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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