In 1943, Simon Weisenthal was taken from Lemberg Concentration Camp where he was a prisoner into town to work in the town’s army hospital. While he was working at the hospital, a mortally wounded SS soldier called the young Jewish man to his side. The soldier began confessing the horrific crimes he had committed against Jews, including the burning to death of more than 150 Jews locked inside a house. At the end of his story, the SS soldier turned to Weisenthal and begged forgiveness. Without saying a word, Weisenthal stood up and walked out.
Weisenthal retells this story in much greater detail in the first half of his book, The Sunflower. In the second half of the book, he turns his attention to the reader asking, “Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?” Weisenthal asks the question open-mindedly. He tells of having genuinely struggled with his choice for many years. In pursuit of an answer he asks fifty-three “experts” to respond to his question. These experts include theologians, politicians, writers, holocaust survivors and survivors of other more recent genocides. As expected, there is no real consensus as to whether or not Weisenthal’s actions were morally right or wrong.
The book is a challenging read. Not just because of the atrocities it reports but because of the questions it poses. Who is qualified to offer forgiveness? What does it mean to forgive someone? Are some evils unforgiveable? Obviously, these are not easy questions to answer. Even if we come to an answer, or what we think is the right answer, those answers are even more difficult to live out. What does it mean, on this day, to forgive those who etched September 11th forever in our consciousness by the evilness of their actions?
We hear Christ teaching us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who’ve sinned against us,” or Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians, “Forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” We realize that such commands to forgive are on par with “Be perfect as God in heaven is perfect.” Forgiveness seems an impossibility. We, like Weisenthal, think we’ll just get up and leave (or better yet, hit back). But the gospel of Jesus Christ keeps unsettling us and calling us back to do that which we cannot do, reminding us that while many, many things are impossible for human beings, nothing is impossible for God. So we keep working at forgiveness, not because we can achieve it, but because God is achieving it in us. And we keep trusting, that while the wounds of our lives are bigger than anything we can mend ourselves, they are not so large that his wounds cannot heal.
Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" – Luke 23:34.