9/11: Forgive and Forget?
We are not the ones who have the right to make that decision.
God, I need your guidance. I continue to grieve for all the victims of 9/11 even after a decade has passed. My heart is filled with pain, and with anger at the terrorists responsible for the horrible deaths on that day of infamy in which 3,000 innocents perished. But I know that you teach us to forgive those who sin. In the Bible you often tell us that you are a God who is slow to anger, merciful and forgiving. We are supposed to imitate you and adopt Your behavior as guidelines for our own personal conduct.
Does that really mean that no matter how difficult it is, I have to now tell myself to forgive all those who intentionally and with callous premeditation committed these unspeakable crimes? Am I guilty of failing my spiritual obligations if I'm not willing to respond to barbaric acts with love and forgiveness? God, how far does clemency go? In the name of religion, must I today be prepared to pardon even those who committed murder?
Forgiveness is a divine trait. It defines the goodness of God. Without it, human beings probably couldn't survive. Because God forgives, there's still hope for sinners. When we do wrong, God reassures us that He won't abandon us as a result of our transgressions. Divine forgiveness is the quality that most clearly proves God's love for us.
That is why the many passages in the Bible that affirm God's willingness to forgive our sins are so important. They comfort us and they fill us with confidence. We know none of us are perfect. If we would be judged solely on our actions, we would surely fall short. Thank God, the heavenly court isn't that strict. We can rest assured, as the prophet Isaiah told us, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."
It makes perfect sense, then, for us to understand that if we expect God to forgive us for our failings, we have to be prepared to forgive others as well. What we need when we're being judged from above certainly deserves to be granted to those we are judging. We are guided by the profound words of Alexander Pope: "To err is human; to forgive, divine."
That all makes it seem like we have no choice in the matter. Forgiveness appears to be our only moral option. But the more we study the Bible, the more we recognize a peculiar paradox. The same God who preaches forgiveness very often doesn't forgive. Instead, He punishes sinners. He holds people responsible. He criticizes, He condemns, and afflicts those who committed crimes. Adam and Eve sinned, and they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Cain sinned and was condemned to become a wanderer over the face of the earth. The generation of Noah sinned and a flood destroyed them. The builders of the Tower of Babel sinned and their speech was turned into babble. In one story after another, from the Five Books of Moses through the works of the prophets, we read of retribution, of accountability, of divine punishment, and the withholding of automatic forgiveness.
Isn't this an innate contradiction in the Bible? The same book in which God identifies himself as merciful and forgiving, repeatedly shows us a God of justice who withholds undeserved pardons. There must be something we're missing. There can't be such an obvious contradiction in the Bible. And sure enough, just a little reflection makes clear why there are times when God forgives people for their sins, and why at other times He refuses.
The Price for Forgiveness
Heavenly pardon is predicated on a condition. Before God grants forgiveness, He asks us to acknowledge that we were wrong and renounce the sinful behavior.
God is willing to overlook the sins of the past for the sake of an altered future.
God is willing to overlook the sins of the past for the sake of an altered future. He is ready to pardon the most terrible wrongs for the price of remorse, regret and the desire for a new beginning. But the one thing God's forgiveness is unwilling to do is to condone vicious crimes by simply accepting them. An unrepentant sinner mistakes God's mercy for permission to continue his ways. To forgive such a person isn't kindness; its cruelty to all those who'll be hurt by the evil that wasn't stopped before it could do more harm.
Yes, it was the same God who drowned the wicked generation of Noah and who saved the evil people of Ninveh. Those who were destroyed by the Flood were given plenty of warning. They watched Noah build his ark for many years. Noah told them what God planned to do if they didn't repent. But they didn't believe him – even when it started to rain and pour like never before. So of course people who didn't see the need to ask for forgiveness weren't forgiven.
But when Jonah told the residents of the city of Ninveh that they were doomed due to their evil behavior, they took the message to heart and committed themselves to a new way of life. The people who changed were immediately forgiven. God wasn't going to hold their past against them – because it was really a thing of the past.
Don't Forgive Them Unless
Forgiving people who don't personally atone for the sins makes a statement: Repentance isn't really necessary. Can anything be more immoral than encouraging evil by refraining from any condemnation of those who commit it?
The day after the Columbine High School massacre, a group of students announced that they forgave the killers. A short while after the Oklahoma bombing, some people put out a call to forgive Timothy McVeigh. And on September 12th, on several American campuses, colleges groups pleaded for forgiveness for the terrorists responsible for the horrific events of the previous day.
These weren't just misguided gestures of compassion. They were serious sins with potentially tragic consequences. Evil unchallenged is evil condoned. To forgive and forget, as Arthur Schopenhauer so well put it, "means to throw valuable experience out the window." And without the benefit of experience's lessons, we are almost certain to be doomed to repeat them.
The terrorists expressed not the slightest remorse as they went to their deaths together with their victims.
The terrorists who piloted the planes into the Twin Towers never asked to be forgiven. They expressed not the slightest remorse as they went to their deaths together with their victims. Those who sent them, those who financed them, and those who applauded their mission never for a moment regretted what happened. Forgiving them is no less than granting license to murder thousands of more innocent people.
To speak of forgiveness as if it were the automatic entitlement of every criminal is to pervert a noble sentiment into a carte blanche for mayhem and chaos. We might as well open the doors of every jail and release all the thieves, rapists and murderers. Our wonderful act of compassion wouldn't take too long to be followed by the cries of the victims of our folly! To forgive those who remain unrepentant is to become an accomplice to future crimes.
What If A Nazi Asked For Forgiveness?
What if a Nazi asked for forgiveness at some later date? What if a brutal murderer realizes the enormity of his crimes and honestly regrets his past deeds? What if the plea for forgiveness is accompanied by sincere remorse? Can the crimes of the past be forgotten? Is a troubled conscience sufficient to secure automatic forgiveness?
This is not just a theoretical question. Something exactly like that happened toward the end of the Holocaust. And the man who had to decide what to do in such a situation, a concentration camp victim who had suffered indescribable mistreatment and torture, wrote a remarkable book about his experience.
Simon Wiesenthal was a prisoner of the Nazis, confined to slave labor in a German hospital. One day he was suddenly pulled away from his work and brought into a room where an SS soldier lay dying. The German officer, Karl, confessed to Wiesenthal that he had committed atrocious crimes. Although raised as a good Catholic and in his youth God-fearing, Karl had allowed himself to become a sadistic accomplice to Nazi ideology. Now that he knew his end was near and he would soon be facing his Maker, Karl was overcome by the enormity of his sins.
More than anything else, Karl knew that he needed atonement. He wanted to die with a clear conscience. So he asked that a Jew be brought to him. And from this Jew, Simon Wiesenthal, the killer asked for absolution.
Wiesenthal didn't grant Karl the forgiveness the German desperately sought.
Wiesenthal has been haunted by this scene his entire life. When it happened, he was in such shock that he didn't know how to respond. His emotions pulled him in different directions. Anger mixed with pity, hatred with compassion, and revulsion with mercy. His conclusion was to leave in utter silence. He didn't grant Karl the forgiveness the German desperately sought.
Years later, Wiesenthal shared the story with a number of prominent intellectuals, theologians and religious leaders. How would they have reacted? he asked them. In the light of religious teachings and ethical ideals, what should have been the proper response? Was there a more suitable reply than silence?
Wiesenthal collected the answers and had them published as a book entitled, The Sunflower. The range of responses offers a fascinating insight into different views on forgiveness. Some, like the British journalist Christopher Hollis, believe that the law of God is the law of love, no matter what the situation. We have an obligation to forgive our fellow human beings even when they have caused us the greatest harm. A remorseful murderer deserved compassion.
And Who Are You To Forgive?
One rabbi offered a different perspective. No one can forgive crimes not committed against him or her personally. What Karl sought could only come from his victims. It is preposterous to think that one solitary Jew can presume to speak for 6 million.
This rabbi had been invited to address a group of prominent business executives. Among them were some of the most important CEOs in the country. His lecture dealt with the Holocaust and its lessons for us. He stressed the importance of memory and the need to continue to bear witness to the crime of genocide.
When he finished, one of the very famous names in American corporate life angrily rebutted the essence of his talk. "I'm tired," he said," of hearing about the Holocaust. You claim that you're speaking in the name of morality. Why can't you demonstrate true morality by learning to forgive and forget?"
To a stunned audience, the rabbi replied by asking them for permission to tell a story about Rabbi Israel Kagan, commonly known as the Chafetz Chaim. In the history of the Jewish people, he explained, there has hardly ever been someone considered as saintly as the Chafetz Chaim. A Polish rabbi and scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century, he was universally revered not just for his piety but more importantly for his extreme concern for the feelings of his fellow man.
Rabbi Kagan was traveling on a train, immersed in a religious book he was studying. Alongside him sat three Jews anxious to while away the time by playing cards. The game required a fourth hand so they asked the unrecognized stranger to join them. Rabbi Kagan politely refused, explaining that he preferred to continue his reading. The frustrated card players refused to take no for an answer. They began to beat the poor Rabbi until they left him bleeding.
Hours later, the train pulled into the station. Hundreds of people swarmed the platform waiting to greet the great sage. Posters bore signs of Welcome to the Chafetz Chaim. As the rabbi, embarrassed by all the adulation, walked off the train with his bruises, the crowd lifted him up and carried him off on their shoulders. Watching with horror were the three Jews who had not long before accosted the simple Jew sitting in their cabin, now revealed as one of the spiritual giants of their generation. Profoundly ashamed and plagued by their guilt, they managed to make their way through the crowd and reached their unwilling card player partner.
They begged for forgiveness. And incredibly enough, the rabbi said no.
With tears, they poured out their feelings of shame and remorse. How could they possibly have assaulted this great Rabbi? They begged for forgiveness. And incredibly enough, the rabbi said no. The man who spent his life preaching love now refused to extend it to people who harmed him and regretted their actions. It seemed incomprehensible. So the three Jews attributed it to a momentary lapse. Perhaps, they thought, it was just too soon for the rabbi to forgive them. He probably needed some time to get over the hurt. They would wait a while and ask again at a more propitious moment.
Several weeks passed and it was now close to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Even the simplest Jews knew that they had to gain forgiveness from their friends if they wanted to be pardoned by God. With trepidation, the wicked three wrangled an appointment and once again were able to speak to the Rabbi. They pleaded their case. Still the Rabbi said no. He would not forgive them.
The rabbi's son was present as this strange scene played itself out. Puzzled by his father's peculiar behavior, he couldn't contain himself. It was so unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. Why did his father suddenly act so cruelly? Why would he persist in tormenting people who only asked for a simple expression of forgiveness?
The son dared to ask. His father explained. "Do you really think I don't want to forgive these poor Jews before the High Holy days? If it were only in my power to do so, don't you know that I would have forgiven them when they stood before me at the railroad station? Of course I, Rabbi Kagan, forgive them for what they did to me. When they learned who I was, they were mortified and filled with shame for what they had done. But the man they beat up was the one they presumed to be a simple, unassuming poor person with no crowd of well-wishers waiting to greet him. He was the victim and only he is the one capable of granting them forgiveness. Let them go find that person. I am incapable of releasing them from their guilt."
Upon completing the story, the rabbi turned to the executive who suggested that it was time for us to move on after the Holocaust and to forgive and forget. "I would be more than happy to do so if I only could. But I was not the one who was sealed in the gas chambers to die a horrible death. I didn't have my child pulled from my breast and shot it in front of my eyes. I was not among the tortured, the beaten, the whipped, and the murdered. It is they and they alone who can offer forgiveness. Go and find those 6 million and ask them if they are prepared to forgive and forget."
A decade after 9/11 there are those who raise the question: Should we forgive those who murdered the thousands of innocents?
Perhaps the most appropriate response is simply this: We are not the ones who have the right to make that decision. Though 10 years have passed, we may not forgive and we dare not forget.