Making Room for Community (4)

This is the fourth in a consecutive series of posts under the same general title.

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Lashing Out, Rising Up, Striking Back


Retaliation, Insurrection, Reclamation


The same anxiety is visible everywhere, the same deep panic, provoking the same upwellings of dignity, and not indignation.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, translated by Robert Hurley (Semiotext(e), 2015, p. 14)


. . . an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

[I]n spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers.

—Primo Levi, “Afterword” (translated by Ruth Feldman) to If This Is a Man and The Truce, dual edition (London: Abacus, 1987, pages 382, 386)

When one part of a community has harmed another part, reconciliation between the two parts is impossible without forgiveness, taken as the resolution on the part of those harmed not to make “bad use” of their memories of the harm done them—use of those memories for feeding the desire to harm in turn. Such forgiveness, neither forced nor feigned but freely given, is itself only possible for those who have managed to free themselves from the constraints against giving it.

Freedom from such constraints goes with victory.

In cases such as civil war, such victory belongs first to those who are on the winning side, as Arsinius and his fellow democrats were in the Athenian civil war against “the Thirty” in 403 BCE. The resolution of amnesty then declared by the victors for the vanquished was the “invention of amnesty,” according to Giorgio Agamben in Stasis, as discussed in my second post of this same series. That resolution on the part of those who won the war did not of itself effect full reconciliation between them and those they had just vanquished, but it made such reconciliation possible. Full actualization of that possibility had to wait for a response—perhaps never forthcoming—of genuine contrition on the part of the losing side. Some of the vanquished no doubt experienced such contrition, and were fully reconciled with the community of the city as a whole. However, some no doubt were not, and continued to plot for a return to power. At any rate, as Agamben observes, civil war remained as a permanent possibility within the reestablished peace, a possibility the leaving open of which was foundational for that very peace.

What about very different sorts of cases, however? How does victory come then?

To take one prime example, what about cases such as Primo Levi’s after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II? That liberation from the Nazi death camp system was not by itself sufficient to bring about Primo Levi’s liberation from his own constraints against offering forgiveness to his German tormentors. After the camp was liberated and Levi returned home to Turin, and continuing on until the time of his death (which many think was a suicide) in 1987, Levi remained unwilling and unable to forgive those who had brutalized him and his fellow survivors, and killed millions of others. To the end of his life, he refused—with entire, convincing justice—to forgive those who had brutalized and killed so many in the camps. He refused to forgive not only the individual Germans directly responsible, from Hitler to the lowliest Auschwitz guard subjecting inmates to routine degradation. He refused, as well, to forgive the German people as whole, that people who—as Levi writes in the afterword to the 1987 Abacus reissue of the joint publication of If This Is a Man and The Truce (his chronicles respectively of his internment at Auschwitz and of his eventual return trip home to Turin)—if they did not know what was happening in the camps, did not know because they did not want to know: they were willfully ignorant.

The first line cited above as an epigraph to this first section of today’s post comes at the very end of a paragraph that begins by remarking that, despite the absence throughout his writings of any judgments containing “expressions of hate for the Germans” or of a “desire for revenge” against them, Levi would not want his “abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” The full paragraph then continues (page 382):

No, I have not forgiven any of the culprits, nor am I willing to forgive as single one of them, unless he has shown (with deeds, not words, and not too long afterward) that he has become conscious of the crimes and errors of Italian and foreign Fascism and is determined to condemn them, uproot them, from his conscience and from that that of others. Only in this case am I, a non-Christian, prepared to follow the Jewish and Christian precept of forgiving my enemy, because an enemy who sees the error of his ways ceases to be an enemy.

So what about Primo Levi? That is, what about cases such as the victims of the Holocaust, or those who bear witness for them, as Primo Levi did? Where does forgiveness, and with it the reconciliation for which it opens the way, belong in those cases?

Or what about cases such as that of Jimmy Santiago Baca?


            To this day, it still amazes me how taking myself out of the system and refusing to work had everybody in an upheaval, from my friends to the guards.

. . . as a kid I’d had no options except to take the hurt that came my way. As I grew a little older, I learned to strike back. It had been the quickest way to get rid of the pain, a way to show people I was alive. Until now. This time I didn’t lash out, which short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con was supposed to act. Despite the guilt of letting a lot of solid convicts down, not doing what everyone expected turned out to be the most powerful thing I ever did.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand (Grove Press, 2001, pages 166, 169)

The forgiveness towards the whole world, himself included, that Jimmy Santiago Baca eventually experienced in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, as he describes it in the passage with which I ended my preceding post of this series, could only come to him once he had found a place to stand in order concretely and effectively to resist his oppression, and thereby emerge victorious over it. Forgiveness issues only from dignity, not from abjectness; and before one can forgive offenses against one’s dignity—truly forgive them, and not just be forced to feign forgiveness—one must reclaim that dignity itself, reclaim it from those who have tried to take it away and claim it solely for themselves.

In a system such as that within which Jimmy Santiago Baca had always been forced to live, it took a truly unusual combination of circumstances for him ever to recover his own dignity, and with it the power to forgive. Initially subjected to such deprivation by the facts of his birth, and then abandoned by his parents when he was ten, he lived first with his grandmother, then in an orphanage, before ending living on the streets. When he was only twenty-one he was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to prison, where he spent six and one-half years, three of them in isolation.

It was not until he finally found his way to a place to stand where he could refuse any longer to take part in the system that brutalized him, that he was at last able to reclaim what was always rightfully his to begin with: his own dignity. In turn, it was only then that he was able to begin the journey in freedom that eventually led to his experience of forgiveness—toward his parents, himself, the whole world—in the cathedral in Santa Fe.

To carve out for himself that place to stand, the most crucial lesson he had to learn was how not to keep giving power to his own oppressors, continually enabling them, precisely by lashing out reactively against their blows. He says in the passage cited above that “as a kid” he at first responded to strikes against him as all kids do at first, when they do not yet have any option beyond “taking the hurt that [comes their] way.” But after a time he learned, as all kids given time do, another option, one that appeared better than just “taking” whatever harm comes one’s way. That was the option, as he puts it, “to strike back.”

The next sentence—and, even more, the entire context of the story of his life up to that point, as he has been telling it in A Place to Stand—makes it clear that what he means here by “striking back” is lashing out, as a cornered animal might. However, far from such lashing out allowing him to reclaim his dignity from those who have claimed it all for themselves, it merely gave them what they expected—and needed, to cement their dominance. Prison guards and administrators, most especially including prison wardens, expect exactly that. In fact, whether deliberately or not (since many such things are a matter of just drifting in the direction of the institution within which one works, rather than of deliberate, individual planning and decision), those who exercise authority over the likes of Jimmy Santiago Baca and other actual or potential “criminals” and convicts actually encourage such reactions, since it plays right into their hands. By lashing out, the oppressed do not opt out of the system of oppression, effectively resisting it. Instead, they reinforce it. Just ask all the “repeat offenders” who are kept constantly moving in and out through the swinging doors of our prison system, a system which if not deliberately designed for the very purpose of engendering repeat offenses may as well be.

Jimmy Santiago Baca soon learned just the lesson that the repressive system into which he was born wanted him to learn: He learned, “as [he] grew a little older,” to lash out whenever he was struck by the blows that continued to be delivered against him. After all, that seemed to be “the quickest way to get rid of the pain.” Given his circumstances, that was the only option he was allowed to become aware of, so it was the only one he really had, to avoid his own hurt: by diverting himself from it, to focus instead on hurting back in turn. Intelligent and quick to learn as he was, he learned that lesson well. That is precisely how and why he ended up in prison in the first place, then was kept there for so many years.

“Until now”: until one time when he finally found a place to stand. That one time at last he stopped giving power to those by whom he had so long been overpowered. “This time [he] didn’t lash out,” as everyone—everyone: those being conditioned no less than those doing the conditioning—expected. By not lashing out reactively “this time,” he “short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con in supposed to act.” Instead of lashing out again, “this time” Jimmy Santiago Baca just opted out of the whole system, simply by staying in his cell and refusing to go out and do the work assigned him.

Sometimes, the most powerful act of resistance is the refusal to act. Sometimes, it is precisely by not striking back that we in fact strike back most effectively.


Whilst I was obeying his order to feed and get the horses ready for the field, and when in the act of going up the stable loft for the purpose of throwing down some blades, Covey sneaked into the stable, in his peculiar snake-like way, and seizing me suddenly by the leg, he brought me to the stable floor, giving my newly mended body a fearful jar. I now forgot my roots, and remembered my pledge to stand up in my own defense. [. . .] Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at any rate, I was resolved to fight [. . .].

All was fair, thus far, and the contest was about equal. My resistance was entirely unexpected, and Covey was taken all aback by it, for he trembled in every limb. “Are you going to resist, you scoundrel?” said he. To which, I returned a polite “Yes sir”.

—Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855, pages 186-187)


I finally relearned what I and my kind often had forgotten and what was more crucial than the moral power to resist: to hit back.

Before me I see the prisoner foreman Juszek, a Polish professional criminal of horrifying vigor. In Auschwitz he once hit me in the face because of a trifle; that is how he was used to dealing with all the Jews under his command. At his moment—I felt it with piercing clarity—it was up to me to go a step further in my prolonged appeals case against society. In open revolt I struck Juszek in the face in turn. My human dignity lay in this punch to his jaw—and that in the end it was I, the physically much weaker man, who succumbed and was woefully thrashed, meant nothing to me. Painfully beaten, I was satisfied with myself. [. . .] I gave concrete social form to my dignity by punching a human face. [. . .] I became a person not by subjectively appealing to my abstract humanity but by discovering myself within the given social reality as a rebelling Jew and by realizing myself as one.

—Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits, translated by Stuart Rosenthal (University of Indiana Press, 1977), pp. 90-91

The “roots” which Frederick Douglass “forgot,” precisely in order to remember something even more fundamental and important—the pledge he’d made himself while ill, not long before the confrontation he describes above, with the doltish and brutal slave overseer Covey—were his Christian roots. Specifically, at issue are the same roots as those to which Primo Levi refers, in the epigraph to the first section of this post, when he writes of a certain “Jewish and Christian precept,” namely that of “forgiving my enemy.” Douglass says that he had to “forget” that precept, which was part of his own rich heritage as a member of the African American slave-community, in order to honor his pledge to himself to resist the next time he was actively abused. He had to “forget,” which here means to suspend, to put out of play, one part of his inheritance, precisely in order to remember another part of that same inheritance—an older, even more deeply rooted part, one that actually made the other, newer part possible in the first place: his own human dignity, that very dignity he had now resolved to defend.

It is that very same dignity that will not permit Primo Levy to forgive the Germans, either as individuals or collectively, for what they did to him and millions of others in the Nazi concentration camp system. The inner logic of that system itself drove inexorably toward the elimination all possibility of resistance, and in the process drove that system and all who were responsible for it “beyond guilt and atonement” (as Jean Améry puts it, to translate the original German title of what appears in English as At the Mind’s Limits), and therefore beyond all possibility of being forgiven—at least by any human judge to borrow a way of speaking from Levi himself.

The point of resistance, in the sense at issue for Douglass, for Levi, and for Améry—and most certainly for Jimmy Santiago Baca as well—is not to succeed in overpowering in turn those who have once overpowered us. The point of resisting oppression is not to get a chance to oppress others in turn, either those who have oppressed us or innocent bystanders. The point is, rather, to reclaim one’s dignity.*


     Five boys later, it is Frederick’s turn. Frederick, who clearly cannot see well without his glasses. Who has not been cheering when each bucketful of water finds its mark. Who is frowning at the prisoner as though he recognizes something there.

And Werner knows what Frederick is going to do.

Frederick has to be nudged forward by the boy behind him. The upperclassman hands him a bucket and Frederick pours it out on the ground.

Bastian steps forward. His face flares scarlet in the cold. “Give him another.”

Again Frederick sloshes it onto the ice at his feet. He says in a small voice, “He is already finished, sir.”

The upperclassman hands over a third pail. “Throw it,” commands Bastian. The night steams, the stars burn, the prisoner sways, the boys watch, the commandant tilts his head. Frederick pours the water onto the ground.  “I will not.”

—Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribners,2014, p. 264)

Jimmy Santiago Baca had to learn to refrain from “lashing out” against his oppression in order to find a place to stand and truly resist. Frederick Douglass found his own place to stand and resist only in striking back against his immediate oppressor. The fictional Frederick of All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s novel of guilt and redemption in World War II Germany, finds it in refusing an order to strike out against a defenseless prisoner in a German military prep-school run by an good Nazi headmaster, Bastian. The commandant has ordered each boy in turn to throw a bucket of freezing water on an already frozen and dying prisoner who has been chained to a stake on the school’s parade-ground. When his turn comes, Frederick refuses to follow the commandant’s orders. He resists by refusing to be an accomplice to the brutality.

What matters in all these and similar cases is to find the way no longer just to react but rather truly to resist. To resist is what counts, regardless of whether that resistance takes the form of striking or of refusing to strike, as circumstances require. Either way, in resistance oppression itself is struck, and subordination is refused.

Frederick’s fictional resistance took the same form Jimmy Santiago Baca’s real one did: a refusal to follow coercive authority’s orders. Both refusals led to painful consequences, however. Never does that invalidate the resistance, however. To repeat something already said above, the point of resistance is not to overpower what has overpowered one, but to find one’s way to the reclamation of one’s own freedom and dignity. The free can still be made to suffer and die as the price for that reclamation. Indeed, it is always in the interests of coercive power to make them do so. That helps to maintain order.

Jimmy Santiago Baca, for example, is made to suffer isolation and repeated postponements of release from prison even despite his having “rehabilitated” himself completely—not only with no help from the prison system, but with that system actively working against him—teaching himself to read and write and becoming a regionally and nationally recognized poet while still incarcerated. If the warden of the prison where he was entombed had had his way, Jimmy Santiago Baca would still be there. From all the evidence, that warden still resents it that his erstwhile prisoner is no longer imprisoned. It is indeed hard to overestimate the resentment of the privileged toward the unprivileged.

Frederick, the character in Doerr’s novel, suffers even more severe consequences for his refusal. He is subjected to the prep-school equivalent of what the Nazis came to call “special treatment” in the camps. In swift reaction against Frederick for his refusal to obey orders, Bastian, the school commandant, singles him out and makes an example of him by repeatedly unleashing all the other, “good” German students to chase him for invented offenses against school discipline. Finally, at the end of one such chase Frederick is no longer able to outrun them, and they manage to catch him. They then beat him so severely that he becomes permanently cognitively impaired, reduced to little more than a vegetable.

Primo Levi tells yet another story of another resister, another real one to go with Jimmy Santiago Baca, who is simply killed for resisting. The story, which occurs at one point in The Drowned and the Saved (Indiana University Press, 1980, pages 41-42), is that of a “newcomer” to Auschwitz, that is, a newly arrived inmate who has not yet learned the lessons that one must learn very quickly at Auschwitz to have any chance for surviving even for a while. The newcomer at issue had arrived at the camp “when he still had his full strength,” and with it the power to assert his own dignity. He soon did just that, in an act of resistance. “He had been beaten when the soup was being distributed,” such beatings being everyday occurrences at Auschwitz. But they were not everyday yet for the newcomer, who “dared to shove the distributor-functionary” in turn. In reaction to such hauteur, “the latter’s colleagues rushed to his aid, and the culprit was made an example of by being drowned, his head held down in the soup tub.”

As Levi himself observes here and in a number of other places in his writings, it is hardly any wonder that, under such circumstances as existed in the Nazi camps, the telos of which was to eliminate the very possibility of resistance, there was so little rebellion in the Nazi camps. The wonder is rather that there was any at all, which there was.

Just before telling the story of the newcomer drowned in the soup tub, Levi observes (page 41) that in the camps it was “an unwritten and iron law” that Zurückschlagen, which literally means “striking back,” will not be tolerated: “answering blows with blows is an intolerable transgression, and anyone who commits it must be made an example. Other functionaries rush to the aid of the threatened order, and the culprit is beaten with rage and method until he’s tamed or dead. Privilege, by definition, defends and protects privilege.”

Picking up the same thread again after telling the story of the soup-drowned newcomer, Levi goes on a bit later to write (page 42): “ It is a duty of righteous men to make war on all underserved privilege.” That duty is owed by all, to all, but most especially to those who have been deprived of the very possibility of participating in such a “war”—deprived of the very possibility of affirming their own dignity by striking back at all. Ernst Bloch said, famously, that it is for the sake of the hopeless that hope is given to us. So, too, is it for the sake those who have been stripped of their dignity and denied all power to resist oppression that we must affirm our own dignity by striking back against oppression.

Of course, the easier, softer way is just not to let oneself know about the oppression in the first place, remaining willfully ignorant. Then one can avoid all responsibility—at least, as Levi would put it, before any human tribunal.

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This series on “Making Room for Community” will continue with my next post.

* On the other hand, power that goes beyond all possibility of resistance, and thus beyond all possibility of those subjected to it ever reclaiming their own dignity, goes beyond all guilt open to forgiveness and redemption, and becomes truly unforgiveable—a topic to which I plan to return eventually, in a subsequent post.

Making Room for Community (3)

Making Room for Community (3)

This is the third in a consecutive series of posts under the same title.

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Forgiveness: Forced, Feigned, and Free


[E]ven though some of the slain churchgoers’ relatives famously forgave Mr. Roof during his bond hearing two days after the shooting, the sentiment is not universal.

“If I have to forgive him to get to heaven,” said [church member] Willi Glee, 75, “I’m going to end up in hell with him.”

—“Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed” (New York Times 10/19/15, byline Robert Faust)

I ended my preceding post by discussing what the Times article cited above had to say about the doors that still remained open at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, four months after the shootings that took nine lives there—as pertains to the first part of the article’s headline. The quotation above belongs to what the same article goes on eventually to say about the “lingering pain” still felt in the same church—the second part of its headline. In regard to that second topic, the article addressed the diverse ways in which diverse church members responded to the deep pain caused by the recent shootings.

In fact, the two parts of the article—the first about the church doors remaining open after the shootings, and the second about the diversity of church-members’ responses to those same shootings—go seamlessly together: A door that opens up to what is outside also opens upon what is inside, exposing each to the other. At Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, the same doors that remain open outward, to admit all who may wish to enter, especially including strangers, also remain open inward, upon a diverse community in which the pain of the shootings is not handled the same by all the community’s member.

As I already noted in my preceding post, it is precisely by not trying to avoid the trauma of the shootings, and all the pain it brought along with it, that Mother Emanuel was able to keep its doors open, and thereby—indeed, above all—to keep true to itself as an eschatologically open community of faith. For Mother Emanuel to remain Mother Emanuel, she had to keep her doors open in both those directions at once, in fact: outward to admit all who came to those doors for admittance, and inward upon all who were already inside, and who had been wounded by the attack. Furthermore, just as she had no pat-downs, metal detectors, or other testing equipment for screening before admittance into the church, so she had no surveillance mechanisms overseeing those who were inside once they had entered.

Nor did she position interrogators at the door to be sure that those who entered were, in effect, “right minded.” That is, there were no credos or other professions of faith that those seeking entry into the space of the community had to make, in order to gain admittance. Once again, the same applied to those already inside—regardless of how long they’d been there. Neither new members nor those who had already been members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church before the shootings, no matter how long they had been members, were required to declare their faith in any particular way in order to retain membership in good standing. At least—and what is most important for my purposes in this post—none of them had been required to profess forgiveness toward Dylann Roof, the white supremacist terrorist who had shot nine church members to death so recently. Thus, to cite the prime example from the Times article, Willi Glee remains a full member of the Mother Emanuel Church community, even though he would prefer to go to hell before he would forgive Roof.

Given their witness at Roof’s hearing, I believe that those church members who, unlike Willi Glee, did forgive Roof would also be willing to go to hell along with Willi, if his refusal to forgive were to bar him from entering heaven.


In two decades of contemplating what happened to me, I believe to have recognized that a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral.

—Jean Améry, At the Minds Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities*

Any community membership made contingent upon forgiving any or all harms done to one is, by the fact of that membership requirement alone, a proper community in the sense I discussed at the end of my first post in this present series on “Making Room for Community.” In that sense, a “proper” community is one defined by the fact that all its members—all those who belong to that community, which is to say are proper to it—have a certain property or certain properties. As I pointed out in that first post of the series, all such proper communities are necessarily delimited by those very properties that thus define them. They are, therefore, communities with borders, which must be defended against intruders from outside. All such proper, bordered communities build walls around themselves, to protect their own property, at the cost of those who are locked out. All such communities are thus closed communities—in reality, no better than “clubs.”**

In contrast, an open community is one that defines itself by no property or properties that every member of the community must own or possess. In that sense, it is a community that does not bother to “define” itself at all. It has no need to “delimit” its “boundaries,” and therefore no need to defend its limits or lock anyone out. Its doors are always open.

The doors of a truly open community must always remain open in both directions at once, outward and inward. That is, there can be no requirements that those who are already inside must meet in order to remain there, any more than there can be such requirements that must be met before those seeking entry are admitted. Otherwise, the community ceases to be an open one. It closes itself off, becoming a mere club.


It also invites deception.

If membership in the given club, or closed community, is at all generally desirable—for example, because of entitlements to expensive medical procedures, adequate general health care, ample housing, abundant income, freedom from random harassment, or other privileges that come with club membership (or, for that matter, not even for such special entitlements, but just to fulfill the common human need to be accepted by others: the need simply “to belong”)—then those who do not happen to meet the membership standards for that club will have an incentive to pretend that they meet them anyway. They will be tempted to feign having the characteristics or properties required for membership, in hopes of being granted admission to the club, and access to all the entitlements that go with membership. If necessary, they may lie about it. They may even lie about it first and foremost to themselves: Driven by their desire for membership and its entitlements, they may actually come to “believe” that they do possess the property that is required for membership, even when they don’t. Such self-deception goes far deeper than any effort on their part to deceive others. Those who suffer from it may honestly believe that they are being completely honest even when they are running a con.

Pretending or feigning even to the point of such self-deception becomes especially likely when the goods or properties required for membership in the club at issue are emotional, dispositional, or propositional in nature, rather than just material. That is, it becomes more likely that such deep self-deception will occur, the more the requirements for club membership involve such matters as how one “feels,” is “inclined,” or “thinks” (“believes”), as opposed to such matters as how much money one has in the bank, what real estate one owns on the beach, or what genes one has in one’s DNA. Successfully feigning that one owns, say, acres of land or millions of dollars is much harder than successfully feigning that one holds certain beliefs, has certain inclinations, or feels certain ways about certain things. What is more, it is much, much harder to deceive oneself about such matters as one’s real estate or bank holdings than it is about such matters as what one holds for true, feels positively or negatively about, or is inclined or disinclined toward.

The greater the desirability of membership in a club, the greater the temptation for those who do not meet the club’s membership requirements to feign meeting them, and, in turn, the stronger the tendency toward self-deception about the matter. When desirability of membership is combined with what we might call the de-materialization of membership requirements—the shifting of such requirements away from possessing certain material goods toward possessing certain beliefs, feelings, or dispositions—the risks of conning oneself by one’s own con rise sharply. Under such conditions, it therefore becomes increasingly difficult, often to the point of impossibility, to tell whether one really does believe, feel, or like and dislike, what one says and even thinks one does, as either an applicant for club membership or an already admitted club member.

The more subtly our feigning is forced upon us, the more subtly our feigning gains force over us. Eventually, honesty itself becomes impossible. One can no longer tell the truth, because one can no longer tell what the truth is. Lies and truth become indistinguishable.


Information obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable. In courtrooms in the United States and elsewhere, demonstrably forced confessions are legally inadmissible; only voluntary confessions are to be accepted in court proceedings. Whatever is said under duress is subject to doubt.

Similarly, even sworn court testimony from prosecutorial witnesses who have in one way or another been bribed for their testimony—bribed by offers of immunity from prosecution for their own offenses, or shortening of already imposed sentences, for example—is rightly treated with suspicion. So are expressions of contrition by those convicted of crimes and facing harsh sentences, as are professions of gratitude by those in position to expect further rewards for uttering such professions.

What matters in all such cases is that force of one sort or another is exerted to elicit the confession, testimony, expression of sorrow or gratitude, or the like. The force may take a form such as torture or the threat of a death sentence, or it may take such forms as the promise of immunity for one’s own offenses if one will testifies against one’s neighbors. In any form, it remains coercive.

The coercion may also be overt or covert, open or hidden. And as a general rule the more insidious the coercion, the more effective.


And suddenly I began to forgive them for what they had done or had not done. I forgave myself for all my mistakes and for all I had done to hurt others. I forgave the world for how it had treated us.

—Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet***


Forced forgiveness is as unworthy of trust as is forced confession. It does not bring genuine freedom, either for the forgiving or for the forgiven. For the former, forced forgiveness brings no liberation from the bondage of resentment, rancor, and the desire for revenge—a desire that by its own nature can never be fulfilled. For the latter, forced forgiveness can at most occasion an equally forced expression of contrition—contrition that itself remains no more than feigned. Accordingly, it can never bring the freedom from compulsively repeating one’s crimes or other offenses—the freedom to “go and sin no more” that Jesus grants to the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel of John.

Only a fully free and freely offered forgiveness is to be trusted. It alone can bring freedom, either to the forgiver or the forgiven.

However, the freedom to forgive, freedom to offer the free forgiveness that is freeing in turn, does not simply come for the asking. One cannot just wake up one morning and decide on one’s own that it’s time fully and freely to forgive harms one has suffered. Rather, it takes deliberation, and effort. Above all, it takes time. One may truly want to forgive, but find, when one is honest with oneself, that one cannot, at least not until one goes through a painful process.

One major obstacle to granting the deliberation, effort, and time forgiveness must have in order truly to develop, is simply the fear of pain. The natural reaction to the beginnings of pain is to tense up and draw away from it, endeavoring to escape and avoid it. Often, that is exactly what stands behind the rush to forgive prematurely. The fear of pain drives one to profess forgiveness, before one has done the work necessary to allow the possibility for genuine—which is to say, free—forgiveness to form. If the proffered forgiveness is to be freely and genuinely offered, that can only be after one has opened to the full depth of the pain the very infliction of which is what is being forgiven.

There is what is deserving of being called a temptation to forgive, that is, to profess a false forgiveness, one feigned, forced, or both. That temptation is based on the fear of the pain that one would have to feel if one did not forgive as quickly as possible, the pain of fully feeling how deeply one has really been hurt. If one can con oneself into thinking that one has already forgiven, then one can avoid having to keep the wound open, which one would rather not do.

The forgiveness that Jimmy Santiago Baca experienced after finally being freed from many years confinement in a prison system designed to strip him of all his human dignity, an experience he had in St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and describes in the citation given above, was no such cheap grace. It was won at the end of a long and difficult and extremely painful struggle, born of a gift of understanding, of insight, into the behavior of all those, including himself, who had harmed him. With that understanding, that insight, came the possibility of freely forgiving himself and everybody else who had brought him such pain—forgiving “the [whole] world” for all the harm it had brought him.

Free forgiveness never comes cheap.

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Much more remains to be said, including in response to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s book. I will try to say some of it in my next post, which will continue this present series on “Making Room for Community.”

* Translated by Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press, 1980), p.72. The main title of the original German publication in 1966 was Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne, which can be translated as “Beyond Guilt and Atonement.” For some reason (I assume it is the time-honored one of attempting to maximize potential sales and therefore profits, but I may be wrong), as the main title of the whole book the publishers of the English edition have chosen to use a translation—itself not entirely satisfying, since the German word Geist, correctly translated by “mind,” is just as correctly translated by “spirit,” though neither English word as currently used fits perfectly as a translation for Geist—of the title of Améry’s first essay. The subtitle of the original German book is Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten, which is more difficult to capture in English than is the book’s main title, at least without losing something in the process. The subtitle given to the English edition of the work, however, does not even make any effort to translate the original subtitle. It just drops it, and substitutes what is meant as a descriptive subtitle of its own—one that I find misleading, even offensive to Améry’s underlying moral and social purpose in writing and publishing the book in the first place. A paraphrase translation that tries to keep the sense of the original subtitle, though admittedly at the price of its verbal elegance, might be “Attempts To Reclaim Power by One Overpowered.” At any rate, the book is indispensable reading for pondering forgiveness, forgetfulness, atonement, and reconciliation. It ought to be required reading in high schools across the United States.

** Groucho Marx used to like to tell the joke that he never wanted to belong to any club with membership standards so low that it would accept someone like him. At one level, that joke can be taken as an amusing self-put-down. But given who Groucho was, and the nature of his humor, so rich in satire, at a deeper level it makes a comment on the nature of “clubs,” and the exclusions on which all clubs—which is to say all closed communities—are based.

*** New York: Grove Press, 2001, page 264.

Published in: on November 2, 2015 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Making Room for Community (2)

This is the second in a series of consecutive posts under the same general title.

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Forgiving, Forgetting, and Amnesty


One way never to forget is always to repeat. What is compulsively repeated again and again, over and over one way or another come what may, is never forgotten. It eternally recurs.

As Jean-Louis Chrétien notes in The Unforgettable and the Unhoped For (Fordham University Press, 2002), it is only what can never be remembered that is truly unforgettable. What is truly never to be forgotten is never to be remembered either. Whatever can be remembered can also be forgotten. Moreover, sooner or later what can be forgotten will be forgotten. If something can be actively remembered, then it is something the keeping in mind of which requires effort. Any effort eventually must tire and flag, including the effort that is required actively to hold something in memory. When that effort does eventually falter, what one until then had been successfully struggling to remember is, despite all one’s efforts, forgotten.

Given such an understanding of what constitutes the genuinely unforgettable, the call of “never forget” applied to some traumatic event such as the Holocaust is always redundant. Trauma cannot be held in memory, not because it is so easy to forget, but because it can never be put there, in memory, in the first place, such that it ever could be forgotten. It will not let itself be forgotten. Instead, the harder we try to forget it, the more compulsively it just keeps on repeating itself over and over and over again in one form or another, as Freud saw and called to our explicit attention a century ago, and as many (including myself) have repeated over and over again after him since then.


There is another way never to forget, however—a way besides compulsively repeating. As paradoxical as it may sound to say so, that other way never to forget is ever to forgive, which at the political-juridical level means to grant amnesty.

To grant amnesty is to let bygones be bygones, as an old cliché has it. To reply with another cliché: That is easy to say, but not so easy to do. It takes resolution—in more than one sense. First, the granting of amnesty takes “resolution” in the sense that it requires being formally announced and committed to.

The resolution of amnesty in that first sense itself requires formally acknowledging the offense for which amnesty is being granted: an amnesty granted for nothing in particular is no amnesty granted for anything at all. One does not let bygones be bygones by pretending nothing ever happened. In fact, pretending that nothing ever really happened is a formula for nursing resentment, rather than granting forgiveness: I may present a friendly face to your face, but really just be waiting for an opportunity to put the proverbial knife in your back when your face is turned. Truly to let a conflict that occurred yesterday go by today requires not only that the conflict be acknowledged, but also that it be honored. That is, truly to grant amnesty or forgiveness requires that the fact of discord not be denied, but recorded and marked, “memorialized.”


At one point in Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, a short book published just this year both in its Italian original and in an English translation by Nicholas Heron (Stanford University Press, 2015), but which contains revised versions of two lectures first given in 2001, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discusses a definitive historical case of the granting of amnesty. Relying on the work of French scholar Nicole Loraux, Agamben writes of how, in Greece in 403 BCE, “following the civil war in Athens which concluded with the defeat of the oligarchy of the Thirty, the victorious democrats, led by Archinus, solemnly pledged ‘not in any instance to remember the past events’ (Ath. Const. 39.6), that is, not to prosecute crimes committed during the civil war.” This, Agamben goes on to say, is “the invention of amnesty.”

According to Agamben, the relevant portion of the Athenian “amnestic oath is usually translated with ‘do not remember’ or even ‘do not be resentful, do not have bad memories (Loraux translates it as je ne rappellerai pas les malheures, I will not recall the misfortunes).” Agamben says that the Greek adjective at issue “thus means ‘rancorous, resentful’ and refers to someone who harbours bad memories.” However, he immediately adds that “it is doubtful” that the Greek verb from which the adjective at issue comes should be taken simply to mean not to cling to one’s unpleasant or painful memories of being harmed. He suggests instead that it “means less ‘to have bad memories’ than ‘to do harm with memory, to make bad use of memories,” then adds: “The Athenian amnestia is not simply a forgetting of a repression of the past; it is an exhortation not to make bad use of memory.”

The issue of amnesty, so framed, is not whether those who grant amnesty retain painful memories of past harms, as though by granting amnesty they have somehow wiped such memories, and the pain that goes with them, away. Rather, it is an issue of the use to be made of those memories: Those granting amnesty are vowing not to use their memories of past harms against the amnestied, that is, against those who perpetrated the harm.

What I take Agamben to be saying is that a vow not to use memories of some harm someone has done me against the individual who did that harm is indeed a vow not to “harbor” (to use the American rather than the British spelling) whatever “bad” memories I may have of what that individual did. It is precisely the vow, to put the same point just a bit differently by using another of Agamben’s own terms, not to nurture any resentment toward that offender, but instead truly to “let bygones be bygones.”   The bad memories involved here, however, are not “bad” in the sense of being unpleasant or painful to the one who has those memories, as memories of a toothache might well be said to be “bad memories.” Rather, they are bad in intention: They intend, at least at the level of wishes, harm to the one who did harm to the one who has the memories.

Whereas resentment is the harboring of such wishes or intentions to harm back those who have done harm, the granting of amnesty or forgiveness is the decision, which when resolved has the status of a vow or promise, not to harbor any such harmful wishes or intentions, but instead to let them go. “To let bygones be bygones” is just that “letting go” of the past, not some erasure of painful memories.

Indeed, in order for the vow or promise of amnesty to be honored, so must the pain of that for involvement in which the amnesty is granted. Thus, in the case of the ancient Athenian granting of amnesty in 403 BCE, Agamben first writes that the Greek amnesty entailed neither “simply” forgetting nor repressing the civil war that had just occurred, as which could be taken to mean that it did involve such forgetting or repressing, just not only that, but also more as well. But against such misunderstanding, Agamben as it were explains himself by adding immediately that, in fact, civil war cannot be forgotten or repressed, and is instead unforgettable. He writes that stasis or civil war “is not something that can ever be forgotten or repressed,” but is, rather, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city, yet which nonetheless must not be remembered through trials and resentments,” that is, through deeds or intentions to use the memories of the harm to punish the perpetrators. The painful memories which are an aftershock of the wound for the inflicting of which amnesty is granted serve, in fact, as reminders of the ever present possibility of further wounding, a possibility which must be acknowledged and to which the city must remain open, if it truly to return to itself as a reunited city.

Such an understanding of civil war as a trauma from which the city can never free itself, but which must always be kept open as a possibility in any genuine community reconciliation, is very different from how civil war—and trauma as such, for that matter—is typically understood today. What civil war was for the ancient Athenians, writes Agamben, continuing the same passage cited above, was “[j]ust the opposite [. . .] of what civil war seems to be for the moderns: namely, something that one must seek to render impossible at every cost, yet that must always be remembered through trials and legal persecutions” (thereby perpetuating the very divisions and conflicts that broke out in civil war in the fist place: politics as the continued pursuit of civil war by other means—a point to which I will eventually return below).

The politics of resentment never forgets precisely because it keeps on compulsively repeating the very thing it is “seek[ing] to render impossible,” that is, seeking to guarantee will “never happen again,” as it is often put. It seeks to close the wound and keep it closed forever. In contrast, the politics of amnesty never forgets because knowing that the possibility of “it” happening again always remains, and that the wound must always, in that sense, be kept open.


Making a vow is one thing, keeping that vow is another. That is the another way in which the granting of amnesty takes resolution. In the sense already explored, the vow must be “resolved” in the sense that it must actually be announced or proclaimed. That is, in one fashion or another it must be performatively uttered. That can take place publicly, as it does when marriage vows are exchanges in a wedding ceremony, for example. Or it can take the private form in which one makes some vow “to oneself,” as a smoker fed up with his habit might vow to himself never to smoke again, without telling anyone else he has done so, or an aspiring musician might silently vow to herself to practice for six hours daily. As those two examples clearly suggest, however, keeping such a resolution takes far greater resolution than just making it. Common experience with “New Year’s resolutions” abundantly confirms that. In truth, the proof of a decision is in the honoring.

Just so must forgiveness, once decided upon and offered, then be maintained. It takes ongoing effort not to lapse back into resentment. In a well-known passage of the Christian Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 18:21-22), Peter comes to Jesus and asks how often he should forgive another member of the church who sins against him, wondering aloud if he should do so “as many as seven times.” Jesus replies that rather he should forgive, at least in one common rendition, “seventy times seven times.”

Surely, the point of that saying is not that one should count the number of times the other person gives offense, and only strike back if that number eventually exceeds 490. Nor does one have to take Jesus’ response to mean solely that one should not put a limit to the number of times one is willing to forgive multiple offenses committed by the same person. That can reasonably be taken to be part of what Jesus means, to be sure. However, there is at least one other possible interpretation, which includes that first one but is more expansive, keeping more open. Jesus’s response can also be taken as pointing to the need to keep one’s forgiveness, once extended, going—to maintain one’s offer once made, keeping it open moment by moment. By either reading, at any rate, forgiveness is not a matter to be counted.

Truly forgiving someone for some offense, even for a single harmful act never repeated, is not just a momentary act. It is a decision that, once made, must then be carried out and kept operative. A vow or promise is not just over and done with once made, requiring nothing further from the one making it after that. Once made, the vow or promise must then be kept. If it is not, the one who once made the vow or promise has committed an offense that itself calls for forgiveness.


At least on the basis of the definitive ancient Athenian amnesty Agamben discusses, the reason for the granting of amnesty was nothing such as trying to be good winners or to look magnanimous in the eyes of the vanquished. Nor was it a matter of trying to follow any such moral precepts as doing to others as you would have them to do unto you. Not that there is anything wrong with such notions of right—or, for that matter, with wanting to appear magnanimous or to be a good winner. It is just that none of that is what is really at stake in the Athenian amnesty. Rather, as Agamben himself emphasizes, it is the very life of the polis itself. At issue was the very establishment—or reestablishment, to be precise, since it had been riven in two by the civil war—of the polis or “city” itself. The issue was to renew and preserve the very “civilization” of the civis, we might say, to use the Latin from which our English word city comes.

Thus, the victorious party to the civil war in Athens in 403 BCE granted amnesty to their defeated opponents in order to preserve Athens itself as a true city, civis, or polis: a true “civic community.” Failure to grant such amnesty would in effect have perpetuated the civil war in another form, as I have already remarked above. Not to grant amnesty would have threatened the very continuation of Athens as such a city. Their overriding motivation was to preserve the city as such.

In the very same way, by their own testimony the victims of the recent shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who extended forgiveness to the shooter without even being asked, did so in order to preserve “Mother Emanuel” as the very church, the very “faith community,” that it was. That was central to their motivation.

Thus, in both cases, that of the ancient city of Athens and that of the contemporary church in Charleston, the motivation of those granting forgiveness was grounded at the level of the community as such. In each case, it was a matter of preserving the community itself, as the very community it was. Forgiveness was not granted just for the sake of those being forgiven. Nor was it granted just for the sake of those extending forgiveness. It was done for everybody’s sake.


By chance, on the very day (October 19, 2015) I put up my immediately preceding post, the first in this series on “Making Room for Community,” a follow-up article about the Charleston shootings, which had occurred four months earlier, appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The article bore the headline of “Open Doors and Lingering Pain At Church Where 9 Were Killed,” and appeared under the byline of Robert Fausset. It opened this way:

CHARLESTON, S.C.—The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff Sr. was standing on a Wednesday evening in the room where the massacre occurred an Emanuel A.M.E. Church, readying himself to lead Bible study.

A police officer was at the door. But for those who arrived, even the strangers, there were no pat-downs, no metal detectors. They were all as welcome as Dylann Roof had been when he arrived on a Wednesday night in June, concealing his pistol and his intentions.

If the visitors had come looking for a grand statement on racial reconciliation, the open door was it. . . .

Indeed it was. It was also a grand statement on how Emanuel A.M.E. Church had managed to remain a true church, despite the shootings. Mother Emanuel Church did not react to those shootings by closing up, battening down, and doing whatever else she could to secure herself against any such a horrible thing ever happening again. She resisted the temptation to try to protect herself by shutting out the strangers who came to her doors, a temptation the yielding to which would have been at the price of ceasing truly to be a church, that is, a community of faith, in the fullest sense. Yielding to that temptation would have turned Mother Emanuel instead into a community of distrust, fear, and suspicion, not faith. By closing her doors, Mother Emanuel Church would have closed her doors not only on strangers, but also on herself.

By keeping them open, she kept the faith.

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This series of posts will be continued.

Making Room for Community (1)

This is the first of a series of consecutive posts under the same title.

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Forgiveness, Contrition, and Reconciliation

One should never underestimate the resentment of the wealthy towards the insolence of the poor.

—The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends*           


One morning toward the beginning of the summer just recently ended, I was especially struck by the juxtaposition of three different news articles on the front page of the New York Times. It was the morning of Thursday, June 25, 2015. The first of the three articles, in the order I read them, was about the formal sentencing to death, just the day before, of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. The second article was about the shooting just a week earlier, on June 17, of nine African American church members at “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The third article was about the far higher incidence in the United States of such homegrown right-wing terrorist attacks as the Charleston church shootings, on the one hand, compared to such Islamic-extremist ones as the Boston marathon bombings, on the other.

The second article I read that morning, addressing the recent shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, was actually about the responses to the nine shooting deaths, as voiced by the family members of the victims. The piece described how, in the arraignment hearing for Dylann Roof, the accused shooter, one after another various members of the families of those killed spontaneously, with no prior consultation among themselves, offered forgiveness to that shooter.

In contrast, in the first story I read, about the sentencing to death of Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon shooter, a very different situation was depicted. In that case, as the article presented it, almost all of the Boston victims and victims’ family members who were cited insisted that they did not and would not forgive the bomber. A small number of them, by that and earlier accounts I had read or seen broadcast, did say they were going to forgive, or at least try to. But even in those rare cases, the nature of the forgiveness they offered was very different in foundation and effect from that offered by those involved in the Charleston case—a point to which I will eventually return below.

The third article that caught my special attention that morning was focused on the contrast between the public perception of the source of the greatest “terrorist” threat to America and Americans, and what law-enforcement agents and statistics confirm really to be the case. By the opinion polls, by far the majority of United States citizens identify “Islamic extremism” or the equivalent—such as animated those who flew the planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001—as being the potential source of “terrorism” most to be feared. However, as recounted in the article, the statistics on which law-enforcement agencies across the county themselves primarily rely demonstrate that, since September 11, 2001, almost twice as many “terrorist” attacks and deaths have been perpetrated by indigenous right-wing, anti-government extremists—such as were Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrators of the pre-9/11 Oklahoma City bombings that remain the second most deadly “terrorist” strike ever on U S soil—as by those claiming some sort of Islamic inspiration.

The juxtaposition of those three different news articles in that morning’s New York Times engendered the thoughts I will share in this post concerning the interplay of three factors: forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation.


In the article about the testimony of the Boston Marathon victims and their families at the Tsarnaev hearing, more than one person cited made remarks to the effect that any forgiveness for Tsarnaev (or his dead brother, the other bomber) would have to be preceded by some show of genuine contrition on his part. In effect, they said that they would not extend any forgiveness to Tsarnaev until after he had first confessed to what he had done, and shown signs of honest regret and desire to atone for it. For them, forgiveness would be extended only after the way had thus been cleared for it by such contrition. Forgiveness was not to be given before such display of honest regret and desire to make amends, but only after it—forgiveness as a sort of after-given, rather than a fore-given, of contrition, as it were.

In contrast, the responses from the victims of the Charleston shootings and their families at the arraignment of Roof, as depicted in the article devoted to them, was strikingly different on just that score. One after another, those who had been made to suffer by the shooter offered forgiveness before it had ever been requested. They made no mention of needing first to have Roof confess to his transgressions and display genuine contrition, before they would offer him forgiveness. They forgave him without him even asking them to.


Another difference between those two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston Emanuel A.M.E. Church shootings, that caught my attention as I read about them in that morning’s Times was a matter of ethnic or “racial” differences. The Charleston victims’ voices all came from African American, or “black,” Christians who were freely offering actual forgiveness to a “white” perpetrator, whereas the voices from Boston, the ones that spoke only of a possible forgiveness under certain conditions, came predominantly from “whites,” and were addressed to a Muslim immigrant from Chechnya.

That contrast brought more than one thought to my mind. The first was that a possible “advantage,” as it were, to being a member of the oppressed part of the population rather than the oppressing part—belonging, in a general sense, among the oppressed, rather than among the oppressors—might be that being one of the oppressed may bring with it a sort of freedom to forgive, whereas being one of the oppressors may tend to enchain one to the defense of one’s entitlements.

The second thought that came to me when I noticed the contrast at issue had to do with the generally overwhelmingly positive reaction of the mass media—and apparently of the public that consumes that media—to what the victims said in both cases, despite the obvious differences between the two sets of victims’ responses. Press and public all but unanimously praised the black victims of the Charleston shootings for spontaneously forgiving the perpetrator of those shootings, without him asking for their forgiveness first, or even admitting he’d done anything for which he might need to be forgiven. Yet the same press and public were equally united in voicing approval of the Boston Marathon bombing victims for refusing to forgive the bomber, at least until he had admitted his guilt and expressed sorrow for what he had done. The thought that came to me from the conjunction of those two equally positive public reactions to those two very different cases was a second possible explanation for that phenomenon, besides the one I just mentioned about the constraints of entitlement and the liberty of the oppressed.

What occurred to me was that the more or less institutionally encouraged view in a society such as ours—namely, one riddled by inequalities and inequities, especially along “racial” lines—is that not only is it a right or even a privilege of the oppressed to forgive their oppressors, but it is also what such a society expects or even demands of the oppressed. On the other hand, in such a society it is never a right of the oppressed to strike back against their oppressors—and it is often taken as nothing but do-gooder “political correctness” to talk about any need to forgive them if they dare to do just that.


It is also worth noting that the very few Boston victims who actually did say they forgave the bomber, made a point of explaining that they were doing so solely for their own sake, not for his. In contrast, none of the Charleston victims was reported as saying something similar (at least in the Times article I read that day, or any other accounts I read later, heard, or saw later, for that matter).

As a matter of fact, none of them said they were offering forgiveness either solely for their own sake, or solely for the shooter’s.   Rather, they emphasized that they felt called to offer forgiveness because of who they were as member of the community to which they belonged. They experienced a call to forgive for the sake of their community as such, in order that it might continue to be fostered.

By how it struck me, at least, they can be taken to have meant not only their own community of the faithful at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, but also—and precisely because of the very nature of their own limited Church community—the broader community beyond. What they said can and most probably should be taken to extend, ultimately, all the way out to that open-ended, all-inclusive, worldwide human community that, inspired by their example, we might call the community of universal reconciliation.

Such radical extension well beyond the limits of their own limited African American faith community is strongly suggested, for one thing, by the fact that the white shooter was himself warmly welcomed into the bible study meeting that was going on at the Church when he entered the building. Once inside, he was embraced by the congregation, until he eventually pulled out his gun and began firing. Such openness to others—to any “neighbor” who happened by, whether already known or a complete stranger—as accorded with their understanding of their own Christian faith, was central to the communal identity of the shooting victims themselves.


What interests me about the difference in victims’ responses in the two cases, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Charleston A.M.E. Church shootings, is not a matter of any differences in moral fiber or strength of character of the victims, either individually or collectively (taken one by one or group by group). No such differences were apparent to me from the reports, nor would they be of any special interest to me even if they were. Rather, what interests me in the contrast between the two cases of victims’ responses is that they suggest two very different understandings and models of how the interplay of forgiveness, contrition, and reconciliation operates in relation to the emergence, institution, and maintenance of community. What interests me can be put most succinctly, perhaps, in the form of two different answers to the following question: Which comes first, forgiveness or contrition, with what effect upon reconciliation, to establish or reestablish community?

By one understanding, contrition must come first. Contrition, by that understanding, is the condition for the possibility of forgiveness: the sincere expression of regret and desire to atone make the offer of forgiveness possible—though never mandatory, it is important to add. Finally, it is the conjunction of those two, contrition and forgiveness, that then makes reconciliation possible—though again not mandatory: the extension of forgiveness always being voluntary, it may not be offered, which means that reconciliation will not be effected.   That, it seems to me, is the model suggested by the Boston response.

On the other hand, the Charleston response suggests a significantly different understanding and corresponding model. By that second understanding and model, what begins the whole process is forgiveness, rather than contrition. That forgiveness is what then effects, all on its own, reconciliation. That already effected reconciliation, in turn, is what makes genuine contrition possible.


As Augustine teaches, and using his terms, the very awareness of sin is of itself proof that God has already extended the grace of forgiveness for that same sin. It is only such grace that first allows one to become truly aware of the fact of one’s sin: finding oneself being freely and fully offered forgiveness for something one has done is what first of all lets one genuinely experience one’s guilt. Save for the prevenient grace of forgiveness already extended before it is even requested, the offender cannot plumb the depths of the offense, and hence cannot come fully and genuinely to regret his or her offending deed. Unless such unearned, gratuitously offered forgiveness first opens the way, contrition cannot come into its own.

Without such libratory anticipation allowing one to experience one’s real guilt, any expressions of sorrow one might make for what one has done are at best a routine conformity to social expectations, done to forestall any possible unpleasantness. So, for example, when I accidentally brush against someone on the subway or in the grocery-store aisle, I will typically say I’m sorry, just to maintain sociality.

In my judgment there is nothing at all to apologize for in making such purely conventional apologies. They are perfectly acceptable, and even to be respected. It would be boorish not to make them. Nevertheless, such apologies display no real contrition; and that, in turn, is primarily because no real offense has been committed in the first place.

Nor is there really any contrition in cases where I say I am sorry just to avoid being punished for something I’ve done. A child caught stealing cookies from a cookie jar who verbalizes sorrow only in order not to be disciplined—and maybe to protect the supply of cookies within reach, fully intending to steal some more as soon as the coast is once again clear. Or a murderer might tell a judge he is sorry to for his deed in hopes of escaping the death sentence, as many of the Boston Marathon victims thought was true of Tsarnaev’s eventual expressions of sorrow for what he had done.


Communities that define themselves through some property that all and only members of that community possess necessarily exclude everyone else, everyone who fails the qualifying test of ownership, of possession, of the property at issue. Unless one can prove such possession to the satisfaction of the group, one has not met the eligibility requirement for belonging to it. Such communities are built by entitlement, the right of title to the property that defines the group. Along their borders such groups always build walls to keep out the un-entitled—and they always make the excluded and un-entitled themselves pay for those walls, we might add. They are gated communities. Closed tightly in upon themselves, such communities remain unforgiving toward all breaches of their security. They can last only so long as such breaches are contained, and their walled borders remain secure.

All walls come crumbling down eventually, however. Therefore, no such communities—proper communities of property, as it were—last forever. Every empire ends sooner or later.


On the other hand, a community built by forgiveness—such a community as the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, given the witness of the victims of Roof’s white-supremacist attack—is guaranteed to last. Like love itself, such a community lasts forever, even after all the walls of the building in which it is housed come tumbling down. It is as eschatological–as much a matter of eternity now—as the freely offered, unconditional forgiveness that builds it. That is precisely because it is a community built upon openness and inclusion, and can only be maintained by continually erasing its own borders to admit ever again new members, with no end to that particular endless-ness.

Such an eschatological community, built by unconditional forgiveness, is just the sort of community Étienne Balibar, a contemporary French sociologist and political philosopher, describes at one point in Equaliberty (Duke University Press, 2014), a collection of his essays from over the last twenty years.   Balibar at that point (page 93) envisions “a community that itself has no ‘property,’ and thus no common good (no res publica or common-wealth) to preserve, appropriate, or identify with,” a community that “can only be approached in terms of an injunction to make a place for alterity,” and thus “a community without community that has nothing in common but non-property, the resistance of its own members to identifying with some ‘proper.’”

Communities built and maintained by the sort of forgiveness offered to the Charleston shooter by the members of Emanuel African American Church are just such altogether improper communities.

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The next post will continue this series on “Making Room for Community.”

* Translated by Robert Hurley, South Pasadena: Semiotext(e) 2015, page 133.