If one accepts and agrees
to present positions, for instance on contraception, but felt uneasy about
the Catholic church's heritage from the times of the Inquisition or its
tacit support for the treatment received by the Jews in the 1940s all over
Europe, then does the Pope's repentance and apology on behalf of the Church
make a difference?
I choose the example of the catholic faith because there is a greater
element of choice in being a catholic or not, than in being the citizen
of a particular State. But I believe this difference is counter-balanced
by the fact that the potential input of citizens and civil society in a
State's identity is greater than that of the believer in the identity of
the Catholic church.
Being a catholic implies adherence to a certain number of values and
the belief that the Church embodies these values; taking communion is an
act of faith, which confers on each believer a certain social identity.
I would like to argue that, despite the narrow or non-existent range of
choices at our disposal (naturalisation, asylum etc), holding a certain
nationality also means adhering to a set of values embodied by the State
and bearing a national identity.
We do not choose where we are born or who our parents might be. Neither
do we actively make a choice about the citizenship which this confers on
us. Nevertheless, this automatic citizenship makes us participants and
stakeholders in the political and civic life of the nations we belong to,
via a collective decision-making system which produces and acts on values.
These values form our national identity.
Just as the Pope embodies the historical continuity of the Catholic
church, the State embodies the continuity of the Nation; when it does not
wish to do so, or when it wishes to dissociate itself from certain actions,
it states this fact. For instance, De Gaulle's refusal to declare the re-establishment
of the Republic in 1944 was a declaration that the period between 1941
and 1944 was an illegal bracket in the history of a French State which
in the meantime had been embodied by De Gaulle and the Free French outside
the French mainland. However convenient this might seem, it does mean that
the French State today has distanced itself from many actions undertaken
in its name during that time. The referendum in Australia about recognition
of the State's persecution and expropriation of the Aborigines could have
been another example of how to disassociate the State we belong to from
part of the nation's historical continuity. Where no such statement has
been made, the State can be understood to value such actions as persecution
of Aborigines, slave trading, or anti-Semitic policies.
If a State does not exclude from its pretension to national continuity
the support of such practices, then as citizens of this State, we subscribe
to its values and slave trading, for example, reflects on our collective
identity. This is not a question of hereditary responsibility, but simply
follows from the contract which we tacitly accept as citizens of a State.
Becoming aware of our nations' histories and accepting a public debate
on our attitude to this history is an important part in the process of
forming national identity. Therefore if public opinion feels that it wants
to disassociate itself from an aspect of the nation's history, a statement
to this effect does make a difference. It is not either a question of erasing
parts of our national histories; on the contrary, it is facing our historical
heritage and drawing from it to form our present values.
How this idea links in to our theme, Europe and the World, is uncomfortably
obvious to me as a British and French citizen. The heritage of colonialism,
slave trading, involvement of our armies or police forces in torture not
so long ago, are blots on our copy-books which clash with our proclaimed
values. From the start, the forces behind European imperialism were economic
expansion ( the search for resources, labour and markets) and the insurance
of national security (exporting segments of the population which posed
a threat to public security, providing a reserve army and resources to
support a war effort, competing with rival imperial powers, protecting
the economic interests mentioned above). The resulting trade-military complex
was an extension of the State and its interests fed in to the formation
of national identities, however blinkered and ostensibly well-meaning the
articulation of national value systems may have been.
But I still haven't answered my initial question. The Pope expressed
regret for the Church's sins. Various German Chancellors and Presidents
have expressed repentance on behalf of the German nation for the final
solution. 'Tony Blair recently apologised to the Irish for the potato famine
and Nelson Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation committee in South
Africa. Is it enough to say sorry in retrospect?'
Many find the whole apology business fake, pointless, and slightly nauseating.
What I find important is not so much the tone of contrition, genuine or
not, put on by a representative of State on behalf of his country, but
the acknowledgement that some pages in our history books, precisely because
they cast a shadow on our present collective identity, need to be remembered,
and cannot simply be turned and forgotten about. It is the legacy of Empire
and its aftermath that for some European nations many of these pages connect
them to people and places around the world; in the interest of continued
relations with the rest of the world in a globalised era, our collective
value system must reflect on our history.
That such a reflection should be highlighted by our heads of State and
political representatives seems to me a positive achievement, but especially
so because of the impact which this will have on official discourse in
the spheres of primary education, the allocation of research grants, and
the fostering of aid and exchange projects. The celebration of a globalised
world and the performance of Europe within it is a blinkered and arrogant
world-view if we maintain the taboos connected to the myth of Europe as
the beacon of modernity and democratic values. Much as 'modern' Catholicism
finds its message of euchumenistical reconciliation, condemnation of war
and resistance to authoritarian regimes undermined by a not so distant
history of sectarian repression and support to dubious regimes, Europe's
espousal of the cause of human rights, democratic values, and peaceful
resolution of conflict dodges many questions about its own recent history.
It is up to civil society to work on these contradictions in our national
identities and it is up to the State (the quasi-constitutional voice which
articulates and acts on our value system, thereby producing and giving
shape to our collective identity) to acknowledge progress in this reflective
process. So, just as protests against arms trade are legitimate, so are
requests for a public recognition of the legacy of slavery, the atrocities
committed by our armies, or our historical responsibility in as yet unresolved
conflicts in Africa.
Autor: Nat Julien, UK/France