Complicating Forgiveness

Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, 10/19/2014

I started undergrad as a pre-law student.  I thought at the time that religion, while interesting enough, could never have the same weight and challenge as issues of law, politics, even philosophy.  My second semester at college, I took an elective course on ‘Modern Religious Thought.’  In a few short weeks I was exposed to Bonhoeffer, Tillich, Boff, Neibuhr- the great guideposts of twentieth century religion.  By the end of the semester, I switched my major to religion, and a decade later started training as a minister.

My professor in that first class was a woman named Katharina Von Kellenbach.  Over the years since, I’ve gotten to know her better and learn more of her story.  Dr. Von Kellenbach is German, and grew up in West Germany in the years following World War 2.  She had an uncle, a sweet man whom she remembers bringing her candy and listening to her stories.  When she was a teenager, after he had died, she found out that he had been an officer in Hitler’s army- and the commandant of a concentration camp.

Much of Dr. Von Kellenbach’s life since has been taken up with working through this apparent contradiction: her kindly uncle was the same man who killed thousands of innocent people- and never seemed bothered by it.  Katharina recently spent several years going through recordings and transcripts of Nazi perpetrators conversations with their prison chaplains, and found this to be a common theme.  While many were unwilling to talk about their actions during the war at all, those that did expressed little to no remorse over the suffering they caused.  What do we do, what can we do in the face of such unrepentant evil, especially when, like Dr. Von Kellenbach’s uncle, it can be so hard to recognize?

I love Rheinhold Niebuhr.  In the responsive reading this morning, he paints a picture of a very human salvation, with hope faith and love serving the cause of a better world.  To my ears it is a very UUesq piece of writing from one of the great Christian minds of his generation.  There arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice, yes, and maybe here is a roadmap for us to bend it together- ending in what Niebuhr calls the final form of love: forgiveness.

Our Universalist tradition has a long history of talking about forgiveness.  Like many Christian traditions, Universalist thinkers and writers found deep truth in the story of the prodigal son.  Man of you probably know the story:  many years ago, a man had two sons.  One, foolish and eager to make his mark on the world, convinces his father to give him his inheritance early.  He travels to a foreign land and squanders it, returning years later to the family he wrong and left behind.  Much to the other, responsible son’s amazement and alarm, the father does not punish the foolish son, but instead welcomes him with open arms, saying ‘my son was dead but now returns!’

This is a beautiful story of a family made whole and wrongs forgotten.  It has been used for generations to describe the ideal of human- and yes even divine – forgiveness.  The father and son are upheld as a the example of the transformative work of forgiveness, bringing wholeness where there was brokenness, love where there was bitterness.

Yet I am troubled by the implications of using it as the model of justice and mercy in our society.  Forgiveness can be a wonderful, transforming thing, there is no denying that.  But when we talk about forgiveness as an integral piece of justice, or as something necessary to ‘move on,’ the expectation of forgiveness places an unfair burden on people who have already been victimized once, asking them to engage with and even be kind to the person or people who have done them wrong.

Second, an expectation of forgiveness often oversimplifies complex situations, expecting a simple division into the wrong and the wronged- while sometimes situations are not as clear cut.  Should Israelis forgive Hamas for its attacks?  Perhaps, but what about Palestinians’ forgiving Israel for the blockade?  And what right do we, so far from the situation, possibly have to tell either group they should forgive?

Lastly, all too often we hear the language of ‘forgive and forget’ in which letting go of guilt and anger is tied to de-emphasizing what took place.  The again can rob victims of their agency, softening the memory for society in order to get along better in the future- at the risk of forgetting as well any lessons learned.

So then if forgiveness is problematic as a societal expectation, what can replace it?  Surely not the retribution of violence inspiring more violence, with hurts and wrongs accumulating until there is nothing but hatred.

Von Kellenbach’s answer is to change the Biblical verses we use when talking about justice and reconciliation.  Rather than use the prodigal son, she suggests an equally familiar, if my darker story about two brothers: the marking of Cain.  The story goes something like this:

Long ago there were two brothers, Cain and Abel.  Cain, in a fit of jealousy, killed his brother Abel, hiding his brother far from home in a field.  God (for it was in the time God had conversations with us mortals) searched for Cain and Abel, but when she found only Cain, asked after his brother.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked, still angry and distraught over what he had done.

God, of course, being wise, knew what had happened and punished Cain, exiling him from his home and sending him out into the world.  ‘But surely,’ begged Cain, ‘those who know what I have done will kill me to avenge Abel’s death.’  But God, loving her son, placed a mark on him saying ‘all who see this will know what you have done, but they will also know that you are mine and to touch you in anger is to condemn themselves.’  So Cain went out into the world, carrying the burden of his wrongdoing but protected from violent retribution.

For my old professor, this is what she wants for her uncle and those like him- not to be killed themselves in vengeance, but to always be forces to confront what they did.  While I owe much to Katharina and her wisdom over the years, I think this interpretation misses the heart of the Cain story, and the opportunity for us as people of various faiths:  we all tell stories.  To me, this is the essence of justice, and the first step towards wholeness.  Not forgiveness, with the expectations it places on victims, but telling the story of what took place.

I spent two years living in Southern Africa, and while I was there grew to know and respect the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  In the years following the fall of apartheid, many in the black community wanted Nuremberg style tribunals to punish the crimes committed by former government agents.  Many white South Africans, on the other hand, wanted a blanket declaration of amnesty for all crimes committed under Apartheid by both sides.

The compromise proposed by Nelson Mandela and carried out by Desmond Tutu and others did indeed contain a clause for full amnesty, but with one critical condition:  Amnesty would be given to perpetrators of violence on either side if they if (and only if) they came forward and detailed the crimes they committed.  These confessions would be kept and published by the Commission, as a memorial to all that had been lost.  Thousands of people came forward in what Bishop Tutu still calls a miracle, speaking the truth about what they did and what they lost, and giving the world a detailed, nuanced understanding of South Africa under Apartheid.

Isn’t that what we, in our best moments, do in places like this?  In UU churches we are all storytellers, bringing our stories and our truths forward that we might all benefit.  Complicated, complicating stories that show we are all just human.  Touching, powerful stories that show we are all magnificently human.  Stories where we can see and acknowledge to brokenness in all of us, and even stories where we see ourselves in Cain.  In these stories we see ourselves sometimes as the victim, sometimes the perpetrator, and sometimes the outside stranger stopping to offer help.

Maybe Niebuhr was right, maybe in the end we will all be saved by forgiveness.  Certainly, it is a powerful forces for good, good for the forgiven and forgiver alike.  I’ve seen first hand the power of forgiveness to change lives.  It cannot be an expectation though- to do so wrongs those already wronged.

For my part, I tell stories, right here in places like this.  Churches are where we come to work this stuff out, in stories from pulpits, between pews, over coffee after the service.  In telling our stories we affirm and strengthen our shared humanity, and on our best days, learn from what has happened before and commit that it will not happen again.