Forgiveness: a Bilateral “Liberation”?

In his book called The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal narrates his story as a concentration camp inmate who is asked for forgiveness by a dying Nazi soldier–a story which takes the reader to a moral dilemma that Simon could not find the answer of. The latter part of the book includes a panel of responses from individuals of diverse backgrounds who attempt to provide some insights concerning the question of forgiveness. In this writing, I will bring up some of the points brought up by some of the respondents as a food-for-thought while trying to reflect on the concept of forgiveness, as I, personally, am in awe with how much depth the notion brings to our understanding of the human condition and how such a human experience has the potential to speak to all of us, as the question of forgiveness is firmly attached to and cannot be alienated from our quest of engaging with the other.

First of all, it is not easy to isolate the very-human idea of forgiveness from the state. In many cases, the question of forgiveness does not even come into existence when the state claims authority over all judiciary power. It is the state that punishes or forgives—thus the victim is silenced in the process. Hence, a respondent named Moshe Bejski too touches upon the case by saying “No matter what, regret never pardons crimes, except when the state declares an amnesty for certain crimes, generally for political reasons” (p.117). However, having this in mind, I would like to “descend” to the human-level-of-things and handle the case accordingly.

When there is a crime committed that involves a collective of victims, as in the case of Simon Wiesenthal’s story, the situation gets quite complicated as one is always faced with the question of whether it would be just for one to forgive in the name of a group. Taking it further, does the question even make sense? Is the question valid? When a collective crime is committed, is there a possibility for forgiveness without approaching and asking forgiveness from each and every individual? It seems that many of the respondents see this as an unattainable end. In one section of Simon’s story, he asks his friend about the situation in which the friend replies: “I don’t think that the attitude of the great religions to the question of forgiveness differs to any great extent. If there is a difference, then it is more in practice than in principle. One thing is certain: you can only forgive a wrong that has been done to yourself” (p.81). This theme is prevalent in the story as Simon’s friend in the camp also had replied to the incident by saying “I feared at first, that you had really forgiven him. You would have had no right to do this in the name of people who had not authorized you to do so. What people have done to you yourself, you can, if you like, forgive and forget. That is your own affair. But it would have been a terrible sin to burden your conscience with other people’s sufferings” (p.65). And some of the responses from the panel too share the same idea as they express their empathy to Simon’s decision to stay silent to the request. Also, in the context of the Holocaust, many respondents find it hard and unjust to claim to be able to put their selves into the shoes of Simon to give an answer to the question that Simon raises. The inhumanity that is involved in the question, which are the crimes, make it impossible for some of the contributors to think even of the possibility of forgiveness as Cynthia Ozick claims “whoever is merciful to the cruel will end by being indifferent to the innocent” (p.205); and Robert McAfee Brown writes, “For if we forgive, it will be a sign to those in the future that they can act without fear of punishment, and that the universe has a moral escape value labeled ‘forgiveness’ that permits evil not only to survive, but to thrive” (p.121). One response, specifically, by Sven Alkalaj, is “forgetting the crimes would be worse than forgiving the criminal who seeks forgiveness, because forgetting the crimes devalues the humanity that perished in these atrocities” (p.102)—and thus adds another dimension to the question of forgiveness by bringing also the question of forgetting and separating the two questions by implying how one can be more political than the other and, perhaps, also mentioning how the forgetting of crimes could be more atrocious than the crimes themselves.

Despite the popular option of being critical of forgiveness in such a context, there were, still, many respondents that took the idea of forgiveness to a very intimate and personal level, to almost a theological one, in which an emphasis on mercy was manifest—especially as we, as humans, constantly commit mistakes and are dependent on the mercy of one another. One stirring response given by Harry James Cargas states: “I am afraid to not forgive because I fear to not be forgiven… Who among us is so confident as to say ‘I can withstand the scrutiny of Justice’?” (p.124). In this line of thinking, we also come across the feeling of letting go of grievances and victimhood which are brought up by other individuals. Harold S. Kushner writes: “I am not sure if there is a thing as forgiving another person, though I know there is such a thing as being forgiven. To be forgiven is to feel the weight of the past lifted from your shoulders, to feel the stain of the past wrongdoing washed away. To be forgiven is to feel free to step into the future unburdened by the precedent of who we have been and what we have done in the previous times. […] Forgiving is not something we do for another person, as the Nazi asked Wiesenthal to do for him. Forgiving happens inside us. It represents letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps, most importantly, a letting go of the role of the victim” (p.174 & 176). Thus, in a sense, although being in the position to be forgiven or to be in the position of asking for forgiveness implies a certain power relationship, the achieving of genuine forgiveness, perhaps, is a way to deconstruct this power hierarchy and, in a sense, “liberate” both the forgiven and the forgiver from a shackling past.

Image Credit: The Father’s Forgiveness 2 by Daniel Bonnell

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