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The Redeemed Kennedy?

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An extraordinary era of political service ended with the death of one man this past week. Whether one agreed with his ideology of not, not a soul from either side of the aisle seemed to be willing to dispute Ted Kennedy's contribution to his constituency or his incredible legacy in the annals of American legislation. There are literally thousands of bills carrying his name and his particular stamp of optimism, bi-partisanship, and determination. While watching the news last night, scanning through both the maudlin and the manic (entertainment-style) broadcasts, I found myself surprisingly moved and tearful. It was not only the black and white footage of the toddler John Jr. that stirred me or the lip-biting eulogy Ted gave for Robert only a few years later, but by the idea of a man everyone was calling Redeemed. The youngest, silliest, funniest, most rambunctious, seared by scandal and nearly killed in serious accidents, the least likely of the Kennedy boys to succeed had proved them all wrong. Despite being expelled for Harvard for cheating, he was re-admitted, ran for Senator of Massachusetts and won.

As Joyce Carol Oates, in her op-ed piece on Kennedy, said, "Like George Bush, another spoiled younger brother of a well-to-do and influential family whose subsequent success in politics had little to do with his own evident talent, intelligence, or ambition, Ted Kennedy was groomed for public office despite dubious qualifications." With the scandals, the expulsions and the media circuses behind him, Teddy seemed to have turned a corner, remaking himself as an idealistic, serious, passionate campaigner for the downtrodden. And he did his homework. He fought tirelessly for civil rights, for the disabled, for health care, and voting reform. His legislative history and his constancy to the cause truly speak for themselves.

Redemption?
My question, however: Is that Redemption? Or is that politics? Everyone was talking about how he had turned it around after Chappaquiddick, that he had "refashioned" himself after that despicable debacle in which he drunkenly drove his car off a small bridge and left the young woman he was with in the passenger seat to die while he went home to call his lawyer. But with the help of one of the most influential families in our country's history, he was given the prosecutorial equivalent of a slap on the wrist and a hearty pat on the back. No one heard any more about it. He didn't even have to sweep it under the rug. In pure Fitzgerald form, he had other people clean up after him. He went on to brighter pastures. So, where is the Redemption?

What Does Redemption Mean?
The word redemption is used primarily in theology to represent an "element of salvation that broadly means the deliverance from sin." (Wikipedia) In English, the word refers to the "repurchasing" or buying back, a throw-back to the Old Testament where it referred to the ransom of slaves (Exodus 21:8). In all of these interpretations, redemption refers to both deliverance from sin (and therefore a reconciliation with God) and a release from captivity (which, to many, is the same as being separated from God and trapped in sin).

There are two forms of redemption: between man and man (social/justice/personal) and between God and man. What is required for redemption to take place is not all that different from a spiritual or personal reconciliation. There must be an admission of sin (or guilt), a humble request for forgiveness, an effort to change one's behavior, and a rectification (a "ransom" so to speak) for the injustice committed, if that is at all possible. We can only speak here to the first form of redemption (the social/interpersonal one). What God truly requires of Ted Kennedy--or any of us--is beyond the limits of my understanding. So let us address the first form--the social redemption, the cause of justice (for which he was so famous all these years), and the interpersonal rectification.
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What Did Ted Really Change?
Was there rectification? If there was, it was certainly not reported in the media. There were no public accountings, no humbling, no ransom. Ms. Kopechne was gone and her family was left with that emptiness and pain. The truth is, we may never know. What went on behind the scenes between the two families will probably always remain between the two families. Did he change his ways? Of which ways are we speaking? His private ones or his public ones? Well, he certainly seemed to get more serious in his legislative dealings. He certainly accomplished what many consider to be great things for the American citizenry. Is that the ransom?

This is what Joyce Carol Oates had to say about it:
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The poet John Berryman once wondered: "Is wickedness soluble in art?". One might rephrase, in a vocabulary more suitable for our politicized era: "Is wickedness soluble in good deeds?"

This paradox lies at the heart of so much of public life: individuals of dubious character and cruel deeds may redeem themselves in selfless actions. Fidelity to a personal code of morality would seem to fade in significance as the public sphere, like an enormous sun, blinds us to all else.

That is one of the most disturbing distortions of the meaning of Redemption I have ever heard. But it sounds good, doesn't it? And isn't that what American politics and the media are about--the spin? If you just pretend it never happened, call it a misstep or a miscalculation, but you send flowers afterwards, all will be forgiven.

In my work as a psychotherapist and classical homeopath, I have seen all sorts of pathologies--from the severely wounded to the mildly abraded. In almost every case there is a need for forgiveness and reconciliation, whether that is from others or from oneself or both. There is a time when an accounting is needed, when the man or woman in pain must stand not before me for banal reassurances, but before the Creator or (in their minds or in actuality) before the person they had offended and make it right. From there, they are able to move to forgiveness, and ultimately, to freedom and joy.

Redemption is joy. It is our most treasured hope--that we can truly be freed, saved, ransomed from the worst of ourselves. But it's also serious business. It certainly includes good deeds, as Oates points out, but becoming a "new man" (which is really what Redemption is) also requires humility and rectification for the offense itself. I don't know if a metaphorical bouquet of flowers quite does the job.

 

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Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)
 

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