Forgive Again
September 14, 2008
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Almost two years ago a man with a gun entered the West Nickel Mines School, took hostages, eventually killing five girls and himself. The one-room school house was part of the Amish community in Lancaster county Pennsylvania. The community’s response was to emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation, in particular the Amish families reached out to the family of the gunman. Indeed the response of the Amish Community has become a model of forgiveness for our times.

Gun violence in schools has become unfortunately common: Columbine in ’99, Red Lake Minnesota in ’05, Virginia Tech in ’07 – just to name a few of the bigger ones. The Virginia Tech massacre is particularly striking in the near refusal to approach issues of forgiveness and reconciliation. For example, soon after the shooting, a makeshift memorial was erected with 32 stones for the 32 victims. Someone smuggled in a 33rd stone for the shooter who killed himself in the end, but that stone did not last. The final official memorial on Virginia Tech’s campus has only the 32 stones to mark the 33 souls who died there that day.

The responses in Amish school and Virginia Tech are almost the two extremes in terms of forgiveness. Of course, the difference is that Virginia Tech and other schools on the list are purely secular schools while the West Nickel Mines School is a private religious school. The one example from the long list of school shootings that featured forgiveness was a religious school. And this shooting at the Amish school also appears on the newly-growing list of churches and other faith communities that experience gun violence. One recent CNN report claimed that there have been four significant church shootings in the past 15 months. However, the public does not track church shootings carefully the way we track school shootings. So it is difficult to draw objective conclusions about any trends. One can at least say that generally the topic of forgiveness comes up more quickly and more often in the wake of a church shooting compared to a school shooting.

At the end of July, a man entered the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and opened fire with a shotgun. He killed two people and injured several others. He was tackled by congregants when he stopped to reload. The story of the Tennessee Valley shooting is about the heroism of regular people: the member who blocked the gunman’s path at the cost of his own life, the members who subdued the gunman, the Religious Educator who shepherded the children out of the building, the Presbyterian congregation across the street who stopped their regular worship to take in and harbor the frightened children. Heroism is the hallmark of the response to the shooting in our UU church community nearly two months ago; while forgiveness is the feature of the response to the shooting among the Amish nearly two years ago.

Yet the question of forgiveness did appear fairly quickly in the public conversation about the Tennessee Valley shooting: Should the Unitarian Universalists forgive the gunman? There are some voices that say yes, others say wait and see. When would be the time to forgive, after sentencing? There are some voices that say the Unitarian Universalists should forgive him now, why wait, it is the path to healing; others say it is too early to speak of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is complicated and often misunderstood work. I mean, generally it is agreed that forgiving is a good thing to do; it is healthy part of living. The religions around the world say that offering forgiveness is a holy activity, something you do if you are pious, or faithful, or enlightened. Withholding forgiveness is seen as, dare I say, ‘un-religious’! And, yet that is exactly what Simon Wiesenthal did. And then he wrote a book about it.

The Sunflower is Holocaust-survivor Simon Wiesenthal’s account of his experience in the Lemberg concentration camp and it evokes issues of forgiveness. The title comes from Wiesenthal’s observation of a German military cemetery, seeing a sunflower on each grave, and fearing his own placement in an un-marked, mass grave. The genius of the book is how Wiesenthal constructs his experience into a question, “Would you forgive the dying SS soldier?”; and then crafts the book’s second half as a Symposium of answers from various people, including Holocaust survivors and former Nazis, theologians, political figures, and poets.

In brief, this is Wiesenthal’s story:
At the Lemberg Concentration Camp in 1943, Wiesenthal is summoned to the bed-side of the dying Nazi soldier Karl Seidl. The soldier tells him he is seeking “a Jew’s” (Wiesenthal’s) forgiveness for a crime that has haunted him (Seidl) his entire life. The man confesses to him having destroyed, by fire and armaments, a house full of 150 Jews. He also states that as the Jews tried to leap out of windows to escape the burning building, he gunned them down. Wiesenthal was so troubled he simply walked out of the hospital room silently. Later, he re-counted the tale to other prisoners in the camp and asked them if he was justified in his silence, getting varied responses.

And in the Symposium section of The Sunflower, there is also a range of responses. Theodore M. Hesburgh, a Catholic priest and academic who has served under four popes writes this response to Wiesenthal: “Who am I to advise a person of another religion who has suffered incredibly more than I have? I would not ordinarily presume to do so, but I was requested to do so, so I do. My whole instinct is to forgive. … If asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive.”(p.169) Meanwhile, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as I shared during the reading this morning, writes, “No one can forgive crimes committed against other people.”(p.171) One respondent, Eva Fleischner, a professor who had previously used an earlier version of The Sunflower in her college classes, found that almost without exception, her Christian students “come out in favor of forgiveness, while the Jewish students feel that Simon did the right thing by not granting the dying man’s wish.” (p.139)

Differing traditions cast different rules about the work. Offering forgiveness is complicated. Seeking forgiveness, by comparison, is much simpler. To be forgiven involves very clear work, external steps to go through up until the last one. To be forgiven of an offence you have made, you confess, atone, and repent; you admit you’ve done wrong, you make up for it through redress and apology, and then you change your behavior so as to not commit the offence again. Then, after repentance, the other whom you offended may offer forgiveness. Other than that last step, you do your work and it is visible to others that this work has happened.

To forgive is wholly another matter, the work is primarily internal, complex and nuanced depending on variables. It is not clear and external. To forgive another person involves one external step: to offer forgiveness. It entails a great amount of internal work leading up to that offer. “How to be forgiven” is much easier to explain than “how to forgive.”

In his book, Wounds Not Healed by Time: the power of repentance and forgiveness, Solomon Schimmel, writes
It is easier to preach glibly the virtues and pragmatic value of forgiveness and reconciliation than it is truly to understand why, when, whom, and how to forgive.  Forgiveness is a complex phenomenon.  It is affected, among there factors, by the nature and extent of the injury we have suffered, our relationship with the person who has hurt us, our sense of self, and whether or not the person whom we contemplate forgiving has expressed remorse for his [or her] deed or sought to repair the emotional, physical, or material damage wrought upon us.  Mature forgiveness entails difficult emotional and intellectual work.  (p42)

And to add a layer on top of all this, how do you approach the community level of forgiveness? Hard enough when we are talking about an injury or abuse committed by one person upon one other person; how do we offer forgiveness for World War II and the holocaust? How do we offer forgiveness for 9/11? For Virginia Tech and Columbine? For the shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church? I suppose first you need to be a member of that community, right? A Christian can’t forgive the Holocaust anymore than I can forgive someone I’ve never met for shooting and killing a person I only read about in the newspaper.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes, “No one can forgive crimes committed against other people” (p. 171). In the telling of his own story, Wiesenthal shares how his friend Josek tells him that no one can offer forgiveness on behalf of another victim. Schimmel writes, “Forgiveness is a social action that happens between people.  It is a step toward returning the relationship between them to the condition it had before the transgression.” (Solomon Schimmel, Wounds Not Healed by Time)

Yet Simon Wiesenthal is not so sure. At one point in his story he questions this, asking, “Aren’t we a single community with the same destiny, and one must answer for the other?”(p. 65) How does the community respond? If the German government apologizes for the Nazi Regime and the holocaust, if the US government apologizes for slavery and for colonization of the native lands, if an Arab Muslim government apologizes for the 9/11 … Or if just some members of the German government or the US government or an Arab Muslim government were to apologize for transgressions. Who is authorized to make such apologies? Too what end, what is accomplished? How many times will an offending community need to acknowledge the offence with apology? We begin to sink into the quagmire of collective guilt: these Germans and Americans and Muslims are not the actual individuals who caused any injury. So, is it even fair for any such apologies to be offered? And yet, as Wiesenthal asks, are we not a single community with a shared destiny? Are we not tied to each other by our bond of identity? The apology is an attempt to repair the brokenness. The request for forgiveness is a reaching to rebuild the relationship.

But this takes us out onto thin ice. Who will receive such apologies? Who is authorized to extend forgiveness on behalf of Virginia Tech? The president of the college, the dean, parents of the victims, their friends? This was a pivotal question behind the basic question in Simon Wiesenthal’s book. The basic question: would you have forgiven the SS soldier? Behind that question we wade into the question of collective forgiveness: Forgive him of what – the whole holocaust, his small role in killing 150 Jews, or any personal offences he actually committed to you (sitting in Mr. Wiesenthal’s place) of which there were none. What are you authorized to forgive? According to Rabbi Heschel and the bulk of Jewish responders in Wiesenthal’s book, “No one can forgive crimes committed against other people.” According to the bulk of the Christian responders as well as the Buddhists who responded, forgiveness was seen as both possible and desirable.

Is there a Unitarian Universalist answer? If the man who killed two and wounded several others were to express remorse and ask forgiveness of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, should forgiveness be given? What is the Unitarian Universalist answer to this? I suspect if I poled the room this morning I would be able to fill my own symposium book. I suspect, however, that in general we are more like the Jews on this point than like the Christians. I would not presume to tell you what the Tennessee Valley community should do. They need to sort that out themselves. There certainly are guiding principles and examples from our tradition, but ultimately the move to forgive or withhold forgiveness is in the hands of that community.

And as I am talking I see that I am assuming that the community would wait to see if the shooter even goes through the work of atonement and repentance to seek forgiveness. There is, I will hold out, a certain value in offering forgiveness to an unrepentant soul. The value is not in restoring the relationship; rather it is in releasing the unreasonable hold the event may still have on the community, to release pent up anger and hate over the incident. As Ann Landers often said, “hate is like an acid. It destroys the vessel in which it is stored.”

The Aramaic word for ‘forgive’ is literally: to untie, disentangle, to let loose. Forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the knot that held you to the person or event.  As a Universalist I do hold the belief that all souls are redeemable, that forgiveness is always a possibility. Yet I also recognize that forgiveness is tucked within both love and justice. Communal forgiveness is complicated work, but possible. I imagine we would strive to forgive if the circumstances provided.

When the major news story had moved from the Amish school shooting to the Amish forgiveness, reporters tried to share how the community had the move into forgiveness so quickly. One Amish woman laughed and said, in effect, ‘it almost seems like you are asking if we had a meeting and decided together to offer forgiveness, but that is not what happened. This is just who we are and how we live.’

Well, I respect the Amish and see their wisdom. But my people are a people who would call a meeting and decide together what path to follow. My people are a people who would try to get every one in the room, every voice at the table; and together build the bridges we need and uncover the path we must follow: the path tucked somewhere between love and justice.

In a world without end
May it be so.