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SIDIC Periodical XXXI - 1998/2
Good and Evil After Auschwitz (Pages 11 -13)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

God between mercy and justice: Auschwitz as challenge toward a “kenotic” notion of reconciliation
Dirk Ansorge


Using a dispute from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov, Dirk Ansorge posed questions about justice and pardon relating to the catastrophe of Auschwitz, and about universal reconciliation at the end of time and at the Last Judgment. To clarify the meaning of reconciliation he first attempted to clarify the concepts of freedom and guilt according to Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In light of these understandings he considered the questions: Who can forgive? Is it an obligation to forgive? Is it possible to pardon in someone else’s place? He discussed the conflictive relationships between God, the antagonist and the victim in light of the philosophical thought of Emmanuel Levinas, considering particularly the relationship between justice and mercy. As a Christian theologian Ansorge, in the latter part of his presentation presented the elements of a “kenotic” notion of reconciliation by alluding to the helplessness of God’s love - a helplessness which, in the face of death, consists of the absolute refutation of any form of violence. Following are two portions of this presentation.

The Interpersonal Dimension of Reconciliation

The thesis that human beings are able to decide on eternal perdition or salvation of their fellow creatures is a perspective that was discussed by the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas comments on a rabbinical interpretation of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur):
The Day of Atonement atones transgressions between a man and the Almighty. The Day of Atonement does not atone transgressions between a man and his brother until he has appeased his fellow creature. (Mishna Yoma VIII 8f).

Commenting on this text Levinas shows himself to be impressed by the outrageousness of this interpretation:
My brother, a human being, who is infinitely inferior in comparison to the absolute Other, is in a certain sense for me more Other than God himself is. To receive pardon on the Day of Atonement I first have to achieve that he lets himself be appeased. (Dem Anderen gegenüber 31-2).

The victim is “in a certain sense...more Other than God himself!” And Levinas doesn’t hesitate to stress the offensiveness of this interpretation by emphasizing that he considers a possible refusal of pardon: “And if he does refuse? As soon as two people are involved, everything is at stake. The other one is able to refuse reconciliation and leave me without reconciliation forever” (ibid.).

“To leave someone without reconciliation forever” - this is exactly the challenge to the biblical hope of salvation we derived from Dostoyevsky. Levinas as well as Ivan clearly reject the idea that the victim’s assent is only of secondary importance with regard to God’s plan to realize universal reconciliation:
Against this...thesis, in which we feel, in an anachronistic manner, some influence of Hegel, precisely against the thesis that the universal order is superior to the individual, it is that the Gemara objects: No, it is the offended individual who always has to be appeased, who has to be addressed and consoled personally. God’s pardon - or the pardon of history - can’t be achieved without the individual being respected. (ibid 38)

Levinas blames Hegel to be the representative of an idea of reconciliation that takes possession of the Other instead of releasing him. Indeed: Hegel’s conception of a “reconciled diversity” presupposes the ideal of a relationship that is characterized by a mutual symmetry of human beings. Such a symmetry, however, doesn’t exist where the relationship was affected by guilt. And guilt, Levinas points out, is a fundamental feature of interpersonal relationship. Levinas explicitly adopts Dostoyevsky’s idea: “Everyone of us is guilty to everyone; but foremost am I guilty” (388). Reconciliation as it is conceived by Hegel, according to Levinas reduces the Other to a pure relationship to the Self.

Such a conception of reconciliation, however, is nothing else but a form of “imperialistic violence.” It is represented by the relationship between perpetrators and victims in Auschwitz in all its historical inscrutability. To realize reconciliation, henceforth, can’t simply mean to reduce interpersonal relationship to a relationship of mutual reciprocity. On the contrary: the relationship between perpetrator and victim is to be reversed to its very opposite. Therefore pardon according to Levinas - following the Mishna - can only be granted if the perpetrator requests the victim to forgive.

Since pardon - as well as guilt - fundamentally refers to the interpersonal relationship, Levinas - like Kant (cf. Religion B 94) - explicitly rejects the possibility of vicarious or substitution pardon. The right to pardon is solely reserved to the victims:
Merits and offences will not be set off against each other anonymously. They are closely bound to the person - that means without the possibility to be set off against each other - and they request their own treatment. (ibid. 51)

Yet again: what if pardon is refused? This possibility is indeed taken into consideration by Levinas. And he seems to insist on the legitimacy of revenge and retribution. The reason, for him, is that the Other is an appearance of the Divine in the world. Therefore he is to be respected without any restriction. The respect to the “Honor of God,” the “Honor of the divine Name,” is the foundation for an unrestricted responsibility for the Other. It is just this responsibility that - according to Levinas - justifies the right of revenge and retribution.

Nevertheless, this right does not appear to be without any mercy. Levinas hopes for a kind of “superior justice”:
The Talmud teaches us that it is impossible to oblige people who claim for the right of retribution to forgive. It teaches us that Israel never denies anybody this inalienable right. But above all it teaches that Israel by acknowledging this right doesn’t claim it for itself, that belonging to Israel means not to claim it. (ibid. 54)

What kind of justice, then, is that “superior justice” that distinguishes “Israel”? According to Levinas it is the individual readiness of a person to refrain from the legitimate right of retribution when confronted by the concrete need of another person. Such a readiness, as Levinas points out, finds “in the midst of all the dialectical leaps of justice and its contradictory ups and downs a straight and secure passage without any uncertainty”(ibid. 54).

Therefore Levinas’ ultimate perspective is by no means an abstract right of retribution. On the very opposite; the right of retribution is accomplished - at least for Israel - by not claiming it.

Elements of a “Kenotic” Notion of Reconciliation

Here we ultimately face the helplessness of love: a helplessness that consists of the absolute refutation of any form of violence. God’s acting, as we learn from the incarnation of Christ, can be nothing else than an appeal to human freedom. Is this not also true for the victims’ readiness to forgive?

Hence, if the victims refuse to pardon - for whatever reasons - we may hope that God will bring his influence in between perpetrators and victims - just as that “Third” who claims “justice”, according to Levinas. And “justice”, in the context of the Last Judgment, refers to the primordial destination of human beings to live in mutual community and in community with God. So we firmly hope that God’s wooing love is strong enough to realize the primordial destination of human beings at the very end of history as well.

In his glory, we hope, God will meet the victims with his love that is at the same time powerless and overwhelming. Only by addressing them with their names (cf. Isaiah 43:1) God installs something their tormentors withheld: namely to be free subjects. At the Last Judgment they are no more indifferent bystanders in a granting of pardon that is restricted to God and the tormentors exclusively. By the power of their subjectivity being restored by God, the victims will be entrusted with an irreplaceable ministry in realizing universal reconciliation. In this regard “reconciliation” is conceived as an event that is no more restricted to the relationship between sinner and God but expanded to the universal solidarity of all human beings.

Theology that insists even in the face of Auschwitz on the fact that God has created man as his image and free counterpart, is taught by Auschwitz that by creating man God has started a history with an open end - an open end even for God himself. To speak about “reconciliation” within this history - and at its very end - points to the hope that not only God, but the victims as well - and even them foremost! - will forgive their tormentors.

Dr. Dirk Ansorge lectures in Systematic and Biblical Theology at the Catholic Academy of the Diocese of Essen (Germany). His University of Tübingen thesis on the main work of John Scot Erigene: “Wahrheit als Prozeß. Eine theologische Interpretation von Periphyseon” (“Truth as Process: A Theological Interpretation of Periphyseon”) was awarded the Karl Rahner Prize for Theological Research in 1993.


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