Being just is inhuman.”

We don’t do a lot of straight-up links to non-academic papers here at AUFS. But when we do, I like to think we have very special cause. For my money, Susie Linfield’s essay “Living with the Enemy” more than meets my definition of “special cause.”

As an essay, I think it kind of loses focus near the end. But as a whole, I find it nothing short of stunning. If nothing else, I’m hopeful that it gets more people (myself included) reading Jean Améry. The essay itself is positively riddled with heartbreaking poetry. E.g., quotes like:

“The tortured person never ceases to be amazed that all those things one may… call his soul, or his mind, or his consciousness, or his identity, are destroyed when there is that cracking and splintering in the shoulder joints… Only through torture did he learn that a living person can be transformed so thoroughly into flesh.” (Jean Améry)

Revenge and reconciliation are often posited as opposites, with justice as the mediator between the two. But the Rwandan victims understand—far more wisely than either perpetrators or theorists—how inadequate all these purported solutions are; each fails to address, to heal, to unmake, or even to lessen the crime of genocide and the unending pain it causes. For the so-called survivors, genocide is the crime with no sentence, the problem with no solution, the crime with no end. “What’s the use of looking for mitigating circumstances… ?” asks Berthe Mwanankabandi, whose parents and eleven siblings were murdered. “What can you mitigate? The number of victims? The methods of hacking? The killers’ laughter? Delivering justice would mean killing the killers. But that would be like another genocide… Killing or punishing the guilty in some suitable way: impossible. Pardoning them: unthinkable. Being just is inhuman.”

That last sentence, especially, just stands out to me in such a stark, haunting way. I do wish, though, that Linfield had dwelt on that thought longer, esp. as so much of what precedes it is read through Améry, who seems absolutely consumed by the fundamental injustice of forgiveness & reconciliation. This, to me, is something worth thinking much more about.

11 thoughts on “Being just is inhuman.”

  1. Brad, thank you for bringing that piece to my attention. It is as good as you say it is. It returns us to the issues that are raised in Inglorious Bastards, namely, the injustice of forgiveness and the justice of vengeance. The following lines are particularly telling:

    Of the perpetrators [of the Rwandan genocide], another survivor asserts, “I myself would have no trouble watching them be shot, one after the other, in public.… Forgiving them means nothing human. That may be the will of God, but not ours.”

    There is a cliche we hear all the time, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” What if we take it literally? What if we stop insisting that forgiveness of unspeakable crimes is something we as humans are expected to perform? What if we accept the fact that only God can forgive such crimes?

    On a related note, I am looking forward to the publication in August of David Konstan’s new book called Before Forgiveness from Cambridge. Here is the Cambridge website abstract. I think it should shake up some of the assumptions of Christian theology:

    In this book, David Konstan argues that the modern concept of interpersonal forgiveness, in the full sense of the term, did not exist in ancient Greece and Rome. Even more startlingly, it is not fully present in the Hebrew Bible, nor in the New Testament or in the early Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Holy Scriptures. It would still be centuries – many centuries – before the idea of interpersonal forgiveness, with its accompanying ideas of apology, remorse, and a change of heart on the part of the wrongdoer, would emerge. For all its vast importance today in religion, law, politics, and psychotherapy, interpersonal forgiveness is a creation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Christian concept of divine forgiveness was finally secularized. Forgiveness was God’s province, and it took a revolution in thought to bring it to earth and make it a human trait.

    Konstan suggests, and I would agree with him, that “bringing forgiveness to earth” is not any sort of advance over antiquity, but quite the reverse. It gives perpetrators of unspeakable crimes a sense of moral superiority over those who refuse to forgive them. It is inhuman.

  2. The Konstan book looks fascinating.

    What if we take it literally? What if we stop insisting that forgiveness of unspeakable crimes is something we as humans are expected to perform? What if we accept the fact that only God can forgive such crimes?

    Impressing this seems a necessary step to teaching the Bible. For some reason, this has generally gone better for me with young people than with adults–perhaps clearer memories of schoolyard injustices and the repulsiveness of that mock “forgiveness” rituals they are compelled to engage in. Whatever the reason, it often doesn’t take long to get a 13 year old to admit that forgiving wrongdoing is a big problem.

  3. Thanks for posting this. Every now and again lurking at this site pays off in a significant way, and today was one of those days.

  4. Yeah, I was going to say “I hope Stuart comes around to discuss this” – it reminds me of one of the books you were reading perhaps even a few years ago which was about genocide and forgiveness, whereby the holocaust was an exception in terms of this, since the people involved did not have to live side by side, whereas with other historical genocides they do often immediately afterwards.

  5. Yeah, it’s all very relevant – I’ve just ordered those Hatzfeld books that are referenced. The Jean Amery essay on resentment is crucial, as well; not quite sure how I managed to miss it before.

  6. If you ask David Konstan, you might be able to get materials from that book above too. Also Nina Power is looking for reviewers for Philosophers Magazine, might be worth saying you’ll review this for a free copy…

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