Global Pardon: Pax Romana, Pax Americana, and Kol Nidre
Issue #58, December 2001
When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: Pax Romana
On July 13, 1995, U.S. News and World Report announced that the world is entering an "era of collective forgiveness."
A good point of entry into the discourse of global forgiveness is Luigi Accatoli's book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness. The book contains a collection and discussion of ninety-four papal statements in which John Paul II, representing the oldest establishment of the West — and spiritual flip side of the newest one, the American military-industrial-media complex — admits the past faults of the Church and asks pardon for many of them. In twenty-five statements he uses the expression "I ask forgiveness" or its equivalent. The pope is said to be determined to reexamine the facts of history in the light of the truth and to take full responsibility for both the good and the bad.
Notice what is presupposed: that "the truth" can now be known about what was good and bad in the past, as if the present time were the end of history, as if the faults of history are in the past, as if there may be nothing now to be discovered (as Edmund Burke once opined) in the realm of fault. Accatoli quotes Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthazar: "Things that were not only permissible but even recommended under medieval popes" can now be seen to have been "absolutely impermissible ...gravely sinful...obviously diametrically opposed to the spirit and word of Jesus."
Pope John Paul I had already pointed out that although "one cannot judge the events" of the past with "today's sensibility...it is not a question of sensibility, it is a question of truth". John Paul II, while apologizing for the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492 and other acts of "intolerance," acknowledges that men of those times "may have held in good faith" that the Inquisition, etc. were virtuous and necessary projects. But he insists that "the consideration of mitigating factors does not "exonerate" the Church of the present from "the obligation to express regret for the weaknesses of the past."
So, in the "Letter to Women" of June 1995, John Paul apologizes for the ill treatment of women by the Church in the past but not its stand against reproductive freedom and priestly status for women today. In a memorable discourse in the Sistine Chapel he asked pardon of artists for "the lack of understanding... in past centuries," but not for the suppression of artists like Mapplethorpe and the creators of various Piss Christs, or for Mayor Guiliani's attacks on the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the present.
In Mustard Seed, a publication of the Toronto Catholic Worker, price 1¢, a Catholic gay activist, recounting his experience of being denied holy communion at the Mass which convened the annual meeting of the U.S. Bishops Conference, points out that there has never been any papal word relating to the mass hangings of "sodomites" in Rome under Pope Paul IV (1555-9). "Instead we were graced with John Paul's vehement denunciation "of the world's first global queer pride event in Rome."Accatoli's book, though primarily celebratory, does point out certain areas in which the pope has not gone far enough in apologizing, — but the Church's relation to homosexuality is not one of these areas.
On the other hand, the pope acknowledges as he must that the end of history has not arrived, that "the truth" is not finished. The second coming, after all, is yet to come. In this regard he is far ahead of the White House. To indigenous people he acknowledges that "oppression...to a great extent still continues today." In Edmonton, September 1984, the pope declared that "the poor South will judge the wealthy North." He calls for vigilance "as to the way the Gospel is proclaimed and lived out today." In the encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988) he declared that "it should be obligatory to sell...superfluous church ornaments and costly furnishings to provide food, drink, clothing, and shelter" for the poor" (do not, dear reader, hold your breath), thus apologizing for the Church's "sins against charity."
But the Church has always, like liberal democracy today, proclaimed what Accatoli cites as "the ancient axiom that the establishment is always in need of reform." Ecclesia semper reformanda est. Cardinal von Balthazar teaches that the Church is at once holy and a sinner, casta meretrix, a chaste prostitute, constantly in need of reform and constantly reforming herself, anticipating in many respects the Derridean call for "infinite openness to the future" as the necessary and sufficient condition of the (im)possibility of justice. The West's arrogant humility as the only civilization based on perpetual openness to critique thus closes the West over and over again to perception of its perpetual closure. Nothing will break through this impregnable openness.
Popes of the 15th century, insofar as they were submitted to the ancient axiom, could apologize for the popes of the 10th century. A pope of the 18th century could apologize for the blood libels against Jews in the 16th and 17th, pointing out that some popes of the earlier period had indeed tried to forbid trials of Jews accused of Passover ritual murders of Christian children. Jurists of the time could perhaps apologize for failures of due process. History has forgotten how careful many jurists were to try each case on its merits; some accused were convicted and executed, others acquitted and freed. No apology would have been appropriate to those fairly convicted. Popes of the 23rd century will no doubt apologize for the crimes to come with the justice delivered in the 21st century.
All my apologies reassert my righteousness. The more I proclaim the world order, always the new world order, the reiterated world order, to be the chaste prostitute, the more I exclude the unchaste prostitute. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddha images, an outraged West demanded repentance from the Taliban. But there was not one word of outrage from the Vatican or the White House — or any Levinasian or Derridean — about the hanging of three prostitutes in Kabul at exactly the same moment. Buddha herself would have said: please destroy my images, but please do not hang the prostitutes. John Paul II has said: "In this life we shall never be able to escape our sinfulness but we can repent of our sin when it has been perceived."
This statement could have been made by any pope since Shimeon Peter. This statement lets the West off the hook. We'll repent when we perceive; we won't perceive until we're good and ready.
So, when in truth are we ready to perceive and repent? As Archbishop Tutu has said: "It's realpolitik, this forgiveness thing. It's not just spiritual." Accatoli's editor states matter-of-factly that the process of global pardon is necessary if the Church is "to move forward into the next millennium free from the burden of protecting its image." Cardinal Beran points out that global pardon will deprive "the enemies of the Church" of "excuses for attacking her." Sincere penance, he says, will result in "the moral authority of our Church" being "held in great esteem."
The Toronto philosopher Arthur Ripstein states very clearly the conventional historicist morality which dominates absolutely both the spiritual and secular wings of global pardon. Daring to assess the culpability of the slave-owners of ancient Greece and Rome relative to that of the slave-owners of America, he concludes that since American slave-owners were "privy to our perspective" from which it is possible to perceive the "incoherence" involved in the practice of enslaving beings who were at the same time "agents" entitled to "make contracts on behalf of their masters." The Americans were "directly culpable" in a way that the ancients were not. Ancient Greeks and Romans, not being privy to such a perspective, could not have conceived of "alternative institutional arrangements." Tell that to Spartacus.
So, when we perceive the incoherence involved in employing human beings, commodifying their life activity, we will repent for wage slavery? But wait a minute, has this incoherence not been perceived for at least 150 years? Perhaps, then, it's not so much a matter of perception as a question of the bottom line. "We" won't perceive the incoherence until "we" can afford to do so. John Locke was persuaded not to oppose slavery because emancipation would have threatened not only the economic status quo in the Caribbean, where he was a large landowner, but also "the existence of the mother country itself, due to the injury to trade."
From Robert Alexy, a scholar of ancient Roman law, we learn that the legal position of the Roman slave "considerably improved" under the Empire. Under the Republic slave-owners had full power over life and death; the law allowed killing slaves even "just for fun." Under Claudius (41-54 CE) masters could be charged with murder if they killed slaves for inability to work. Domitian (81-96 CE) forbade castration of slaves. Hadrian (117 — 138 CE) prohibited the sale of slaves to procurers or to purveyors for gladiatorial shows without cause. Any one of those emperors could have assumed the obligation to express regret for errors of the past while acknowledging the mitigating fact that past slave-owners believed that killing a slave for any or for no reason was acceptable. The emperor might ask forgiveness from something like a Slave NGO. This might be forthcoming, and master and slave could live happily ever after under the canopy of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Masters and Slaves.
Fidel Castro has said that a hundred years from now humanity will look back on capitalism the way we now look back on slavery. As a Marxist he knows that it will not be so much a matter of progress in perception, as Ripstein seems to think.
Hannah Arendt thought that while "revenge" is "natural, automatic...can be expected and even calculated...the act of forgiveness can never be predicted," that it is "unconditioned by the act which provoked it." If this was ever true, it is true no longer, for apology, forgiveness and reconciliation have been decreed by Pax Americana as necessary prerequisites for admission to the new world order. Forgiveness and reconciliation have become entirely predictable, indeed nearly compulsory functions, essential lubricants of the globalization of capitalism. They exclude or to excrete from membership in the global fellowship fund, or the international fraternity bank, the world's rogues and losers.
These rogues include the Taliban, Ghaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, Noriega, Le Pen, the "Iranian mullahs" and — let us not forget — the drug-dealing and drug-consuming "criminals" of all colors of North America, the losers of Haiti, the loser Roma gypsies of Europe, and many others. They remain rogues for at least for as long as they continue to fail to get it together, "it" being what it takes on some kind of bottom line or another to apply for admission to fellowship.
By contrast, consider the ongoing process of reconciliation of Australia with her aborigines. Wonderful though this may be, it has transformed the aborigines, in the words of Elazar Barkan, into a "cultural asset, one that Australia is happy to appropriate, consume, and export to the rest of the world." Australia transforms herself into a new, no-longer British, multi-cultural (that is, Americanized) "nation, at peace with its past."
Carl Schmitt, an intellectual rogue whose work is recognized by many clerics of Pax Americana as 'thought provoking', could have predicted the predictability of apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation (A-F-R). This is the militaristic pacifism (compare Levinas' "rational peace") which draws the line ever more clearly, though not impermeably, between America's friends, the friends of friendship, and her enemies, the unforgivable (at least for now), unapologetic, unrepentant hard-liners, enemies of friendship, friends of enmity. Schmitt's follower, Paul Edward Gottfried, sums it up: "Unity is pursued through constant war presented as quests for peace and consensus."
At the end of history, the fragile hope of certain continental philosophers becomes ever more fragile, diminishing to almost nothing. It is a hope that forgiveness "will have been" somehow related to a messianic opening of time which disrupts historical time: the time of the victors, the time of those who join together to produce the official archive of A-F R, the Hegelian time of world history as the world court (now soon to issue in an actual tribunal), and the International Court of Human Rights (even though the highest global power in Washington continues to resist this). A common thread in many A-F-R projects is the call for a rewriting of history by erstwhile enemies' professional archivists, e.g. those of Germany and Poland, in order to achieve a single consensual (though of course admirably subtle and complex) reconstruction of the past. A typical expression is that of John Paul II, working for A-F-R with the Orthodox churches, calling for an "International Commission for Dialogue" which would produce an "honest and global presentation of history that will move toward a concordant and even common historiography of the two churches."
The era of collective forgiveness actually had its beginnings not in 1995 but perhaps half a century earlier, in 1945, with the first glimpses of understanding in the West that the nations of the free world (I won't even bother with quotation marks here) would soon need to unite in mutual love and forgiveness in order to struggle with Communism. Among the first signs of the new order was the establishment by Frank Buchman's "Moral ReArmament" movement of a meeting place at the Caux palace in Geneva where "enemies could be reconciled." MRA was an ecumenical spiritual movement rearming the forces of love against those of "personal vendettas," "national hatreds" and — of course — "class war." In 1947 a large contingent of Germans, including concentration camp survivors and several German generals such as Hans Speidel, soon to command the NATO ground forces, expressed love, guilt, repentance, and forgiveness. The perps promised that Germany would never again be guilty of aggression. Some Serbs must have doubts about this today.
Allied spokesmen apologized too. British admiral Bill Phillips apologized: "Maybe if we had been better neighbors...in the 1920s, World War II would never have happened....I'm damn sorry" he said, and bravely held out his hand. Some of the first sincere tears of the German warrior cum New Age male were shed on this occasion; of course, there were warm tears on all sides.
Paul Hoffman, the architect of the Marshall Plan, welcomed MRA as its "ideological counter-part". By 1951 according to Michael Henderson, "half of the German cabinet were firm MRA believers." By 1950 through MRA efforts to bring about "peace between capital and labor," Communist representation on the Ruhr's works councils had dropped from 72 to 29 per cent.
In 1947 the French social democrat Irene Laure, a heroine of MRA, had traveled through Free Germany for eleven weeks, apologizing to 200 meetings and ten state parliaments for her wartime hatred of Germans: "My hatred...is wrong." Henderson writes: "As she moved beyond hatred of Germans she also moved beyond class war...hating the Germans, then the bosses...who would have been next?" Rearmed with morality, writes Henderson, "we no longer instinctively" take "the side of the poor against the rich"; rather, we are liberated "to choose what (is) right in every situation." Free, free at last, free now at the end of history to perceive and choose the truth, what is right, to repent of the now obviously "totally unacceptable" sins of the past.
Eric Yamamoto quotes a legal advisor of the U.S. government, commenting on the movement for an official U.S. apology for slavery, warning that this might open "a Pandora's Box." For example, "would those workers who were victims of the Industrial Revolution" be thought worthy of an apology? What fascinates me here is the presupposition that someone could pick out those who were "victims" of capitalism in the past from those who were not, and the implication that the capitalism of the present has no victims. Fidel Castro might have said: no apology is necessary, just the abolition of capitalism.
John Paul II, when apologizing for the past "intolerance" and "coercive methods" of the Church, observed that such methods were "later employed by totalitarian ideologies and are now being used by Islamic fundamentalists. From those kinds of coercive methods came the crimes of Hitler's Nazism and Marxist Stalinism" — but no others that the pope could think of at the moment. The castle of the MRA at Caux was to become the site of the Pope's apology for Catholic complicity in the African slave trade, the President of Argentina's apology to Britain for the obviously unjust Falklands war, and many other tear-jerking manifestations of the end of history. Today the castle hosts — Henderson again — "Croatians, Bosnians, and Serbs" and "Russians coming out of their ideological hell" into our non-ideological freedom to choose what is "right in every situation."
In F.W. de Klerk's autobiography, The Last Trek, the last chieftain of the Afrikaners, soon to be dissolved as a nation by the forces of global pardon, describes one of the turning points: an important speech by President Botha in 1985 had not been satisfactory to the West. "Between the end of June 1985 and September 1985 the rand plummeted from R197 to R248 to the U.S. dollar...the speech had cost the country several billion rand." By 1990 de Klerk, now President, is overjoyed at being allowed to meet with the World Bank and the IMF. After the ANC's election victory — an ANC that is now overjoyed to deal with the Bank and the Fund — de Klerk goes to visit Botha "at his lagoon-side home in the wilderness. He received me politely but coolly" and soon expressed his wish to "discuss with me...what he called my membership in an evil conspiracy in the world called the New World Order." He claimed that "I had been bound into this evil conspiracy by President Bush who according to him was a leading figure in the New World Order.... I left him with two emotions — concern and anger over his insults, but also pity for a sick old man."
Make no mistake. I entirely rejected apartheid and have just as much pity for a sick old man as any dependent of the Bank, but the question does arise: "A million rand per word"?! Has A-F-R not been commodified? Is it not locked into a certain order, constrained by a certain order of money, one which excludes apartheid but also excludes countless other unprofitable ventures, some of them unimaginable? Ask the Sandinistas. Has it occurred even to them whether someone ought to apologize for the free (but not free from blackmail) election handed down to the Nicaraguan people in 1989?
Perhaps someday the last capitalist, the Gorbachev of global capitalism, will write his autobiography. For this I would give millions of rand per word.
Aporiae of Forgiveness and the Vow
(with apologies to Levinas and Derrida)
Very well then, I shall now perhaps contradict myself. The labour of forgiveness has been entirely monetized. We cannot be entirely duped by morality.
At the high point of the ritual of the Day of Atonement the congregation recites the Kol Nidrei ("All the Vows") three times so that people will be sure to hear it even if they missed it the first two times. This is a plea to God to cancel, render null and void all contracts, covenants, vows, oaths, and promises which will be made in the coming year: i.e. they are "always already" cancelled.
Kol Nidrei is a very important prayer, but it is, as Robert Gibbs remarks, "truly an obscure prayer." On the Day of Atonement for our failures of obligation, why cancel the obligations to come in the future? According to the rabbinical text Otzar Minhagei Yeshurun this prayer only became significant during the Spanish Inquisition when Jews were forced to convert and swear allegiance to the Church and her Pope. On Yom Kippur the Marranos would "gather in their caves and pour out their pleas to God to forgive them their false vows." So Kol Nidrei does not cancel the sanctity of the vow. Kol Nidrei, while cancelling, intensifies. But let's go farther, lets go too far. The prayer cancels all vows insofar as they are false, including especially those vows of A-F-R mandated by the movement of World History. The situation is not always, not usually, perhaps not ever as straightforward as that of the Marranos. Some Marranos, perhaps, developed a genuine love for Jesus Messiah. Many Jews of Marrano heritage would become followers of the so-called "false" messiah Shabbtai Tzvi in the 17th century. What would Kol Nidrei mean to them? Who will identify and separate the truth of the vow from its falsehood?
How many units of forgiveness are truth value and how many are exchange value? Many vows in Judaism are vows to remember; some are vows never to forgive. Zachor et asher assa lecha Amalek. "Remember what Amalek (Israel's cruelest ancient enemy) did to you." But what if Amalek should sincerely repent? My friend Robert Gibbs once responded "Don't hold your breath! That would never happen, since Amalek is the very principle of non-repentance!" But today I would respond with the suggestion that Kol Nidrei is given to us to undermine the certainty that this "would never happen."
If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its function, let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy. (my translation)
A powerful vow. Yet...where is this Jerusalem? Who is this Jerusalem? Is she perhaps constrained, oppressed, even violated by this vow? Should this vow not be displaced? Can we know beforehand or in retrospect about a vow to repent, or "never" to forgive, or to forget, or "always" to remember, whether or to what extent (whatever "extent" might mean here) the vow is false?
Thank God, we do not know. But we cannot, must not, forget the vow. And we (some of "us") do vow to do everything we can to liberate the vow from the new world order, to resist the political, ideological and commercial exploitation of the vow, to suspect every act of A-F-R as possibly, probably, even as inevitably idolatrous and blasphemous.
Simon Wiesenthal's book The Sunflower recounts an incident near the end of Hitler's war. A dying twenty-one year-old German boy, Karl, an S.S. officer, asks Wiesenthal to forgive him for his horrendous personal evil deeds. Wiesenthal can't quite bring himself to do this. In the book he tells the story and asks about forty people what they would have done in his place. Most say they would definitely not have forgiven. For example, Andre Stein: "Karl at 21 was old enough to make informed choices...there will be no mercy" for child killers. Some, mostly Christian theologians and the Dalai Lama, feel obliged to forgive. A number of respondents give ambiguous responses.
Only two are ready for the aporia. Dorothy Soelle gives "two contradictory replies" which she finds already in Wiesenthal's narrative: "No, I cannot forgive you, the nice young German man and the S.S. murderer" and "Yes, I can believe your remorse, absolvo te, go in peace...Perhaps I would have said no, I cannot....But perhaps the other. Oremus." And Primo Levi — I'll give him the next-to-last word: "It is impossible to decide categorically between the...yes and the no.... The events...occurred in a world impregnated with crime. Under these conditions... it is perhaps impossible..."
And the last word to Cardinal Biffi, who mildly criticizing the pope's A-F-R project from a conservative perspective, asks: "To whom will humanity send the bill for the countless French people sent to the guillotine in 1793 for no other crime than their social standing?...the heinous historical crimes against the human race are hidden...under a mantle of silence...Therefore, as regards the sins of history, would it not be better for all of us to wait for the Last Judgement?"
Gad Horowitz is a retired professor of philosophy at University of Toronto. This essay is dedicated to his Uncle Asher, who died at age17 serving as a volunteer in the Canadian Merchant Marine during World War Two, and to the Canadian and British boys and men executed by our firing squads for "cowardice" and "desertion" during the imperialist war of 1914 — 1917.