benefits of the process are realized even when one or two elements are left out because it allows the rhetor to reexamine and recreate what might have been if every element were in place. Thus, the best way to define and redefine the elements of guilt, purification and redemption is simply to apply them to a variety of rhetorical situations.


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