Forgiveness and Revenge Seminar Retrospective

Whenever I teach an advanced class of thoughtful students, I like to offer a short retrospective at the end of the semester. I sit down without my notes or texts and try to makes sense of what we have done.

Below, you’ll find the retrospective I shared on our last day. (As background, we read five main texts with supporting articles: William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye, Susan Brison’s AftermathAntjie Krog’s Country of My SkullJoshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapeland Sara Ruddick’s Maternal ThinkingOther major figures: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Desmond Tutu, Maria Chenowith and Erica Stephan, David Kennedy, Susan Griffin, and Hannah Arendt. (Yes, this is too much! Yet the students were game and actually kept up with the reading, which was pretty satisfying.)

[Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Torture, Violence]

We began the class with William Ian Miller’s book Eye for an Eye on talionic cultures. For Miller (no relation, sadly), the cultures of honor that celebrate revenge and reprisal have a few distinctive features: they recognize the legitimacy of resentments and retributive desires and they try to channel those desires through procedures that limit their harmfulness. Thus they respond to the threat of revenge by quantifying harms and restricting reprisal. These cultures are sometimes thought of as primitive, but in vengeance they show remarkable insight and ingenuity. Miller makes much of the fact that revenge involves parties at odds who are trying to get even, and at times these metaphors suggest a seemingly inexorable calculation in justice, one which legitimates payback and every other possible settling-of-accounts.

One of the most interesting parts of Miller’s book is his account of how Christian theories of forgiveness seem to echo and rhyme with the original accounting that the scales of justice entail. St. Paul seemed to suggest that we forgive because vengeance is for the Lord, and so by repaying harms with kindness, we heap coals upon our perpetrator’s head. It almost looks as if the deprivation of punishment in life is a designed to lengthen the sentence or intensify the damnation to be carried out after death. For Miller, the best account of the quality of revenge comes in our discussion of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, because there we see the demand for forgiveness made by a superior foe, because Shylock seeks revenge as proof of his own humanity, and is denied it as proof of the inferiority of his Jewishness.

The echoes with Coates’ work on reparations struck a chord with the entire class. Ultimately Coates suggests that payback is required for spiritual renewal, that Blacks and whites cannot know forgiveness until we settle accounts. So long as Black children must deal with the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and the continual plunder of Black wealth by whites, calls for racial justice will be cheap talk. Coates certainly set the bar high, and I don’t know that we have yet found an argument to gainsay him, except that the racial accounting he demands is too difficult for us to bear. But Coates can easily see that we are unwilling to pay what we owe; the question is what hope there can be for equality so long as this debt remains unpaid.

Here, the South African experience ought to be instructive. When philosophers write books on forgiveness, we can never seem to do anything better than refer to Desmond Tutu, whose warm celebration of the strength and power of forgiveness strike us all as somehow worthy of emulation. And it’s in Tutu that we start to see the opposite side of Coates’ argument. Coates sets the stakes very high; for Tutu they were even higher, because his book and his constant refrain was that there can be no future without forgiveness. This is an interesting formulation: it does not promise South Africa an easy path, but rather makes a simple logical point: forgiveness is necessary. It may not be easy, it may not be fair, and it may not even be sufficient. But without it, the country is stuck.

Reading Antjie Krog’s book, Country of My Skull, helped us to see that a process can be inadequate and still work, a little. It can be a part of a reconciliatory project that none of the participants will live to see the end of. Sometimes it seems that even the #rhodesmustfall critique is able to point to colonial harms associated with Cecil Rhodes because the later harms of apartheid have been largely exposed and… not resolved, but rendered less pressing. The problem is that the past contains so many horrors, and even when resentments over recent atrocities like necklacing have been quelled, there is a whole previous century of atrocities to explore.

Forgiveness was nonetheless necessary for Tutu and for Krog, even while for Coates, forgiveness is nigh impossible. Necessary but impossible; impossible, but necessary. Something like that is at the heart of the problem of violence and trauma in Susan Brison’s work. How can a woman survive the aftermath of the crime that almost kills her? What Brison argued was that almost nothing about the experience of seeking justice through the police and courts can be said to serve her interests. Her hope and her healing were so very slow, and partial, and frail that I almost hesitate to mention them here: I worry that I shouldn’t “put them to work” as “conceptual resources” in the same way as many of the other texts we’ve read. Yet Brison offers them to us as evidence of considerable philosophical rigor, and I think the right move is to engage with her.

There was and will be no question of forgiveness for Brison; she showed us how irrelevant her attacker even was to these questions of survival and flourishing after violence. But revenge, too, seemed inadequate to her. What she needed was safety and respect, what she needed was to be restored to power and security. As a result, she focuses on a curious paradox: victims who blame their attacker feel much less safe than those who blame themselves. Even though the self-blame is in some sense obviously fictional and inaccurate, it is therapeutic and the source of the strength to grow and change beyond the trauma.

And in her dual conclusions, Brison seems to set up a very different and non-relational account of the aftermath of violence: that the goal of the survivor was to bend and not break, to cultivate in herself and in her child the openness to novelty and sociality that trauma and violence take from us. When I set up the syllabus I hoped this moment in Brison would set up a useful echo for the work of Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking with which we ended the class, because that’s where I put my sometimes dwindling hope: not in the promise of forgiveness from victims, but in the sense that revenge may be just as irrelevant to survival, no matter how powerful the impulse sometimes feels.

We began to learn just how irrelevant paybacks have become in our society when we read about the prisoners at Graterford in Pennsylvania. Much of what matters in Dubler’s discussion of faith in American prisons is in the background assumptions of the way his book is written, not often clearly stated or remarked upon: that the prisoners there are intelligent, good, and even wise; that they are not being punished, but merely waiting, living under conditions of arbitrary interference and capricious abuse. What Dubler found in Graterford’s chapel were men who are struggling to figure out how their own past acts have come to define them, and how to survive the evil that they have done and that is done to them. This suggests that one of the worst elements of revenge is the way we see perpetrators as irredeemable, the way we reduce those who harm us to those harms. Graterford makes me wonder what it could mean to love the sinner and hate the sin when we never stop thinking of them as sinners, and never let them forget that they have sinned.

Perhaps this “waste management” of criminals would be more acceptable if there weren’t so many of them. And indeed, I think Dubler’s book on Graterford starts to show us the problem with a world where we simultaneously treat some members of our society as if they are unworthy of our attention or support throughout their lives, subject to constant violence and depredation, until they lash out or misbehave–at which point we become desperately retributive. The men and women in prison are disproportionately poor and poorly educated, and yet the only injustices we’re willing to punish are the ones they commit. This asymmetry of responsibility is a kind of massive structural violence that undermines the entire project of criminal justice, and hampers the reprobative role of punishment in our society.

This is usually the place in the course where one would turn to restorative justice approaches. Instead, we turned to the literature on violence prevention, a transition that requires explanation. The criminologist John Braithwaite often tells the story of two US servicemen in Japan who raped a young Japanese woman. The rapists were called to a private reconciliatory meeting, where the woman read a letter indicating that she was willing to forgive them and ask that they not be punished. The servicemen did not understand, and when it was their turn to speak they told the judge, “We are not guilty, your honor.” This shocked everyone involved; had they been–or pretended to be–repentant, they would have been freed. As a result, they were sentenced to the legal maximum period of incarceration rather than freed as had been planned.

Now, Braithwaite tells the story as an example of a failure of reconciliatory norms in the US: confessions and repentance have been trained out of Westerners by the the procedural safeguards we have created to prevent coerced confessions. But I see the story differently: a young woman was raped by two foreign men, and the male authority figures in her society demanded that she absolve them of the crime for diplomatic purposes. They were only stymied by the rapists’ failure to make the proper ritualized speech acts in a crucial moment of the ceremonial subordination of the victim’s needs and interests.

This is not a story of frustrated reconciliation or failed forgiveness, but frustrated impunity. It’s not an indictment of the refusal of repentance rituals, but of the demand for them. I find myself sympathetic to the Black South African mothers Krog reports on, who argued that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a fancy way for powerful men to smooth over their own transgressions, leaving the mothers no less bereft of their sons and daughters than before.

But this too, is too simple, which is why we ended with Sara Ruddick. Ruddick is my kind of care ethicist: she resists gender essentialism while defending care ethics, and roots the phenomenology and ethics of care in practices of caretaking and peacemaking and the skills and competencies required to succeed in those matters. What’s more, Ruddick acknowledges the tension between the different modes of care, of holding safe, welcoming change, and attentively loving our children and vulnerable dependents, and shows that mothers (who can be men but have tended to be women) develop their skills and competencies in the difficult thinking through of those tensions in contexts and situations. It’s a powerful book of philosophy, and I’ll be teaching it again at JCI this summer.

On my view, Ruddick helps to spell out both the background attitudes required for forgiveness but that we can also only start to think of the role of forgiveness in a society and in a relationship when we foreground the purposes it serves. Women and men who mother understand that transgressions and injuries will occur, and they train their children to forgive them. They do this because resentments are unhealthy; they do this because revenge is unsustainable. But mostly they do this because maternal thinking is a kind of disciplined, cognitively-loaded thinking-through-emotions.

Anger is one of the most pernicious emotions a child must confront, and so mothers prepare themselves and their children for that confrontation. Mothers know that anger always presents itself as immediate, urgent, and correct, but that a child can only survive, thrive, and succeed when she can resist its pull. Mothers teach their children to master their anger; they train them to restrain it and to let it go. And they do the same for themselves: they learn that their anger and sorrow at the loss of one child must be subordinated to the safety of their other children, and other mothers’ children. And so they act out of anger but with reason, they force themselves to put their anger and revenge to use. Sometimes they harness their grief for peacemaking.

A mother’s anger can become violent, of course. But if it remains maternal in the way Ruddick describes, it will preserve the goals of preservation and cultivation, of survival and growth. Ruddick and Brison thus end on the same note: that the meaning of a trauma is ultimately the way it shapes us as mothers. The measure of our revenge or forgiveness is not whether it slakes our revenge but whether it makes the world a safer space for our children. Talionic cultures know this; they limit payback just because they want to settle accounts for the next generation. Reconciliation and forgiveness, too, work only to the extent that they settle old scores, that they bury the implements of violence in places where new generations will not dig them up.

I ended the semester significantly less hopeful about forgiveness than I began. Individual acts of forgiveness have a power to transform people and relationships in a way that still seems sublime, in the technical sense of “sublime:” a phenomenon that challenges our faculty of understanding. And precisely because it has this status, I worry deeply about the demands that we craft policies in such a way as to require that forgiveness become mundane, a quotidian part of the working of a system. Because in those cases it always seems to be the powerless who must forgive, and the powerful who use the rhetoric of forgiveness to demand that their victims ignore oppression and systematic violence.

This is not the hopeful ending I planned. And indeed, it’s not an ending at all; Martha Nussbaum’s new book Anger and Forgiveness came out too late to include in the syllabus, but it’s been helpful to my own thinking, and I shared a few useful passages with the students. Like Brison, Nussbaum treats our relationship to anger, resentment, and revenge as one that we must manage, one that we must prevent from gaining too much control over us. She treats anger and resentment as imprecise heuristics for pointing out injustice, but argues that both justice and individual happiness require the subordination of those passions to capability-expanding outcomes. She brings the literature on survivors together with the philosophical and theological scholarship on forgiveness, and uses that to frame the problems of mass incarceration and transitional justice. So there’s a lot in this book to be excited about, even as I worry that she’s put too much of her emphasis on South Africa’s “success.”

In particular Nussbaum worries about the status-degrading and payback moments in revenge, like when Paul uses forgiveness to get payback. What’s particularly good about the book is that Nussbaum is bringing together so many disparate strands of this problem, so that, for instance, she can show that these hyperbolic payback and status-lowering elements of our retributive impulses have contributed to the American problem with mass incarceration. It’s a big, sophisticated, and difficult text, and while I’ve read most of it, I don’t think I’ve fully digested it yet. So the semester is over, but the true retrospective is always forthcoming.

When not to Forgive: Lessons from the Donatists

As I have repeatedly argued, we ought to reject the obligation to forgive (or compromise) because it undermines the exercise of judgment. If we have neither a categorical nor a conditional duty, then deciding when to forgive–and when not to forgive–is neither a subject to a precise calculation nor a random act of willing. Yet here we find little guidance in political theory: we do not know what we should do or how we will know when to forgive. I don’t think it can be a simple matter of determining when the benefits of forgiveness or compromise outweigh the costs.

So I propose a perhaps-unexpected and undoubtedly too-long example of when not to forgive: the Donatist controversy within the North African Catholic Church. The Donatist controversy exemplifies the tension between situated values and global consensus-seeking in the resistance of local North African congregations to the newfound solidarity between Roman imperial domination and theological authority.  This tension continues to plague political philosophers under many different guises: federalism and subsidiarity, globalization and nationalism, imperialism and home-rule.

Throughout the fourth century, North Africa was the center of intense theological debates about the scope and doctrines of Christianity. These arguments were not simply abstract: partisans for both sides clashed violently. One particular group that gained particular notoriety was a movement that called itself the Agonistici, “warriors for God.” They are depicted by non-Catholic historians as a part of a larger egalitarian social movement bent on harassing landlords who oppressed North African peasants and engaging in redistributive banditry. However, they were dubbed “Circumcellionsby the Catholic Church “because they roved about among the peasants, living on those they sought to indoctrinate.” (Chapman 1911, “Agonistici”) After they were suppressed, the group was accused of terrorism against property-owners and nobility in the region, and of initiating violence designed to lead to martyrdom. The Catholic Encyclopedia offers one famous account of their behavior:

A number of these fanatics, fattened like pheasants, met a young man and offered him a drawn sword to smite them with, threatening to murder him if he refused. He pretended to fear that when he had killed a few, the rest might change their minds and avenge the deaths of their fellows; and he insisted that they must all be bound. They agreed to this; when they were defenseless, the young man gave each of them a beating and went his way. (Chapman 1911, “Donatism”)

As depicted by the Catholics, the Agonistici were an early variety of suicide attackers, seeking martyrdom by provoking others or simply by throwing themselves into the sea. Yet many Protestant Christians have attempted to salvage the image of the Circumcellions as a social justice movement opposed to imperial economic domination and control of matters of conscience.[i] Because few records survive other than the arguments of the partisans (which carry what appears to be propagandistic rhetoric) there is little evidence or contemporary source material upon which to base our estimation of the movement.

We do know that the Agnostici were members of what has come to be called the Donatist sect, which originated from a schismatic response to religious persecution under the Romans. At the start of the fourth century, Christians throughout the Roman Empire were persecuted under edicts demanding that their churches be destroyed, their sacred texts burnt, and their clergy forced to renounce the faith or face death. Though this persecution lasted only two years, from 303 to 305 CE, it left Christians in North African congregations in disarray, as some who had given their scriptures to the Roman officials to be burnt were declared surrenderers, literally traitors,traditor’ from the Latin transditio, “to give over.” Those who refused to give up their copies of the sacred scriptures risked martyrdom, and many were executed while others were imprisoned, tortured, or lived as fugitives. When the surrenderers returned to their churches after the persecutions ceased, those who refused to recant expressed their disappointment in their fellows’ betrayal by excommunicating them:

“Even to alter a single letter of the Scriptures was a crime, but contemptuously to destroy the whole at the command of pagan magistrates was to merit eternal punishment in Hell.” (Frend 2000, 10)

As Roman rule shifted from persecution to patronage for Church officials under Constantine, the incentives for challenging the legitimacy of a potential nominee’s credentials grew.

However, this issue came to a head eight years later when Pope Miltiades declared that Donatus of Cassae Nigrae was guilty of schism for rebaptizing lapsed clergy.[ii] The theological dispute has been framed since then in terms of the distinction of office and officer: the Catholics held that even a corrupt or sinful officer can perform the duties of his office legitimately if the formal conditions of ordination are met, while Donatus seemed to believe that a clergyman’s baptism could only be authoritative if it was performed by an officer whose own “credentials” were in order, which was not the case for clergy baptized by the excommunicated traitors. Put another way, the Donatists agreed that a schism had occurred, but believed it existed between those whose loyalty to the Roman Empire trumped their participation in the Christian communion. They refused to forgive their fellows for this choice and this doctrinal division became the basis for a generalized opposition to Roman authority projected across the Mediterranean through military, economic, and theological domination.

North African Christians of the time faced a series of interrelated conflicts between the congregations at Numidia and Carthage, among secular authorities loyal to Rome and those who sought political and economic independence, and among the traditores and fanatical rigorists who had opted for martyrdom but survived the persecutions. Rigorism and fanaticism were especially popular among the poor, for whom the promise of a blessed afterlife was undoubtedly tempting in the face of imperial economic domination. Sound familiar?

Provincial rivalry between city and country, anti-imperial fervor, and class-based religious zealotry combined to create a schism in which the clergy of Carthage unfairly elected a Primate of Africa without the participation of the Numidian clergy or the support of the Carthaginian people. Enraged by what they perceived as a power grab, the Numidians went to Carthage and challenged the election with the support of the Carthaginian poor. The Carthaginian choice, Caecilian, had been consecrated by three bishops, and one of these bishops, Felix of Apthungi, was accused of surrendering, of betraying the faith, and though he was declared innocent in 315, the damage was done.

Since the Primate controlled the Church’s wealth in North Africa, there were obvious political and economic motivations for this theological challenge. The Donatists maintained that lapses like surrendering the scriptures required penance and forgiveness before a traditor could rejoin the Church: “unfruitful branches are to be cut off and cast aside… unless they are reconciled through penance with wailing acknowledgment [of their fault.]” (Frend 2000, 20) This is the charitable version of the doctrine, since the more radical members of the sect suggested that penance would be achieved when they were able to “break Caecillian’s head.” (Frend 2000, 19)  They further held that it was the martyrs who must absolve and readmit the traitor, that forgiveness was theirs to give, not the sinner’s to earn. Thus, by consecrating Caecilian without first having been absolved, he accepted communion with someone who did not deserve it. Though he may not have known Felix of Apthungi’s failings at the time of the consecration, the Donatists held that on learning of them he ought to have denounced Felix and moved to seek a valid sacrament of consecration with the approval of the Numidian bishops.

Though this argument was self-serving, it was also consistent with African practice, which preferred rebaptism as a symbolic and actual penance, and emphasized a rigorous definition of the community of believers that shunned sinners and lapses. Though they were at odds with the Pope in Rome, the rigorist followers of Donatus, who refused to be in communion with anyone who did not denounce the traitors, quickly grew to be a majority. When Augustine of Hippo became the Roman Church’s public face in opposition to this doctrine a century later, his success in the ecclesiastical court was not matched in public opinion. Donatism remained the preferred blend of Christianity in North Africa until the eighth century, when Donatist Christianity largely gave way to Islam.

The theological issues at the heart of the Donatist controversy are the Christian sacraments of baptism and communion, but there is a dispute about forgiveness and community underlying these doctrinal matters, with implications for judgment. The budding imperial hopes of Roman Catholicism under Constantine claimed the power to unite all human beings under a single ecclesiastical authority, where agreement on the divinity of Christ could ground a transnational political authority. Ultimately, even these basic agreements were insufficient for suppressing intercommunity rivalry or the daily indignities of class and their attendant resentments, which arose in complex procedural and doctrinal differentiation which became the basis for principled disagreements and righteous violence.

However, it is here that the Donatist controversy becomes more than a historical example. Augustine’s North African theological opponents also rejected his defense of the public and political implications of Christian charity. Their skandalon was symbolic: the original traditors were only guilty of ‘rendering unto Cesear what is God’s.’ They felt no obligation to forgive those who betrayed them, even though the original treason was a century old, but their refusal to forgive became the basis for a community organized primarily in resistance to imperial and economic domination. They became fixated on their grievances, adopting what has become known as a chosen trauma: “a large group’s unconsciously defining its identity by the transgenerational transmission of injured selves infused with the memory of the ancestor’s trauma.” (Volkan 1998, 48) In most chosen traumas, forgetting the grievance or forgoing identification with it would be sufficient to dissolve the bonds of the community. Certainly the Church fathers of Carthage cannot have forgotten that the Roman Empire had destroyed the city during the Punic Wars, but it was religious persecution that the North African congregations chose to protest.

In his 417 CE letter to Boniface on the controversy, Augustine reminds his readers why schism is sin: “An enemy of unity cannot share in God-given charity.” (Augustine 2001, 203) To have worked through the phenomenology of desire that leads to caritas is to have accepted that all humans share both an essence as sinners who must turn towards God and an origin as God’s creatures who inhabit a world that they have not created but that they must make habitable through love. Though that essence apparently points us away from each other and into isolation, it is coterminous with our shared origin, which points us towards each other and the world we must create and maintain in order to love each other. To refuse communion with another would-be-Christian is thus to refuse to share the world with him or her, to refuse the shared origin and thus–on Augustine’s view–to demonstrate that one has misunderstood the results of the phenomenology of desire. The evidence for caritas is to be found in our every gluttonous thought and urge for those willing to follow them to their conclusion, and only willful blindness could allow the Donatists to accept so much of Christian doctrine while refusing to see the principle of charity upon which it is based.

What responses did the Donatists offer to this logic? The arguments to which we observe Augustine respond are twofold: first, that a sinner must be forgiven and rebaptised before re-entering communion with his fellows Christians, and second, that the occupants of an office can tar that office if they are not exemplary officeholders. This second argument has come to be known more broadly because it encapsulates a legal principle: that the acts of an office are not tainted by the acts of the officeholder, because, in the Church at least, the office gains its authority from God and all human officeholders are likely sinners. The same thing goes for authority granted by a political constitution but granted to fallible and corrupt men. As Maureen Tilley explains, “The Donatists saw the Church not so much as a hypostatized institution, as Augustine did, but as the people who professed Christianity.” (Tilley 1991, 14)

Yet the Donatists had a third argument which the Catholics, including Augustine, refused to address head-on: that “the right to use the appellation ‘Catholic’ was a central issue of the Conference.” (Tilley 1991, 12) They could agree that schism is a sin while preserving their position if only they could show that it was the Roman Church which was in schism with North Africa, and not vice versa. By associating themselves with the same empire that had previously oppressed them, the Catholics had ceded their claim to be the universal representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ. Until they were forgiven by the Donatists, they could not claim to be representatives of the true Church.

The Donatists couched their concerns in terms of the specific doctrines of baptism and personhood upon which the conference at Carthage dwelled, but only because they and the Catholics both came to the conference as litigants, not interlocutors. Or, as Tilley describes the rhetorical contestation, they both sought to depict themselves as the defendant: “For these people being the true Church meant being the persecuted church. Therefore it would be unthinkable for them to make the first accusation.” (Tilley 1991, 12) The antagonistic framework of the conference forced that schism deeper.

As the debate evolved, Augustine would repeatedly assert that this question could be ignored in favor of the distinction between office and office-holder or in the distinction between confession and baptism. But in making this argument, he was effectively arguing that the Church was a political institution, with authority over both the souls and the lives of its congregants. In contrast, the Donatists argued that the Church is constituted by its members and has no independent life, and vice versa: that believers could not sustain their faith in isolation for their communion. As a result, the personal holiness of an individual is not purely the product of his or her own will, but rather dependent on his origins and the company he keeps. Throughout the dispute, the Donatists attempted to identify the lineage of each of their interlocutors, including Augustine, and show that they had been baptized or ordained by traditors.

Though Augustine treats their arguments as legalistic hairsplitting, and responds in kind by seeking contradictions and resisting charitable interpretation, the Donatists did have a point beyond their idiosyncratic concerns around rebaptism and the equation of office and office holder.

“In a legal context the examination of the persona would judge the fitness of the person to execute a contract or to appear in court in whatever capacity. In a religious sense, person indicated the moral character of an individual. Petilian exposed the double nature of the concept and its implications in an unequivocal manner. Bishops might gather to discuss a theological issue, but Christians, he said, do not go to civil court with one another. He demanded a resolution of the problem. The very option of resorting to civil law, especially on a religious matter, by any so-called Christian participant appeared in Petilian’s eyes as an abdication of the claim to be a Christian.” (Tilley 1991, 17)

By the Donatist way of reckoning, merely by seeking to enforce the authority of Rome, the Catholics were already sacrificing their authority as Catholics, i.e. as representatives of the true and universal Church. But Augustine’s response grants this, and this is why the dispute is not treated as a lawsuit but as a conference between fellow Bishops: rather than addressing the particularities of a criminal accusation, the interlocutors were to devote themselves to matters of doctrine and theology. Yet this was hardly a victory for the Donatists, because much of their claim to being the true Church depended on the particular acts of religious oppression that they had yet to forgive, by which they laid claim to the notion that that the Roman Church could not really be in communion with them as equal discussants regarding matters of faith until they were forgiven by those they had been trespassed against.

The Donatists preferred to have the abstract debate about the nature of the Church and the sacraments within the context of historical acts. In forcing them to choose between specific acts and ecclesiological principles, Augustine put his rhetorical and legal skills to the task of misunderstanding the Donatists’ concerns. Thus the Donatists complaints are treated as irrational, self-contradictory, or unintelligible, rather than as candidates for belief and affirmation. For Augustine, this uncharitable reading was in the name of the larger charity of unity. But in taking up that cause in the name of the Roman Catholic Church, he was never able to fully consider the question of which Church was “true,” of which Church had split from the other.

Augustine’s response seeks to enforce the duty to forgive. But he acted to advance the purposes of a political institution, not an onto-theo-logical affect of caritas. In this, he was helping to develop a model for the Church that could be both grounded in charity and granted a monopoly on legitimate violence, “because it was right that people should be forced to come to the banquet of everlasting security once the church was strong and sturdy in members….”(Augustine 2001, 158) Augustine’s failure is, at root, the failure to mobilize the ‘incongruities’ between human beings conceived simultanouesly as isolated mortals worldlessly focused on Being and neighborly creatures dwelling in a world they must make habitable.

The Donatists judged that reunion with the Catholics would entail a new domination by the crumbling Roman Empire. They refused to forgive, refused to share authority and a political world with Roman agents who claimed to want only peace but had historically engaged in political domination in the region. The question that Augustine’s letters present is this: could they forgo ‘sharing authority’ while preserving the charitable affect of dwelling in a shared world? Generally speaking charity does not demand agreement or the fusion of horizons, certainly not in the face of an unforgiveable scandal.

Hannah Arendt argues that judgment requires some withdrawal from perspective, some artificial suppression of pluralism through the embrace and enforcement of a “common sense” or homonoia. I believe the best explanation for this is that judging as withdrawal from personal perspective is predicated on loving the world, whose perspective we take when we abandon our own. In dialogue, we fashion a shared world with those who share our tradition, and we begin the process that will eventually be narrated as a shared history. Instead of a “view from nowhere” deliberative judging is the adoption of the plurality’s viewpoint, but that plurality is necessarily exclusive. The account of judging that would have emerged from an extension of Arendt’s reading of Augustine on the ‘love of the world,’ would be one which preserved this tension between homonoia and the enlarged mentality. Maximal tolerance still entails the intolerance of intolerance, and even Rawlsian pluralism excludes the irrational. Moreover, tolerance itself is not enough: the condition of world-sharing demands that we act and judge together. The love of the world becomes a love of the tradition, of the history that brings us to this moment and that authorizes us to work together. A shared history like that between Carthage and Rome could not be mediated by agents of Rome unless that agent was willing to charitably embrace the perspective that demanded division.

When, then, ought we to forgo forgiveness? Here’s one possibility: when forgiveness comes at the expense of homonoia, of the like-mindedness required for deliberative judgment. This is exactly the situation which confronted the Donatists. They did not oppose authority as such or unity as such: they merely hoped to control conditions under which authority or unity could be granted. They argued, and fought, to preserve a distinct and isonomic political community, in which matters of theology could be resolved by like-minded community members. They did not reject caritas by seeking to preserve their theological and political segregation, but they did seek to preserve theological pluralism even at the expense of a greater sensus communis between Carthage and Rome.

[i] See, for instance, (Gaddis 2005), (Tilley 1996), and (Von Heyking 2001).

[ii]My account here largely depends on that supplied by W. H. C. Frend in (Frend 2000) He relies on Opatus of Milevis’ De Schismate for the dating of the Pope’s verdict against Donatus.

Chapman, John. In The Catholic Encyclopaedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.

Gaddis, M. There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire: Univ of California Pr, 2005.

Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman Africa. New York: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Tilley, M. A. “Dilatory Donatists or Procrastinating Catholics: The Trial at the Conference of Carthage.” Church History (1991): 7-19.
———. Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa: Liverpool Univ Pr, 1996.

Von Heyking, J. Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World: Univ of Missouri Pr, 2001.

Margalit and Derrida on Forgiveness and the Skandalon

Avishai Margalit offers an interesting justification for the duty to forgive. The obligation to forgive the other’s crimes for one’s own sake “stems from not wanting to live with feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge.” (Margalit 2002, 207) Where Immanuel Kant holds that we owe it to ourselves as rational beings to be free from the pathological heteronomy of malice, Margalit associates this obligation to forgive with the obligation to preserve one’s own health: to fail to forgive is to imbibe “poisonous attitudes and states of mind.” (Margalit 2002, 207) In either case, the obligation to forgive is a special case of self-preservation and self-care.

Part of his reasoning is that Margalit wants to preserve the role of regret and to distinguish forgiveness from forgetting. His principle concern is memory and the obligation to remember past transgressions, so Margalit argues that we need to find a way to deal with past transgressions in a way that does not completely blot out their memory. As a religious practice, forgiveness models the divine absolution between the Creator and his creation and so requires two actors: the penitent, who remorsefully reports her crimes to the priest or to his Creator who already knows them, and the confessor, who judges her contrition and offers penance and the absolution of her sins. It is the transgressor’s act of remorse that ‘covers up’ her crimes. In undoing his past acts, the remorseful transgressor not only makes himself worthy of forgiveness, but creates a positive obligation in his victim. Quoting Maimonides, Margalit chides us that “it is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow oneself to be appeased.” (Margalit 2002, 194) But in converting the religious vocabulary of divine prohibition into a humanist dialect of ordinary duties and rights, he preserves the claim that forgiveness is a duty rather than supererogatory.

Focusing on the root ‘give,’ Margalit articulates the problem of an obligatory gift, but, pointing to the work of early anthropologists, concludes that some gifts are “intended to form or strengthen social ties between the original giver and the one who returns the gift.” (Margalit 2002, 195) On this reading, the original giver is the transgressor, who offers his remorse.

“I am claiming that the obligation to forgive, to the extent that such an obligation exists, is like the obligation not to reject a gift—an obligation not to reject the expression of remorse and the plea for forgiveness.”(Margalit 2002, 196)

To refuse to forgive is to refuse a gift, not an exorbitant gift, but an ordinary one, as when gifts are exchanged in what eventually appears as an economic transaction similar to any other commercial deal. The victim is obligated to respond in kind by granting forgiveness, in the name of “social ties.” Compare this to Hannah Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann: that no one, not even she, could be asked to “share the world” with him. For Margalit, the forgiver must exclude the forgiven act from all future judgments of her transgressor. The transgressor’s remorse covers over the past, but it still falls to the forgiver to resist peaking underneath the cover of forgiveness.

The metaphor of the palimpsest helps to illustrate this task: though the transgression is indelible and ineradicable, the forgiver nonetheless scratches it out. Forgiveness leaves an overwritten mark that can be deciphered, especially in light of further transgressions.

What does it mean to claim that such a pure gift is possible? To give remorse in expectation of forgiveness is like giving a gift in expectation of the return of a gift of equal or greater value. It is the economy of the gift, the obligatory mutuality of this “mutual release,” that troubles Arendt when she encounters it in Auden’s letter. My suspicion is that it cannot be obligated in the way that Margalit suggests: if forgiveness is to retain its capacity to begin anew, it cannot be subjected to this sort of calculation.

Margalit’s account mirrors that of another recent theorist of forgiveness, Jacques Derrida, who pushes this tension into a now-famous paradox to the debates on deliberation based on a similar paradox in the gift. (Bernstein 2006, Derrida, et al. 2001) Derrida juxtaposes obligatory forgiveness with what he calls impossible forgiveness. On the one hand, there are acts of forgiveness required by the regular and ordinary relations of friends or fellow citizens. We ask and expect forgiveness for lateness or when we brush past someone in a crowded space. To refuse to forgive in those situations appears as a provocation or an attack. When strangers deny each other this petty reconciliation, they are declaring hostility. When friends refuse to make allowance for each others’ foibles, they effectively dissolve the friendship. Insofar as we wish to avoid hostilities or preserve the friendship, we are obliged to trade remorse for this ordinary and expected gift of forgiveness. As such, ordinary reconciliation is hardly real forgiveness, just as an exchange of equally valuable goods isn’t really giving.

On the other hand, there is forgiveness that Derrida labels “impossible.” This is the skandalon, the unforgiveable act over which our efforts to forgive not only stumble but are absolutely incapable of making headway. Systematic injustices, massacres, torture, and acts of genocide all present themselves to us as candidates for forgiveness, but Derrida argues that these acts are not really within our jurisdiction to forgive.  Either because we cannot represent the dead victims or because the act itself is too unimaginably atrocious that it resists our efforts even to understand or the criminal’s efforts to encompass in meaningful remorse, forgiveness in these situations is impossible.

For Derrida, this is an aporia: forgiveness is impossible, because it is only really required when we face an unforgiveable transgression. Yet those unforgiveable transgressions are the only times when forgiveness is necessary. Anything less than the unforgiveable need not be forgiven, since such negligible acts can be simply reconciled, overlooked, or embraced as peccadilloes if friendship is to be possible at all. Since I must forgive minor transgressions, the only tests of forgiveness are precisely those acts that are beyond my capacity to forgive. Is it obligatory? Is it possible? We cannot know this a priori: we must wait and see.

As I see it, the limit of forgiveness is not within our voluntary power, an act of will, but rather in developing the capacity to imagine the act that we are trying to forgive. Thus the skandalon of forgiveness is an imaginative challenge, we stumble over it when acts are unimaginable, and we overleap it when our imagination succeeds. We make these imagined acts meaningful for others through poiesis: we create a world of meaning in which they are imaginable by marking exemplars, noting commonalities, and creating spaces of remembrance. The product of our work thus makes these meaningless deaths and thought-defying atrocities meaningful and thinkable. If you think about it from the perspective of un-consolable resentment, this is a crime akin to justification or exoneration.

This fundamentally creative act is ultimately what made Arendt’s work on Eichmann so troubling: not that she herself made him appealing or granted him mercy, but that by imagining the kind of character that could have helped commit genocide, it made that genocide forgiveable as it ought never to be. Whether Arendt forgave Eichmann or condemned him to die is then irrelevant: insofar as she created the conditions for forgiveness, she deserves repudiation and hatred. She used her imagination to make the impossible-to-forgive possible.

Laughter and Forgiveness (An Addendum)

"Laugh," by The Doctr on Flickr.

“Laugh,” by The Doctr on Flickr.

Originally laughter contained a feeling of pleasure in prey or food which seemed certain. A human being who falls down reminds us of an animal we might have hunted and brought down ourselves. Every sudden fall which arouses laughter does so because it suggests helplessness and reminds us that the fallen can, if we want, be treated as prey. If we went further and actually ate it, we would not laugh. We laugh instead of eating it… As Hobbes said, laughter expresses a sudden feeling of superiority, but he did not add that it only occurs when the normal consequences of this superiority do not ensue. (Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 223)

Over on Facebook, Anotherpanacea raised a good point about my last post on mocking the hierarchical.  To paraphrase: if my target is hierarchy, why am I suggesting that we make fun of people who like it – isn’t mocking and laughter a tool for showing who is on top and who is not?

It can be but it need not be. Laughter can be a powerful tool for human connection and forgiveness as well. Fundamentally, we laugh at the frailty and vulnerability of the human condition. I laugh when Louis C.K. talks about being a shitty Dad, because I see in his stories (and his superior comic timing) my own ardent desire to be a perfect father, and inevitable failures. When I was doing research in Liberia, one of the “peace women” told my colleague that they were able to get a powerful politician on their side by having the oldest woman in their group indignantly insist that he honor his mother, at which he laughed and said that because he was a soldier and they were mothers, they both knew pain and he would help them.

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

The paradox here is very much like the paradox of forgiveness. To forgive, we must simultaneously hold on to the view that the other person did wrong – deciding that there was no transgression is not forgiveness – but not following that recognition to its “normal consequences” in judgment and punishment.

So, when I want to mock the hierarchical, two things. First, I am mocking myself. I live a pretty comfy life on the backs of people less well-off than I am. I need forgiveness for all the time I’ve spent writing blogs instead of gleaning food, and all the money I’ve spent on Wonder Woman comics instead of sending to BRAC. I’m laughing at myself so that I can look myself in the mirror a little more clearly.

Second, as a result, I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.”