Scripture throws light on this international incident.
When President Reagan laid a wreath on the graves at Bitburg, he unwittingly taught the whole world some fundamental lessons in theology and ethics. The President’s motive was clear: he wished to make a powerful affirmation of good will toward the German people, and to toughen the bonds of mutual respect and cooperation already existing between the nations.
But human acts are subject to different interpretations. What to some was a simple act of national good will quickly became an international incident reviving the hates and fears of Hitler’s world.
Scripture commands us to forgive—even our enemies. Scripture also commands us to seek justice for all. Now, to seek justice is never easy. But to forgive is even harder. And the greater the evil and the more immediate its impact upon me personally, the harder it is for me to seek true justice or to forgive. When we are called upon both to seek justice and to forgive wrongs that have been done against us, we transcend the bounds of our normal human capacities.
Who Was Sinned Against?
In the ultimate sense, only God can forgive sin, for he alone is the sovereign Judge. Yet we humans can forgive the wrongs that have been done us. Discussing the Bitburg crisis, Lance Morrow (Time, May 20) fittingly cited the poet John Dryden in his title, “Forgiveness to the Injured Doth Belong.”
But does this mean that it was wrong for President Reagan to express forgiveness and a desire for reconciliation with the German people because they wronged only Jews and not Christians or non-Jews?
Not at all. The Holocaust was a crime against more than the Jewish people alone. It was a crime against all humanity. At this point, I identify with the Jews. Hitler wronged me and mine in his one attempt to build an empire that would last a thousand years. I, too, stood naked and ashamed before those infamous Nazi courts. Those I loved were stacked mercilessly into the ovens at Dachau.
Yet I can well understand the modern Jew who resents what he sees as cheap rhetoric. No relative of mine died in those Nazi ovens. Much as I choose to identify with the Jews, it is infinitely easier for me to forgive, because the six million innocent persons who died in death camps were Jewish persons, and my mother was not one of them.
Still, I do sincerely identify with the Jews to the depth of my being. I resent this crime against Jews and against all humanity. Horror and hot anger well up in my soul at every reminder of it.
Yet, I must forgive.
What does this involve? Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. To forgive is to stop holding against another the wrong he has done to us. It is to assure him that from our side we have removed all obstacles to full reconciliation. We are ready and willing to offer our complete acceptance of the one who has wronged us—just as though no wrong had ever been done.
One person can forgive, but forgiveness can be spurned. It takes two to be reconciled. Sometimes reconciliation takes place where no forgiveness is needed, but only a removal of misunderstanding. When wrong has been done, however, reconciliation follows forgiveness and requires that the guilty repent of their way and accept the forgiveness that is offered. In reconciliation, estrangement and hatred are dissolved. Once again comes mutual acceptance and an ability to work toward mutual goals.
At Bitburg, therefore, President Reagan was affirming to the German nation our forgiveness of its wrong against the American people by its involvement in the Nazi war crimes and in the death camps of Europe. He could do this only because he is the president of all Americans, including all American Jews, and because those terrible crimes in the final analysis were against us all, and not against Jews only. When Chancellor Helmut Kohl responded for West Germany, the two leaders together affirmed reconciliation of the two nations.
“Too soon!” many cry. But Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address a month before the Civil War ended. And his ringing call at the end of the conflict to lay aside all hatred, and for North and South to join as brothers to rebuild a desolate nation, stands as a model for all time.
No doubt repentance of some West Germans is incomplete or nonexistent. And perhaps, as Lance Morrow has suggested in his Time essay, President Reagan is the “quintessential American,” eager to get on with the show—too eager to act and too oblivious of the shadows of history.
It was tragic that the President and his advisers, early on, were not more keenly sensitive to the moral rightness of the Jewish demands for justice—and of the moral rightness of all people to share their demand for justice.
Yet the President was entirely right in his basic instincts: he did forgive and he sought reconciliation. How could he do less on grounds of Holy Scripture—either Hebrew or Christian?
Here may I, tenderly and courteously, press my Jewish brothers and sisters. Would not you, too, forgive those who have wronged you so grievously? Wait a moment: hear me out. I am not asking you to forget, much less to condone. I am suggesting only that you choose to forgive as Corrie Ten Boom forgave. Victimized in a Nazi prison camp by a particularly vicious guard, she found herself, after the war, approached by that same man, now deeply sorrowful for his sin. Though at first revulsed, she recognized his genuine repentance and finally forgave him—and not reluctantly, but from her heart. Can you forgive for your children’s sake if not for your own? Do you really wish to burden your children and grandchildren across the centuries with a hatred that will warp their souls and destroy their peace of heart?
Demands Of Justice
But what about justice? The Nazi crimes against the Jews cry out for justice. Both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures demand justice as a primary duty to God and to our fellow humans.
Here, the German and American people are both guilty. Too often Germans looked the other way during Hitler’s regime. And we Americans cannot say too much, because our lives were not endangered. Also, while we did not know the full extent of the horror, we could have known more than we did, and we ought to have raised our voices in protest. But we, too, kept a guilty silence.
Yet time and again the German people as a nation have officially repudiated Hitler and all his works. They have joined with us in condemning the war crimes. They have cooperated in the search for and punishment of criminals and have provided a heavy bounty to aid in their capture. Perhaps this is as much as the American people have any right to demand of them in view of our own none-too-praiseworthy role.
But this does not fully satisfy justice. Many Nazis who participated in frightening crimes against Jews in the death camps of wartime Germany are still roaming free. Personal forgiveness does not relieve us of the demands of societal justice. War criminals must be brought to trial and punished. It was imperative that President Reagan, in making his statement on forgiveness and reconciliation at Bitburg, should have taken extraordinary precautions to make a corresponding commitment to bring justice to these criminals of the gas chambers.
Jews, as all persons who love justice, are concerned that we do not simply forget these crimes against our humanity. To bring about justice, to punish crimes, and to remember the past—these things protect us against a repetition of the Holocaust. To ignore the demands of justice is to encourage injustice.
There are, it is true, rare occasions when the penalty of a guilty person can rightly be remitted. Yet one dares remit it only when special mitigating circumstances make it appropriate—appropriate so that all may rightly reject the conclusion that wrongdoing is not being punished or that justice is not being upheld.
Not even God can ignore the demands of justice. That is the point of the mystery of sacrifice in the Hebrew Scripture, and of its counterpart—the mystery of the atonement of Christ in the Christian Scriptures.
When Victim Becomes Victor
President Reagan discovered to his dismay that forgiveness is more than the mere act of accepting another in spite of his wrongdoing. When you truly forgive, you accept not only the wrongdoer but in a mysterious and often hidden way you accept to yourself his wrongdoing. You cannot forgive without in some way taking upon yourself responsibility for the very wrong you are forgiving. Gale D. Webbe caught this when he wrote, “The only ultimate way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like blood in a sponge or a spear thrown into one’s heart, it loses its power and goes no further” (The Night and Nothing, p. 109).
M. Scott Peck makes the same point in the conclusion to People of the Lie. For the healing of evil, he notes, “A willing sacrifice is required.… He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil.… [T]here is a mysterious alchemy whereby the victim becomes the victor.… I do not know how this occurs. But I know that it does.… Whenever this happens there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world” (p. 269).
Justice is essential to every good society. Yet, contrary to Aristotle, justice is not the greatest virtue. Forgiveness and reconciliation are even greater virtues—and much harder.
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