from Lauren - Tuesday, March 02, 2004
accessed 5431 times
With this article I acknowledge a very good friend of mine who sent me a copy of the book, “The Sunflower”, and thank this person for the profound impact the writings contained therein have had on me as I sort through my own issues of forgiveness vs. justice & collective vs. individual guilt.
In the aftermath of our childhoods, there are some things that are not easily sorted out and for me one of the most difficult has been the subject of guilt. That is: who is responsible for the travesty that we refer to as our past and where do I draw the line between who and what I forgive and who and what I won’t. Even as I write this, the debate rages over who should be held responsible. Is it the Family leadership only? The individual abusers? Are all Family members (both past and present) guilty in some way because of their complicity? Who is innocent? How responsible was Berg for what happened? What about Karen Zerby? How responsible were the individuals who didn’t actually do the damage but stood by and watched without stopping it? Are members of WS guiltier than members out on the field due to the information available to them?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the opinions on the matter of forgiveness are as varied and as personal as the population of this site. In no way would I attempt to tell another that he/she should or should not forgive. That is a personal decision that can only be made by each individual and no matter how similar our experiences, none of us has the right to tell another what is right for them.
There are very few things that aggravate me more on this site than the repetitive call to “move on”. In my opinion, the “move on call” ranks pretty close to the “bitter apostate” label the Family throws around. It’s certainly not that I have anything against moving on. Quite frankly, I believe that moving on is a journey, not a destination -- but that’s beside the point of this article. I despise the “move on call” because of the myriad of misconceptions that are attached to it like so much unwanted baggage.
I understand, in some ways, the underlying thought process involved by those who harp on the “moving on” theme. Somewhere in the middle of all of it, there is a concern that those who refuse to let the past die are somehow damaging themselves as living beings because they are unable to let the poison go. But somewhere in the middle of all of this way of thinking is a strong misconception that the poison/hatred/bitterness is the same thing as refusing to forgive or forget. It’s not.
Through the past couple of weeks I have been reading the essays and dissertations written in “The Sunflower” and I have seen my own fog lift over the issues wrapped up in the forgiveness bundle. I may perhaps be one of the few on this site to have only recently read this book, but because I will be relying heavily on excerpts of the book to explain my own views, I will recap here what the book is about.
The original version of “The Sunflower” was written by Simon Wiesenthal, who is best known for his efforts in bringing over 1,100 Nazi criminals to face justice for their crimes. The book was written about 30 years ago and recounts an experience that Wiesenthal had when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp in German occupied Poland 20 years prior.
The book is in two parts. The first part (about 1/3 of the book) is the original story, “The Sunflower”. The book brings three main pictures together:
1) The feelings, sights, sounds and experiences he endured during the years he spent as an emaciated prisoner facing and resigning himself to death at any moment in the Nazi death camps. (Wiesenthal and his wife lost 86 close relatives between them during this period, including all of their immediate family).
2) The complicity of the local population that was apathetic to what was going on and did nothing to stop it, and
3) The central part of the story: While on work detail at the local hospital, Wiesenthal is called to the bedside of a dying SS soldier. The young man (21 years old) has called for him simply because Wiesenthal is Jew. The solider does not know his name, does not want to know anything about him, but only wants to confess to him, as a representative of the Jewish people, a horrendous crime this solider was a part of.
Wiesenthal stays at the young man’s bedside for several hours, even though he does not want to and risks punishment (perhaps death) for being there. In the end, the young man asks for forgiveness. Wiesenthal is convinced of the sincerity of the young SS officer, but gets up and leaves the room without saying a word.
The entire story of “The Sunflower” is laying the groundwork for the final punch line, in which Wiesenthal, obviously troubled by his silence of 20 years prior, asks the reader, “What would you have done if you were in my shoes”.
The remaining 2/3rds of the book that follows is a collection of essays, opinions and thoughts on the question presented in “The Sunflower” as well as on the subject of forgiveness, guilt and atonement. Those who have written the opinions presented on “The Sunflower” come from a vast array of cultures and experiences. They range from holocaust survivors, to the Dalai Lama, Catholic Priests, Philosophers, Professors, a Nazi prisoner that Wiesenthal brought to face trial, and survivors of persecution from other regimes such as Cambodia and China.
None of the contributors presume to pass judgment on what Wiesenthal did/did not do, but merely attempt to answer his question as well as to explore the possibilities and limits of forgiveness.
In no way do I mean to indicate that what I or any of the people I know went through in the Family is of the same degree of suffering as those who went through the holocaust. Neither do I feel it is right to dismiss the crimes perpetrated upon us as irrelevant, simply because they do not measure up to the suffering of the victims of the holocaust.
While the situation and degree of suffering I am contemplating differs from that presented in “The Sunflower”, I find there are many similarities between the criminals in both instances.
To me, perhaps the most reassuring point of the entire book is the fact that even amongst some of the world’s great thinkers, there is no general consensus regarding forgiveness. The views taken, while all thoughtful and all valid, do not always compliment each other. It is then no surprise that among the ex-members of the Family, we also come to no consensus.
However, in spite of the differences many of the writers have regarding the possibility of forgiveness, there are some facts that remain almost unanimous.
There can be no forgiveness without genuine repentance. Repentance must be equivalent to the crime committed & must in some way attempt to make restoration for the damage of the past. If the crime was public, the remorse and atonement must be public. Those who were harmed must be found and amends must be made. Without this, there is no repentance, and as such, there can be no forgiveness.
No one has the right to forgive on behalf of another. The only person who can forgive a crime is the one against whom the crime has been committed. Justice, on the other hand, can be sought on behalf of another.
It is entirely possible to forgive a person and still seek for justice to be served. Forgiveness does not mean that a crime is washed away and forgotten.
On the subject of forgiveness on its own, I find the following quote to sum up my feelings quite succinctly (substituting appropriate words to better fit my own situation): “Forgiving is not something we do for another person, as the Nazi asked Wiesenthal to do for him. Forgiving happens inside us. It represents a letting go of the sense of grievance, and perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim. For a Jew to forgive the Nazis would not mean, God forbid, saying to them “What you did was understandable, I can understand what led you to do it and I don’t hate you for it.” It would mean saying “What you did was thoroughly despicable and puts you outside the category of decent human beings. But I refuse to give you the power to define me as a victim. I refuse to let your blind hatred define the shape and content of my Jewishness. I don’t hate you; I reject you.” And then the Nazi would remain chained to his past and to his conscience, but the Jew would be free.” – Lawrence L. Langer (p.186)
As for myself, I hold Family leadership responsible for the actions of their followers in much the same way that Hitler was responsible for the holocaust. – It took both the leadership & the followers to make it possible. The Family leadership’s guilt, in my opinion, does not in any way lessen the responsibility of those Family members who committed specific crimes.
I am in no position to forgive anyone for anything that they have not specifically done to me. I consider the writings and policies set forth by David Berg, Karen Zerby, Steve Kelly and the various COs, VSs and other leadership to have had a direct influence on my life and how I was treated, and so I qualify these people as having “done something to me”.
Although, up until my reading of “The Sunflower” I have not held hatred or poison against Berg, Zerby and their cronies, I have had a strong desire to see justice served. Just because I didn’t hate Zerby, did not mean that I didn’t want to see her doing time for the crimes she committed and promoted. To simply “erase” the past, has always seemed to me to be a travesty of all that is good (or should be good) in this world. But I have never stopped to ask myself if I had forgiven them. It had never appeared to be an issue to me, considering that I held no malice, only a strong desire for justice.
Now that I’ve thought it through, I realize that Zerby & Co. have done nothing to warrant forgiveness. They have not asked for my forgiveness, they have not repented of the crimes they have committed (if anything, they have only rubbed salt in the wounds by proclaiming their own innocence and rightness). They have not denounced their writings that perpetrated abuse. They are not, in any sense of the word, repentant. More still, they have done nothing to make restitution for the abuses done by them and promoted by them. This same thought process holds true for nearly all of the Family leadership I have lived under.
As such, I see no reason to forgive unless it would somehow benefit me (as in the description provided above by Lawrence L. Langer.) Should Zerby & Co. one day show true remorse for what they have done, ask for forgiveness and make restitution, the subject of forgiveness moves into the realm of reality. But even should all of that occur, and forgiveness be granted, that does not change my stance that justice must be served.
The following quotes help to clarify what it is that I am saying:
“It is of course true that penitence involves a willingness to make restitution to the person wronged and, had the circumstances been other, it would have been reasonable to have demanded of the SS man that, even if he could not bring back to life the little child whom he had killed or discover any of his immediate relatives, yet he should in some notable way have attempted some service to the Jews which would have given evidence of the sincerity of his repentance.” “Nor of course has forgiveness anything to do with the refusal to punish. In this case since the SS man was just about to die the question of punishment did not arise, but, had he survived, the fact that he had been spiritually forgiven would of course have been no reason why he should not have been subjected to the appropriate punishment.” – Christopher Hollis (p.178-179)
“Does repentance alone justify and bring about forgiveness and allow crimes to be forgotten? Even in normal criminology and penology only true regret accompanied by reformed behavior can be considered a justification for lightening a sentence, and even then not necessarily in the case of serious crimes. No matter what, regret never pardons crimes, except when the state declares an amnesty for certain crimes, generally for political reasons.” – Moshe Bejski (p.116-117)
“No one can grant forgiveness as a private person in the name of another, for that would be theft of the wounded person’s right to forgive or not forgive. But one can forgive for another in ritual context, if that ritual takes place with the authority of the community. And for the ritual to have any meaning, the atonement must match the crime. If the dying Nazi solider wished to atone, he should have insisted that he be placed in the camps, so that he could die in the miserable circumstances of those whose name he is asking forgiveness.” – Mary Gordon (p.153)
To make the statement that I did above, “I see no reason to forgive” does not come lightly to me. Everything in my “Christian” upbringing taught me to forgive; more: to forgive as a matter of course—without thought. The verses in the Bible that speak of forgiveness, “If you forgive not men their trespasses, neither shall your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses” are not easily shaken. In the words of Harry James Cargas, “I am afraid not to forgive because I fear not to be forgiven. At the time of Judgment, I pray for mercy rather than justice. Some theologians have it that in the last analysis, mercy and justice must exist side by side but who among us is so confident as to say, “I can withstand the scrutiny of justice”?” (p.124)
[As a side note for those who Christian among us, it’s important to remember that Jesus was Jewish and lived by the Jewish law. He was, therefore quite familiar with the Jewish procedure of repentance teshuva and asking forgiveness. The “eye for an eye” “death for a death” laws are those Jesus was living under. He was not speaking of forgiveness in some off-handed, trivial sort of way, as we have since come to interpret it.]
If by forgiveness, I use the explanation provided by Lawrence L. Langer, then yes, I have no problem with forgiveness. But if the word forgiveness is used in the typical sense – the same sense that is unspoken but implied by the “move on call”, then I believe to forgive in such an off-handed way, particularly to people who show no remorse or repentance for what they have done, is to re-victimize the victims and to instead, re-perpetrate evil.
“Apart from any forgetting which the victim is able to achieve, there is forgetting on the part of the evildoer, an incomparably more frequent phenomenon…doubtless one could formulate the problem in another way: do the evildoers themselves forget, do they forget before they have repented and confessed their crime? Without confession and sincere repentance their forgetting is nothing more than a continuation of their crime.” – Manes Sperber (p.247-248)
I also believe that Zerby & Co. have no right to request forgiveness (much less implicitly demand it, as they have done repeatedly in their publications with their accusations of “bitter apostates” as if the bitterness were in some way unjustified and we should all just forgive and forget) until they have denounced the writings that perpetrated the abuse and put as many words in print castigating themselves for their own sins as they have the innocent victims they have trounced; until they have personally sought out and made amends to every person that suffered because of the result of their writings &/or instructions &/or personal examples set. Anything less than that makes a mockery of repentance.
There is also the subject of collective vs. individual guilt. I do not believe it is possible to throw a blanket over every single member that has ever been a part of the Family and say that they are all equally guilty. But I also believe that apathy and turning a blind eye to crimes and abuses promotes evil, and that those who were aware and did nothing, those who pretended or preferred not to know share a collective responsibility.
“The choices this young Nazi made betray his true commitments. No one forced him to join the Hitler Youth. In fact, he did so over the objections of his parents. And no one forced him to join the SS.” – Joshua Rubenstein (p.239)
“Of Course every person is responsible for his or her actions, and no one is able to absolve the guilt that one person bears toward others. No soul carries the burden of another. There is no such thing as collective guilt, since collective guilt would point fingers at the innocent as well as the guilty. We may only properly speak of general culpability if a society tolerates the development of a fundamentally perverted image of man.
“The Sunflower broaches many other questions of crime and punishment. One of the story’s central concerns is the impassive societal reaction to the transgression. Those who might appear uninvolved in the actual crimes, but who tolerate acts of torture, humiliation, and murder, are certainly also guilty. Looking away may be a comfortable but ultimately disastrous path, the effects of which are incalculable.” – Smail Balic (p.110-111)
I have excerpted additional portions from essays on “The Sunflower” that I have found relevant to my own past situation. I have included them below for any who are interested in reading more on this subject.
“The call for forgiveness reminds me of the words Arthur, Simon’s comrade, uttered in the camp when Simon asked his opinion: “…there will be people who will never forgive you for not forgiving him…But anyhow nobody who has not had our experience will be able to understand fully.” “True repentance must include empathy toward the victim and others who share his vulnerability.” – Andre Stein (p.251-252)
“…It is only through human interaction that the victim can best be healed and the wrongdoer most profoundly changed. Making peace with God comes later. By forcing a face-to face encounter with the aggrieved party Jewish tradition teaches that sin is not a generalized amorphous act but something quite specific done against a particular person or group of people. If I sin, I cannot go to someone else who has some remote connection with the person I have harmed and ask that third party for forgiveness.
“After confronting the person against whom the sin has been committed and trying to correct that wrong, one turns to God. Then one verbally confesses one’s sins, expresses shame and regret for having committed this act, and resolves never to act that way again. But this does not yet bring one to the highest or most complete level of the process, teshuva gemurah, complete teshuva. This is achieved when the individual is in the same situation in which he or she originally sinned and chooses not to repeat the act. The person still ahs the potential to commit that sin again; i.e., his/her strength has not diminished nor has the capability been lost. Nonetheless they choose not to repeat it.
“Finally, it is important to differentiate between teshuva , repentance, and kaparah , atonement. Atonement only comes after one bears the consequences of one’s acts. Some might ask, is not repentance enough? Why is punishment also necessary? Judaism is founded on the notion that actions have consequences: righteous acts result in blessings, evil acts in punishment. When King David sinned by scheming to have Bathsheba’s husband killed so that he could have her for his own, he subsequently performed teshuva (His genuine remorse is evident in Psalm 51, written after he committed his heinous crime.) Nonetheless he was punished for his actions. Only then was his relationship with God returned to its original place.” – Deborah E. Lipstadt (p.195-195)
“The question of forgiveness must be defined in individual or collective terms, just as guilt must be defined in individual or collective terms. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serb fanatical leadership has fed its population such venomous propaganda that some innocent Serbs do not know what happened in the past four years. Others do know, but like the father of Karl, felt that they could not act outside the bounds of the mob mentality that swept over much of the victimizer population, both in Nazi Germany and in Serb-occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, at this time, there is no general accounting of what actually happened among some Serb and even Croat people, as was the case with Karl’s mother. But without recognition of what happened, there can never be forgiveness.
“I explicitly and emphatically reject the idea of collective guilt, but I do believe that there is such a thing as national or state responsibility for genocide, for mass murder, and for drumming up an artificial hatred among the ordinary people, by various means, to make that genocide easier to carry out. It cannot be stressed enough that the punishment of the guilty and some measure of justice are absolutely necessary for forgiveness or reconciliation even to be considered.” – Sven Alkalaj (p.103-104)
“In regard to Mr. Wiesenthal’s story and in comparing his story to my own, I must first state that it is inconceivable for me to believe that anyone in the People’s Republic of China would ask for such forgiveness as the Nazi soldier did to the Jewish prisoner. In China, there was no understanding that what the Communists did to their own people was in any way morally wrong. People like Comarde Ma were so typical. They had no regard for an individual’s well-being. There was no value put on a human’s life because, quite simply, the leaders of the country placed no value on human life. In order to survive in China during these times, one had to give up one’s own conscience and humanity.” – Harry Wu (p.274)