Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Tuesday, 15 January 2008
Wednesday, 16 January 2008 01:18

Justice / Forgiveness / Democracy

“Democracy” does not only define a given political system, it is based on a set of cultural attitudes. Some of these attitudes have been thoroughly studied: there is no real democracy without debate, listening of other people’s opinions, fairness in elections, transparency of the political process… Other values are more controversial: as a nation enters a fuller democratic stage it has to deal with its memory, or rather with conflicting “memories’, since the way to recall past events, traumas and dramas vary form one segment of the population to another. A democratic nation usually shares a certain common perception of its past, has undergone a kind of reconciliation, even when opinions and feelings greatly diverge. Democracy needs to be rooted in time and reconciliation, and this is why the democratic process takes sometimes so much time before reaching its full maturity.

Can there be true democracy without justice, i.e. without an examination of history that renders judgment on past acts and behaviors? Opinions diverge on that point. Judgments can be divisive, hasty or unjust. Time might heal wounds better than words. However, whatever the precise answer, everyone will agree that there is no real democracy if history is hidden, responsibilities denied and past sufferings ignored.

At the same time, one can plausibly argue that “forgiveness” is as important a value for democratic culture as “justice” is. The capacity to forgive expresses the maturity of the social body. It helps a society to start on new grounds, and it cuts down the cycle of resentment and violence. It nurtures respect, capacity for listening and balanced judgment, as, ordinarily, forgiveness goes with an appreciation of the complexity of historical events and mechanisms. Maybe, a healthy democratic society is one which is able at the same time to pass judgments and to forgive.

The relationship between democracy and justice has been much explored in Taiwan. Recently, a good number of essays have been dedicated to “transitional justice”: “In making such a transition [from oppression to respect of personal and collective rights], societies must confront the painful legacy, or burden, of the past in order to achieve a holistic sense of justice for all citizens, to establish or renew civic trust, to reconcile people and communities, and to prevent future abuses.” The importance of “forgiveness” has been rather less explored, and, for this reason, this issue of Renlai concentrates more on this side of the equation. However, from the start a misunderstanding is to be avoided: speaking about forgiveness does not mean to deny the requirements of justice. It aims at complementing a perception of history that has nurtured the intellectual and political debate in Taiwan for the last ten years or so – a debate that is far from being closed. Furthermore, it explores the issue of “forgiveness’ as an example of the “cultural resources” that are used when trying to nurture a democratic culture adapted to local and historical circumstances.

Another debate cannot be avoided: as there is a capacity to forgive, there is a need to enhance a capacity to repent. Do our societies encourage people and groups to honestly recognize their failures and their faults? Do they give them the space and tolerance that make them able to express the trouble that weights on in their souls and minds in a way that will not exclude them for ever form the community but rather will facilitate a new start? Is not imposed “self criticism” a weapon of destruction rather than a tool of redemption? In other words, the “capacity to forgive’ and the “capacity to repent” nurture each other, and social education has to develop both of them in the way it prepares children to become responsible citizens.

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Wednesday, 16 January 2008 01:17

Justice or Forgiveness?

As an individual, to forgive is not easy task. It might be even harder when it comes to a group or a nation. Can a group as a whole forgive? In which ways can it undergo the process to grieve, forgive and start again? And what are the effects of collective forgiveness?

This question runs throughout the history of ethnic groups and nations. Our history is filled with violence, injustice and oppression. After a breakthrough has occurred that signals the end of an era and the beginning of another, history comes to haunt again our memories and, possibly, poison our relationships.

The question of forgiveness is now looming large in the Taiwanese debate. Taiwan’s history has been filled with traumatic events, but the nation has done remarkably well, in the last twenty years, for building up a new social contract. So well in fact that the transition has been almost too smooth for confronting past events in a way that would have allowed Taiwan to start anew. So, debates on past history are still vibrant. Sometimes they are manipulated. This does not mean that the relationship of Taiwan to its own history does not remain a real, largely unsolved, issue.

Can the reflection on “forgiveness” help to heal some of Taiwan’s wound? This is the topic explored by this issue of Renlai. However, we do not wish “forgiveness” to be confounded with “forgetfulness”. We have decided to confront three major questions that go along the promotion of “forgiveness” as a value:
- Forgiveness and repentance: can one forgive someone who is one repentant? And how to phrase the question when one goes from the personal to the collective realm?
- Forgiveness as a cultural and spiritual value: what are the resources within Chinese culture on the one hand, and various spiritual traditions on the other hand that can foster and enrich Taiwan’s approach to forgiveness? Can forgiveness become a resource that truly shapes Taiwan’s future?
- Forgiveness and rituals: A group needs collective expression of its state of mind, of the relationships that shape its health. Ceremonies, rituals and symbols help all of us to feel as a group, and to understand that our history is now shared by all of us, whatever the sufferings of the past. What kind of rituals are needed for helping all of us to forgive and to start anew?

As Taiwan is again entering a difficult time in the shaping of its political culture, we hope to be able to help everyone to take some distance from the endless flow of information and polemics and to enter into a common reflection on the fate of Taiwan’s democracy.

Read Benoit Vermander’s article

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Tuesday, 15 January 2008 20:44

The "Straight" and the "Unstraight"

As I have observed on other occasions, people like to label people. There are those like ourselves that we consider comfortable with and those who are different, toward whom we often feel superior or inferior or even threatened. One good example is the labels “straight” and “gay” or “lesbian”, which are determined by one’s sexual preference, the “straight” being those who are sexually attracted only to those of the opposite sex and “gay” or “lesbian” being respectively men or women sexually attracted to those of the same sex. It seems obvious that whoever coined the term “straight” was a diehard heterosexual who firmly believed that his orientation was the one and only true one, right on the mark for moral rectitude. Had the gays or lesbians been more dominant and sure of themselves, then perhaps it would be the homosexuals who were “straight” and the others who were out of line.
If it were simply a matter of sexual orientation, just an inconsequential preference for one kind or other of purely natural animal function, there would be no controversy or conflict between “straights” and “gays” or “lesbians”. But such is not the case. Given the strict literal interpretation of some pronouncements in sacred religious texts which seem to brand homosexual behavior as unnatural and immoral plus the deep sense of repugnance and horror that many “straights” harbor toward all they consider to be unnatural, immoral, indecent, decadent, degrading homosexual behavior, it is not surprising that there are militant “straights” who are very hostile, relentless antagonists, pursuing and punishing transgressors, stamping out every vestige of homosexuality, while many “gays” and “lesbians”, whether they feel guilty or not, have to contend with being treated as outcasts and avoided as contagious.
Putting passion and prejudices aside, what are the real issues? In the first place, it seems that many humans, perhaps the majority, are sexuality attracted to the opposite sex, but many are more attracted toward their own sex, some are attracted both ways and some feel no attraction at all. Now, if “normal” were interpreted as what is true of the majority, then heterosexuality is the more “normal” orientation, but that does not make the other orientations “abnormal”, since they regularly and quite normally also occur all the time. And all the orientations are “natural”, because they occur naturally all the time, being one of the natural appetites humans are born with, though sometimes it is known that events or experiences that occur when one is growing up or later in life can alter one’s orientation or desire.
No one should ever be blamed or condemned or punished or even considered right or wrong simply because of some natural or unnatural inclination. It all depends upon how the person acts upon his attraction or desire. The person’s behavior may be considered immoral by you, if it offends your standards of morality, but it is only immoral in the person who commits it and is only considered sinful by God, if the person has deliberately chosen to perform an act that he or she believes is wrong, but does it anyway.
You have the right to believe and be true to what you believe; you may even have the right to protest, if you see someone else doing what you believe is wrong, but you have no right to judge the state of that person’s conscience or the automatically consign him or her to hell.
My life is my responsibility. Whether I feel heterosexual or homosexual, I should avoid going against my conscience. I should instruct my children and protect them from what can lead them astray, but I must also respect and defend the rights of others to be true to what they believe. If heterosexuals and homosexuals, the “straight” and the “gay” and the “lesbians could learn to respect one another’s freedom and live harmoniously side by side, many misunderstandings and injustices could be avoided. And let’s face it. If you believe strongly in what you believe, you will have a better chance of convincing your neighbors by charity and kindness than by bitter condemnation.

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Tuesday, 15 January 2008 20:28

The Justice-Mongers

Here is a fable that I wrote that illustrates some of the issues involved in establishing justice.


THE JUSTICE-MONGERS


Once upon a time there was a King bright, industrious, and prosperous. He was the legendary King ABC. Everyone seemed to agree that he was a very good man. But the King himself didn’t think he was just good, he thought he was the best. The only persons he thought were good were those who liked what he liked, agreed with his opinions and did what he told them to do. Everyone else was bad. If only he could, ABC would get rid of them all. That way the whole world would only be filled with little ABC’s with him at the top, of course.

When King ABC’s wife finally became pregnant, he was filled with pride. “When my son is born, he will be twice as good as I am,” he said. But he was wrong for once. It was three times as good. His wife gave birth to triplets. He named them Triple A, Triple B and Triple C. They grew up determined to do good and to better the world.

All three sons hated war and violence. They were convinced that wars only happen because everyone wants peace the wrong way. Everyone thinks the only way to get peace is to fight for it and then fight to defend it. This has got to stop. There must be some way to make peace permanent without fighting. But each son proposed a different way of obtaining peace.

To Triple A the key to peace and prosperity was law and order. What the world needs are explicit rules and regulations very strictly enforced with no exceptions. Everybody will know exactly what to do and what not to do. And everyone who doesn’t conform will be tried and put in jail.

War was now illegal. There was no longer any need for armed forces to guard against attack. But the number of policemen grew by leaps and bounds. It wasn’t because there were more criminals or gangsters than before. It was just that there were too many regulations governing people’s lives, stifling their self-expression, restraining their aspirations and restricting their individuality and ambitions. Almost every time anyone wanted to have a good time their own way or do things differently, they found themselves arrested for some violation or other.

The more that Triple A maintained peace between nations the more difficult it became to maintain peace within the nation. Discontent and protests erupted everywhere. Soon they got out of hand and had to be put down violently. “When we do it, it isn’t violence,” a government spokesman said. “It’s enforcement.” The people yearned for the good old days. Life was so much more peaceful at home when there had been wars.

To Triple B the key to peace was justice for all. The problem was in determining in each instance where justice lay. Therefore the first thing the government had to do was to establish a long official list of people’s rights. Then it was decided that in every dispute, there would be compulsory arbitration and the decision of the mediators would be final. Justice was now defined officially as whatever the arbiters decreed. Everyone was expected to swallow his pride and humbly accept the official decisions no matter how arbitrary or unreasonable or unjust in the old sense they might be.

The results of Triple B’s policy were just as catastrophic. Everyone felt there was less justice now than in the former unjust times.

To Triple C the key to peace was equality for all. Some people have too much and don’t share with those who have nothing. Some people dress so attractively they make others look bad. The world would be more peaceful if everyone automatically got the same education, received the same salary and had the same opportunities to enjoy the fine things in life. Uniformity of dress and appearance, of language and culture, of dwellings and food, of sports and entertainment would restrain the proud and uplift the humble.

The only ones who applauded these changes were those who had absolutely nothing to begin with. Most of the people, however, had to give up something to conform to the norms and they were very unhappy. The only way the government found to maintain the new order was to create a police state.

So unfortunately, Triple C’s equality and uniformity did not create peace either. Equal education did not produce equally intelligent people. Equal opportunity did not mean equally qualified persons applied for the jobs. There were no longer good movies, only mediocre ones, and so on and so on. Everyone missed the variety and personal touches of their former lives.

King ABC was displeased with the way his three sons had messed things up. He decided to have another son. He named him Double D, since just a single D didn’t do justice to his hopes for him.

To Double D his three older brothers were all wrong. The key to peace is freedom. There will only be peace if everyone is free to be what he wants to be and to do whatever he wants to do. Of course, there must be some guidelines and some limits to what a person does, so the rights of others are respected, but let individuality reign.

If everyone is free to achieve his dreams and fulfill his aspirations, there will be peace. No one will lack anything and therefore have nothing that he needs to fight for. The talented must be free to develop their talents. The gifted must be free to exploit their gifts. The poor must be free to better their lives. The rich must be free to spend their riches however they like. Only the criminals will not be free to be criminal.

But Double D overlooked one important consideration. What happens when two or three persons are free to want something that only one of them can have? People soon found they weren’t free to get all the things they were free to want. There were winners and losers. The winners gloated to be free. The losers complained their freedom was violated. Soon it began to look like the most common freedom of all was freedom to be unhappy and disappointed. People longed for the good old days when not everything was free.

Disappointed, for one last time King ABC had another son. He named him E, just a single E. “That’s enough sons for me,” he said. “He’s the last. If he can’t remedy his brothers’ mistakes, then no one can.”

When E finally came of age his key to peace was fourfold. He advocated and promoted Reconciliation, Openness, Tolerance and Responsibility. Prince E was wise and pragmatic. “We do need law and order, but it needs to be flexible. Justice is important, too, but must be balanced with mercy and forgiveness. Equal rights are necessary, but each person’s uniqueness and personal qualities must be recognized and allowed to develop and enfold. Freedom there must be, but it must include freedom from its abuses.”

Not everyone was happy with the new order of things, but enough people were to make it work. And so once again for a while, the peace in the land was worth fighting for. But since no one wanted to take it away, there was nothing to go to war about.

There are lessons hidden here.

Laws should not tell us what to do,
but how to live and protect our freedom.

Justice without freedom is slavery.
Freedom without justice is chaos.
Justice without mercy is cruelty.
Mercy without justice is impotence.

There will never be a perfect world,
because no one is perfect.

There will always be rivalries and competition, winners and losers.
All we can do is to try our best
to balance the world in which we live
so everyone gets a fair share of what he or she needs
and a chance to realize what he or she wants.

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Tuesday, 15 January 2008 20:27

Mercyful Justice and Judicious Mercy

There has always been tension between the demands of justice and calls for forgiveness and between the straight and narrow bounds of justice and the leeways of charity. Just trying to draw the fine line between justice and injustice is problem enough. Justice is measured by conformity to some norm of what is right and proper or tied to provisions specified in a rule of law, but there has never been universal agreement about those norms nor any uniform set of law.
Besides defining what is just, there is the matter of enforcing it and punishing infractions of it. For the whole system to be just, there must be some just restraint, so that no more is demanded than what is strictly just, the enforcement respects all the rights of the individuals involved and the retribution is in proportion to the circumstances of the violation. If into this pot is added the dizzying often contradictory coercions of religious beliefs, interpretations and practices, the vast inconsistencies and contradictions of contemporary legal systems, the pride, enmity, vengeance, greed, criminal intents of many of those responsible for the interpretation and enforcement of justice, then it is a wonder that any justice manages to prevail at all.
There are two images of justice that come to my mind. The first is that of a blindfolded lady, who presumably is not influenced or coerced by bribery or friendship, but just makes her judgment based only on the facts. A noble idea, but how can she see the facts or recognize the deceptions or the true claims of the claimants if her eyes are closed? She has to weigh what she hears and investigate what she is shown before any impartial determination can be made.
The second image is also of a lady, this time balancing the two sides of a scale. Justice is presumably reached when the two sides are exactly balanced. But this supposes that in the pan on one side is nothing more than the bare unbiased demands of justice and on the other side nothing more than the honest unbiased actual realities of the case. A noble idea, but this seems to leave no room or place for forgiveness or mercy or charity or lenience. It is an accurate description of how the discernment of what is just should be reached, but in real life, that is often only the first step in the execution of justice. And in real life, the issues are not always so clear: the evidence may be only circumstantial, vital facts may be missing, or there are contradictory witnesses, so the very balancing act is arbitrary and not absolute.
Following the judgment comes the determination of retribution and/or punishment. This is where the elements of charity, forgiveness, mercy, severity or leniency or even full pardon come in. In a certain sense, if the judgment is truly just than any tampering or mitigation of its demands is in some way unjust. But what if the most important thing is not a harsh slap on the wrist for wrongdoing, but what is best for the guilty person, offering hope of improvement and more positive ways of making up for what has happened? It is often expedient for the good of individuals or the public welfare for the judge to look beyond the bare letter of the law. This is not easy, neither is it always successful. There are many instances in which leniency or kindness backfired and the transgressor went on to further transgressions, but this is far outweighed in the many cases of those whose lives were transformed by the charity and goodwill of those they injured.
This being the case, judges and the victims should always be more like God Himself, who is as ready to exact or demand justice as He is to grant mercy and forgiveness, most of the time combining both.

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Tuesday, 15 January 2008 20:23

The bells of Nagasaki

Nagasaki rhymes with tragedy, horror and destruction. It is one of the two cities in the world that have known what a nuclear holocaust is about. As one can expect, the recollection of the event is vivid in the minds of Nagasaki’s inhabitants. I was there on August 9, when thousands of little candles lighten up throughout the streets and when memorials are held for remembering the victims and praying for world peace. Actually, I spent two full months in Nagasaki, in August and September 1999, and this is the experience I share in the following paintings and in the lines I now write. Strangely enough, this experience was not only about tragedy, it was also about silence, life, hope and renewal. From now on, Nagasaki for me does not rhyme only with death, but also with resurrection.
On the hills of Nagasaki there are thousands of houses which seem to rush down towards the sea or to climb up towards the top of the mountains. Most of these houses have a garden, and people tend carefully these gardens, striving to preserve an atmosphere of secret and freshness even in the midst of the burning and sultry summer. On the top of the hills, which you access through numberless stone stairs, forests protect dark shrines. The trees sometimes open up, they make space for a modest monument that recalls how victims of the atomic bomb proceeded towards the adjacent hills in order to die closer from the blue sky.
In Nagasaki, I discovered a man whom might well be called the soul of the city. Dr Takashi Nagai (永井醫師) had been meditating on the meaning of suffering for most of his life. After he graduated from medical school he became a specialist in radiology. X-ray machines were brand new technology in Japan in 1932. The country had a very high rate of tuberculosis, so Dr Nagai knew that chest x-rays could save many lives. He also knew that it was dangerous technology, and that he could die if he was exposed to too much radiation. He went ahead with his experiments anyway. During the war, he went to China as a doctor, and he was tormented by his knowledge that the war was unjust. He decided that it was his job to take care of anyone who was wounded, whether Japanese or Chinese. Back in Japan in 1941 he continued to work on x-ray technology, and ultimately discovered that he had leukemia. Shortly after that, the A-bomb fell on Nagasaki, killing 70,000 of the 200,000 residents of the city. Nagai organized the relief work, working around the clock for more than two days. When he finally went back to his own house he found the charred body of his wife and collected her bones for burial.
Nagai still lived for six year after the bomb fell, taking care of his two children, although, after three years his health was so bad that he had to lie down all day long. In the same time, he wrote twenty books, poems, calligraphy… The most famous of his works is called “The Bells of Nagasaki”, a scientific explanation of nuclear radiation, an account of the event of August 1945 and a profession of faith in love and life. He spoke about the need for Japanese people to recognize their own sins and the suffering they inflicted to other nations. He also spoke about the need for the survivors to forgive, not to take revenge, to become peacemakers so that such experience might never be repeated, the need to build new communities and to believe in the everlasting strength of life. A man of faith, abnegation and courage, Nagai had a strong influence on the reconstruction of Nagasaki. During these two months, when I was looking at the landscape of Nagasaki - the haven, the small houses, , the forest, the churches and shrines, the endless stairs going up and down - I was feeling as I were seeing Nagai’s spirit floating around, giving their shape to all these beautiful things.
This is this experience which has determined the style of the modest paintings I present here. Using almost exclusively ink, they speak about the underlying presence of tragedy in human life. But they speak at the same time of the peace and strength of mind that we attain when we start to really believe that love is stronger than death and when we act accordingly. The eye of the artist is able to perceive the ray of hope in the heart of darkness, and, in his works, the artist makes this awakening happen to anyone who is willing to share in his vision.

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