#161 – Janice Andersen: The Role of Forgiveness

Janice, Director of Christian Life at my Church, Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, is one of those many heroes and sheroes who inspire me when hope is gone. Her title belies her many roles in Peace and Justice at Basilica. She wrote the following column for our Church bulletin some months ago. I share it with her permission.
I read the book, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. This is a provocative book that shares the story of holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal. As a prisoner in a concentration camp, Mr. Wiesenthal is randomly chosen to hear the confession of a dying German SS soldier.
This soldier confessed to unspeakable atrocities, having killed defenseless Jewish men, women, and children. As the soldier lay dying in a hospital bed, he was looking for freedom from his guilt and forgiveness from a Jew so he confessed to Wiesenthal. As Wiesentahl shares his experience and response, he asks the reader what they would do in his place.
The book then presents a symposium of responses from theologians, holocaust survivors, and Nazi officials. Over and over one is asked: “What would you do in his place?”
What would I do? It is impossible to place myself in Wiesenthal’s position and pretend to know what I would do. However, I can get a glimpse into my experience of forgiveness when I consider the many ways in which I have been hurt, wronged, or oppressed in my life. How do I respond to them? Do I hold tightly to resentment? Do I seek to punish? Do I require atonement? How do I respond to the need for forgiveness in my life?
One of the responders in this book, Dennis Prager, suggests that there are specific differences between Jewish and Christian understanding of forgiveness – and a difference in their response to evil. The Jewish view of forgiveness requires a person who hurt another to ask forgiveness from his victim, and only the victim can forgive. Even God’s forgiveness is dependent on that person being forgiven by the victim. In this case, murder is an unforgivable sin. Prager contrasts this view with the Christian experience that is rooted in the belief that all people, even an “evil person,” are loved by God and thus are open to receive forgiveness. Distinctions are made between forgiving and forgetting: between forgiving – on an inner level, and reconciliation – on a public level. There is a call for repentance and a change of heart to prevent an experience of “cheap grace” or perpetual victimhood. Martin Marty speaks of the freedom found in forgiveness, transcending the injustice and experiencing creativity in one’s life. Mattieu Ricard suggests that forgiveness can provide an opportunity for inner transformation of both the victim and the perpetrator – changing the evil into good.
Today our society is full of division, inequity, oppression, injustice, and fear. The Sunflower opens up dialogue on an important dimension of our lives together. Personally and collectively, as communities and nations, we are being asked to consider how we respond to evil and to understand the role that forgiveness plays in our relationships. Let us consider how we reconcile with one another and how we can forgive in the face of continual hurt.