Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Facing the Complexity of Justice and Evil (a book review)

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night offers a needed jolt of reality regarding the systemic and endemic extent of evil in our world. It does so by taking a hard look at one of the front-line perpetrators of apartheid: Eugene de Kock. The book poses questions about justice by reflecting honestly on the fact that he has been dubbed "Prime Evil" and sentenced to 212 years in prison by the very same society that created him, benefitted from his crimes, and endorsed them with their silence (34, 110-111). Though de Kock was rightly convicted of his crimes, once the structures of evil in which he was entangled are considered, it is clear that the punishment can not be called totally just. Justice has been served, but not really done.

At one level it must be affirmed that "de Kock’s harsh punishment is unques-tionably just because corporate or systemic structures of evil cannot be allowed to overshadow [his] moral responsibility to resist those structural evils" (Guretzki). It must be agreed that individuals can and should be held responsible for their actions even if they are going along with structural evil. The careful and serious discipline of individual offenders is justified by the essential need to uphold the freedom, dignity, and moral responsibility of the persons that make up a society. De Kock is accountable for his actions. He engineered countless murders rather than stand up for what was right. He knew those at the other end of the rifle were "people" just like him (76).

When he later insisted that putting politicians in his place would result in no more wars (78), de Kock indicted himself. After all, he was in that position and yet still perpetuated the evil. In one sense he may have been like a frog slowly boiling in a kettle, but he is not a frog. Being human means being held morally responsible or it ceases to mean very much at all. The proper length of de Kock’s sentence could be debated, but in an imperfect world it is preferable that individuals be held responsible than their personal responsibility be allowed to fragment into society and be diluted (162). Admitting that there are societal evils underlying his wrongdoings does not relieve his moral culpability—it reveals that there is plenty more moral culpability to go around.

Though de Kock’s individual culpability should not be overshadowed by societal evil, it should not be assumed that his punishment entails the unquestionable accomplishment of justice. Indeed, plenty of questions remain. Can his punishment return his victims to their families? Who can grant de Kock’s children a father in place of the one they lost to the system of apartheid? Why should de Kock’s children pay for this societal evil, and their fellow white school-children not? As Miroslav Volf concludes: "Justice is impossible in the order of calculating, equalizing, legalizing, and universalizing actions" (Volf, 223). God grants authority to human governments not under the delusion that they will finally and fully accomplish justice, but as part of his general grace by which justice can partially be served (Rom 13:1-5) this side of the new creation.

The complexity of evil begs many questions: How can justice be served on societies? Is it enough that taxes paid for de Kock’s hearings and for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? How can justice ever be properly doled out to everyone who has a hand in society’s depravity? What about past generations? Would we be happier if we could raise Cain and crucify him for our sins?

Though her approach is strictly social and psychological, there is a theological depth to Gobodo-Madikizela's conclusions. In her longing for real justice she felt the deep need for "a sacrificial act" (113), for mercy "granted cautiously" to the repentant, and for a newfound "shared humanity" (139). It is hard to imagine any hope for final justice other than in a holy Human who suffers a sacrificial death, raises to life, empowers a reconciling people, and promises a final judgment day.

No comments: