A Sunflower Reflection; or, On My Fears of Forgiveness

As a murderer lies dying, the representative of the murdered hears his confession. In essence, it is a double confession: words spoken from the mouth of the Nazi of the atrocities committed during his reign as superhuman; thoughts reflected upon in the mind of the Jew of the atrocities committed during his imprisonment as subhuman (37). The story, encapsulated in the book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal, is a philosophical and theological reflection related to the Holocaust, specifically, and humanity, generally. Being in a course on the Holocaust and the Churches this semester, I was assigned to read it this week, and as I am a writer, I wanted to essay through some thoughts on the matter.

The book itself is the narrator’s wrestle with his response to a dying SS man who asks for his—and, hinted at, subsequently all Jews, or perhaps the Jews the SS man has murdered—forgiveness. The narrator does not respond to the man to offer his forgiveness, but he does sit with the dying man to hear his confession. The text wrestles with the narrator’s response. The final question Wiesenthal places before the reader comes at the close of the story: “You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, ‘What would I have done?’” (98).

In approaching this question, I’ve thought about it through the frame of the various identities that make up one Adam James McLain. I thought of the murders of Mormons, both to them and by them. I thought of Stonewall and queer liberation, the lives lost. I thought of indigenous genocide at the hands of a land of freedom. I thought of atrocities caused through wars that I have, inevitably and inadvertently, supported. I thought of electroshock and conversion therapy in all its pernicious forms. I thought of suicides of queer youths, blood spilled at the feet of God. Framing it in this way allowed me to picture myself on both sides: that of the murderer and that of the murdered. This is, of course, not to say that my own identity or my own experiences supersede those that occurred to the victims of the Holocaust. It is to say that I am attempting at something that is impossible—understanding—but I hope the attempt in and of itself is enough to help me in my sphere of influence grow.

My answer to the question is that I fear that I would offer forgiveness to the murderer as he lay dying.

I am afraid of this reaction because of the perceived charity I think I hold toward other human beings. I am a creature who does not like others to be uncomfortable; I tend toward appeasing those around me so everyone is taken care of. I want all to be satiated and cared for, even at the cost to my own well-being. As such, I worry that my internalized drive to make sure everyone around me is all right would urge me to forgive him.

But even more, I fear my response of forgiveness because I am not sure I should offer forgiveness because of three thoughts on the matter:

1. I am not representative of the people who have died. In life, when they could assign this office to me, they did not have the opportunity; so who am I to represent them in absolving someone of the actions committed? (This is dealt with in the text through the narrator’s friend Josek, [65].)

2. I am not sure, and probably never will be entirely positive, that someone who commits atrocities like murder should ever be forgiven—let alone absolved—of those actions. 

2a. When I was an active participant inside Christianity, I was told over and over again that God is who we should leave to judge those who commit sins such as murder (see Genesis 9:6; Exodus 20:13; Matthew 19:18; Alma 39:5–6; D&C 42:18, 79). However, I think this is a tactic of denial that allows a person to set aside wicked acts of fellow human beings and remove from themselves their life and conscious because of the level of difficulty required to think through our societal reactions to these types of actions. I hope, as I continue my life and career, to be able to form responses to terrible atrocities so we, as a society, can move toward a justice that can never be completely whole, but is utterly necessary for the prospect of healing and growth. That requires, though, for all of us to think deeply, ponder profusely, and determine rightly the best—not simply the most righteous—choices. 

(Wiesenthal deals briefly with this question: “But ere long priests, philanthropists, and philosophers implored the world to forgive the Nazis. Most of these altruists had probably never even had their ears boxed, but nevertheless found compassion for the murderers of innocent millions. The priests said indeed that the criminals would have to appear before the Divine Judge and that we could therefore dispense with earthly verdicts against them, which eminently suited the Nazis’ book. Since they did not believe in God they were not afraid of Divine Judgment. It was only earthly justice that they feared” [85, my emphasis].)

3. I am not sure how a level of repentance and forgiveness could be reached to ever provide atonement for those who have passed; I do not believe that level can be reached on a deathbed; as such, I am not sure I should cheat those who have passed by providing forgiveness. Wiesenthal states that “forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision” (98). Forgiveness is an act; but so is repentance and the seeking of forgiveness. Action, volition, on both parties’ account, is required, and I am just not sure what form of action could inspire a level of repentance that could provide forgiveness to one who has murdered.

Many of these thoughts, as I strive to constantly say, are not final. Even a published book is never the final word on a subject. As such, I will continue to think on these thoughts, and I hope you can join with me in thinking.