Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

Responsibility and Forgiveness

Thesis: Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima postulated that we are all responsible, therefore we all require forgiveness.  Though this benevolent approach sounds plausible, it is more difficult when applied to events like what occurred in Norway last week.

Father Zosima is a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.  He is presented as a foil for Ivan, who is a rationalistic atheist.  Zosima also personifies the Russian Orthodox church as to further contrast him with Ivan’s Westernized style.  Zosima’s approach to the problem of evil is one of responsibility and forgiveness.

Zosima postulates that evil does not happen in a vacuum, and that makes us all responsible for its existence.  For example, there is no reason that thousands of people starve to death every year when I have excess food, even to the point where I am overweight.  Yet, I do nothing to stop this very easily preventable evil.  Yet even if I spent my life fighting hunger, there would be another evil that I could have done something about, but didn’t.

This situation makes us responsible. We are complicit in the evil.  But our complicity allows the possibility of forgiveness.  In order to deal with crushing evil, we have to forgive ourselves for our complicity, then forgive others.  For Zosima, forgiveness is God’s love.  As an atheist, God’s love isn’t particularly palatable, but I can take the point without necessitating God.

I have tried to take this approach to my service in war.  Our wars* (any war really) is absolute triumph of evil.  The loss of human life is catastrophic and the facts that brought on the Iraq war, in hindsight, make the human cost even less justifiable.  In my naivety, I volunteered to go anyway.   I wrapped myself in a patriotic fervor and disregarded any ethical or moral objection.  Eventually, through both time and perspective, I had to ask “Who is responsible for these wars?”  (Or as I less eloquently thought at the time, “What the fuck?”)

As I tracked the answer to the first question back, I could only answer, “I am.”  Who else could it be?  The President? He didn’t personally MAKE me go.  Bad intelligence?  It didn’t either.  So there is the terrible burden–I am responsible.

Admitting this though, after reading Zosima, allowed me to forgive myself and then forgive others.  It is the only way to carry on; the burden of responsibility is too big to carry forever.   It is a simple formula:  Evil will always exist; we are all responsible for it; therefore we all require forgiveness.

I love the thought, but Dostoyevsky wrote it in the late 19th Century.  That is, before humanity almost destroyed itself, twice, in the 20th Century.  The recent event in Norway illustrates the point.

Sometimes an evil is so great, so active, that it calls into question our collective ability to forgive.  Starving children, though awful in every single way, seems, for no reason at all, to be on a different moral plane than actively exterminating 6 million Jews or shooting 80 people at a youth camp.  That’s not to excuse any of those things, but there seems to be different levels of moral atrocities.  Why should I be able to forgive myself for not acting to save the millions of people who will die preventable deaths this year, but not be able to forgive the man who shot 80?  What, exactly, in Father Zosima’s construct, is the difference?  Can anyone really, honestly forgive the worst mass murders in human history?  And if not, does it prove Father Zosima wrong?

I, of course, don’t have the answers to those questions, but I think they are worth considering.



*The Afghan war, at least initially, is much more difficult to grapple with because it was defensible legally and even ethically as a response to aggression.  10 years later, however, I think it has lost its defensibility.


Written by keithboyea

July 27, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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