|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - FORGIVENESS||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
What is forgiveness and why does it matter?
One of the most important issues that we all face in life is the question of forgiveness. It is important because, whatever our reputation in moral matters, we will never be free of the need of receiving forgiveness from God and from one another, and also of giving it to one another. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus showed his recognition of this by including our request for God's forgiveness, and our offer of it to others, as part of our regular praying. Without learning something of the meaning of forgiveness, we will never be able to form deep relationships. And yet it is not easy. It has been said that "the most painful question short of our own death is the question of forgiveness."
In his book The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal, the world's foremost Nazi hunter, tells of his war experiences. In 1944 he was a young Polish prisoner on his way to concentration camps. He had looked on helplessly as Nazi soldiers forced his mother into a freight car crammed with elderly Jewish women, and as they shot his grandmother to death on the stairway of her home. Altogether, 89 of his Jewish relatives would die at the hands of the Nazis.
One bright sunny day, in a hospital for German casualties, he found himself alone with a dying German soldier in a dark, musty room. White gauze covered the man's face, with openings cut out for mouth, nose, and ears. "My name is Karl," said a strained voice that came from somewhere within the bandages. "I must tell you of this horrible deed - tell you because you are a Jew."
Karl told of his Catholic childhood and the faith he had lost in the Hitler Youth Corps. He spoke of his service in the army and his recent return, severely wounded, from the Russian front. Finally he told of something that had happened in Ukrainian territory. Booby traps had killed 30 soldiers in Karl's unit. As an act of revenge they had rounded up 300 Jews, herded them into a three-storey house, doused it with gasoline, and fired grenades at it. Karl and his men encircled the house, their guns drawn to shoot anyone who tried to escape. "The screams from the house were horrible," he said. "I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand the man covered the child's eyes - then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies. We shot..."
Karl described other atrocities, but kept circling back to the image of that young boy with black hair and dark eyes falling from a building, target practice for the SS rifles. "I am left here with my guilt," he concluded at last. "I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn't know if there were any Jews left...I know what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.
"Simon Wiesenthal, an architect in his early twenties, now a prisoner dressed in a shabby uniform marked with the yellow Star of David, felt the entire weight of his race bearing down on him. He stared out the window at the sunlit courtyard. He looked at the eyeless heap of bandages lying in the bed. "At last I made up my mind," he writes, "and without a word I left the room."
Such a story raises in the starkest manner the whole subject of forgiveness and leaves us begging for answers. Ever after, the scene in the hospital room haunted Wiesenthal. He asked fellow prisoners what he should have done. He inquired of rabbis and priests. Finally, when he wrote up the story 20 years later, he sent it to the brightest ethical minds he knew - Jew, Gentile, Catholic, Protestant, and irreligious. "What would you have done in my place?" he asked. "Did I do right?"
Of the 32 men and
women who responded, only 6 said he had done wrong in not forgiving the
German. Most thought he had done right. "What moral or legal authority
did he have to forgive injuries done to someone else?" they asked.
Some questioned the whole concept of forgiveness. This booklet seeks to
address this dilemma.
What is forgiveness and why does it matter?