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Forgiveness for the Khmer Rouge?

NPR this morning was all abuzz about the first day of trial for the Khmer Rouge. The former prison guard, Duch, although he has beenaccused "of crimes against humanity, torture and premeditated murder for his alleged role in the deaths of more than 10,000 people" is seeking forgiveness. He has said that "he had not wanted to take charge of the prison, but feared for his own life if he did not follow orders."BBC News reports,

By the time the Vietnamese army invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the regime had executed or starved and overworked to death up to two million Cambodians.

Is forgiveness in light of these situations possible?

About the Author

Marianne L. Tierney is a PhD student in theology at Boston College.



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Yes.Jesus encouraged us to forgive --- indefinitely.Psychology tells us that the act of forgiving benefits (primarily?) the one doing the forgiving (Jesus apparently knew something about being human).Does forgiveness equal no punishment?Maybe, maybe not.

Forgiveness, yes, but to the extent fair trials can still be conducted 30+ years after the events, then IMO trials of the top Khmer Rouge still living should go forward. The victims and their families deserve justice, and the nation of Cambodia deserves catharsis after the horrors of the Killing Fields. The government of Cambodia's ability and intention to conduct fair trials will also show Cambodians and the world that the country is taking human rights much more seriously. Finally, the Khmer Rouge still have some influence in Cambodia, and if the events reported in the recent newspaper article linked below are true, one of the worst mass murderers in history has taken on perceived magical powers in death that need to be undercut before his crimes against humanity are forgotten.

Forgiveness is fully compatible with punishment. One can quite reasonably say: "I forgive you because you, as a person, are always of greater worth than whatever you do. Nonetheless, for what you have done, you must pay a penalty. Even if you refuse to accept the penalty, I still forgive you, because of your personal worth, but I will still insist on your paying the penalty." The key point is for the forgiver to hold fast to the distinction between the person and the acts that that person commits.

Interesting question. Makes me think of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South AFrica, set up to defuse wholesale civil war and slaughter when apartheid was dismantled. Reconciliation and truth-telling allow people to accept what happened to them or what they did to others so that they can free themselves from vengeance and the cycles of old hatred. It allows them some ability to move on.Is that forgiveness? I don't think it is, quite. Forgiveness is something that takes place when God works through the human heart. A true forgiver, I think, with all respect to Bernard Dauenhauer, doesn't forgive with caveats about penalties and restitution.I also think the ability to accept forgiveness is a grace that not everyone is blessed with. Sometimes I wonder if Hell is populated not so much by those whom God cannot forgive as by those who are so tortured that forgiveness is itself a punishment.

Last week at the CUA conference on torture, though intended to look at U.S. policies at Guantanamo and elsewhere, attracted a number of torture survivors from Africa. One of the speakers taking note of their remarks talked about the complex after-life of the truth and reconciliations efforts in Rwanda. In some places, the survivors of the genocide wound up living once again next to their neighborhs, who were the perpetrators. Despite efforts at "reconciliation," the speaker reported a continuing degree of fear, animosity, and anxiety among the survivors, who felt that there being no punishment or accountability, there could be no forgiveness or reconciliation. Is some form of accountability required?

A brief reply to Jean Raber and Peggy Steinfels. I may no9t have been clear in my earlier post. Let's first distinguish between a person and his or her actions. There are some actions that amount to attacks on their victims' fundamental dignity. For example, fraud robbery, assault, rape, murder. We as a society ought to reassert the dignity of the victims. We do so through the justice system that imposes penalties. It does not follow, though, that we can rightly deny the fundamental dignity of the perpetrators. They too remain full-fledged persons entitled to the respect and concern that everyone else is entitled to. They deserve a forgiveness that acknowledges their dignity, which they can never forfeit, whatever they do. This is an unconditional acknowledgment or forgiveness. But it does not preculde the punishment required to also acknowledge the dignity of the victims.Peggy's posting reminds us that such unconditional forgiveness is often very hard to give, especially in cases such as she cites. There is much reason to sympathize with these victims' plight. Nonetheless, as some heroic victims have testified, giving this unconditional forgiveness is healing for the forgiver as well as for the forgiven. The purpose of forgiving is, if forgiveness is to be really unconditional, not for the victim to feel healed. But that byproduct does give all of us some encouragement to promote unconditional forgiveness without forgoing punishing when necessary.

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