Simon WiesenthalDuring World War II he was imprisoned for four years in Concentration Camps. After the War, Wiesenthal joined the American Commission for War Crimes which took depositions from survivors and identifying and locating Nazi War Criminals. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 1985 for his work in bringing over 1,000 Nazi’s to justice. He has written many books about his life experiences.
But the one which I want to highlight today is called Sunflower, which raises the theological question as its subtitle states about the possibilities and limits of forgiveness. In the Book Wiesenthal tells a story about his time in the Ghetto and the Lemburg Concentration Camp in Poland. He writes of the arbitrariness, cruelty and lack of humanity of the Nazis. But the main crux of the book, is an event when he is on a work detail in town. He is called into the room of a dying SS officer Karl who has asked a nurse to find him a Jew so he could confess his sins before he died. Karl tells Wiesenthal about the arc of his life. “I was not born a murderer…. Karl talks about his youth involvement in the church, joining the Hitler Youth and then the SS, the harshness of war, the indoctrination of violence, the fear of questioning authority and how the only information he knew about Jews was what he was told by his superiors. He tells Wiesenthal of one particular incident where they rounded up Jewish families into a house and threw grenades in that set the house on fire and then waited and he shot those who tried to leave the burning house.
Karl on his deathbed, seemed sincere in his repentance and asked Wiesenthal, “I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and seek forgiveness from him, Wiesenthal left the room without saying a word. After the war had ended Wiesenthal visited Karl’s mother wanting to get a better all around understanding of Karl. She could not imagine the dreadful things she heard about the war and was certain that Karl would never have done anything wrong. Wiesenthal never told her about Karl’s deeds saying “In her present circumstances, to take from her, her last possession (meaning her image of her son) would probably have also been a crime. He continues “We who suffered in those dreadful days, we who cannot obliterate the hell we endured are forever being advised to keep silent. How many bystanders kept silent as they watched Jewish Men women and children being led to the slaughterhouses of Europe?”
So I have to say a poignant part of the story was the story of Karl’s father who upon his son’s joining the Hitler Youth and the SS remained silent because he feared otherwise his son would turn him in. Or in Wiesenthal’s own inquiries after the war, finding ordinary Germans who were against the Nazis, but were afraid to say anything out of fear of being turned in by their neighbors. And as well those very neighbors they were afraid to talk to about their misgivings were also afraid to talk to them as well for the same reason. Creation of Fear, propaganda and the silencing of dissenting opinions is the framework that fascist and totalitarian governments use to gain and maintain power. These are tactics that I see our own government starting to slide into with constant firing of government officials due to a supposed lack of loyalty.
It is heartening and important especially these days to see the number of people who came out nationally and even locally with all the snow yesterday for the March for our Lives rally yesterday. But there is also fear in our country.Yet when I drive around town and I see these signs up in people’s front yards, I am heartened, thinking, there is a kind person who lives there who is unafraid to share their values with the wider world. And that encourages others not to fear but to have courage as well, to remind others that they are not alone, to remind others that there is kindness in the world. Well there is an old saying that you should practice what you preach, so I am going to put this sign up at my house, and I encourage you to do so as well. For a requested donation of $10 (which will go to the organization One Human Family which purchased them) you can pick one up downstairs. At the Sanctuary table. For we must overcome our fear, we must not be silent in the face of growing fascism.
Jewish History calls to us from the grave to tell us what silence leads to. Our religious history calls to us speak truth to power. We have not been silent and as we spoke out and continue to speak out for Women’s rights, racial justice, lgbqt advocacy, immigration reform, and mental health care. Our Unitarian Universalist principles call us not only to affirm but to promote peace liberty and justice for ALL. Our Congregational mission and vision asks us devote ourselves to community good and support social justice. So I invite you to speak up and give a voice to the voiceless, so others know they are not alone in their fear, they are not alone in their dissent, and not alone in their hope for creating a better community with loving values.
In the Sunflower, after rejecting to offer forgiveness to the Nazi Karl, Wiesenthal questioned whether that was the right decision. And he poses the question ”You who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done” The most recent publication of the book has 53 responses to that question from individuals from different religious backgrounds and time periods, from people directly involved with the holocaust, involved in other atrocities, and others leaders from a purely esoterical perspective This simple question raised the deep theological question of forgiveness.
Of the 53, many of the responses were nuanced, but there were 10 that clearly claimed they would have forgiven the Nazi. Of those who would have forgiven him, included both Buddhists who responded including The Dalai Lama. IN both cases, they saw the act of forgiveness as a way of transforming ones own suffering as well as the suffering of the perpetrator. The others who proposed forgiveness were all Christians and predominantly Roman Catholic.
Desmond Tutu a South African Anglican cleric who fought apartheid in South Africa, pointed to Nelson Mandala who forgave and even invited his jailor to his inauguration as President. Tutu goes on to say, “It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics.” Other Christian writers who approved of forgiveness pointed to the Christian ethic of forgiveness to the repentant, of deathbed confessions for absolution, talk of a loving and forgiving God, quoting Jesus upon the Cross, Forgive them father for they know not what they do” Martin Marty, theologian from the University of Chicago and father of our local St. Paul’s Lutheran Minister Rev. Peter Marty, after careful erudition about why Christians shouldn’t offer advice to Jews about the Holocaust and a sincere concern about cheap grace, ultimately comes down on the side of forgiveness because “If I forgive in the face of true repentance and new resolve, I am free”
The majority of responders however agreed with Wiesenthal’s decision not to forgive Karl. Many felt that one cant forgive someone for the acts they commit against others.
Others felt strongly that only God could forgive Karl and not another human being.
Some felt that certain acts were so heinous that he had no right to offer forgiveness.
Most responders who had experienced the Holocausts or been subject to other genocides were not forgiving. As well, a couple pointed out that Karl had not really grasped the concept of his antisemitism. He wanted any Jew as if they were all the same or interchangeable, as if any one of them could give atonement for harm to all the jews. Karl saw Wiesenthal just as a Jew, as opposed to seeing him as a unique individual who was himself suffering.
I was surprised to see a couple of responders talking about the need to forget in order to forgive. One actually felt that forgetting was necessary so that future generations would not seek vengeance. Most however focused on the importance of sharing the stories so that even if you do choose to forgive, the impact of the atrocities are remembered and not repeated in future generations. Remembering is the basis of two upcoming events I would like to invite you to.
This Friday Night at 6pm we will be hosting a Passover Sedar which is a family friendly service as part of dinner that tells the story of the Jewish People’s escape from slavery and the importance of freedom and justice for everyone at all times. And Sunday April 15th I will be participating in our local interfaith Yom HaShoah Service at the Tri-Cities Jewish Center in Rock Island, retelling the story of the Holocaust in hopes that with remembering it will not happen again. It is important to remember, but it is not enough to remember, as we have still allowed genocide to continue in our world.
So what do I think? Would I have forgiven that SS Officer. It is easier to think about this some 60+ years later then in the moment especially not ever having experienced that degree of hardship. The farther we get away from events in time even in our own life over time we grow, over time we have other experiences to give our suffering context and over time we look to make meaning of our suffering. But in the present moment during intense suffering, I cannot imagine forgiving that SS officer. Often being silent, and holding one’s tongue is all we can due in the present moment as we sort through our emotions and feelings
I think back in my life, I think of people who harmed me either physically, or emotionally whether personally, in business or in Ministry. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. Sometimes you just have to carry your grief with you. I don’t believe I formally or consciously forgave or forgot those people. I instead learned to protect myself from harm. I think that is important. Cheap grace as we have seen in this world, can lead to ongoing abuse. Forgiveness, thoughts and prayers didn’t save those student from being slaughtered. It is not about forgiving others that mattered to me, It is not my duty to forgive others for their sins. It is my duty to be reconciled with myself, and become aware of my emotions so that I can realize what is real risk, and what is just fear of past events rising up within me.
The question is, knowing what we know, having suffered, how are we going to live in the world. Are we going to seek vengeance, or will we find compassion for others who suffer, Are we going to hold a grudge or are we going to seek restoration with the world. So I think silence was ok. Karl’s acts were between him and his conscience and his idea of God. And Wiesenthal’s were with his own conscience. After the war Wiesenthal went forth and tried to create a world filled with justice.
It is funny, I was much more comfortable with his not forgiving Karl then I was in his lying to Karl’s mother. He lied, in an act of compassion to alleviate her pain. No parent wants to imagine that their children are capable of what was done. Sometimes it is important to learn the truth. Not just our imagined truth. Because sometimes we need to realize our perspective or our supposed pain or our illusion of superiority was caused by circumstances and understanding we are not even aware of. Often on Facebook, I see people complain about things that I think, well that doesn’t seem that bad. Whenever I say that, I catch myself. I try to remember when I have been harmed and felt no one would recognize or understand it. And so I stop myself, and I listen.
And I try to learn about what I don’t know, and perspectives I have not experienced. Sometimes just listening to others can be an act of restoration.
Lastly, I also have to ask of myself. What about when my actions have whether intentionally or unintentionally cause harm to someone. If its unintentional, sometimes I recognize it immediately, and although I may ask for forgiveness, what I really want is repaired relationships. To repair relationships, changed actions, listening, understanding and are required as well. Sometimes I don’t recognize the unintentional pain, and only find out much later after much resentment has built up. I wish in those circumstances we would have been in better relationship so the people would share their pain, so at least there would have been a chance at restoration, but I understand, sometimes people need time to heal. Lastly, the hardest is when I have to take action that intentionally I know will cause someone emotional pain. It is painful to me when it happens. The truth is you cant please all the people all the time. I try to be transparent so everyone knows why I make the decisions I make, to help people understand that every decision I make is for the greater good of the whole community.
And so I ask the same of you. Whatever disagreements you have with others, or with the Congregation, I ask you not to seek vengeance, but to seek restoration, to seek relationship. It is easy to ask forgiveness when you are lying on your deathbed. It is harder to seek restoration of right relationship in the present moment. Only by making positive change in our lives and our relationships can we reach our potential invidually or as a community Let us be there for each other and this Congregation and for those not here who need our help, as we continue to build the world we dream about.
May it be so.