The Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

the-sunflowerHave you ever wanted to put a note into a library book and ask the next reader to contact you because you’re so desperate to discuss the topic?  I found myself in this situation after reading Simon Wiesenthal’s intriguing thought experiment about forgiveness, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.

The premise is this: Wiesenthal was a Jew who spent World War II in concentration camps.  Once, when sent on a work detail to a hospital, he was pulled aside by a dying SS man who asked Wiesenthal to forgive him for a particular crime against some other Jews who Wiesenthal didn’t know.  After listening to the SS man’s confession, Wiesenthal left in silence and did not forgive the man.

The book raises questions of culpability, how people are blind to their own prejudice and inhumanity, and how–or even if–forgiveness is possible.  Wiesnethal ends with the question, what would you have done?

In the version I read, a variety of philosophers, theologians, and survivors of different genocides weighed in with short essays on what they would have done if they were in Wiesenthal’s position.  It was truly fascinating to read how other people approached the question.  As I read their reactions, I was surprised to find that I did not personally subscribe to the apparently widespread Christian reaction to the story which is to say Wiesenthal should have forgiven the SS man.

I don’t think he should have–or could have–forgiven him.

First of all, the crime was not committed against Wiesenthal directly or even indirectly against his family or friends.  And the things that the SS man was culpable for against Wiesenthal–his role in concentration camps, his helping keep Nazis in power, his bringing terrible risk on Wiesenthal by pulling him off his work detail with no explanation to the guards, and even his continued prejudice of treating Wiesethal as a random representative of some amorphous and not-quite-human group rather than an individual–the SS man didn’t ask for forgiveness for.  So I don’t think Wiesenthal could have forgiven him.  How can you say “Sure, I forgive you for shooting a family in cold blood as they tried to escape a burning building that you had crammed them into and then brutally set on fire.  Die in peace, my friend!”  That’s ridiculous.

Second, and most importantly, I don’t think Wiesenthal’s forgiveness would have done anything for the SS man other than give him false hope.  What that man needed was God’s forgiveness and Jesus’s substitutionary atonement.  This case is actually a pretty sound example of the need for perfect atonement–there is no way the SS man can atone for his sins himself.  Any attempt he made–and he’d have to give a whole lot more effort than finding a random person to confess to–would fall short.  Really, this is all of our position relative to God’s holiness, isn’t it?  Who of us could be the propitiation (complete, perfect atonement) for our own sins?  The SS man needed a savior, not false hope.

I was so interested to read the other takes on the question, though, particularly the differences between the Jewish and Christian ideas of atonement.  Apparently Jewish belief is that God will not forgive someone who has sinned against another human being, unless the person sinned against has forgiven the sinner. That seems to put murder in the ultimate sin category (which is counter to the Old Testament law, right?), and gives the person issuing forgiveness more power than God.  There are probably nuances to that interpretation that were missing from the short essays.  On the other hand, many of the essayists seemed to think that if Wiesenthal had forgiven the SS man, the SS man would have gone to heaven, which would have put Wiesenthal in the role of God.

I could go on at some length about The Sunflower, but suffice it to say, it’s incredibly thought-provoking and would make an excellent book for discussion, especially in a mixed-faith group if you have one.

If you’ve read the book, what did you think of it?


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