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Forgiveness is the number one spiritual problem. That’s my experience after 40 years in the ministry. More individuals struggle with the dynamics of forgiveness than any other spiritual issue. They ask questions such as:
“Can God forgive me for ________.” Fill in the blank. with your own worst sin.
“How can I ever forgive ______ for what he/she did?” Fill in the blank with the name of the person who has hurt you the worst.
“How can I forgive myself?”
I’ve encountered very few people – Christians or non-Christians – who have resolved all of these questions. Consequently, I’ve preached often on forgiveness and collected many books on the subject. One book that I’ve seen referenced, but had not read is Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Thus, during my first week of retirement I read it and offer some observations.
Those with a decent memory of the Holocaust will remember that Wiesenthal was a Austrian Jew and a concentration camp survivor who went on to be the most effective hunter of Nazi war criminals following WWII. The Sunflower represents his own encounter with the dynamics of forgiveness and is written in two parts.
The first portion of the book describes an event that occurred when Wiesenthal was a prisoner in WWII. One day while on a work detail in a hospital, a nurse approached him and bade him to follow her. Wiesenthal found himself in a room with a single patient, an SS officer dying of grave wounds. The Nazi officer’s head was wrapped in bandages could see nothing of his face.
With great physical and spiritual difficulty the officer described his transition from “a good Catholic” prior to the rise of National Socialism in Germany to an SS officer who participated in a heinous atrocity against the Jewish inhabitants of a village on Germany’s Eastern front with the Soviets. This officer helped corral old men, women and children into a house drenched in gasoline and then set the house on fire with grenades. He and his comrades shot those who tired to escape. He shot one family in particular who stared straight at him in fear and pain as they jumped to their deaths.
The SS officer explained that he did not want to die with this crime on his conscience. He had asked the nurse to bring a Jew to his room in order that he might confess to him (all the prisoners in this context being male.).
Although Wiesenthal shows fragments of compassion to the SS officer during his telling of his story, when the officer asks for forgiveness, Wiesenthal eventually leaves the room in silence, withholding the forgiveness that he had sought. Wiesenthal then struggles with his decision and discusses it with other prisoners. After the war he located the officer’s mother and visited her, offering solace. But he did not forgive and asks the reader whether or not he was right in his decision.
The remainder of the book is comprised of essays by Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist thought leaders who respond to Wiesenthal’s question. Their divergent responses further suggest that forgiveness is a pivotal, spiritual problem. There are themes that appear and reappear, but there is no agreement on what Wiesenthal did or should have done.
Several of the essayists ask whether Wiesenthal had the capacity to forgive on behalf of others. If he was not among the SS officer’s victims, did he have standing to forgive?
Others ask if Wiesenthal had forgiven the SS officer, would he have done justice to the victims. They suggesting that for Wiesenthal to forgive would slight the victims’ injuries; therefore, they counsel that he did the correct thing by not forgiving.
Other writers ascribe impure motives to the SS officer. Was his confession genuine? Did he continue to objectify Jews by asking that a representative Jewish man hear his confession? Why didn’t he confess to a priest? I found the assumptions behind many of these criticisms to be highly prejudiced and unhelpful.
A few respondents, chief among them the Dali Lama, recognized that forgiveness is essentially about the heart of the person offering forgiveness. With that understanding of forgiveness, Wiesenthal could have offered forgiveness from himself to the officer. He could have expressed that the officer’s past actions did not dictate Wiesenthal’s future attitude and actions toward him. This view coincides with my own understanding of forgiveness.
The essays not only point out the critical nature of forgiveness as a spiritual problem, but they also serve as evidence that there is confusion about the vocabulary surrounding forgiveness.
In the New Testament, forgiveness is not presented as the equivalent of full reconciliation or as the restoration of fellowship between two, estranged parties. Forgiveness is the attitude of the injured party directed toward the injurer. In this attitude the heart of the injured does not count the injury as the defining issue between the two. Instead, love – agape love – defines the relationship – at least from the side of the injured. Forgiveness is the removal of the obstacles of hate, anger, or the desire for vengeance which stand in the way of possible reconciliation. In direct relationship to the Greek of the NT, it is letting go of all these negative attitudes.
With humans, this new perspective represents a change from all the negative emotions which had previously defined the relationship between the injured and the injurer. With God, the desire is always there, always reaching toward us. Forgiveness is an expression of God’s constant and abiding love. Romans 5:8 says: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Therefore, forgiveness in the NT is not identified with reconciliation; it is a stage antecedent to reconciliation. It is that which makes reconciliation possible. Repentance on the part of the injuring party allows forgiveness to be received. Then reconciliation may take place. In our relationship with God, it means accepting what God was already offering. This understanding of forgiveness is missing in the majority of essays in the second part of The Sunflower.
Additionally, as a Christian I remember Jesus’s resurrection statement to the disciples in John 20:22-23:
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (ESV)
Christens do have a ministry of forgiveness.
I don’t offer these observations as a debate about the correctness of Christian theology vis a vis Jewish theology, but my tradition does direct my response, just as the Jewish tradition directs Wiesenthal’s.
I wonder what the response of a Viktor Frankl or Corrie Ten Boom might have been. Both were alive and available when the first edition of The Sunflower was published.