Forgiveness as a Political Act

Forgiveness as a Political Act

The national party conventions have now ended, and outside of a few oddities, we saw pretty much what we expected to see: lots of pageantry, lots of bloviating, and the unsurprising confirmation of Trump and Clinton as their respective parties’ candidates.  But there was another common element present in the event, one with much more insidious qualities: attempts to rally the base by disparaging opponents. Sometimes, this tendency took the form of literal demonizing, as when Ben Carson aligned Clinton with Lucifer, but it most often came when speakers made supporters of the other side seem inhuman. Consider Chris Christie’s angry call to jail Hilary Clinton. Consider the appeals to “hard-working families like yours” in Elizabeth Warren’s speech, to say nothing of the “we trusted you” chants that berated Warren for her betrayal.

The inescapability of such antagonism should surprise no one, as we have long understood that communities naturally form around enemies. Nothing builds an “us” quite like a “them.”

Few people understood this truism better than early 20th century philosopher Carl Schmitt, the so-called “Nazi jurist” tasked with justifying the holocaust to the rest of the world. Schmitt accomplished his goal by appealing to foundational Euro-American assumptions about community. When interacting with people outside of our family or homes, Schmitt explained, we constantly make a distinction between friends who share our ways of life and enemies who do not.

We can peacefully live among, and may even respect these enemies, Schmitt claimed, but we cannot forget that they are not like us. The enemy always remains “the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.”[1] Schmitt goes on to insist that conflicts are not only possible, but unavoidable. And because, at any minute, violent disagreement can break out – within or without the community – we must be always ready to recognize who is like us and who is different, who has our back and who will turn against us.

In short, Schmitt believes that building similarity and destroying difference is the basis of modern society. To him, the Nazis were just doing what everyone else does when they’re scared. And even today, it’s hard to find examples to prove him wrong. Look at all of the genocides of the modern era: not just the Jewish holocaust, but also the eradication of indigenous peoples in the United States, the conflict between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, the modern-day actions of ISIL and Bashar al-Assad, among so many others. In each case, we see a logic of friends and enemies at work, the belief that safety can only come when we identify and contain those who are different and unify along our similarities.

Schmitt’s thinking draws heavily from a piece of 17th political philosophy called Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. In it, Hobbes makes a social contract case for monarchy by arguing that only a strong leader or “sovereign,” to whom all members of a community willingly give their power, can avoid chaos. Although Hobbes differentiates between a Christian and a more or less earthly commonwealth, he draws on Biblical ideas throughout the entirety of Leviathan, giving birth to what we call “political theology” – a theory that considers all political concepts secularized versions of religious belief: the sovereign/state is God, laws are natural laws, society is the cosmos, etc.

A great number of thinkers have tried to re-imagine community outside of Schmitt’s dichotomy – including Roberto Esposito, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Simon Critchley – and many of them have also turned to Judeo-Christian concepts to help advance their ideas.

As important as I find each of these thinkers, I find myself more immediately moved by the way evangelical pastor Brian Zahnd puts it. Arguing that Jesus is a political theologian, Zahnd emphasizes a command that directly contradicts Schmitt’s vision: “Love your enemy.” When we read this command, Zahnd writes, we “instinctively feel how radical it is.”

He’s not just giving individuals a personal ethic; he is striking at the very foundation of the world! The world was founded on hating enemies, and now Jesus says, “Don’t do it!” When Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” he wasn’t just trying to produce kinder, gentler people; he was trying to refound the world! Instead of retaliatory violence; the world is to be refounded on cosuffering love. Jesus understood that the world had built its societal structures upon shared hatred, scapegoating, and what René Girard calls “sacred violence.” In challenging “sacred violence” (which Israel cherished in their war stories), Jesus was challenging the world at its most basic level. We cherish, honor, and salute sacred violence. We have to! We have a dark instinct that we must honor Cain’s war against Abel—and our own wars upon our hated enemies—or our whole system will fall apart. But Jesus testified against it—that those deeds were evil.[2]

Zahnd and Schmitt would doubtless disagree that hating one’s enemies is the way of the world; but where Schmitt shows no desire to change it and suggests holding to this type of thinking as a way to maintain safety and order, Zahnd’s Christianity demands that it be changed.

You might wonder how two people can draw very different conclusions from similar belief systems. I think that the main difference stems from their goals: Schmitt subscribes to a type of pragmatism that insists on looking at the world as it is, and that safety can only be achieved by adhering to this status quo. Zahnd’s Christianity is more metaphysical and not only understands God as a loving sovereign who controls the universe, but also believes in creating a world that does not yet exist: the kingdom of heaven on Earth. And to do so, one must model one’s self on Jesus, who did not exactly prioritize his own safety.

But while Schmitt’s vision may appear to be more practical and realistic, I don’t know that it could be properly called sustainable or less chaotic. Just look at Trump’s rhetoric: we Americans have been wronged (by terrorists, by illegal immigrants, by liberals – take your pick), and therefore we must fight them before they can hurt us more. It’s not too far off from the states of perpetual war imagined in Orwell’s 1984 or (ironically) in Hobbes’s Leviathan.

Zahnd’s vision doesn’t necessarily lead to safety, either – after all, self-preservation has never been one of Jesus’s defining characteristics. But it is, perhaps, more rich. In this version, the community becomes more vibrant by welcoming other people into it. It grows not by building walls, but by expanding membership. It welcomes and accepts.

This is no picture of kumbaya hippie-ness where everyone gets along just fine (again, crucifixion). But it does provide a way of being otherwise than destruction and punishment. Forgiveness does not erase the existence of offending enemies, but it does provide a mechanism to avoid letting the offense become an antagonism. When one forgives an enemy, they cease to be an enemy – they are welcomed back into community when the offended recognizes the damage done, but refuses to allow that offense to be the defining element of the offender. Forgiveness always sees more potential in the offender, always sees a friend within the enemy,

Furthermore, there is a democratic impulse in this version of forgiveness, as made clear in the parable of the unforgiving debtor recorded in Matthew 18:21-35. Even in my own life, I can see that the greatest wrongs committed against me are inextricably tied up in the greatest wrongs I have committed against others. Anything that has been done to me, I have done to someone else, which makes it all the more terrible. And so as much as I cry for mercy, I have to give mercy to others.

More than mere pie in the sky thinking, we actually have a few real-world examples of forgiveness as a political act. Mahatma Gahndi and Martin Luther King Jr. connected forgiveness to their political projects, and the 1996 South African Truth and Reconciliation commission is widely recognized as a means of avoiding retributive violence in pursuit of democracy. Similar commissions have popped up throughout the world.

However, these examples are always under duress, threatened to be overshadowed by the “business as usual” of violence and antagonism. Could we not practice forgiveness on a daily basis, not unlike the way Schmitt imagines the friend / enemy distinction occurs? Schmitt believes that we categorize people in every moment of every interaction; what would it mean to forgive in every action? To preemptively decide that the guy in front of you in the grocery line, the relative posting on Facebook, the receptionist helping you at the bank were all, first and foremost, your friends for whom you care, and no action of theirs can change that? Is such a thing even possible?

[1] Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 27

[2] Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars, 996

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