Monday, June 30, 2008

What is Forgiveness? The Story of Eva Kor

Last night, at community recreation, we watched a powerful film called "Forgiving Dr. Mengele." It is the story of one of the so-called 'Mengele twins', Eva Kor, who survived the Nazis' sadistic genetic experiments and eventually made the life-altering decision to forgive the Nazis (who killed her entire family) and even Dr. Mengele. There is more to the movie than I can justly relate here, and I highly recommend it. A few observations:

Kor is a remarkable human being. Her decision to forgive and 'go public' with that decision was not met with universal applause. In fact, many of her fellow Holocaust survivors forcefully questioned whether she possessed the right to make such a gesture. Should that not be left to God? Isn't it the case that she is able to forgive Mengele only because he is dead and can no longer harm her?

Her resolve to persevere in the message of forgiveness was put to a great trial when, in the film, she visits a group of Arab Palestinians, who describe the violence perpetrated against them by the state of Israel. In a poignant moment, a Palestinian says (paraphrasing), "We wanted to welcome the Jews, believing that after what had happened in the Holocaust, they would never want to see that kind of hatred and violence again. Yet here we are." It is clear that a decision to forgive does not end suffering, but invites to new levels of compassion. This was obviously a most difficult meeting for Kor, who lived in Israel for ten years before moving to the United States.

There seems to be confusion between several related concepts. Forgiving is not forgetting. Many in the film who opposed forgiving the Nazis worried that the Holocaust would be forgotten as a result. Kor is a clear instance where these two ideas are actually held together: she founded a Holocaust museum to help others learn about the sufferings of her people the Jews, and at the same time proclaimed her desire to forgive. Far from forgetting, one must clearly name the evil that is being forgiven. Also, forgiveness is prior to reconciliation. What Kor proclaims is not a desire necessarily to reconcile with Mengele, which would require some hard-to-imagine gesture of repentance and restitution on Mengele's part, were he alive (though impressively, she does reconcile with another Nazi doctor, Hans Munch, who was acquitted at Krakow). Reconciliation is a two-way gesture; forgiveness is something the victim does independently of reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot happen without forgiveness, and, more importantly, without some recognition of the harm being forgiven. This is why the sacrament of reconciliation requires confession of sin (naming and owning the sin), and penance or restitution accompanied by contrition (acknowledgement of the requirements of justice), as well as the prayer of absolution, which is God's grant of forgiveness as He represents the aggrieved party. After this, the penitent is received back into 'communion' with the God and the Church.

The refusal or inability to forgive binds the victim indefinitely to the sufferings caused by the perpetrator. This is Eva Kor's central insight. The act of forgiving restores the victim to full human status, from which an aggressor's actions reduced him or her. The wounds do not necessarily go away: for me the emblems of sin's transformation by forgiveness are the wounds of Jesus. When He returns from the dead, His wounds are still there--they are His identifying marks! His sufferings are not somehow forgotten. He sits now at God's right hand with scars as an eternal reminder. But these wounds are the source off sacramental grace in the Church, the source of life.

That said, an inability to forgive is not to be imputed as a failure on the victim's part. Another important part of Kor's story is her insistence of speaking in her own name and not for fellow victims. While she tangles with other Mengele twins at various points in the film, she does not shame them into forgiving nor judge them for their anger. Too often an appeal to Christian forgiveness is unjustly used as a way to quiet dissenters or those unjustly treated. We don't like to live with grumpy people or angry or vengeful people, and so we scold them for not forgiving. This won't get us anywhere. Eva Kor leads by example, and it is a persuasive one.


Maria said...

I had coincidentally, over the past day or so, spent some time contemplating Jesus' wounds, wondering how he would have felt about them, being Son of Man, yet Trinity. So then, it is worth considering Jesus' reconciliation with humanity, isn't it? How has this been addressed in liturgy? On another level, as someone who has experienced terrible violence and has forgiven it, I have wondered in the past how reconciliation comes about-I think it makes sense the way you explain it here. I remember being confused and actually going to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation about these incidences of violence-and having a priest tell me that they weren't my sins to confess. Thank God for his insight. I think that each person has to live her path in that respect, grappling with forgiveness, not quite understanding, but then later, hopefully through some Grace, finding the way.

The perpetrator needs to somehow participate in reconciliation. Sometimes forgiveness and reconciliation were linked so thoroughly, it was hard to find the way out of victimhood unless it seemed that some kind of revenge or justice would be done. But as we all know, life isn't fair and we can't expect it to be. So, the idea of a separate value of forgiveness, which frees a victim to some degree (as much as the damage itself does allow you to be free) and the value of reconciliation, which requires an exchange of some kind, is a very powerful idea.

Thank you for your words and insight.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - I hadn't heard of Eva Kor.

One that I've seen in the past year that was quite remarkable was "Sophie Scholl: The Final Years", which is about a college student in Germany who worked to oppose the Nazi regime. Quite compelling.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr.,
Should we try to forget, in the midst of forgiving? How about when forgiving ourselves? I struggle, I think, with letting go of past sins and accepting forgiveness even after I’ve confessed them.

Why, when Jesus returned from the dead, and now, sitting at God’s right hand, are His wounds still there? Does he suffer still? How about us when we confess sins? It seems our ‘wounds’ in the soul (and maybe in the body too) are still there, as a result of sin—the pain from sin lingers on. What meaning or impact does that lingering ‘woundedness’ have for Jesus and for us?

I find myself often doing that kind of quieting of dissenters, so as to avoid or cope with the grumpy people or angry or vengeful people. What are we to do, in the midst of that situation, when we have forgiven, but others have not? How do we retain our peace when we worry about the others who have not forgiven, but probably should have?

Peace of Christ


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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
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and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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