This week the editors cover Marc LiVecche’s article about retribution, Colin Dueck’s article about Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christian Forstner’s comments on the German election.

Rough Transcript

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow Mark(c)s and fellow editors, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. We’re addressing three articles from Providence over the last week or so. One is Marc LiVecche’s response to Wheaton professor Esau McCaulley’s New York Times column in which he urged forgiveness, national forgiveness, rather than revenge aimed at terrorists who strike the US. McCaulley was especially concerned about President Biden’s declaration that there could be no forgiveness for the terrorists who struck the airport in Afghanistan, in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing numerous Afghans and a number of US military personnel. Then we’ll take a look at a column by George Mason University professor Colin Dueck on Reinhold Niebuhr and how he saw the world and its impact on geopolitics. Finally, I’ll have a few words about the German election and some analysis we received from Christian Forstner, who is with one of the German political parties but based here in Washington, DC. But first, Marc LiVecche, you responded at length quite thoroughly to Esau McCaulley’s column in the New York Times denouncing the comment of President Biden on his rejection of forgiveness, and you make a very important distinction between revenge and retribution. Tell us more.

LiVecche: Yeah. I suppose that at the outset I should say that we are in agreement on Biden’s maybe ill-advised suggestion that there will be no forgiveness. And I do make a place, certainly, for forgiveness in international relations. I think the basis of Just War is eventually to lead to the conditions that might allow for peace between more parties, and part of that peace is going to necessitate the advance of forgiveness. But all of that comes with an awful lot of other things that have to be in place first. I suggest that the difference, basic difference, between retribution and revenge, and they ought not to go on together, is that revenge is happy to simply wreak havoc and to see the enemy suffer per se. And this is one of those things that Saint Augustine says is evil in war. It’s not the violence per se, it’s not the war per se, it’s an internal attitude of implacable hatred, a desire to see the enemy suffer such excessive cruelty. And that sort of thing is when internal disposition, so revenge, is simply happy to see the enemy suffer for its own sake. Whereas retribution is an effort to answer injury in an equitable way. So, to answer the loss of an eye with the loss of an eye. Something that is proportionate to both the offense but also proportionate to the desired end, which is punishment that leads to reconciliation. J. Budziszewski has a nice little way of putting it. He says, “retribution answers injury with injury for public good and revenge answers malice with malice for private satisfaction.” So, again, this internal disposition. And I thought our New York Times author just conflated the two, and he asks for something that’s dangerous to have in not just international relations but personal relations. One ought not to quickly seek to forgive if the offender has not repented. I’ve written before that forgiveness is broken into two bits. One part is unilateral on the part of the victim; it’s forgiveness is compassion. I don’t know the story that leads people to do the things that they do. I can be compassionate and wish that this person behaved in some other way. But the other kind of forgiveness that leads to reconciliation: forgiveness is absolution that is first dependent on our enemies seeing the error of their ways, repenting demonstrably, and suggesting that they are not going to do the thing again. And if you forgive someone prior to that not only are you putting yourself potentially at risk, but you’re potentially short circuiting the guilt cycle. And God approaches people often through allowing them to feel guilt and shame for what they’ve done, which has some chance of leading a sensitive soul toward repentance and finally reconciliation.

Tooley: If I may question you a little bit about Biden rejecting forgiveness for the terrorists… from a Christian concept, doesn’t forgiveness have to be received to be effectuate? And if the terrorists are not receiving, it doesn’t mean anything?

LiVecche: Yeah, sure. No quibble with that. I think that plays into my insistence that before forgiveness as absolution can be offered, there has to be repentance, which suggests that the offender is prepared to receive the forgiveness, because they’re asking for it. My only quibble with Biden is there will be no forgiveness, I believe this is his phrase, no matter what. Like that’s it. That’s a little overdrawn. We’re going to talk about Niebuhr in a moment. In practical circumstances, Biden is assuredly right. I don’t suspect these terrorists are going to come asking for forgiveness. So, if he’s just being prophetic, “there will be no forgiveness,” he’s probably right. But if he’s insistent that we will never forgive you no matter what, as difficult as it is to say, victims also have responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities is just to be open to the possibility of reconciliation, which is going to be contingent on the enemy taking the first step.

Tooley: Well, citing Niebuhr, Colin Dueck’s article on Niebuhr notes that Niebuhr was a rare foreign policy realist who focuses on human nature. Specifically, on fallen human nature and the imperfectability of human conduct. He concludes with a noteworthy quote, I think, in which he says, “For Niebuhr, if human beings are not essentially harmless and reasonable, neither are they (in Machiavelli’s words) entirely ‘ungrateful, fickle, false cowards.’ Instead, they are potentially and residually just and loving creatures, caught in a condition of anxiety, corrupted that only by their own baser impulses, but by the unintended consequences of their noblest aspirations.” So, Niebuhr obviously was celebrated for his application of his strong notion of human fallenness in geopolitical and in national terms. Mark Melton, any comments on Niebuhr and Colin Dueck’s analysis?

Melton: Yeah. That last point is interesting because I think, from a reform perspective, I might be less leaning toward the idea of any goodness in humans, if there’s any goodness in humans it’s the product of common grace. In the first paragraph, he kind of summarizes Niebuhr’s thoughts, “As the Protestant theologian’s starting point was neither the role of domestic structure, so central to progressive thought, nor the stumbling block of international anarchy emphasized by academic realists, but instead he focuses in on human nature.” And that kind of reminded me of how when I was in grad school, most of my professors were pretty left of center, and so, they were all worried about the structure of society. Basically, if you could perfect the structure of society, then you can create peace. And to me, granted, I had never heard of Reinhold Niebuhr, I had never heard of Christian realism actually until I got hired to be an editor of Providence, but the on this point, I remember coming back from the library reading all this stuff and thinking that this is completely ignoring this internal struggle, the sinfulness and inner violence within the person themselves, that prevents them from doing what they should do. And even if you perfect everything that’s in society, as long as you have people in there, that in and of itself would cause problems for the society. And so, I mean, I didn’t realize that was Niebuhrian and that it kind of gets into that direction. The other thing that I think is interesting here is that he talks about pride, and so, going back to these old Christianity & Crisis articles, I think the best ones that Niebuhr writes is when he talks about like the pride of victors after World War II. Because if we’re looking at that 75 years ago range, in ’45 and ’46, he’s writing a lot about how the Americans are very prideful because they defeated the Nazis, and he’s trying to remind them well, you’re not perfect either. And if you allow this pride of the victor to infest your soul, it will cause you to do bad things that will cause problems in the future. So, as like a preacher trying to tell the policymakers and the soldiers and everyone, trying to implement policy that they need to be reminded that their pride is going to be a problem. It is so interesting seeing that explanation of where he was coming from, because he emphasized other types of pride, I can’t remember them off top my head, but I just remember in ’45 and ‘46 he wrote a good bit about the pride of victors.

Tooley: And then, finally, a few words about the recent German elections and my interview with Christian Forstner of the Hans Seidel Foundation, which is the think tank arm of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, one of the two main Christian democratic parties in Germany. Angela Merkel, obviously, is retiring from her long-term chancellorship and her Christian Democratic Union party had its worst results in 70 years, about a quarter of the vote. And both major political parties, the Christian Democrats and the left of center Social Democrats, have receded from being dominant in German politics. But Christian Forstner, of course, is on the Christian Democratic side, was not celebrating the results, but he did see that it was a vindication, or it was good news, for the middle in Germany and for democracy in Germany, in that the far left and far right both did very poorly. Obviously, the Alliance for Germany, being the far-right party, did not increase their share of vote, and seemingly the bubble of support that they enjoyed after Merkel’s welcoming in almost 2 million Middle East immigrants several years ago, that bubble seems to have, if not burst, have receded. And the descendants of the old East German Communist Party also only got about 5% of the vote. So, likely there’ll be a new German government headed by the Social Democrats, with the centrist pseudo-libertarian Free Democrats plus the Green Party, which someone in my generation thinks of the Greens as having been radical far left in the 1980s, opposing the US military presence, especially nuclear weapons in Germany, back 30 years ago. But the Greens evidently have moderated somewhat and have become a somewhat temperate left-of-center party. So, as Christian Forstner says, this new left-of-center government potentially will be more strongly outspoken on human rights in terms of Russia and China, but there won’t be a lot of force behind that rhetoric in that this left-of-center coalition is generally against increased military spending for Germany. And perhaps somewhat less enthusiastic about the alliance with the US, although the Social Democratic new chancellor, a former finance minister in Merkel’s coalition government, is himself a longtime collaborator with the US. So, that’s the essence of the general elections. Any final thoughts from either of you, Mark(c)s, on any of the issues before us?

LiVecche: Not too many. It’s just always a good thing when the far right doesn’t win in Germany.

Tooley: Yes, yes.

Melton: I’ll second that. Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to get this coalition, what is it, the “stoplight coalition” that they’re calling it based on the colors of the parties, if that comes through. They don’t agree on a lot, so it’s going to be interesting to see what they actually are able to implement in the coming years.

Tooley: Well, we have a tendency, justifiably, to complain about German reluctance to step up and spend what they need to on the military, but there are tens of millions in the 20th century who would have been grateful for such a Germany that’s reluctant to spend on its military. So, sometimes we get what we wish for. On that note, gentlemen, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.