The Justice of Forgiveness

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One week last summer, I invited members of my congregation to write down the issues they most wanted me to address in future sermons. Today I want to respond to one of their requests, which read: "I know that we are unconditionally forgiven by God. How can we follow that example and forgive each other?"

Well, there are experts on the subject of forgiveness. And all of them observe that forgiveness is a process, like grief; it has stages that can be observed and described, though no two people go through the stages in exactly the same way.

My favorite description of the process of forgiveness comes from a little book called Forgive and Forget, by Lewis Smedes. This is how human beings forgive, Smedes says: "We hurt, we hate, we heal. We hurt; that is, we allow ourselves to feel the depth of an injury that has been dealt to us ~ we don't minimize it, or try to sweep it under the rug. We hate; that is, we blame the one who has hurt us ~we don't condone or excuse the offense. Finally, when we are ready, we heal; we let go of the pain that is binding us to the past, and move on. That is how we human beings forgive."

The process itself sounds simple, but it always happens inside a storm of complex emotions. Particularly when the wound is deep, forgiveness comes slowly, and in fits and starts, if it comes at all. Forgiveness may be the hardest work that you and I will ever do.

But you know, in my experience, as a pastor and as a person, the biggest stumbling block to forgiveness is not usually a lack of knowing how to forgive. More often, it has to do with a lack of willingness to forgive. As a process, forgiveness is something that we can choose to engage in, or not. Why should I choose to forgive someone who has wronged me, or betrayed me? Why should I want to forgive someone who has abused or abandoned me ~ or worse, hurt someone that I love.

Samuel Weisenthal, a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, tells a story that raises this question about as strongly as it can be raised. Weisenthal, a Jew, was 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 him 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, an SS trooper.

The soldier, whose 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 he done? He was fighting in a Russian village where several hundred Jews had been rounded up. His group was ordered to plant full cans of gasoline in a certain house. Then they marched two hundred people into the house, crammed them in so they could hardly move. Next they threw grenades in the windows to set the house on fire. The soldiers were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to jump out of a window.

The young soldier recalled, "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 man 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. Weisenthal tells us 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."

Weisenthal survived the concentration camp, but he wondered, troubled for a long time, whether he should have forgiven the soldier. He tells this story in his book, The Sunflower, and ends it with an awful question for every reader: "What would you have done?"

Thirty-two distinguished people wrote answers to Weisenthal, in response to his question. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote what was probably the consensus of most readers: "One cannot, and should not, go around happily killing and torturing and then when moment has come, simply ask, and receive forgiveness."

Here is the crucial question. Why should the SS man be forgiven? What about the demands of justice? Weisenthal's story poses the question in its most extreme form ~ as the holocaust helps us to focus all kinds of moral and spiritual questions ~ but we can bring it down to the kinds of hurts you and I have experienced in our lives, hurts large and small.

Why should we forgive the parent who beat us or sexually abused us? Why should we forgive the drunk driver who hit us, the co-worker who stabbed us in the back, the spouse who cheated on us, the child who threw our values away? Particularly if these people aren't sorry. If there is no repentance, no restitution. It isn't right! Forgiveness is an offense to our universal instinct for fair play.

Well, what is the alternative to forgiving? Vengeance is one option. If someone hurts you, the most natural thing in the world is to want to get even. Give back as much pain as they gave you. That would be fair.

Perhaps you know the story of Herman Engel, a German general in World War II. After the war, Engel was sentenced by the Nuremberg Court to thirty years in prison for atrocities committed by his army. He completed the sentence and was released. His story is dramatized in a play called The Black Angel. At the time of the play Engel is building a cabin in the woods where he and his wife intend to live out the years left to them ~ incognito, and in peace. But a man named Morrieaux, a journalist, is waiting for them.

Morrieaux's family had been massacred by Engel's army during the war. When the Nuremberg Court had refused to sentence Engel to death, Morrieaux had been outraged, and privately condemned him to death. He had kept the fires of hatred burning in his heart over thirty years. Now that Engel was released, Morrieaux had stirred up the fanatics in the village. That very night, they were going to come up the hill, burn down the cabin, and kill Engel and his wife.

Morrieaux, however, wanted to get to Engel before the others did. He wanted to fill in some gaps in his knowledge of the village massacre. So he went up the hill, introduced himself to Engel, and talked to him all afternoon. The conversation confused him. Engel seemed more like a tired old man than the monster he had imagined. Morrieaux began to be plagued by doubt. Toward the end of the afternoon, he blurted to Engel that villagers were going to come kill him that very night. He even offered to lead Engel out of the woods and save his life. But Engel looked down at the ground, and said, "I'll go with you, on one condition." "What?" said Morrieaux. Engel said, "That you forgive me."

Morrieaux had executed Engel a thousand times in his fantasies. Face to face with Engel the human being, he was unsettled. But forgive him? That was more than he could do. That night, the villagers came with sacks over their heads, burned the cabin, and shot Engel and his wife.

Now we have to ask: What did their vengeance accomplish? Two more people dead, one of them innocent. Was anyone brought back to life by Morrieaux's refusal to forgive? How was the cause of justice served?

The problem with vengeance is that it never really evens the score. Think, for a moment, of someone who has violated you, or cheated you, and imagine that person now being hurt in the same way. Does that actually compensate you for the injuries you have suffered? Does it make up for the life you have missed, the pain you have endured?

What's more, the lust for revenge often sets off a chain of escalating retaliations. Consider the history of Bosnia or Israel. People on both sides in those endless conflicts are certain that they are serving the cause of justice, even as they self-destruct. Ghandi was right: "If we all live by an eye for an eye, soon the whole world will be blind."

Let's say that we don't go so far as to seek revenge, but still refuse to forgive the people who have harmed us. What then? Well, you know what happens. Unforgiveness is like a poison eating away inside a person. It saps your energy and steals your joy. Think of Morrieaux, plagued by nightmares for thirty years ~ and probably even after the Engels were dead. What did the refusal to forgive do to his chances for happiness? We need to ask: was that fair?

The thought dawns: what if forgiveness isn't primarily for the sake of the person who commits an injury? Granted, forgiveness might release that person to die in peace, or to begin life again, and do things differently than they did before. But they may also be unavailable, or unrepentant. So set aside the well-being of the injurer, for the moment. What about the one who has been injured?

Think for a moment of a time when you have been betrayed. Doesn't the memory revive the old pain, make it hurt again? Suppose you never forgive, you feel the pain each time your memory lights on the person who did you wrong. In that case you are being controlled by the pain of your past. It is impairing your ability to love and trust and be at peace in the present. Who is being hurt now, by your lack of forgiveness? What could be more unfair to you than the wretched justice of not forgiving?

Forgiveness is something we must do, not for the sake of those who have hurt us, but for the sake of our own healing.

One more story from the holocaust. It comes from Corrie Ten Boom, who was liberated from a concentration camp a few days after the Allies conquered Germany. Corrie took up the arduous process of forgiveness, and eventually felt that she had discovered the only power that could heal the people of Europe. So she went around preaching about forgiveness, in Holland, France and in Germany too. One Sunday she preached in Munich, to a crowd of people who were eager to be forgiven.

After the service was over, a man walked up to Corrie 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." Corrie recognized the man. He was one of the guards who had looked on, contemptuous and leering, when the women in her camp were forced to take showers. Corrie remembered. And as the man reached out his hand, expecting her to take it, her own hand froze at her side.

Corrie was stunned by her own response. What could she do, she who had thought that she had overcome the hurt and hate inside her, she who had preached forgiveness to others. What could she do now that she was confronted by a person she could not forgive?

She prayed: "Jesus, I can't forgive this man. Forgive me." At once, in a wonderful way that she was not prepared for, she felt forgiven. Forgiven for not forgiving. At that moment, her hand went up, took the hand of her enemy, and released him. In her heart she freed him from his terrible past. And she freed herself from hers.

Why does Jesus command us to forgive the people who hurt us, seventy times seven? Because forgiveness is something even better than fairness. It is the way we are set free. Amen.

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