Monday, November 23, 2009

Thinking about Justice and Forgiveness

I don't believe there is a more paradigmatic event than the crucifixion of the Son of God for our reflection on evil, suffering and redemption, but there are events large and small in our own history and our collective history which do give pause and serve as walls from which these themes echo back at us. For the 20th century Western mind, the holocaust was a one massive event in that regard.

In an an endeavour to appreciate the different angles from which people approach the issue of forgiveness I recently read Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower. When it comes to grappling with the holocaust, I'd probably first recommend Elie Wiesel's Night, but barely. This one is even more succinct and thus perhaps more powerful. But my intent here is not to offer a review but to share some excerpts from the symposium that follows the story.

To set up the context for these excerpts, reading the story would help, but if you have even a passing awareness of the horrors of genocide (be it 1940s Germany or 1990s Rwanda or other), you can probably appreciate the dilemma it presents. The book-jacket at left sums it up: "You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do? It is a true story, and a good question.

As I read the responses from 32 lawyers, Jews, Christians, atheist, literary critics, and so on I was struck by (1) the complexity of the simple question, (2) the incredible variety in their answers, and (3) the difficulty one might at times have pegging the world-view with the author based solely on their answers.

Here are a few exerpts from their answers so you can see what I mean (I've summarized content in some cases for brevity). I encourage you to try to recognize elements of your own answer in them, and also to have your answer challenged:

Cynthia Ozek:
“Forgiveness is pitless. It forgets the victim. It negates the right of the victim to his own life. It blurs over the suffering and death. It drowns the past. It cultivates sensitiveness toward the murderer at the price of insensitiveness toward the victim. . . . Whoever forgives the murderer blinds himself to the vastest letting of blood . . . . It is forgiveness that is relentless. The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered.”

Of course, vengeance isn't ideal either. “If it could, vengeance on a mass murderer would mean killing all the members of his family and a great fraction of his nation; and still his victims would not come alive.” . . . But “public justice” of some kind must be done or else we condone evil.

Ironically, this was a man brought up within Christianity who was asking forgiveness from a Jewish victim! How embroiled in all of this is Christianity anyway? Ozek asks: “Does the habit, inculcated in infancy, of worshiping a Master—a Master depicted in human form yet seen to be omnipotent—make it easier to accept a Fuhrer?” (p. 184-187).

Edward H. Flannery:
“Is not the failure to transcend this [offender's evil] condition another triumph for the brutalizing and dehumanizing process?” As an oriental sage wrote: “If hate is met with hate, where will it all end?” Thus, “to refuse pardon after repentance is a form of hate, however disguised” (p. 113, 117).

Martin E. Marty:
“We do not want cheap grace, a casual people, or a forgotten victim. What do we want? I am on a search for grace in the world. . . . Gracelessness helps produce totalitarianism as much as cheap grace might. If there is to be grace, it must be mediated through people. We have to see potentials in the lives of even the worst people, have to see that it is we who can dam the flow of grace. . . .

If I forgive in the face of true repentance and new resolve, I am free. . . . . I can let my being haunted preoccupy me so that I do not notice ‘the other.’ Forgiving and being forgiven are experiences that allow me to be free for a new day” (p. 174).

David Daiches:
“There is some sense in the idea . . . that only God can forgive, because a true moral offence is an offence against divine order in the universe. As between human beings, it seems to me that forgiveness is a formula for eliminating unprofitable brooding on the one hand and self-reproach on the other, and as such I suppose it is socially necessary." . . . But there’s a difference between “little things of life” and the holocaust (p. 107-108).

Hans Habe:
“One of the worst crimes of the Nazist regime was that it made it so hard to forgive. It led us into the labyrinth of our souls. We must find a way out of the labyrinth—not for the murderer’s sake, but for our own. Neither love alone expressed in forgiveness, nor justice alone, exacting punishment, will lead us out of the maze. A demand for both atonement and forgiveness is not self-contradictory; when a man has wilfully extinguished the life of another, atonement is the prerequisite for forgiveness. Exercised with love and justice, atonement and forgiveness serve the same end: life without hatred. That is our goal: I see no other” (p. 124).

Friedrich Heer:
“The sun of Simon Wiesenthal’s Sunflower has the fiery breath of the desert sun. It singes everything that is ‘human’ and ‘all-too-humane’. Thus in the desert, in the night of humanity, stand three persons, facing each other but divided by gulfs and abysses—the young murderer, the man of the people of Israel, and the third is the invisible God, who cannot be reached or talked over by pious phrases. This God has assigned to man a responsibility which he, the man, in this last desperate case cannot carry. Paradox of Godhead, paradox of humanity! Both are incapable of elucidation. For both there is no ‘solution’, no ‘redemption’, and without it one must resign oneself to remaining unenlightened, watchful, and in pain” (p. 128).

John M. Oesterreicher:
“The God of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ is thus not a kind of understudy or heavenly minuteman, He is the One who lives and suffers with His own” (183).


Stewart said...

couple of things: what is forgiveness? how do we, as humans, do something that appears to be divine? big topic this.

Jon Coutts said...

tell me about it.