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.

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