To Err and to Forgive

I’ve known for a long time that the weather in New England can be unpredictable. At times tempestuous, at times calm, but always changing. Given the tumultuous past few weeks in my own life, my reflection for this week might reflect today’s weather–unexpected, and at times a little chaotic. I ask you to bear with me as I try to organize my thoughts and feelings on the page.

To be honest, I didn’t have clear idea of what I wanted to write about this week. I had just finished two midterms for my phonetics class, and I was sitting down to another quiet evening at the office. I had uploaded the sermon from this past Sunday, in which Dean Hill meditated on Matthew 5:39 and the meaning of resistance. But when I opened up the blog to read my fellow Marsh Associates’ reflections from this past week, the title of Denise’s reflection caught my attention: “Sunflower”

When I was in high school, my sophomore year history teacher introduced us to a book by Simon Wiesenthal, called The Sunflower. The book talked about Wiesenthal’s experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, and the outlook of those in the camp with him. The core of the book, though, lies in an ethical dilemma. While in the camp, Wiesenthal is taken to the bed of a dying SS officer, who asks if Wiesenthal can forgive him for killing several hundred Jewish people a year prior. The officer was holding a sunflower in his hand, a flower that was planted in the graves of SS officers who had died.

In the end, Wiesenthal says nothing and leaves. He then presents an ethical dilemma by asking a single, haunting question: Should he have forgiven the soldier, or not? The second half of the book contains the answers and reflections of several dozen individuals on this question–scholars, theologians, professors, and many others. There’s too much in their answers for me to address here (and it has been a long time since I last read them), so I will focus instead on the question Simon Wiesenthal asks; namely, the question of forgiveness.

There is a saying that “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The English saying has been attributed to Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism.” Part of this phrase, though, has even older origins, in a Latin phrase that is sometimes attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca. One of the formulations of this phrase is as follows: “Errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum.” This translates to, “To err is human, but to persist (in error) is diabolical.” These two phrases, when paired side by side, have very different meanings and implications, which seem rather self-explanatory at first glance. But when they are paired together, they capture a lot of the tension and conflict that come up (at least for me) regarding the question of forgiveness.

The Latin word “ignosco” can be translated into “to forgive.” This is interesting etymologically, because it contains the roots for the words “to ignore” and “to know.” Thus, the word “to forgive” in Latin could be broken into the literal phrase, “to not know,” or “to ignore knowing.” This presents a challenge when I think about what it means to forgive someone. Can you genuinely forgive someone by overlooking what they’ve done, especially if it has harmed you or people close to you? When I think about the situation that Wiesenthal was in with the SS officer, I am inclined to say no. This attitude strikes me more as complacency than as genuine forgiveness.

What about other takes on forgiveness, though? Matthew 5: 38-48 offers a different perspective:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

If someone were to ask me which part of the Bible I struggle with the most, this is one of the passages I would likely first point to. I’ve heard interpretations before that note there is a lot of historical context surrounding this passage that is missing from the text. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough of that context to adequately comment on these interpretations.

I have trouble with this passage for the same reason that I have mixed feelings about the Latin word “ignosco.” Namely, I disagree with an interpretation that one could draw from both of these views: that forgiveness is something that is given blindly.

If forgiveness can be understood as an internal state or feeling (whether it’s human or divine is debatable), then I would guess that it tends not to be the first thing people feel in response to a wrong done against them. In general, forgiveness takes time and processing to emerge, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect someone to feel immediately forgiving toward anyone who has done harm, especially if they are considered an enemy. Perhaps if they are ready to forgive, then that internal state may help them heal and move on. But I don’t think feeling forgiveness is necessarily the right way or the only way to heal.

But this doesn’t get at Wiesenthal’s question, which was should he have done something to forgive the officer, not if he should have felt something. Should you forgive someone for the harm they have committed against you, against another, or against an entity? My answer, as unhelpful as it might be, comes in the form of another question: Why are you offering forgiveness? Are you giving it for the person who would receive it like the officer, so that they might have some peace of mind? Are you giving it for yourself, so that you may find healing? Are you giving it because that’s what you were taught to do? Or are you giving it because you believe that is the right thing to do?

I can’t say whether the answer to any of these questions is right or not. That, after all, is the beauty and the difficulty of ethical dilemmas. But the next time you are in a situation where you must choose to forgive or not, whatever your decision, I encourage you to reflect on why you make your choice. What motivates you to forgive, or not to forgive? There, at least, you may find some answers.

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