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Giving people room to breathe

02 November 2006

At Remembrance, the Church should not be dogmatic about forgiveness
Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, who died in September, found it hard to forgive. His essay "The Sunflower" describes his experiences in a concentration camp during the Second World War.

There was a cemetery near the makeshift hospital where he had to tend wounded German soldiers, and he noticed how a sunflower had been carefully placed on all the graves of those who had fallen in combat. It made him feel bitter, he says, when he thought of the thousands, if not millions, of Jewish graves left unmarked and untended all over Europe.

One day, Wiesenthal was taken to the bedside of a dying 21-year-old SS man, Karl. Karl wanted to confess to a Jew that he had once gunned down a Jewish family fleeing from a building set alight by the Nazis. He had been so shocked by the look of horror on their faces that he had never killed any Jewish people since. His final wish was that Wiesenthal would say that he was forgiven for the atrocity he had committed.

As he listened to the dying man, Wiesenthal relates that he was attracted by the authenticity of the confession, but that his mind kept going back to the sunflowers, which for him signified the huge gulf between Nazi and Jew. So he said nothing in response to Karl's plea for forgiveness, and left the room. The essay ends with a challenge: "You who have just read this can mentally change places with me and ask yourself, 'What would I have done?'"

It would be tragic if we responded to that question with an immediate urge to climb into our pulpits and proclaim forgiveness. Yes, we do have the example of Jesus's praying on the cross for the pardon of his murderers; and the tradition of imitatio Christi has inspired many heroic acts. And, yes, we do have the resurrection of Jesus, which holds out the hope that God's love will ultimately triumph over all that is destructive in creation, and thereby establish universal reconciliation.

Yet human experience often remains untouched by either the excellence of Jesus or the eschatology of the New Testament. To offer release from painful memories on those grounds is often to put a wedge between preacher and people. On the voyage of anguish that forgiveness usually entails, they will be left adrift, and we will have missed our chance.

Wiesenthal's refusal to forgive represents a refusal to trivialise. This is like the elderly gentleman who stood up at the end of a talk on Remembrance Sunday that I gave in a Rotary Club: with tears streaming down his face, he said that he could never forgive the Japanese for torturing and murdering his brother. It was a matter of loyalty and integrity: what was done could never be smoothed over. As long as he lived, the flame of indignation would burn in his heart to mark the injustice done to his own flesh and blood.

Whether it was far back or much more recently, and whether the loss resulted from a conventional war or a terrorist bombing, there are many others who would stand with him. To them, our call for closure through forgiveness does not make sense, and some alternative needs to be found.

A starting-point could be to realise that irresolution is not alien to our tradition, especially if we give a rightful place to the Hebrew scriptures. Walter Brueggemann's Old Testament theology is at pains to point out that there is no conclusion to the conversation that Israel holds with God. There are moments in it where we might think that a resting-place has been reached, then another set of questions intrudes, casting doubt on what has been asserted, and pushing the dialogue into a further period of uncertainty. And so it will always be in life before death, where God is encountered in the fray.

The same can be said of the New Testament kerygma - even when it is dealing with the risen Christ. There are still wounds, reminders of past trials and tribulations. Take those wounds away, and an element of unreality appears - as witnessed by the controversy that raged over the installation of Jacob Epstein's statue in Llandaff Cathedral. His figure of the risen Christ has unmarked hands, feet, and side, so that what preceded death has been removed.

This airbrushing of the Easter Jesus does not work: the closure of resurrection has been made too complete. Albert Camus was right: "You are men of resurrection . . . but always make sure you have the scars - scars that can reopen. They will keep you in touch with where people are."

The temptation for a dwindling Church is to emphasise the distinctiveness of its message by becoming increasingly dogmatic. In so doing, however, it runs the risk of excluding those people such as Wiesenthal who are asking important but not easily answered questions. Such people are often present on Remembrance Sunday. If their hesitations and half-belief are ignored or dismissed, they are unlikely to return.

If, instead, we can provide them with "room to breathe" - which is what one Old Testament word for salvation means - we will have done more to extend God's Kingdom than through any hard-line insistence that forgiveness is the only appropriate response to the hurts of the past.

The Revd Paul W. Thomas is Priest-in-Charge of Doxey, Stafford, and area adviser local mission and ministry in the diocese of Lichfield.

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