Ellie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and author, who died recently, once shocked religious people everywhere when, at the 50th memorial of Auschwitz deaths, he prayed:
“God of forgiveness not not forgive those who created this place. God of mercy, show no mercy to those who here killed Jewish children…”
The shock was not that a holocaust survivor might not be able to forgive Nazi murderers, but rather he brought the perspective of the victims into his prayer and dared God to think of forgiving them, as if He could not quite trust God to do the right thing. And indeed even in this terrible utterance there is a dark Jewish humour, that comes from a long experience of worshipping One God in spite of their terrible historical disasters as God’s people, in spite of all violent attempts to erase them from history by persecution or assimilation, in spite of God being the exact reversal of a sound insurance policy. Wiesel was saying that in Auschwitz, human evil and God’s toleration of it had gone too far: an unforgivable evil had taken place, and any subsequent forgiveness by God, even if it involved only repentant Nazis, would mean that God had declared his own irrelevance.
But should not I, as a Christian believer, make clear that Wiesel’s prayer is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Surely the God of forgiveness, revealed in Jesus, is denied by Wiesel’s prayer?
The first reply to this is to understand the dark humour. Wiesel does not say that God will not forgive, but prays that God will not. He is not teaching a doctrine of God, but pleading on behalf of humanity that God will not in this instance be bound by a doctrine that defines him / her as a God of forgiveness and mercy. Wiesel is saying, “We have invented you in our tradition as a God of forgiveness, but events have shown us the inadequacy of our doctrine. Please show that you exist beyond our imaginations, by refusing to forgive these killers.”
The second reply is to remember that Jesus the crucified Messiah is part of the history of atrocious suffering amongst all races. He is brother to Elie Wiesel and to the millions of pitiful murdered people in Syria today. Sometimes Christian preachers and theologians have been careless in announcing the gospel of God’s forgiveness through the execution of Jesus, as if the real evil of those who contrived, ordered and carried out that atrocity, were excused by the forgiveness that is said to have arisen from it. Sometimes the Christian gospel seems to be saying that if what was done to Jesus can be forgiven, all other atrocities are also forgivable and therefore not quite as appalling as some may think.
Here it’s vital to insist that Jesus was a victim of human prejudice, hatred, state security and the willingness of soldiers to kill as required. And if it’s true that “God was in Messiah Jesus, reconciling the world..” (St. Paul), we are saying that God in Jesus “became” a victim, and shares the intelligence of the victim, who knows the mixture of pride, cowardice, intolerance, power, brutality and hate, that has made him suffer, and is not about to write it off as another occasion for divine forgiveness. The God of the Christian story is not first of all concerned with the perpetrators but with the victim whose suffering he/she has shared. God “remembers” the victim Jesus, holds him in love, gives him new life, and raises him from death, to be, in and through his followers, the one whom he had always been, the bringer of abundant life and forgiveness. God does not forgive; the victim forgives in God’s name, through his forgiven followers.
But this forgiveness of God in Jesus is surely offered to all? Well, yes, it is available to all but it can only be received by those who are turning away from their evil towards the goodness of God. The forgiveness is for the sake of the new person not the old. As far as the old person who has helped cause suffering is concerned, the crucifixion of Jesus is not forgiveness but an exposure of the utter evil of what has been done; and the resurrection of Jesus is not forgiveness but the exasperating victory of the victim you thought you’d destroyed. Luke’s gospel presents this clearly. On the cross Jesus prays for that his torturers may be forgiven, but only those who move away from their evil, like the “good” thief and the centurion, receive forgiveness as they turn towards goodness.
Forgiveness is not a divine attitude, but a human happening. Amongst other places, it happens where the community of the victim Jesus takes the side of all victims, exposes the evil that has been done to them, proclaims their ultimate victory along with Jesus, and offers in Jesus’ name forgiveness to those who have done the evil or failed to prevent it, who can only receive this forgiveness as they admit their evil and turn towards goodness.
But how can Jesus and his community dare to forgive evils which have been done to others? Don’t they realise the some victims may not be able to forgive? Who would be presumptuous enough to by-pass the reluctance of someone like Elie Wiesel?
Jesus would have known that some people will not be able to forgive until all their wounds have been healed, which may not happen until they are in God’s “kingdom”. But he was ready to offer an advance of this forgiveness to those who turned away from their evil, so that they could live the new life of God’s kingdom here and now, in this world. The forgiveness he offers is the same forgiveness that one day in God’s goodness, all victims will be able to offer. The community of Jesus should not be ashamed of offering the same forgiveness.
The images used here are of sculptures in the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel.