Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.4 (Winter 2009): Book Reviews: "The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives" Edited by Thomas Brudholm and Thomas Cushman [Full Text]

Dec 15, 2009

The Religious in Responses to Mass Atrocity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 296 pp., $85 cloth.

Elazar Barkan (Reviewer)

Mass atrocities elicit responses that employ religious terminology. This open-ended framework provides a wide-ranging scope for this book, which deals with philosophical, ethical, sociological, and religious approaches to post-violence politics and societies. The organizing principle of "religious terminology" expands the purview of the essays well beyond "religion" per se, and indeed some of the most interesting contributions deal with religion as a political institution and with "religious actors" as political actors in the broadly defined transitional justice field. The motivation of a secular society to resort to religious language to commemorate and engage with its worst violent moments provides the rationale for the title, which emphasizes not religion but the religious as a broad set of discourses, beliefs, and ritual practices that people employ to describe and respond to the incomprehensible and unknowable. If this seems "most generalized" (p. 8), the editors are fully cognizant of it. Resorting to the divine in the absence of an alternative explanation describes a large swath of human sentiments and interaction, and it is around this absence that the volume attempts to cohere as a book.

The politics of forgiveness is a core theme of the book. Forgiveness is central to Christian doctrine and plays a key role in advocacy by major religious leaders in response to mass violence—none more so than Archbishop Tutu in South Africa. Thomas Brudholm, in a thought-provoking essay, challenges the common perception of forgiveness as an uncontested virtue, and focuses on the dangers arising from such advocacy. Building on Cynthia Ozick—"forgiveness is pitiless" because it "forgets the victim" (quoted on p. 124)—Brudholm maps the experiences of several postconflict societies with forgiveness and brings together the various rationales for legitimizing its alternatives.

Forgiveness is shown to be a parochial cultural (religious) demand: when presented as a must, a necessity, it imposes values on victims that they are made to subscribe to without considering their own perspectives. Instead of forgiveness, Brudholm presents reconciliation and redress as priorities, which might come about through managing resentment and pain, rather than repressing and delegitimizing their manifestation. "Unforgiving victims" should not be made to feel guilty because they adhere to their emotions and cultures. The major distinction between feeling resentment as a natural emotion versus resentment that leads to violent action is often ignored in religious discussion, and the discourse instead treats resentment as inevitably leading to violence and, therefore, to sin. Rather, a more open-ended understanding of resentment would legitimize diverse responses by victims to allow forgiveness as a legitimate reaction, but not demand it as an exclusive response by victims.

Perhaps the strongest political critique against the insistence on forgiveness by religious advocates—that is, various church leaders—is that it focuses on the fate of the perpetrators while ignoring the victims. Clearly there are exceptions, but Brudholm makes a strong case for paying greater attention to the victims, a shift that would decenter forgiveness as a moral demand. Could relatives of victims forgive in the name of the dead? Or do they forgive in their own name? Who is allowed to forgive? Any exploration of the theme of forgiveness as a "simple" virtue ignores the complexity involved in answering these questions. The conclusion that any forgiveness after mass violence is "fractured, incomplete, and in danger of constituting wrong to the dead" (p. 138) conveys the dilemma: the distinction between theological (a matter between god and the believer) and human (between victim and perpetrator) conceptions of forgiveness creates a delineation that cannot be erased. Therefore, the critical conclusion is that there is no single category of "good" and no undifferentiated usage of forgiveness.

The question of the role and impact of religious actors in the aftermath of violence is one that has just begun to be examined in the scholarly literature on transitional justice. The chapter by Daniel Philpott discovers—not surprisingly, perhaps—that the impact is uneven. Religious actors played a central role in several recent cases of transitional justice, including in Brazil, South Africa, Guatemala, Peru, Chile, Sierra Leone, Germany, and East Timor. In Rwanda (as in the former Yugoslavia), on the other hand, the churches played little role in the transitional process. In the former places the important common political variables were the church's independence from the state and its promotion of truth finding and reconciliation rather than trials and punishment. These are important observations, as the literature on the impact of redress, including retributive and restorative approaches, is just beginning to examine the long-term consequences of various redress policies. Scholars are clearly lagging behind advocates in this sense. For example, the Gacaca courts in Rwanda were in the process of completing their mission this past summer after trying more than one million cases. Was this huge experiment in "traditional" justice successful? Does one measure success by the indictments, or by the perceived reconciliation? By the number of witnesses who were killed after their testimony, or the number of perpetrators punished?

Philip Gourevitch, writing in the New Yorker (May 4, 2009) recently described the inadequacy of representing the political as ethical. Victims in Rwanda, he notes, have accepted the government's demand to forgive perpetrators because of their dependence on the government. The coexistence of victims with the perpetrators, sometimes at a proximity that is almost intimate, and certainly personal, underscores the political nature of forgiveness and the inadequacy of evaluating it as an exclusively ethical discourse. Again and again, the acceptance of forgiveness points not to ethical or religious acquiescence, but to political resignation. This, I believe, has consequences in other areas, where the religious rhetoric does not represent a response to an ethical absence as much as a political one.

Philpott concludes that the independence of the church as an institution in each country is perhaps the most important variable in understanding its specific role in the post-violence period. The more implicated it has been with the perpetrators, the less likely it is to play a reconciliatory role. Another way to look at it might be to think of religious actors as a subcategory of human rights advocates—that is, as a political category. Perhaps, then, the important variable is the existing political space for human rights advocacy, not religion as an institution.

This conclusion seems to me to be critical to a book that views the religious as a rhetorical space and the actors as primarily political, not as an institution or a particular system of belief. With the exception of Philpott and Nigel Biggar, the authors of these essays are either indifferent to or critical of the ability of religious actors to offer a constructive response to post-violence societies. Whether it is religion's inability to offer a single, specific moral response (Arne Grøn), the "impasse" that religion reaches in its attempt to render history intelligible (Peter Dews), or its limits as a sociological analysis (John Torpey; Thomas Cushman), the volume underscores the limitations of religious interventions. While the editors would like the volume to provide "new approaches to the perhaps inescapably ambiguous . . . role of the religious inhuman affairs" (p. 16), the reader may well reach a skeptical conclusion about the potential contribution of religious discourse to a productive and reconciliatory response to mass violence.

The reviewer is Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and the author of, among other books, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (2001).

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