Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Radical Forgiveness-What would you do?

Everyday we are bombarded with images of bloodshed and sectarian violence in Egypt and other places in the Middle East. Yesterday there was a story of Franciscan nuns who were paraded through the streets. Christian and Catholic churches have been burned to the ground. Mosques have become morgues. In such a violent world is forgiveness possible? For the Christian, not only is it possible, it is necessary. Immaculee Illibagiza, of Rwanda shares her own dramatic story of being hidden in a bathroom with six other women for several months. Her own family killed, she could hear people bearing machetes calling her name. She prayed the Our Father...the only trouble is she couldn't reconcile praying "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Immaculee realized that she had to pray from her heart for those who were trying to kill her outside. Eventually she did pray that prayer and miraculously survived and now travels the world telling her story. Brian Zahnd has a similar story. He shares it in his book Radical Forgiveness. Zahnd tells the remarkable story of Simon Wiesenthal. It comes from Wiesenthal's book The Sunflower. Here is his story: "Simon Wiesenthal was an Austrian Jew imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. In the Sunflower Wiesenthal tells his story and then asks the reader a hard question. As the book opens, Wiesenthal is part of a work detail being taken from the concentration camp to do cleanup work in a makeshift field hospital near the Eastern front. As they are marched from the prison camp to the hospital, they come across a cemetery for German soldiers. On each grave is a sunflower. Wiesenthal writes: 'I envied the dead soldiers. Each had a sunflower to connect him with the living world, and butterflies to visit his grave. For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.' While working at the field hospital, a German nurse orders Wiesenthal to follow her. He is taken into a room where a lone SS soldier lay dying. The SS Soldier is a twenty-one year old German from Stuttgart named Karl Seidl. Karl has asked the nurse to 'bring him a jew.' Karl has been mortally wounded in battle and now wants to make his dying confession-and he wants to make it to a jew. The SS man is wrapped in bandages covering his entire face, with only holes for his mouth, nose, and ears. For the next several hours, Simon sits alone in silence with Karl as the dying SS soldier tells his story. Karl was an only child from a Christian home. His parents had raised him in the Church and had not been supporters of the Nazi party and Hitler's rise to power. But at fifteen, against his parents' wishes, Karl joined the Hitler Youth. At eighteen Karl joined the infamous SS troops. Now as Karl is dying he wants to confess the atrocities he has witnessed and in which he, as a Nazi soldier, has participated. Most horrifying is his account of being part of a group of SS soldiers sent to round up Jews in the city of Dnepropetrovsk. Three hundred Jews-man, women, children and infants-were gathered and driven with whips into a small three story house. The house was set on fire, and Karl recounted what happened to his confessor in these words:'We heard screams and saw the flames eat their way from floor to floor...We had our rifles ready to shoot down anyone who tried to escape from that blazing hell....The screams from that house were horrible...Behind the windows of the second floor, I saw a man with a small child in his arms. His clothes were alight. By his side stood a woman, doubtless the mother of the child. With his free hand the man covered the child's eye...then he jumped into the street. Seconds later the mother followed. Then from the other windows fell burning bodies...We shot...Oh God!" Karl is most haunted by the boy he shot, a boy with 'dark eyes' who Karl guesses was about six years old. Karl's description of this boy reminds Simon Wiesenthal of a boy he knew in the Lemberg Ghetto. Suring the several hours that Simon the Jew sat with Karl the Nazi, Simon never spoke. At Karl's request, Simon held the dying man's hand. Simon brushed away the flies and gave Karl a drink of water, but he never spoke. During the long ordeal, Simon never doubted Karl's sincerity or that he was truly sorry for his crimes. Simon said that the way Karl spoke was proof enough of his repentance. At last Karl said 'I am left here with my guilt. In the last hours of my life you are here with me. I do not know who you are, I only know that you are a Jew and that is enough....I know that what I have told you is terrible. In the long nights while I have been waiting for death, time and time again I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. Only I didn't know if there were any Jews left....I know that what I am asking is almost too much for you, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.' With that Simon Wiesenthal made up his mind and left the room in silence. During all the hours that Simon Wiesenthal had sat with Karl, Simon never uttered a word. That night Karl Seidl died. Karl left his possessions to simon but Simon refused them. Against all odds, Simon Wiesenthal survived the holocaust. Eighty-nine members of his family did not. Wiesenthal concludes his riveting and haunting story with an equally riveting and haunting question addressed to the reader: 'Ought I to have forgiven him?...was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong? This is a profound moral question that challenges the conscience of the reader of this episode, just as much as it once challenged my heart and mind....The crux of the matter is, of course, the question of forgiveness. Forgetting is something that tie alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision. You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, 'what would I have done?' Wow. That story leaves me mentally exhausted. I think radical forgiveness, and that would have been radical forgiveness, is going to be necessary in the days and months to come as violence continues to escalate. The only was to peace in our hearts, in our homes, in our churches, and in our country, is through forgiveness.

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