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.

Shugars on Compromise and Enemies

Sarah Shugars evaluates the prospects for compromise in matters of justice and injustice:

…if a full victory is beyond our reach perhaps a step towards justice is better than the status quo. Or, perhaps, a step towards justice will simply mollify the moderates, who will no longer feel the need to fight for more robust reform. On the other hand, refusing to compromise may earn you enemies – alienating moderates who might otherwise be willing to support your cause. These are complex, strategic questions which every movement and activist must evaluate and consider. Importantly, a willingness to compromise for the good of the movement should not be confused with an instinctual response of conflict-avoidance.

I don’t think Shugars justifies that last line: perhaps it’s wrong to avoid conflict, but perhaps too those instincts have wisdom, such as the importance of preserving comity for future matters. A nation torn by value-based disagreements can fail to fix a lot of roads and schools while they glare daggers at each other. (Ask me how I know!)

And activists are not always the best judges of either their opponents or the effective strategies for achieving their goals (nor are philosophers and political theorists, of course). In any case the question of instinct here suppresses a decision about the default strategies we should adopt that is itself strategic and requires the utmost prudence and practical wisdom.

Shugars also quotes the excellent Charles Mackay poem, No Enemies, with its rousing challenge that those without enemies have stood by as cowards before injustice. But we ought also to consider Wendell Berry:

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,
how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then
is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go
free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not
think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

Elections, Partisanship, and the Call for Moderation in Civic Life

One of things I like least about elections is partisanship. This is a strange thing to say, since of course if an election is to occur, it should be about differences in the candidates’ policy preferences and at the national level most voters must use political parties to get a clear sense of how the candidates would act in concert with other elected politicians.

In that sense, we seem to be getting much better at distinguishing our choices. Only a few generations ago, political scientists protested the lack of significant differences between the parties. They could hardly do so today: the last two decades have been a time of serious and growing polarization and enmity. Yet it seems we are rancorous on almost every question, from health care and same sex marriage to climate change policy and gun ownership. No gag rule can prevent the partisan spin that takes new issues and renders them fodder for our passionate disagreements. In that context, the most successful political activism will be sub-national or international: it will ignore the national institutions designated for politics but riven by paralysis.

But one of the things that I think I know is that no matter how much we might disagree about one law or policy, that disagreement should not be allowed to destroy the possibility of a future alliance on a different problem. Citizens tempted by partisanship have to find a way to hold their ideas and convictions loosely. They have to preserve civic friendship and reject permanent divisions. In a society where a few issues become the signal issues of note, our enmity grows until it encompasses every other issue where we might share interests. Thus, deep partisanship is paralyzing not just because it comes from real intractable disagreements, but because those intractable disagreements radiate out into the rest of our civic lives.

Thus a good society will tend to suppress those areas of passionate disagreement in favor of the alliances and collaboration that less contentious matters make possible. The trick is that areas of passionate disagreement tend to be pretty important. Consider Stephen Holmes’ Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of a Liberal Democracywhere Holmes points out how often the liberal order has survived in the US by creating a political system that deliberately ignores the most pressing and passionate politics of the day. After all, the republic was founded to preserve slavery and ignore the very pressing arguments against it. Holmes even recounts the brutal beating of Senator Charles Sumner by the coward Albert Brooks in a discussion of the Senate’s tacit gag rule on discussions of slavery. For this reason, Holmes praises the liberal and undemocratic institutions like the Supreme Court that can dissolve passionate disagreements without invoking the brutal passions of citizens who must find a way to work together the next day.

This is moderation: a position every bit as as compromised at the example of anetebellum Senators standing by the beating of an abolitionist by a slave owner, along with ignoring the enslavement of their fellow human beings. The things we feel most deeply, including the evils in which we reject complicity, are not things we should ignore. Indeed, we should see opponents who support such acts and policies as irredeemable, evil, monstrous; not fellow citizens and sometimes allies but perpetual enemies. We should reject compromise with such people until the battle is won.

But here’s the problem: they think the same thing. And there are systemic facts about our political constitution that will always work to create partisan identities of roughly equal size in our national political life. Most arguments in Congress are tied to changes in spending and taxation that amount to a few points of GDP either way. Most radical conservatives and radical liberals actually hold a group of varied and contradictory beliefs, very few of which fit into this frame of enmity and hatred. So terms like Republican and Democrat and conservative and liberal are free-floating signifiers that don’t really track particular policy preferences or ideologies over time, even as they mark a long-term division among those who ought properly to concern themselves with the co-creation of our shared world.

Almost all of the things we think about politics, especially about the other party, just aren’t true.

Here’s what’s true, to the best of my knowledge:

There are real differences between the parties. But they’re not nearly as big as the parties and their adherents like to pretend, even as the parties have grown a lot more polarized (which is to say, the differences used to be even smaller!) One of these parties is not communist, and the other party is not libertarian. At most, Democrats want to raise federal spending by a few points of GDP. At most, Republicans want to cut federal spending by a few points of GDP.

African-Americans are still killed and incarcerated in large numbers by cops in Democratic cities. Women are still raped and abused in Democratic strongholds. The things that matter most to these groups are very rarely even on the ballot or in front of the relevant politician: the one exception is abortion, and in the states where it’s on the ballot, women (50% of whom think abortion is morally wrong) are voting against it too.

Political radicalism among our representatives is mostly drive by: (1) the way that we have sorted ourselves into partisan enclaves, (2) the way the primary system has changed, (3) and the strong restrictions on “pork” which used to grease the skids of bipartisanship. (4: Campaign Finance issues matter, too.)

There are many questions about whether the electorate has changed as well, but the best evidence suggests that we’re just as mixed up ideologically as we always were: as an empirical matter, ordinary Americans do not use these abstract terms in the same way partisan intellectuals do. Self-classified liberals tend to have liberal views on specific policy issues, but self-classified conservatives are much more heterogeneous; many, even majorities, express liberal views on specific issues, such as abortion rights, gun control and drug law reform.

That is, the supposed polarization of the electorate is just as much a myth as any supposed moderation. It’s probably more sensible to say that we’re all over the place, radically liberal and conservative and sometimes moderate too: citizens often support policies on both sides of the ideological spectrum, but these policies are often not moderate.

What’s more, President Obama has largely left Bush-era foreign policy in place.

The one place where the parties’ policies and practices really diverge is LGBT rights. And that’s only recently: remember that it was Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and the divergence is not going to last for long.

Citizen, Renew Thyself

I tend to think that the most fundamental question in political philosophy is whether we need a state and what sort of thing that is. (In political theory it’s how we got a state and what we should do with it.) Peter Levine recently asked a related question: what should we do when political leaders call for civic renewal?

It’s kind of a confusing question: where do citizen-elected leaders get the authority to ask us to be better citizens? What’s clear is that we frequently ignore such calls: as a candidate in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama’s calls for citizen action were quickly channeled into the traditional Democratic electoral machine, and today Pope Francis’s calls for the same will have to be channeled through the steering and transmission mechanisms of the Catholic Church. I’d say perhaps we even ought to ignore them, for all the reasons that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” capture. A citizens movement doesn’t have to be leaderless, but the kinds of leaders ensconced at the top of large institutions are not well-suited to be the leaders of civic renewal movements. They can inspire and celebrate such movements, but neither Barack Obama nor Bernie Sanders nor Pope Francis can lead them. Their institutional authority appears to be inimical to the very bottom-up power they’re trying to engender.

Part of the issue here is that I have a strong anti-electoral-politics bias. I worry about the ways that elections serve to blunt citizen action and legitimate state power. I worry about the ways that elections polarize us. I worry about the ways that elections create heroic narratives of individual politicians come to save us. And so I tend to think that civic renewal must de-emphasize the importance of elections and partisanship.

Another issue is money. Peter watched throughout his life as US elections have been swamped by money and he has actively fought against it; I’m a bit younger and it seems that’s always been the case and that the battles were always destined to be losing ones. One can *almost* imagine a civic renewal movement that takes up this problem explicitly and campaigns for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and re-assert some form of campaign finance restrictions… but given the size of the country and the difficulty in amending the constitution, it would (ironically) have to be an extraordinarily well-funded campaign to end well-funded campaigns.

We might instead choose to devote those resources to responding to a specific policy demand, for instance Pope Francis’s call in Laudatio Si’ that we organize and protest for climate change. This is much more exciting for me, in part because of the demand for substantive rather than procedural policy changes, and in part because the focused attention to a political project seems to offer more hope for procedural changes along the way than a procedural project would offer substantive side effects.

In the encyclical itself, Pope Francis mostly calls for dialogue and education, which strikes me as appropriate for his position but inadequate to the need. In public comments he has called for direct, citizen-led action, however, and the encyclical also hints at it as an expression of “social love”:

Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love”. Social love is the key to authentic development: “In order to make society more human, more worthy of the human person, love in social life – political, economic and cultural – must be given renewed value, becoming the constant and highest norm for all activity”. In this framework, along with the importance of little everyday gestures, social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.

I’ve written at length about the difficulties of importing the Christian conception of caritas into the public sphere, so I won’t belabor that point here. But surely this is divine demand for intervention is an important substantive claim: as more and more religious organizations have realized, the global and international role of faith and religious solidarity means that they cannot be satisfied by the politics of nation-states, and the cross-cutting relationships that faith can make a space for are not necessarily anti-political. Even for people of faith, our treasures do not entirely lie in Heaven: we must organize to be efficacious in particular policy arenas and to be effective this organization will have to both deeply rooted in the specifics of the faith and simultaneously ecumenical.

Organizing for a cause, citizens often learn that political contestation and civic engagement is intrinsically rewarding. But it suffers from the same teleological paradox as other such goods: the telos of an engaged citizenry requires that engagement serve as a meaningful means to some other end. As is often the case, it comes back to Hannah Arendt for me: we must wrestle with our fellow citizens in the public sphere on matters of shared concern to live flourishing lives, yet when we engage we must do so for some other, particular reason.

As terrible as the threat of climate change might be, it gives me some hope that it might force us to rediscover the revolutionary treasure that is often lost in amillenial times.

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.