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Newsletter for September 2003

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Simon Wiesenthal

Is there ever a moral strength or grandeur in not forgiving?

When we want to convey disapproval, we may believe it is correct to withhold forgiveness.  Does this belief have moral or spiritual value?


  • "I cannot forgive you for this" - a personal story about meeting deliberate moral unforgiveness
  • Often we are not yet ready to forgive - the difference between choosing not to forgive, and being presently unable to forgive / Desmond Tutu
  • Many levels to unforgiving - Simon Wiesenthal's honest moral questioning in The Sunflower, and various responses
  • Conclusion: the unhealthy claim to superiority - authority becomes corrupted when it contains a sense of superiority rather than empathy, force rather than assistance


1  "I cannot forgive you for this"

I first came across a case of a person who believes himself or herself to be taking a morally superior position by withholding forgiveness many years ago, when I was a new student chaplain.

The university had an ecumenical chaplaincy, with six Christian denominational chaplains, one Jewish and one Muslim.   Being much younger than the others, and more than a little naive and overenthusiastic, when I was asked by a large group of Asian students to assist them in mounting a week's outreach mission I leapt at the opportunity.  It never occurred to me that the other chaplains would have wished me to carefully process the event through a chaplain's meeting first - and there would not have been time.   When the very colourful and - for the students - successful week of outreach was over, most of the other chaplains were either indifferent or appreciative of my participation, but one said to me very publicly, "I cannot forgive you for this, and I never will."

I realised that for him, not forgiving was an imposition of moral force: both enforcing the rules of proper procedure, and a way of forcing a wrongdoer to see the error of his ways by belittling him in front of others.  This is something many of us often seem to do as parents of teenagers when we are at our wits' end, trying and failing to respond to their careless freedoms.  "I cannot forgive you" is felt by the speaker to be an assertion of one's authority, since forgiving is always an act of authority; even though in most cases "I cannot forgive you" is merely a claim to superiority rather than creative authority, as we will see.

For this unforgiving chaplain, I'm sure there were other factors, too, such as disapproving of everything I valued!  Sadly I did not know how to reach across the divide that had opened between us.  But the main lesson for me was in this area of claiming a moral strength and superiority: pushing another person down by not forgiving, and therefore claiming the moral high ground above the 'wrongdoer.'  (I put 'wrongdoer' in quotes here because, while I clearly did wrong by ignoring protocol, at the same time I did right by the students.  Most of our actions are similarly complex and multi-valanced, not truthfully to be labelled as either black or white.)

2  Often we are not yet ready to forgive

Let me stress that we are considering cases where not forgiving is a decision and a position, rather than the inability to forgive.  Not forgiving, withholding forgiveness, is in many cases not really a position.  After a hurt, we are not immediately ready to forgive, because we are not able to.  Juan Carlos Ortiz gave an example of this:

A woman once came to the elders in our church to do something about her husband, who I believe truly was a rascal.  "Dear brothers, I don't want you to misunderstand me.  I want to divorce him, but I forgive him.  The only thing I ask is that he never see me or the children again.  I don't want him ever to set foot in our house."
    I could not agree with her version of forgiveness.  She wanted him to pay for his sins by isolating him from his family ...  I said, "If this is what you demand when you forgive him, what would you demand if you did not forgive him?" 
    When I challenged this woman, she began to weep.  "Don't cry," I said.  "I think I understand.  And God understands.  But be honest - tell God you can't really forgive your husband now.  God will understand."  Forgiveness is not easy, so let's not pretend that it is.  (God is closer than you think pp 63-64)

This illustrates the need we all have to gain or regain some kind of moral superiority when we have been hurt or betrayed.  Being honest about our hurt will bring healing only when we also admit that we are not able to forgive, yet - it is our inability, not our rectitude, that we are admitting.  Ortiz had the authority to release the woman from quick solutions which prevent healing.

And some people do not get to the point of forgiving.   Desmond Tutu has provided many examples of both being able to forgive and not yet being able, in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, in No Future without Forgiveness.  At the centre of his many overwhelming examples is the account of Horst Schobesberger, a white Ciskean soldier who was among those who ordered the Bisho shootings.  The colonel said it was true they had ordered the shooting, transforming the hostile mood of the hearing by taking full responsibility, yet asking for forgiveness and the reintegration into the community of the soldiers involved:

We are sorry.  The burden of the Bisho Massacre will be on our shoulders for the rest of our lives.  We cannot wish it away.  But please, I ask specifically for the victims not to forget but to forgive us ... this I can say, I'm sorry.

Tutu describes how the crowd, so close to lynching them, broke into thunderous applause.  Tutu then added, "It isn't easy as we all know to ask for forgiveness and it's also not easy to forgive, but we are people who know that when someone cannot be forgiven there is no future.  (p 117)

3  Many levels to 'not forgiving'

As Tutu says, forgiveness is not easy, facile or cheap.  Neither is forgiveness one thing - a single-level event, relationship or gift, though we usually assume it is.  Forgiveness is a long, difficult, rewarding and life-giving process, in which forgiving has many levels, developing from inner healing to social transformation.  (See The dimensions of forgiveness.)  What we can add here is that therefore 'not forgiving' has many levels of meaning also; and we may be withholding forgiveness at one level while nonetheless giving it at another. 

Simon Wiesenthal has passionately and tirelessly brought over 1,000 Nazi war criminals to justice through the Jewish Historical Documentation Center, which he founded in 1946.  The requirement of justice means holding wrongdoers to be responsible for their actions; the further question is whether we help or force them to take that responsibility on board. 

Wiesenthal's personal narrative The Sunflower places a fundamental moral question before us, in the form of his own life as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, as he tells how Karl, a dying SS man, sent for the young prisoner Wiesenthal to hear his confession: to be somebody Jewish to tell his life's story to, acknowledge his crime in being ordered to burn down a house crammed with two hundred Jewish people, men women and children, and ask his forgiveness.   Simon could not give it, remaining silent; yet he stayed with him, listened to every word, intently, holding Karl's hand throughout, sometimes feeling sorrow for him; and subsequently felt great consternation and uncertainty about his own silence.

If forgiveness is a single-level thing - say a word of absolution or a reconciled, free relationship - then would have to say there was no forgiveness.  But the essay asks us profound questions about individual and corporate responsibility and guilt, and therefore also individual and corporate forgiveness.  Could one prisoner ever speak on behalf of the Jewish people?  As his friend Josek says to Simon after hearing from him about the long deathbed conversation:

"You would have had no right to forgive him in the name of people who have not authorized you to do so.  What people have done to you yourself, you can, if you like, forgive."
    "But aren't we a single community with the same destiny, and one must answer for the other." I interrupted ... "And he showed his repentance of his own accord.  He did not want to be a murderer.  It was the Nazis who made him kill defenceless people."  (pp 65-6)

Wiesenthal could not speak words of forgiveness; yet personally he responded with compassion, even later going to visit Karl's mother.   Talking with her, he could not bear to tell her of her son's confession; again he remained silent:  "This broken woman, so deeply immersed in grief, was no recipient for my reproaches.  I was sorry for her."  (p 93)

The phrase "strength and grandeur" comes from a short essay by Richard Holloway, On Forgiveness, in which he says, "Sometimes there is strength and grandeur in the refusal to forgive ... (it) can be the righteous thing to do, the thing that justice commands." (p 55)  He illustrates this by referring to Wiesenthal, and although Holloway's heart is in the right place he seems to me to misrepresent all of Wiesenthal's moral complexity here.   The Sunflower is published in a form which included over fifty responses by world-renowned leaders and teachers to the moral questions it raises, as varied as Desmond Tutu, Herbert Marcuse, Primo Levi, The Dalai Lama, Harold Kushner, Alan Berger, Abraham Heschel, and Albert Speer.  These voices are presented in dialogue: Wiesenthal does not seek grandeur, or claim superiority; instead he is constantly questioning and seeking, and listening to other people's responses.

Wiesenthal's essay, combined with its collected responses, shows us that 'not forgiving' has many levels, and that, for example, one may forgive personally while not forgiving politically, or show compassion without agreeing to friendship.  Once we recognise this, it becomes easier to show more levels of forgiveness, without losing our balance.

4 The unhealthy claim to superiority

Claiming authority can be healthy or unhealthy, morally and spiritually, for the protagonist and for those he or she relates to:

  • In the healthier cases authority becomes the insight, energy and desire to create goodness for other people - the authority to set others, even wrongdoers, on a better path, often by helping them take responsibility for their actions, raising them to their own positions of authority. 

  • In the unhealthier cases, authority is worn as a mask of superiority, which desires to keep the wrongdoer in a lower position.  In that timeless sentence from Jesus' Parable of the Tax-gatherer and the Pharisee, "Thank God I am not like other men ... and thank God I am not like him!" 

Among the many moving replies to Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, perhaps Albert Speer's is the most moving.  A high-ranking Nazi, he acknowledged responsibility for war crimes, and confessed.  He relates how he first met Wiesenthal, after his release: 

You showed compassion by not telling the mother of her son's crimes ... You showed clemency, humanity and goodness when we sat facing one another.  You did not touch my wounds.  You carefully tried to help ... It is God's grace that has touched me through you."  (p 245-6)

Men and women with creative authority do not occupy a moral high ground.  They see those who claim to as themselves needing forgiveness, clear and perhaps painful help to see they are hiding what is a stage of disability from themselves, and to encourage them to look forward to a time when they become more able to show forgiveness.  If we lack that authority at most levels (we have it at some, perhaps with our family members), we can try to step down from any sense of inner superiority we may have adopted, acknowledge our own inabilities, and show compassion at the limited levels available to us.  And gratefully accept compassionate assistance from those who offer it ... though they may be rare beings!

Andrew Knock

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