Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Sunflower Question

In preparing for an upcoming sermon series on the “I am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John (coming to a church sanctuary near you this August!), I’ve been doing a lot of extra reading, including a classic of mine from when I studied the Holocaust from the lens of comparative history during my undergrad days that tackles difficult questions of human forgiveness and divine grace.

The late Simon Wiesenthal, a concentration camp survivor and Nazi hunter, wrote a very powerful, incredibly moving account of a young Nazi soldier who lay dying in an infirmary who confessed, in detail, to him the nature of his crimes against Jewish people.  He called that account The Sunflower.

This is from the book’s cover: “While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was taken one day from his work detail to the bedside of a dying member of the SS.  Haunted by the crimes in which he had participated, the soldier wanted to confess to—and obtain absolution from—a Jew.  Faced with the choice between compassion and justice, silence and truth, Wiesenthal said nothing.  But even years after the war had ended, he wondered: Had he done the right thing?  What would you have done in his place?”

As a part of The Sunflower, 53 different people—clergy, theologians, leaders, writers, jurists, activists, and more answer that very question.  I do not pretend to be in the same league as any of them.  But this is my own voice:

The notion of forgiveness in such an extremity as this is intensely personal to me because I am a member of the genocide-induced diaspora of Armenians.  It is also intensely pastoral to me because I serve a God whose grace, mercy, and capacity for forgiveness is beyond yours or my understanding.

In my work, I have people tell me about terrible things that they have done—nothing on the same level as the soldier in Mr. Wiesenthal’s story, but powerful nonetheless.  I listen, I try to help the person process their own thoughts, but I can offer neither forgiveness nor absolution.

I cannot offer absolution because to say that Jesus paid the debt is, I feel like, a bit of a cop-out.  It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card.  Salvation—what I call right relationship with God—is not a one-shot thing, it is something that you choose each and every day.

By participating in crimes against humanity, a person risks forfeiting their own salvation because they have, by their actions, chosen to reject right relationship with God (this does not mean they forfeit their own life--I'm about as anti-capital punishment as one can be).

Such a rejection need not be permanent for anyone, for God is a God of second chances.  And my own theology dictates that the rejection must come from the person, not from God.  But it is not a rejection that can be undone by the words of a pastor like me.  I am a man, a weak man at that, and am incapable of directly mending someone’s relationship with God.

Put differently, by myself, I cannot undo the rejection of God that is inherent in us doing evil to one another.

I can only hope to empower someone to realize that their rejection of right relationship with God is always reversible, and at that point, the choice to forgive and absolve is God’s, not mine.

In that situation, I could not, and would not, absolve the SS soldier.  To offer absolution would be an act of arrogance on my part, an attempt to play God when I am capable of offering only my humanness to this dying man.

I would like to think, though, that I would at least try to offer my humanness and tell him that while I can offer him my Christian, pastoral presence, I cannot offer him cheap grace…but that I also have more faith in God than I do in myself.  

I would like to think that I would tell this man that I do not hate him, and that I will pray for him, but that I cannot absolve him on the behalf of either God or his victims.

I would like to think all of these things, but it is easy to say such things when sitting behind a desk in a comfortable chair.  This sort of grace is messy, and tough, and incredible to imagine.

What would you say if you were in such a dramatic situation?  What does divine forgiveness look like to you?

Yours in Christ,

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