Neighbor Love and Punishment
In Christianity, Judaism and Islam the faithful are enjoined to live in peace with their neighbor, to treat them kindly or even to love them. This command has its secular equivalent when a peaceful world, a world free of war and cruelty is set as a goal of political action.
This injunction to universal kindness is pulled up short in the face of cruelty when neighbors oppress neighbors. We are reminded that this is the hundreth anniversary of what is known to historians as the "Red Summer" when white mobs burned black churches, often with their congregations still inside and then went on rampages of lynchings in which hundreds of African-Americans died. One of those burned churches was rebuilt. It was burned down the gain in 2014. In 2016 several black churches fell victim to arson attacks in Louisiana. The cruelty of 100 years ago continues to this day. The advocates of peace and reconciliation are facing serious challenges today.
Dedicated to a world of peace, whether for religious reasons or following secular political principles, how shall we treat the arsonists, the lynch mobs, the murderers? At this moment, in Togo, a small African country that only very recently emerged from a brutal dictatorship, maintained by murdering often innocent citizens, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission encourages citizens to confess whatever terrific part they played in the past and for the victims to try to reconcile with the guilty parties. The assassins will not be tried in a court of law, they do not face long periods of incarceration or even death. The goal of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to reunify a population divided for many years between the henchmen of the dictatorship and the victimized population at large. Here is one way in which the religious and secular political injunction to practice kindness to all is actually being applied. Not everyone is satisfied with this interpretation of neighborly love. Surely, they say an important part of loving your neighbor is to respect them. One form of paying respect to human beings is to hold them responsible for their actions. You disrespect them if you do not pay attention to their actions, may those be acts of heroism or self-sacrifice or maybe they be deceitful acts or acts of violence. Refusing to acknowledge what a person has done, how he lived his life, whether she contributed to the well-being of our community or acted to destroy it is to deny respect to the perpetrators of civil oppression and war, the recognition that is an important element of respect. If you forget how a person has lived his life, how he injured neighbors he did not even know, you refuse the person the respect and thus the kindness or love you are professing.. The forgiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission denies genuine respect to the persons offered forgiveness. Can one forgive and respect a person guilty of exceptional cruelty? It is a question that is not easy to answer. The truth is that forgiveness may be respectful, fully horrified by the action of the person before us, or it may be as it were absent-minded, unthinking and more or less mechanical. In that case it clearly denies the person forgiven the respect they are entitled to. Respectful forgiveness makes difficult demands on the person trying to forgive. But punishment as it is demanded by the enemies of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions continues the cycle of brutality. It inflicts pain on those who inflicted pains on others. Now they are aggrieved and the cycle of victimization is being continued. However heartfelt our desire for peace and an end to inflicting pain on those who have inflicted pain on others, that end remains unattainable unless we practice what we preach and forgive. Punishment as the response to breaking the peace will never allow us to restore a more durable peace than we have accomplished so far. Fully aware of the misdeeds of those who supported and practiced violence against their fellow citizens, we need nevertheless to allow them back into our community in order to try to heal it and allow it once again to come together and to create as much harmony as it can. That is the true meaning of the injunction to love our neighbor, to befriend our neighbors and to be genuine promoters of peace.