And, now as promised, the remainder of my reply to The Sunflower and my analysis of forgiveness. Where we left off, I had finished explaining there is really no way that the dying Nazi can be forgiven, as murder is unforgivable and there might be good reason to doubt the sincerity of his remorse. Where we left off, I was explaining how deathbed pardons seem insincere and inappropriate to me.
Why then is this sort of pardon considered acceptable by some? This seems to be something found often in Christian tradition, where deathbed confessions and conversions are frequently performed. There also seems to be a popular mythology in Christian traditions that one does not lie when about to die, so confessions made at that time are bound to be honest and come from the heart. I would firmly disagree with that notion. Death is something many are greatly afraid of, especially if one believes in an afterlife where God will judge their actions in life. If what they have done will be likely to lead to eternal condemnation they will want to do anything they can to improve their standing, even though when death was not staring them in the face this was not considered a priority.
Christian traditions also seem to explain why many think this Nazi should have been forgiven. In this area I do not have as much expertise, but I think this stems from the teaching that forgiveness is the greatest virtue that every Christian should practice. In general, I do not disagree, but this leads to something more problematic. People are extolled as highly virtuous for forgiving the most heinous of acts, as though the ability to forgive the worst atrocities shows how pious they are and how good a Christian they are. This happens often in the absence even of a request for forgiveness from the guilty party, let alone true evidence of atonement. This generates the notion that forgiveness is an act that only has impact upon the victim – it is a way for them to heal and move on with their lives. If you look at the comments on part 1, I believe this is what Scottie and Randy are referring to when they speak of forgiving. Not forgiving is not the same as holding a grudge. Carrying the hurt around can absolutely be emotionally and psychologically damaging, but it seems here the beneficial forgiveness that must occur is completely internal – you must forgive yourself for whatever perceived sins you may have internalized. When you are blaming yourself there is no other injured party (except perhaps loved ones who must put up with you) so this process would not involve another party. I think this is of particular benefit in the case of a victim of abuse. There is often a great deal of internalized guilt and self-blame for any number of reasons, which also sometimes manifests itself as hatred of the abuser (or abusers in general). This is damaging in so many ways and the process of forgiveness is probably a good way to heal from this kind of damage. But this has nothing to do with forgiving an external guilty party. They must come to you of their own accord, sincerely request forgiveness, make restitution, and show at least an indication that they have truly changed and would act differently in the future. The case in The Sunflower completely lacks the latter two elements, and even for the first part, there are reasons to doubt the sincerity of the remorse.
And then there is the very act of relating this litany of horrors to Wiesenthal, an inmate of a concentration camp who had every reason to expect he would soon be killed in such a manner as Karl describes. Karl’s description of the scene was very detailed and vivid. As the story was being told, Simon was reminded of a boy he knew in the Ghetto, who had managed to keep himself alive for some time but, in the end, eventually was seen no more and was almost certainly killed too. It almost seems a form of torture in these circumstances, as several of the published responses have noted. Wiesenthal is already in a struggle just to stay alive – is it fair that he now be subjected to another graphic account of the horror waiting for him and then be asked to forgive this – or bear the emotional burden of not forgiving and then later doubting himself. Or possibly even fear the consequences of a refusal. The confessor is a Nazi in a Nazi hospital and Simon is a Jewish prisoner. If Karl had asked to have Simon killed, it would have been done. This too casts doubts on the sincerity of Karl’s remorse. Can he truly understand the gravity of his crime and be fully remorseful if he does not seem to acknowledge the position in which he places his confessor? Some have even suggested this is yet another sin being committed as he asks for forgiveness of another.
So this is why Karl cannot be forgiven and, in general, why certain crimes are unforgiveable. But at this point you may ask: it all seems quite logical, but isn’t this just a bit too harsh? What about compassion or sympathy? Well, thinking of the paragraph just before this, is putting a person in such an awkward and potentially dangerous situation in any way compassionate, and thus merit some compassion in return? Aside from this though, I did say at the beginning of this long essay that I would get to the issue of sympathy and compassion and how that is different from forgiveness. Actually I have been talking around that topic for the last few paragraphs, but never directly to the issue. Those alternate notions of forgiveness I was picking apart also seem to meld forgiveness, compassion and sympathy into one all-purpose “right thing to do”. The reality is these are all different things, and The Sunflower actually shows how each one of them is separate and, while Wiesenthal does not provide the former, he does provide both compassion and sympathy, on different occasions. With the dying SS man, Karl, he doesn’t have much sympathy for the man – this is one of his tormentors after all. Yet he most certainly shows ample compassion. A fly was buzzing around the dying man’s blinded face, and Simon shoos it away. Despite the emotional pain this is causing him, Simon still hears Karl out. And it seems this alone was of benefit to the man, as the next day, when the nurse told him that solider had died, she presented Simon with Karl’s effects, as that was Karl’s wish. Later, when meeting Karl’s mother, Simon shows sympathy in this instance. He does feel and understand the genuine pain the woman was feeling and genuinely did not want to do or say anything that would cause her additional hurt. Here there was compassion too, and one gets the impression that compassion is simply one of Wiesenthal’s traits – he was a very compassionate human being. So to review, compassion is to treat people with kindness and gentility, and provide assistance, sympathy is to commiserate and to share in the feelings of another, but forgiveness is to actually absolve another of sin or to declare that no further atonement is necessary. No preconditions are needed to be compassionate. To be sympathetic, usually some sort of common ground or understanding is needed, but not much more than that. But since forgiveness is more definite, and more official, there are many preconditions, and the SS officer meets very few, if any, of them.
So this turned out to be longer than many of the submissions to Wiesenthal’s symposium. But some of the offerings there were quite long as well, and there was a lot to say. I had it in my mind to write a post about the Jewish view of forgiveness almost since I started this blog more than three years ago. And it has been two months since I promised part two (or as it turned out, parts 2 and 3) to follow up the book review. I still don’t know if I’m fully happy with it, but I am glad to have finally written it and to have it posted. Scottie and Randy, I appreciated your comments on part one and hope you will be able to get through this long piece as well, as it does give my perspective on the issues both of you raised. It seems now every time I post, I once again promise to post more, and then have another very long delay before the next post. However I have more ideas now and hopefully more posts will be on the way. And I got two out of this one so that’s a start!