Cain: A Positive Way Past Collective Guilt

Gustave Doré, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Gustave Doré, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Spiritual Sunday

This past week I attended a fascinating faculty seminar where my Religious Studies colleague Katharina von Kellenbach talked about her recent book, The Mark of Cain: Guilt and Denial in the Post War Lives of Nazi Perpetrators. The talk has me thinking about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Katharina, who recounts in her introduction how she herself is the niece of an SS officer who oversaw mass executions, has been studying Christian pronouncements by perpetrators. “As a theologian,” Katharina says, “I wanted to find clues in the empirical evidence that would point toward the possibilities of redemption and release from guilt.”

I can’t do justice to her remarkable book here but her dispiriting discovery is that, while a number of perpetrators embraced Christian notions of forgiveness, mercy and amnesty—and German churches after the war universally used those concepts as a “rallying cry”—she found almost no instances of genuine repentance. As she notes,

The documentary record reveals that, almost without exception, [the perpetrators] were unable to openly admit culpable wrongdoing. They could not bring themselves to articulate remorse and were devoid of contrition. Their texts were characterized by the same cold logic and dispassionate indifference toward victims that had overridden feelings of compassion and empathy in the first place. They were driven by an obsessive need to minimize moral agency, and they strenuously avoided specific memories of doing harm. They could not speak truthfully about some of the most traumatic moments in their lives, and their convoluted explanations and deceptions oozed into many of the communications. Although outwardly they were successful in their professional and private home lives, they could never fully entrust their secrets to the postwar world. Their guilty secrets bound them into the past.

This was even true of a German officer who went on to become a Catholic bishop. Matthias Defregger ordered reprisal killings in the final weeks of the war, even when subordinates begged him not to. (Everyone knew that American troops were less than a week away.) As bishop, Defregger never faced up to what he had done. Katharina reports on his performance in a television interview:

He was unwilling and unable to express regret and acknowledge responsibility. Instead, he attacked the media and defended himself by painting himself as an obedient servant of the church…Defregger had apparently not anticipated that his denial of responsibility would undermine the credibility of his assertion of an inner burden.

Katharina, however, is not interested in just calling perpetrators out for their evasions. She wants a positive way forward for cultures that have tied themselves in knots over “forgetting, erasing, and burying the guilt of the past.” For that, she finds her looking not towards Christ’s sacrifice but towards God’s marking of Cain:

With a few sparse lines, the Genesis account outlines Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy and outrage over God’s alleged favoritism. His attempt to hide the deed is futile, and he is punished by God. But he is allowed to live and is protected from retaliatory violence by a mark. Cain’s mark is a public signifier of his guilt. It protects him and prevents the erasure of memory. There is no miraculous purification of guilt in the story of Cain. No sacrifice cleanses the stain of Abel’s blood. No ritual absolves Cain from the guilt of the past. Instead, God’s protective mark imposes radical transparency and links Cain’s redemption to memory. Truth-telling becomes the basis of moral and spiritual recovery. Cain lives a successful and productive life as a married man, father, and founder of a city as he grows into the memory of fratricide and (re)gains moral integrity.

In other word, Cain provides a model for grappling with and moving beyond collective guilt—which includes guilt over slavery as well as guilt over the Holocaust. As Katharina notes in her conclusion,

The mark signifies a path or moral repair based on openness and transparency. The mark invites memory and facilitates mourning. It was the vigorous and continuous debates over the “guilt question” that changed the perspective of Germany on the history. Not one decade went by in which the topic of the Nazi past was not debated on the front pages of national and international newspapers. The result of these often painful reminders was the restoration of moral health and political conscience. By all accounts, contemporary Germany has developed a unique way of integrating its history of perpetration into its cultural and political identity.

And further on,

Since the Holocaust has become a universal symbol of modern collective evil, Germany has embraced its role as Cain. Its political legitimacy, economic success and international integration are staked on moral responsibility and historical transparency. Like Cain, Germany finds itself under special obligation. Its postwar history demonstrates that its desperate attempts at closure and escape served to endow this history with uncanny power. But those willing to accept the obligations arising from the commission of collective evil experienced the liberating qualities of repair.

Someone else who embraces the role of Cain is Coleridge’s ancient mariner. After killing the albatross, he falls into a “life in death” state until, thanks to an act of celestial grace, he is able to pray again and experience God’s love in the world. When he does so, he has already progressed further than the perpetrators described by Katharina. Then later on in the poem, he confesses his sins to the hermit in the wood and again receives absolution:

“O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!”
The Hermit cross’d his brow.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?”

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrench’d
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

But his process is not yet over. “This man hath penance done,” says a spirit earlier in the poem, “and penance more will do.” The mariner spends the rest of his life telling others about his crime, including the wedding guest whom he collars at the beginning of the poem:

Since then, at an uncertain hour, 
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land; 
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

Here’s his message:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell 
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best 
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

The mariner is working within a Christian framework so we can’t dismiss a Christian solution altogether. Katharina’s examples, however, indicate that emphasizing Christian mercy and forgiveness can be twisted by a desire to forget rather than by a longing to get right with God. When that happens, those who claim to have been absolved are not truly free.

In some ways Katharina, herself a Christian, is like the ancient mariner, seeking out people who need to hear the tough truths that she has to tell. Those who truly wish to experience the joy of God’s love will open their ears.

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  • Rachel Kranz

    I remember having dinner with you & Katharina last year, Robin, and hearing that while Holocaust survivors were haunted by nightmares and other psychological pain, the perpetrators seemed remarkably healthy and at peace. I thought of that conversation when I saw a remarkable film, “The Act of Killing,” now nominated for best foreign film in this year’s Oscars. I won’t be able to do the film justice, so I quote here from the film’s website:

    A film by Joshua Oppenheimer

    Anwar Congo and his friends have been dancing their way through musical numbers, twisting arms in film noir gangster scenes, and galloping across prairies as yodelling cowboys. Their foray into filmmaking is being celebrated in the media and debated on television, even though Anwar Congo and his friends are mass murderers.

    Medan, Indonesia. When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.

    Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide.

    The Act of Killing is about killers who have won, and the sort of society they have built. Unlike ageing Nazis or Rwandan génocidaires, Anwar and his friends have not been forced by history to admit they participated in crimes against humanity. Instead, they have written their own triumphant history, becoming role models for millions of young paramilitaries. The Act of Killing is a journey into the memories and imaginations of the perpetrators, offering insight into the minds of mass killers. And The Act of Killing is a nightmarish vision of a frighteningly banal culture of impunity in which killers can joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows, and celebrate moral disaster with the ease and grace of a soft shoe dance number.

    A Love of Cinema. In their youth, Anwar and his friends spent their lives at the movies, for they were “movie theatre gangsters”: they controlled a black market in tickets, while using the cinema as a base of operations for more serious crimes. In 1965, the army recruited them to form death squads because they had a proven capacity for violence, and they hated the communists for boycotting American films – the most popular (and profitable) in the cinemas. Anwar and his friends were devoted fans of James Dean, John Wayne, and Victor Mature. They explicitly fashioned themselves and their methods of murder after their Hollywood idols. And coming out of the midnight show, they felt “just like gangsters who stepped off the screen”. In this heady mood, they strolled across the boulevard to their office and killed their nightly quota of prisoners. Borrowing his technique from a mafia movie, Anwar preferred to strangle his victims with wire.

    In The Act of Killing, Anwar and his friends agree to tell us the story of the killings. But their idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to star in the kind of films they most love from their days scalping tickets at the cinemas. We seize this opportunity to expose how a regime that was founded on crimes against humanity, yet has never been held accountable, would project itself into history.

    And so we challenge Anwar and his friends to develop fiction scenes about their experience of the killings, adapted to their favorite film genres – gangster, western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims.
    Their fiction filmmaking process provides the film’s dramatic arc, and their film sets become safe spaces to challenge them about what they did. Some of Anwar’s friends realize that the killings were wrong. Others worry about the consequence of the story on their public image. Younger members of the paramilitary movement argue that they should boast about the horror of the massacres, because their terrifying and threatening force is the basis of their power today. As opinions diverge, the atmosphere on set grows tense. The edifice of genocide as a “patriotic struggle”, with Anwar and his friends as its heroes, begins to sway and crack.

    Most dramatically, the filmmaking process catalyzes an unexpected emotional journey for Anwar, from arrogance to regret as he confronts, for the first time in his life, the full implications of what he’s done. As Anwar’s fragile conscience is threatened by the pressure to remain a hero, The Act of Killing presents a gripping conflict between moral imagination and moral catastrophe.

    Rachel again: In other words, by acting out the roles of the victims, the mass murderers–before our eyes, in the film–begin to develop empathy, and then, finally, they are horrified by what they have done. Watching the film, you can’t believe that the gentle, kindly, humorous man before you was responsible for killing so many people–sometimes with his bare hands…and you also are amazed at how he becomes overwhelmed by a regret that he completely did not feel (as Katharina suggests in her own work)–until he takes the part of a victim in a scene he creates, stages, and acts out…I still don’t know what to make of all of it, but I can’t recommend the film highly enough.

  • sue

    Wonderful post, Robin, and comments, Rachel. Lots to think about.

  • sue

    I can’t stop thinking about this post. Two additional thoughts come to mind. First, is the Scarlet Letter, by Hawthorne. Here, acknowledgement of “sin” continues to make one a victim of a hypocritical and judgmental group of people. Watching Downton Abbey this season, you can see that the shame of conceiving a child outside of marriage led many women to (what I would consider) a sin of greater magnitude – that of ending the life of a child.

    In some churches there has been a discussion over the years of whether the church is a group of “sinners” or “saints.” In reading this post, I think that the dichotomy is unhelpful. We are all people who have failed – in “small” or “large” ways, although Jesus says bluntly that hating a neighbor is the same as murder, so in that case, our sins seem equal. By acknowledging our failings, we have the opportunity to move toward sainthood, accepting grace. Paul, himself, says that he was the worst of sinners and makes it very public – to show that sinners can become saints. Where do saints come from if not from sinners?

    Perhaps the reason people refuse to “confess” their sins is that they don’t believe in the scope of grace. That’s all that I can imagine. Perhaps they feel that, if they were honest, they couldn’t bear it, their psyche would crash under the awareness. I wonder what studies were done in South Africa and the reconciliation committees which might speak to this.

  • Rachel Kranz

    Sue, fascinating comments. I think, based on my imperfect memory of Oppenheim’s film (which I really should see again), and on the way I’ve been thinking about this issue for my novel, there is something else at play than not just believing in the scope of grace. It is that in order to do the acts of killing (or other types of oppression), you need to believe that the person to whom you do them is an object or a thing, and not a person like yourself. You wouldn’t feel guilty for kicking a chair (well, I do, but I anthropomorphize EVERYTHING; but then the kabbalists say that even the stones have souls…). Okay, so MOST people don’t feel guilty for kicking a chair, and most people who work on farms don’t feel guilty for breaking horses so that they can be used to plow your field, or killing cows and pigs so you can eat or sell them (most of us non-vegetarians don’t feel all that guilty about it either). To even consider that you HAVE committed a sin, you have to believe that the person to whom you did it is not a chair or a cow, but a person like yourself, or like the people whom you love. You also have to believe that they are not guilty of such monstrous sins that death (or torture) is the only fitting punishment for them.

    Whether or not it takes work to keep up these beliefs in normal, non-psychopathic humans, or whether it takes work to tear them down, is a question I’d love to know Katharina’s thoughts on–or anybody’s thoughts. I recently spoke with a wonderful woman who specializes in toddler development who told me that toddler’s DON”T feel empathy–they have to learn it, and they aren’t even able to learn it until they’re older (toddlers who hand fellow toddlers tissues when they’re crying are more likely distressed and anxious by the upset–perhaps because at home, that kind of distress led to bad things–rather than genuinely able to imagine how their fellow toddler feels). If that woman is right–and she is a profoundly humanistic woman who has spent her life studying toddlers–then empathy takes work, even though, like language, we are all born with the equipment for doing that work and probably (as with language) naturally tend towards doing it as our default mode.

    What was amazing in the film was to see the killer ACT OUT the role of the victim in the drama he had created (which was being filmed) and THAT”s when it first hit him that the people he killed were people like himself. He really had to assume the role of the other–and then empathy came flooding in.

    So I think what happened in South Africa was that somehow, at least some people realized that the people they had mistreated were human like themselves–somehow they had permission to think that, or something like permission–???—and then they (the ones who were sincere and not just going through the rituals) could, perhaps for the first time in their lives?–feel sorry for what they had done. I met an incredibly kind and wonderful man in South Africa, an Afrikaaner who told me he had been a prison guard, and he told me frankly, “We were bad people!” As when I looked at the kindly man in the movie, it was so hard to relate this person in front of me to an apartheid villain–and yet, by his own account, that was who he had been. (He didn’t say, “I always hated the regime, but I had no choice”–in fact, as a prison guard, he had been on the front lines of the oppression.)

    Does Cain feel justified and later repent? Does he know he is wrong even when he lifts the stone but he just can’t help it? Or…? What happens to the person you were, if you become someone who opposes the killing that you once enthusiastically embraced, either with sadism or with patriotism or with some combination of the two? IS it a strain to be evil, or is it just the path of least resistance?

    Questions that will inform my novel, so thanks for the boost in thinking about them! 🙂


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