One of the books that most influenced my life is The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. It’s the true story of Wiesenthal’s experience in a concentration camp, from which he was pulled aside one day and lead to the hospital room of a dying SS officer. From his deathbed, the officer detailed his horrific crimes against humanity, and reasoned that the only way he could die with a clear conscience was to ask forgiveness from a Jew. Except the Jews he should have asked forgiveness from were murdered. He figured he could fulfill this request by talking to any Jew. Wiesenthal was selected at random.
Floored – because all Jews were the same, in that officer’s mind – Wiesenthal said nothing. The rest of the book is a collection of essays from religious leaders of all stripes about what they would have done in his place.
That book taught me most of what I know about forgiveness. Mainly, that the only person who can rightfully give it is the person who was hurt or offended somehow. But if the victim refuses, the offense remains an open wound, and the only other way for the offender to have resolution is to appeal to his God, who reflects himself in all humans.
What the SS officer was asking makes as much sense as requiring all 21st-century white Americans to apologize for slavery in 19th-century America. It’s an empty apology, because it is not within their right to give it. Recently, I’ve seen countless apologies in the blogosphere from pastors and Christians on behalf of all corrupt pastors and Christians. While the sentiment behind this gesture is well intentioned, it absolves the real offenders of personal responsibility. It doesn’t do much to comfort me, personally, when the offending person is still out there, offending without remorse. It doesn’t comfort me to read #NotAllMen tweets because I know “not all men” are assholes; I married one, after all. Rational people ought to be aware of that. I’m only interested in an apology from one specific man, but I know I’ll never get it. It’s rare for certain kinds of offenders to ever show a hint of remorse. Luckily, I’m not putting my life on hold for that. Real forgiveness is refusing to let the offense(s) poison your life.
In light of recent events, I’d rather see Christians prove with their lives that they are “not all like that.” Let’s not trivialize the suffering of people who are hurt and burned out by acting as if what happened to them is a rare occurrence. Let’s not be arrogant enough to assume responsibility for people whose actions we cannot control. The only time this is acceptable is when a mother apologized to me recently after her young son stepped on my foot. He couldn’t have been older than three or four, and when she said to him, “Apologize to her!” he blew spit bubbles instead. It was more than enough for me to see proof that that mother was doing her best to raise a well-rounded, socially considerate person. But at some point, we leave the shelter of someone else’s responsibility and must be held accountable for our own individual choices.