Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 70: Forgiveness: The Sunflower
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 70: Forgiveness: The Sunflower

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

We are called to love and forgive our enemies, even those who have abused or continue to abuse us. Can we forgive on behalf of other individuals who have suffered and continue to suffer at human hands? This is relevant to those whose compassion includes Godís animals and was the central question of a remarkable true story called The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, who died about three weeks ago at age 96.

While a concentration camp prisoner, Wiesenthal was called to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier, who confessed to participating in the murder of about 300 Jews. They had been crowded into a building, which was set ablaze, and he and fellow soldiers shot those who tried to escape out of windows. The soldier asked Wiesenthal, a Jew, to forgive him. Wiesenthal listened to the soldierís entire story, allowing the soldier to take his hand, and then Wiesenthal left without speaking. The man died the next day and left all his possessions to Wiesenthal, who refused them. Wiesenthal caused considerable consternation among fellow concentration camp prisoners when he asked his friends whether he did the right thing. They could not understand how he could have any concern or compassion for one of those who had murdered their families and friends and would likely murder them.

Having miraculously survived the concentration camp, after the war Wiesenthal asked dozens of people from a wide range of perspectives whether or not he had done the right thing, and their varied responses represent the bulk of The Sunflower. Interestingly, Wiesenthal dedicated the rest of his life to capturing Nazi war criminals.

In refusing to forgive the Nazi, did Wiesenthal do the right thing? Having never experienced anything remotely resembling what Wiesenthal lived through, I certainly canít judge. I do note that Wiesenthal listened, and I think that his listening communicated to the dying Nazi that his sins were forgivable. Wiesenthal could not forgive on behalf of people he never met. Sometimes, victims can forgive, but in this case the victims were dead. The only one left who could forgive was God.

Wiesenthal expected to die in the concentration camp, yet he yearned to know whether he had done the right thing. After surviving the nightmare, he remained plagued by doubts. Why? I think Wiesenthal needed to know whether the Nazis had destroyed his humanity. They had killed his family, stolen his possessions, and reduced him to a pathetic, starving, miserable man. Had they destroyed his faith that God was on the side of the good? Had they taken away his ability to respect all life, which derives from God? Could they make him curse God, just as Satan had predicted Job would curse God?

Many of us who empathize with the suffering of animals are pained by thinking about animalsí miserable plight. Our natural human response is to feel angry and vengeful. However, if we are to love all Godís Creation, we must also love those who harm the innocent. Thatís really hard, but it may help to recognize that they are forgiven by God, just as we too have been forgiven for violating Godís desire that we be loving and compassionate.

Does forgiveness mean that there should be no laws to protect vulnerable individuals or that there should be no consequences for destructive behavior? Simon Wiesenthal didnít think so. While Wiesenthal showed human compassion and forgiveness by listening to the dying Nazi soldier, after the war he believed it was necessary to bring Nazi criminals to justice, because it was critical that future generations know that people will be held accountable for their actions. There remains a difficult question: How do we distinguish righteous justice from scapegoating, since they look similar and since scapegoaters always believe that their violence is righteous?

In the next essay, we will strive to resolve this dilemma.

Go on to: Part 71: Forgiveness: How Can We Distinguish Scapegoating from Justice?
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