on judgement and understanding

I’m reading [and re-reading!] Bernard Schlink’s Guilt about the past at the moment. It’s seriously good. If you’ve read or seen The Reader, this is an exploration of the theoretical underpinnings to the novel.

He writes about the intricacies of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice within the context of the Holocaust. The following quote has been rolling around my head for the last few days – in fact, I’ve had three vivid dreams over the last three nights [it’s the heat], and each has involved someone saying a version of the last sentence…

He’s writing of judgement towards those who perpetrated the evil of the holocaust: ‘whoever thinks and feels understandingly is giving up the distance needed to make dispassionate assessments and clear decisions; he or she gets caught up in the mire of forgiving indecisiveness and permissiveness and becomes unsuited to the necessary harshness of condemnation… the tension exists especially for the perpetrator’s children and grandchildren; they know that their parents and grandparents should be condemned but they still love them too much, know them too well, not to want to understand them and, in their understanding, they tend towards clemency. Between wanting to understand and having to condemn they can find no really workable course of behaviour. It is as if understanding would contaminate the pure business of forgiving and condemning…‘ [italics mine]

For some reason, the first time I read that my mind jumped to the story in Mark’s Gospel of the Syro-Phoenician woman who talks Jesus into healing her daughter. This is a story that shows Jesus in a pretty nasty light – and most commentaries get quite tangled in trying to defend the actions and words of Jesus. But there’s a simpler reading: the woman teaches Jesus, confronts his biases, challenges his theoretical understandings of mission and faith – and he’s converted from the experience.

I love the idea that God had theories about how humans should relate and about who deserves what, and then in the incarnation, God got up close to humankind and realised that the theories always have to be tempered with understanding; that knowing someone, being in relationship, pre-empts all theology and, especially, all judgement.

And speaking of judgement, the Synod Commission for Mission are hosting a series of Mission Development Forums this year, under the title Mission Now, to explore how all parts of the mission of the church can be explored through the lens of restorative / communal justice. The first of these is on the morning of March 24 [repeated March 31st, in the evening], which will explore the principles of restorative justice and its theological imperative. Rachel Kronberger is moderating the forums, and I’m speaking at this first one. Registration is open to anyone, and information can be found here.


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