John Demjanjuk was found guilty this past Thursday of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for serving as a guard at the Nazi’s Sobibor death camp. He is now 91 years old, and the alleged crimes (the case is under appeal…other courts have found him to be a victim of mistaken identity with regard to other charges) took place more than 70 years ago when he was boy.
Here’s my basic question: assuming that they have convicted the correct human organism, is John Demjanjuk the same person who committed those crimes? Surely he is numerically identical with the human organism that did participate in these atrocities, but are we justly punishing a 91-year-old man for what the 20-year-old John Demjanjuk did? I’m not making a point about mercy here, I’m asking a question about justice.
The important philosopher Derek Parfit famously argues that this kind of punishment would not be just. Persons, at least in the moral sense, are just collections of interests. These interests change over time…and especially from age 20 to age 90. The person Demjanjuk was when he was 20 is radically different from the person he is now. (One interesting upshot of this understanding is that making decisions based on one’s distant future is form of charity for another person.) Parfit would say that it makes little sense to punish Demjanjuk now…indeed, because he is a different person, it would be unjust to do so.
Christians, I think, would reject the moral anthropology which gets Parfit to this conclusion (persons are more than just collections of interests), but could we end up in a similar place for different reasons? Perhaps this is too dualistic, but Christians are not in the business of talking about justice for bodies, right? We are in the business of justice for moral entities. Indeed, we believe that baptism and other kinds of grace-conferring activities have the capacity to radically change a person’s moral constitution. We even speak about being ‘born again’ in ways which imply that the same human organism can become a very, very different kind of moral entity over time.
Are we serious about this? If so, I think we need to at least entertain the possibility that Demjanjuk is no longer the same moral entity now, more than 70 years after the crimes. And if we come to the conclusion that he is not, Christians could agree with Parfit that punishing him for 70-year-old crimes is unjust.
What about looking at the question from the standpoint of a more relational anthropology? Demjanjuk’s identity is not only a matter of his biology or his moral constitution, but also the relationships he has with people, including those who he is alleged to have killed or helped kill and those who survive his victims. In this sense, you might be able to be “born again,” but only in part. It’s like going to confession for stealing. You might confess and be forgiven, but it would be a poor priest indeed who did not also demand that you restore the stolen goods as a condition of the confession. As such, I think it might be appropriate to convict Demjanjuk for the crimes he committed 70 years ago, although I also see room for mercy in terms of his punishment since he is elderly.
Beth, I think you have some great insight into this question based on the person you married: what does it mean to be born again? 🙂 It is only ‘partially’ a new moral creature that results? Which part?
Scott says that in the way that you stand before God, you ARE a different person: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Based on a long breakfast conversation, it seems to me that the evangelical anthropology is still relational, with a heavy emphasis on the relation with God constituting the primary identity of the person but the relationship with others of secondary importance. Regarding the latter, we have the example of David who sins and repents but still has to face the punishment of losing his son Absalom. So the idea is that you might be a new creation in Christ and still have to face the consequences of the person you are in relation to others.
On the other hand, there is an obligation for the Christian to respect also the new creation a person is in Christ. Ananias accepting Paul is the operative narrative here (Acts 9). A person’s earthly identity changes as their relation to others changes through the practices of reconciliation. Demjanjuk may in fact stand justified before God but further work needs to be done on his part and on the part of those with whom he is in relation if he is to be seen as a new creation by those here below.
I think as far as the new identity goes, we have to take the Catholic both/and approach. A person who is justified is BOTH a new creation AND the same creature as before. To be “born again” is to gain a new stance before God as justified, but not necessarily a new identity regarding one’s earthly relations.