Monday, April 19, 2010
We're reading Elie Wiesel's Night in my pre- freshman comp class now, and one issue that inevitably arises is that of forgiveness. Elie Wiesel has fought tirelessly for the rights of the disenfranchised, on behalf of Jews, of blacks who were victims of apartheid in South Africa, on behalf of the "disappeared" in Argentina, on behalf of Bosnian victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and the list goes on. For his work, which he continues to do, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
Yet, I've never heard that Wiesel forgives the Nazis. (The very idea seems offensive!) I've seen video of his speeches and it seems to me he doesn't. He gets angry, rightfully so. And sad. But I expect he also feels it's not his place to forgive the Nazis for the Holocaust. He can, perhaps, forgive what was done to him, but he probably doesn't feel it's his place to forgive on behalf of those who were murdered, on behalf of those who can't speak for themselves.
There's another Holocaust survivor--one of Mengele's twins--named Eva Mozes Kor who runs a little Holocaust Museum, Candles, in Terre Haute, Indiana. She has forgiven the Nazis on behalf of the Jews. Many Jews are outraged at her, because they say to forgive someone requires an apology from them. Most of the Nazi war criminals are long dead, so an apology will never be forthcoming. Nevertheless, Kor speaks eloquently about how forgiving the Nazis has healed her. She took her act of forgiveness very seriously, meeting up with a former Nazi doctor who also worked in Auschwitz (he knew Josef Mengele, and knew he was conducting experiments, but he did not know the nature of those experiments). On the spot, at the scene of the crime at Auschwitz, with this doctor standing beside her, Kor publicly forgave him and the Nazis for what they had done. It was a powerful moment.
Hatred is a poison; bearing resentment and bitterness poisons the soul. In AA meetings, you'll hear the old timers say that resentment is like wishing harm on someone else by swallowing the poison yourself. I think when Jesus spoke of forgiving our enemies and those that harm us, he wasn't talking about cowering or accepting oppression or ignoring the harms committed by another; nor was he saying you had to have an apology to forgive. Rather, I think he was talking about a genuine effort to understand your enemy and their actions, to not judge them, but to be at peace with them and not internalize their injury of you. Evil feeds on fear, anger, and hatred. You do yourself harm when you can't forgive. It simply makes the injury worse. We've all seen bitter people. They are consumed by their pain.
So forgive. Open your heart. Make the effort, however imperfect it may be. It doesn't mean you have to forget or pretend it never happened. Sometimes the willingness to forgive is all you need. One day you may find the pain has simply vanished.