I’ve been working through the topic of forgiveness all year. It is the theme of the upcoming book – Christian Bend (Fall 2017, Mercer University Press). It’s one of those God poetry things. I knew when I began writing this Appalachian tale that takes place in Tennessee and France that the last book would address the topic of forgiveness and redemption.
What I didn’t know when I began writing the first of the three books in 2005 was just how much personal & national forgiveness I would wrestle with as I concluded the books in 2016. There are things going on in all of our lives, deeply wounding things, about which we don’t speak. We gather during the holidays, or other times throughout the year and put those hurts aside in the interest of everybody just getting along. I’ve done it. I’m sure you have done it, too. There are many in this nation who are suggesting, some even demanding, that we do that now. For the sake of the country. Because we are all Americans. Or so the admonitions go.
But putting aside hurt is not an act of forgiveness.
Denying something hurt you deeply is not an act of grace. It’s just an act of denial.
Right now our country, our media, our leaders, our churches are participating in collective nationalistic denial. One that is being rammed down our throats every single day, everywhere we turn.
While at the Abbey last week, I read two books on the topic of forgiveness. They weren’t books I took with me but rather books I happened across while wandering the quiet aisles of Mt. Angel’s renowned library. One dealt with the topic of restorative justice and I’ll talk more about that very powerful book soon. But the other book is more of a call-and-response look at what it means to forgive, and are there instances where the wrong is too great for grace.
The Sunflowers by Simon Wiesenthal is as much of a study in ethics and nationalism as it is creative memoir. Wiesenthal, a Russian Jew, grew up in what is now a region of the Ukraine but was at that time Galicia. His father was killed in combat on the Eastern Front during World War I.
As a young man, Wiesenthal studied architecture at the Czech Technical University in Prague. He graduated in 1939 just shortly before the Nazi invasion of Poland. Wiesenthal would eventually became a writer and activist as a result of Nazi regime.
He, along with all the other Jews, including his wife, were required to “Register” as Jews. Then they were forced into labor camps. By the end of 1941, the Nazis had established the Lvov Ghetto, using forced labor. Then all the Jews were forced out of their homes into these internment camps, that, as you well know, became death camps. Thousands of Jews were killed there. Wiesenthal and his wife were eventually transferred to Janawoska Concentration Camp.
They survived, though much of their families did not. Nearly a 100 of their family members were tortured and killed, including Wiesenthal’s widowed mother who was routed from her home, too elderly to work, and killed at the Belzac Extermination Camp in 1942.
Without question, Wiesenthal suffered immense horrors under the Nazi Occupation. As an activist and author, Wiesenthal dedicated the bulk of his later life to tracking down and gathering information on fugitive Nazi war criminals like Mengele, Stangl and Eichmann. In 1985, Wiesenthal was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his work on behalf of the surviving refugees of the Nazi Occupation. Elie Wiesel was the finalist for the prize.
In The Sunflower Wiesenthal tells the story of an encounter he had with a young Nazi soldier who was badly wounded and in the throes of dying. I’m summarizing here, but it’s a gripping story you should seek out and read. The soldier, only 21, had grown up in a religious home. He had morals. He believed in God. He loved his family. He loved his friends. He loved his country.
It was the love of country that overcame him as it has so many young men and young women throughout history.
He, like so many, got caught up in the nationalist fervor that led to the rise of Nazi Germany.
The boy was dying and he knew he was dying. His head was bandaged up. Wiesenthal couldn’t even see his face. But the boy soldier grabbed his hand, and told him the stories of some of his most atrocious war crimes. Of how he set a house of over a hundred Jewish people alight and then shot those who had tried to flee the burning house by jumping out of the windows. Imagine if terrorists had stood on the ground below the Twin Towers and shot the people who jumped, picking them off one by one. That’s the sort of thing this boy soldier had done.
But now that he was dying, he wanted to make things right. He wanted to confess to a Jew his wrongs. Any Jew would do. So he sent a nurse to find one and she’d brought Wiesenthal to sit with him during those final moments of his life. A Jew by which the Nazi could seek atonement for his sins.
The dying soldier boy sought forgiveness from Wiesenthal.
Wiesenthal did not grant it.
So he puts the question to the reader: Was my silence at the bedside of the dying Nazi right or wrong?
And then Wiesenthal invites various thinkers, writers, theologians from around the world to respond with essays of their own, giving the reader insight into the complexities of forgiveness.
Here in White Evangelical America we are told all the time grace is simple. Here in White Evangelical America we are constantly dismissive of the complexities of grace and forgiveness and always willing to say to others we perceive as being less holy, less Christian to “Just get over it.”
We don’t really forgive very much in American culture. We just wrap ourselves in the worn and tattered cloak of denial and pretend we are clothed in the finest robes of shimmering grace.
One only need to look to the wars we have waged, continue to wage: international and domestic and personal to see evidence of that.
One of those who responded to Wiesenthal’s question was Dith Pran, a photojournalist, who survived the Cambodian genocide.
Pran noted all the things he had witnessed during the Khmer Rouge regime:
“As a witness to and survivor of the Cambodian killing fields, I could never forget or forgive what the top leadership of the Khmer Rouge has done to me, my family or my friends. It’s impossible. I blame the dozens of leaders, the brains behind a sadistic plot, who ordered the deaths of millions of people; including the disabled, children, religious people, the educated, and anyone who they thought was a threat to their ideas. My father died of starvation, my three brothers and sister were killed, along with many nieces and nephews, and cousins. Friends I had known all of my life and who worked beside me in the fields were taken away and killed. We lived in constant fear in the labor camps. There was no sympathy for us. All we could do was pray to God.”
Those pithy lines we Americans are so fond of quoting about unforgiveness seem meaningless in response to Pran or Wiesenthal or anyone who had endured the horrors of war or any number of injustices unknown to us.
Can I really tell the rape victim she really should forgive her rapist?
Do I even believe that?
“The key to forgiveness is understanding,” Pran writes, explaining that he will never be able to forgive the Khmer Rouge and the leaders who participated in the genocide because he will never be able to understand why they did what they did.
And that’s where I find myself.
Perhaps you, too?
I am a white woman. I have health insurance. I have money in the bank. I am neither lesbian nor trans. I am not a Muslim. I am not an immigrant. I am a Gold Star daughter which puts me in a class of exceptional distinction, as discombobulating as that might be. I’m a member of the DAR and formerly identified as a White Evangelical, which puts me in another especially protected subculture of a “Good Patriot.” I have the extra advantage of being blonde-headed and blue-eyed. Nobody ever looks at me with suspicion. Other than the occasional raised eyebrow over that Jewish sounding last name of mine, TSA agents generally smile at me and gently guide me through the express line. I’ve never been arrested, never owned a gun, don’t gamble, smoke pot, do drugs, never been homeless, never even participated in an actual protest march (although that is in the near horizon).
In Trump’s America I rank right at the top of “Exceptional Patriot.”
If I am to believe the propaganda machine at work right now, Trump is going to make me even more prosperous than I already am. I’m going to benefit from his tax plan. The investments we have are going to do very well in Trump’s America. We stand to make even more money under deregulation.
So why am I sitting here in my office trying to wrap my brain and heart around how I am going to forgive so many people I love for putting Trump in office?
This isn’t about being a sore loser. I’ve voted in lots of elections. Most of which my candidate lost, and yet never before have I been so despondent, so in shock, so disturbed over the future of this country.
I have watched in complete dismay as a man who said he had the right to grab a woman’s pussy has become the president-elect of this country. I have sat in stunned silence as people I love and care about have minimized Trump’s abusive remarks, discounted them, laughed them off as irrelevant to the job of a president, all the while praising NBC for firing the man who was with Trump when he said them.
I have to tell you, I’m having a difficult time forgiving those who voted for Trump for that reason alone. I can’t understand how anyone could marginalize and dismiss such abusive behavior, so I can’t forgive it.
I watched in utter horror as Trump demeaned the father and mother of a fallen soldier. As a Gold Star daughter, I am having a difficult time forgiving those who defended Trump’s actions as just party politics. I can’t forgive because I simply can’t understand how this abuse by Trump doesn’t matter. How can I trust that you honor my father’s death when you applauded Trump’s demeaning rhetoric toward this Gold Star family?
I cringed when Trump paraded women who claim to have been sexually assaulted before a national audience, exploited those women in a bid for power, completely cognizant that he was just using them as he is prone to do with all people. As if being sexually assaulted isn’t demeaning enough, Trump didn’t seek to give voice to these women as much as he sought to cause pain to others. And his supporters were gleeful, good show old man, great sportsmanship, way to one up your opponent. I can’t forgive that because as a sex abuse survivor, I simply can’t understand how people, any people, those who voted for him and those who didn’t, wouldn’t see this as the behavior of a deranged and mean-spirited man.
I am stricken numb at the attacks Trump lobs at journalists. He has repeatedly accused them of depicting him unfairly, when in truth they simply reported all the abusive and dangerous things he said. As a writer, a journalist, and an educator who taught First Amendment Rights, I am having a difficult time forgiving all those who have chimed in, either online or at the rallies, threatening reporters. These supporters of Trump seem to fail to realize the significance of the First Amendment. They are the same people who think peaceful protests need to stop. That the thousands across the country who are as troubled as I just need to accept an abusive demagogue as president. I can’t forgive Trump supporters for that because I can’t understand the desire to live in a country where you give up actual freedoms for the doubtful promise of prosperity.
I am sick to my stomach when I read the well-documented accounts of the white supremacy ideology that Steve Bannon has embraced in pursuit of power and money. This, I want to shout, is more dangerous than you can begin to imagine. Gut the First Amendment. Get shed of the free press. Bring in the state run propaganda. Elect a demagogue. Keep people fearful. Tell them you will take care of them. Require Muslims to register. Build a wall. Build up your law enforcement. Build up your army. Claim you are the only answer.
This is how it all gets started friends.
Nobody sees it at first, you know. At first blush nationalism looks like just common people being fiercely patriotic. One day you start out feeling all Fourth of Julyish, waving flags, cheering each other on, eating hot dogs, getting sunburned. Then before long, you begin to resent anyone who doesn’t look like you or your neighbors. The East Indian who owns the motel. The Muslim who runs the gas station. The Hispanic who runs the taco truck. They all become suspect, especially in times of economic instability. The more economically unstable a nation is perceived to be, the more suspect the outsiders become. Economic prosperity is the very thing Hitler promised well-meaning, good-hearted Germans, like the boy soldier Wiesenthal encountered.
I’m having a very hard time forgiving those in this nation who are sitting silently by, or those who have willingly participated in this hate campaign, or all those, so many now, who are now seeking to normalize Mr. Trump and his abusive quest for power.
Mr. Trump is not a leader. He’s an abuser. He is not normal. His campaign has not been normal. Nothing about him is normal. He’s dangerous.
I am going to be fine. But I don’t understand why such a small minority of voters are willing to put so many other vulnerable populations at risk and I can’t forgive what I can’t understand.
Unless I am to understand that you want exclude minorities, women, Muslims, Mexicans, blacks from power?
Don’t dare admonish me to give this man a chance. He’s had a multitude of chances to be a decent person, to be kind, to be inspirational, to be thoughtful, to be inclusive, to be honest, to be sorry or remorseful, to be good.
He is none of those things. And he shows no desire to be any of those things.
I will never accept him as my president.
I am simply heartbroken that a small percentage of voters have put this nation, and this world into such a dangerous position.
The question of forgiveness and the complexities of grace are on our horizon as a nation, as a people. Will we continue to be a land of the free or will we embrace the nationalism that threatens us all?
Will we seek ways of understanding one another or continue to put aside our differences and abide in a state of denial?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (Wm. Morrow).