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Presented May 27, 2001, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

You might be aware that the day after Quincy University's graduation every year I begin teaching a two-week, intensive course called The Holocaust As Act and Idea. Often people ask me about this time of year: "How did you get interested in the Holocaust in the first place, since you are not Jewish?" I'm not exactly sure myself how to answer this question, except that I know a very long time ago that I decided to try to understand Christianity more deeply, and I soon realized that to do that would involve immersing myself in Christianity beyond the Protestantism I grew up in and with. So I've tried to understand Catholicism, too, and in doing that it became very obvious that if anyone really wants to understand Christianity he or she has to become more familiar with Judaism. So the best explanation I can give is that I came to an interest in the Holocaust out of a desire to understand the Jewish religion and culture, to understand it much differently than it is usually presented by and through Christianity. To understand Judaism through Christianity has got to be just about the worst way to understand Judaism, and I have always felt strongly that it is the ethical and spiritual responsibility of all Christians, all Unitarians, all religious and spiritual seekers, to understand Judaism in ways far deeper than the constant miss-perception of Judaism one tends to get reinforced over and over again in Christianity. The Holocaust makes this responsibility not only keener, more urgent, but in large measure and much worse, it makes it too late, after the fact, like Hegel's famous owl of Minerva.

There are many differences between Jews and Christians, much more simply than the fact that Christians and Jews believe very different things about the identity of one Jesus of Nazareth. I would like to focus here in this talk on only one specific but very important difference between Judaism and Christianity: how each tends to think about the concept of forgiveness and how God relates to the concept of forgiveness.

Most of you know from your own Christian backgrounds a lot about what Christianity says about forgiveness. In Christianity, the great value of forgiveness is constantly intoned. This is perhaps due largely to the influence of those two most important Christian thinkers, St. Paul and St. Augustine. We all sin in any number of ways, and because of that we all need God's forgiveness. In Christianity, sin is conceived of as largely a matter of falling short of God's glory and perfection. This falling short is, as Paul and Augustine insist upon, our essential human condition. Sin is conceived of essentially as sin against God. As sinners, we are all have sinned against God and are all in dire need of God's forgiveness. Without God's forgiveness, we are all doomed. In Christianity, everything for us depends upon God forgiving us our sins against Him. Fortunately for us, according to Christian theology, God shows us how incredibly and wonderfully forgiving He is by giving us his Son as a sacrifice for us. Since God Himself has shown himself the author, father and source of all forgiveness, we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Since God doesn't hold our sins against us, we shouldn't hold other people's sins against them. In Christian theology, compared to the incredible amount of sins all of us have piled up against God which He has forgiven us, we should certainly then be able to forgive others. Our forgiving others-compared to what God forgives-is the least we can do to say thanks to God for forgiving us. Our forgiving of others should be something like a snap.

So in the theology of Christianity forgiveness is not only encouraged but also even expected. The Christian perspective on forgiveness tends to be that if you are really in tune or in touch with God and His forgiveness then you will almost automatically be able to be forgiving yourself. Now since the Judaic traditions tend to think of God and the concept of forgiveness very differently-out of a very different theology, a very different understanding of God's relation to humans and their actions-Christians, judging from their own perspective and theology, have often thought of Jews as hard hearted and unforgiving people. A central element of Christian anti-Semitism in the west is the view that Jews should be more forgiving and the Christian view that since Jews aren't as forgiving as Christians are, this shows that the Jews are in touch with their laws and traditions, but not in touch with the true spirit of God.

There's actually a famous philosophical encounter that illustrates this Christian prejudice against unforgiving Jews rather perfectly. In 1957 there was a chance encounter between the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger, of course, had himself been a Nazi for several years and had played an important role in legitimizing Hitler's reign in Germany during the early years. According to Buber, the two talked about many issues, including guilt and forgiveness. The Jew Buber did not grant forgiveness, and the German Nazi Heidegger did not ask for it or recognize guilt. Now if he had asked for forgiveness, should Buber have granted forgiveness to Heidegger? Now, from a Christian perspective, since God forgives all of us, the answer is obvious: yes, we should forgive. But Judaism thinks this business of God and forgiveness differently, and most of the Jewish intellectuals of the time said no, Buber should not grant forgiveness to Heidegger. And about them-those non-forgiving Jewish intellectuals--the famous Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel said "What Pharisees are these, who want to prohibit reconciliation and forgiveness."

The Jewish intellectuals who didn't believe Buber should forgive Heidegger seemed to Marcel and to other Christians harsh and unforgiving, out of touch with God's forgiving spirit, but they were probably simply thinking about forgiveness in a profoundly Jewish way. The rabbis in the Talmud say over and over again that the sin God is concerned with is not sin against Him. God, they say, can take care of Himself. The sin that is most heavy and most momentous is the sin of one human being against another, what I do to you or you do to me. And the rabbis ask themselves: Does God forgive me for what I do to you? Should I ask God to forgive me for what I do to you? And the rabbis suggest that what God cares about is not that I ask God to forgive me, is not the harm that has been done to Him by my actions, but rather what God is much more concerned about is the damage that has been done in the word by my actions toward you. And the rabbis argue that by me getting forgiveness from God for what I have done makes me feel better, but has it done anything about the hole in the world that is opened up when I harm you? Some rabbis even say that God's chief concern is not my good conscience but is this hole in the world opened up by my damage of you, and some rabbis even suggest that even God Himself can't heal the hole in world my actions have created, that only I can do that. That repair of the damages I have done, that is only something I can do with you, only something we can work out together, when my guilt and my desire for to heal the harm I have done meets your forgiveness and between us we reach reconciliation. Without that, there is still the hole in the world that my actions have created, and God-who takes human actions so seriously that He cannot forgive me for what I have done to my fellow humans-mourns the hole in the world and seeks along with humans to heal it.

So the Jewish intellectuals who were saying that Buber should not forgive Heidegger were not being hard hearted or unforgiving but were speaking from a different view of God and of forgiveness. They were saying that in supporting National Socialism Heidegger harmed all of its victims, and Buber cannot forgive Heidegger on behalf of all of his victims. They were saying that forgiveness and reconciliation must not be between Heidegger and Buber but must be between Heidegger and all of the people who were damaged by what Heidegger did. And for arguing that, which is simply both a very beautiful and a very Jewish way of thinking about the seriousness of the damages Heidegger did, they were called Pharisees by a wonderful Catholic mind and were accused of being opposed to forgiveness and reconciliation.

And into this scene enters Jean Amery, the Auschwitz survivor and victim not only of the worst of the death camps but of horrible Nazi torture techniques. By the time he writes his memoirs some twenty years after the events he is doubly damaged and angry, not only at the Nazis and the people who supported them and allowed all of it to happen but also at the years after themselves, at the many times during those years people said to him: " You know, you really need to let go of this and move on. Forgive and forget." And Amery, in an essay called "Resentments," in which he spits his words out, he says that in these twenty years he has come to believe that "a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral." He says that those who encourage forgiving and forgetting the events of the Holocaust do not know the moral truth of what happened. He, the victim, he knows. "Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but more than society-which only thinks about its continued existence." Jean Amery has had it with all talk about forgiving and forgetting. The Flemish man who beat him with a shovel or the German Gestapo men who tortured him have never come to him for reconciliation. And he is certainly not interested in a concept of a God who would dole out forgiveness to these people who have done this to him without coming to him first! Jean Amery is himself the hole in the world the rabbis talk about in the Talmud.

I never met Jean Amery, this hole in the world, but recently I met a person very determined not to be one. Eva Moses Kor, a twin and a survivor of Dr. Mengele's notorious experiments on twins in Auschwitz, did something astonishing on her return to Auschwitz in 1995. She uttered a Declaration of Amnesty. At the Holocaust conference recently she explained why she did this. She had gone to Germany to talk with one of the German physicians who had been involved in the experiments. Now an old man, of course, when he met her he was very remorseful and said that what had happened was very wrong. He asked her for forgiveness, and this experience she said had changed her. It had enabled her to let go of her resentments and forgive, and that is why he proclaimed her amnesty at Auschwitz.

And don't you just wonder how many times already her action of granting amnesty has been put forward as a great example of Christian love and forgiveness? As she talked about forgiveness at this Holocaust conference recently you could just see some people in the audience become very excited and happy and others become uncomfortable and wary. And although it is likely-even inevitable-that her amnesty statement will be in interpreted in our culture within our dominant Christian understanding of God and forgiveness, as she spoke at the conference and as I talked to her later what she was saying about forgiveness not only seemed very Jewish but even reminded me of Jean Amery. She wasn't talking about forgiveness because she was talking about God or feeling forgiven by God for something. She made it clear that she was granting amnesty for all the perpetrators of the Holocaust in her name only; she wasn't forgiving them in everyone's name; she came to the spiritual goal of forgiveness not through God's forgiveness but through another human being expressing sincere remorse and actually asking her for forgiveness; and she was saying that Holocaust survivors and other victims should think deeply about forgiveness not because that was what God does or wants from us, but because she was saying in her own experience being able to forgive saved her from being angry, resentful and joyless her entire life. She was saying that forgiveness was the way to stop being a hole in the world. She was recommending forgiveness as the way to spiritual survival.

If we were closer to Judaism and understood it better, I think we could understand what Eva Kors is saying about forgiveness without turning her into a Christian. And perhaps we could as a culture think about our own experiences in a different way theologically. Instead of thinking about what God will do about Timothy McVeigh or about Bob Kerry and his actions in Viet Nam, about how God will judge them in the end and whether God will forgive them, we could think about the results of their actions as gaping holes in the world. We could think about the idea of a God the rabbis give us, of a God who takes most seriously the actions humans do to one another, so seriously that these actions are capable of creating holes in the world, holes he refuses to repair Himself so that human effort themselves will heal them and perhaps learn not to make in the first place.

©2001 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2001. Forgivenness, (accessed July 9, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.