Now that our seminar series on religion and violence and living a value driven life is over, at least for this session, I find myself thinking back over the last five weeks. The speakers in the series were compelling, offering much food for thought that was both profound and memorable. One of the quotes I remember most clearly happened on the first night of the series.
On a night back in mid-April, Gerda Kochman shared with us her life story, which included a number of months spent in a French concentration camp. In spite of the degradation she experienced in the camp, Gerda survived and eventually made it to the United States where she continues to live a healthy life filled with love and family and joy.
After telling her story, Gerda was gracious enough to take questions from some of the people who were gathered that evening. And one of the questions had to do with whether Gerda carries any lingering anger or hatred towards the concentration camp officers, whose cruelty and inhumanity made Gerda’s life miserable during her imprisonment.
Without hesitating, Gerda responded with an emphatic “no.” Gerda refuses to harbor any ill will towards her captors because she knows if she did so, she would be yielding to her captors an ongoing power over her life that they do not deserve. In order for Gerda to live the kind of full and abundant life she has lived, she had to find a way to let go and free herself from any ongoing resentment.
While Gerda did not label her answer as such, I listened carefully to her response to that question and one word came to my mind. “Forgiveness.” Letting go of the wrongs that have been committed against you so that those wrongs do not burden you and weigh you down and prevent you from living the life God intends. As definitions of “forgiveness” go, that definition is as good as any…
Forgiveness is a process. Forgiveness has specific stages that can be observed and described. And similar to grief, no people go through the stages of forgiveness in exactly the same way. According to Lewis Smedes, the process of forgiveness looks like this. First we hurt. Then we blame. Finally, we heal. First, we allow ourselves to feel the depth of an injury that has been dealt to us. We don’t minimize it or pretend the hurt never happened.
Second, we blame the person who has hurt us without condoning or trying to excuse their offense. Finally, whenever we are ready to heal, we let go of the pain that is holding us back and holding us down and we move on. Three distinct, relatively straightforward stages to forgiveness.
Yet the process of forgiveness fails to take into account the emotions that go along with the process. When the wound is deep, forgiveness comes slowly. Or it comes in fits and starts. Or it never comes. In the end, forgiveness is some of the hardest work you and I will ever do.
But in my experience as a person and as a pastor, the biggest stumbling block to forgiveness is not usually a lack of knowing how to forgive. Instead, it has to do with a lack of willingness to forgive. Forgiveness involves making a conscious choice. And sometimes we choose not to forgive someone who has wronged us or betrayed us or wounded someone we love.
Simone Weisenthal, also a Holocaust survivor, tells his own story, in the book The Sunflower, of being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. One afternoon he was assigned to clean a hospital that the Germans had improvised for wounded soldiers. There a nurse walked up to Weisenthal, ordered hm to come with her, and led him upstairs to a bed in which a young soldier, his head wrapped in stained bandages, was dying. He was maybe twenty-two, one of Hitler’s SS troopers.
The soldier, who name was Karl, reached out and grabbed Weisenthal’s hand. He told him that he had to speak to a Jew. He had to confess the terrible things he had done, otherwise he could not die in peace.
What had the soldier done? He was fighting in a Russian village where several hundered Jews had been rounded up. His group of soldiers was ordered to plant full cans of gasoline in a certain house. Then they marched two hundred people into the house, cramming them in so they could hardly move. Next they threw grenades in the windows to set the house on fire. And the soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to jump out of a window.
In his own words, the soldier recounted the scene. “Behind the window of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothing was on fire. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the child’s mother. With his free hand the man covered the child’s eyes, then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. We shot…O God! I shall never forget. It haunts me.”
The young soldier paused and then said, “I know that what I have told you is terrible. I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know that what I am asking is almost too much, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
There was silence in the room. Then Weisenthal describes what he did next, “I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. At last I made up my mind…and without a word, I left the room.”
After the Nazis were defeated and the Holocaust ended, Weisenthal wondered over and over whether he should have forgiven the soldier. What’s more, Weisenthal poses the same troubling question to the reader in the aforementioned book. “What would you have done?”
So what would you have done? Did the SS soldier deserve forgiveness? What about the demands of justice? Weisenthal poses the question in one of the most extreme examples one could ever imagine. As Gerda Kochman reminded us vividly in our seminar series about a month ago, the Holocaust raises all kinds of huge moral and spiritual questions.
But can we bring the same question to bear on the kinds of hurts you and I have experienced in our own lives, both small hurts and much larger ones? Why should we forgive the parent who abandoned us or abused us? Why should we forgive the co-worker who stabbed us in the back as a means of trying to get ahead? Why should we forgive the spouse who was unfaithful to us?
Can we forgive the child who went astray and thumbed their nose at our cherished family values? Can we forgive the friend who walked away from us the moment we needed them the most? Can we forgive the church member who offended us or made us angry recently or even years ago? Can we forgive the person who isn’t even sorry for what they’ve done? It just isn’t fair…
Forgiveness is hard work. Sometimes, it’s really hard work. Then again, what is the alternative to forgiving? I suppose vengeance is one option. If someone hurts us, we turn around and hurt them right back. An eye for an eye. You reap what you sow. Get even, settle the score and then it would all be fair.
Unfortunately, revenge never sets the record straight. Even if the person who has wronged you winds up with a similar injury, it in no way compensates for the pain and suffering you have endured. Nor does it make up for the life you’ve missed being consumed by all the plotting and scheming related to the vengeance.
Which leads to another possibility. Maybe forgiveness isn’t primarily for the sake of the person who commits the injury? As many positive benefits forgiveness may have in the life of the perpetrator, maybe forgiveness is truly, actually for the one who has been wronged.
Think about a time when you have been betrayed. Every time you call up the memory, I imagine it revives the hurt to some degree. If you cannot forgive or if I cannot forgive, the pain recurs every time the memory of a particular time or a particular incident revisits us. We are essentially controlled by the pain of our past. And we are simultaneously unable to trust and to love and to be at peace in the present moment. Begging the simple question, who is hurt the most when we don’t forgive?
We undertake the hard work of forgiveness for those who have wronged us. Even more, we engage in the process of forgiveness because it leads to our own healing.
A final story from the Holocaust. Beloved devotional author Corrie Ten Boom was liberated from a concentration camp a few days after the Allies defeated Germany. And in subsequent years, Corrie took up the task of preaching about forgiveness across the European continent.
One Sunday, Corrie was preaching about forgiveness to a crowd of people in Munich, Germany. After the service was over a man walked up to her and extended his hand. “Ja, Fraulein Ten Boom,” he said, “I am so glad that Jesus forgives us all our sin, just as you say.”
Instantly, Corrie recognized the man. He was one of the Nazi guards who leered at the women in the concentration camp when they were forced to take showers. As the man reached out his hand, expecting her to grasp it, Corrie’s hand remained frozen at her side.
In that moment she prayed. “Jesus I can’t forgive this man. Forgive me.” And all at once, in a wonderful way that she was not prepared for, she felt forgiven. Forgiven for not forgiving. And her hand went up, took the hand of her enemy, shook it, and released her grip. Realizing as she did so that in her heart, she had freed him from his terrible past. And she had also freed herself from hers…
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus commands us to forgive the people who hurt us not seven times but seventy-seven times. That’s really hard. Why would Jesus command us to do that?
Because Jesus knew that forgiveness is what sets us free. Amen.