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I have had forgiveness on the brain recently.
Not only because I recently re-read The Sunflower, which is one-half Simon Wiesenthal’s narrative about meeting an SS soldier who wanted forgiveness from a Jew for his crimes, one-half the opinions of a pan-religious panel of thinkers, but also because of a a recent Slate.com post from Simon Doonan, who usually writes about matters of style but here tackles the thorny matter of forgiveness and when – or if – to give it.
Doonan tells of a good friend of his who was murdered – one of the worst ways of dying. At the funeral, the preacher suggested that it was “not too early to start thinking about forgiveness.” Actually, it was too early, much too early – and a person of any sensitivity would have realized it.
When it comes to murder, the time for forgiveness may be never.
Simon Wiesenthal listened patiently to the SS soldier’s tale of growing up as a “good son,” but ending up as the kind of person who would herd Jews into a house, set the house on fire, and shoot anyone who tried to escape. When the soldier asked Wiesenthal to forgive him on behalf of all Jews, Wiesenthal walked away without a word.
In a point which was reiterated over and over again in the second half of The Sunflower, Jewish theology insists that one cannot forgive on behalf of others – which means that murder can never be forgiven, because the victim is unable to do so. This is a belief that makes perfect sense to me, even though I practice no religion myself.
Christians, on the other hand, forgive even the worst crimes – or feel that they must – because it is What Jesus Would Do. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his “brother.” Jesus answers, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but seventy times seven.” (That adds up to 490 times you should forgive – no word on what happens at #491).
According to the Bible, the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – which makes the Holy Spirit look like an insecure narcissist, at best.
That is one of many reasons why I am not, and never will be, a Christian. Asking people to forgive no matter what – the father who raped you, the stranger who terrified you with a gun, the government who enslaved you – is not only unrealistic, it is inhumane.
It is OK to be angry, and stay angry, about such atrocities. Even Yoko Ono, who has dedicated her life to peace, does not forgive her husband John Lennon’s murderer – and I don’t blame her one bit.
If everything can be forgiven – and must be forgiven – can wrong even exist?
Doonan put it this way:
“At one time, knowing that some actions are beneath the valley of the forgivable—the Holocaust, murder, rape, animal cruelty—gave our existence a little structure. All we have are our teensy, fragile, tutti-frutti lives. If taking them away is forgivable, then we are left vulnerable, blowing in the wind, clutching our handbags and manbags, and hoping for the best.”
I would rather live in a world where it is not only OK, but it is a matter of fact that some acts are beyond the reach of forgiveness.
If you want to forgive your loved one’s murder, go right ahead.
But don’t tell me that I must do the same.
Because I won’t.