Published in the Episcopal New Yorker (Fall 2014) with illustration, page 33

A Meditation on Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower”

by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson

The Sunflower:  On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal

Schocken Books, New York, 1997

Lately, I’ve been seeing sunflowers.

Everywhere.  Last week, I stood next to a deliveryman who had three huge bundles of giant sunflowers in his arms on the subway.  In a New Jersey suburb, I drove past a garden store that had large pots – vats, really – of giant sunflowers next to hay bales by the screen door.  The florist shop on Broadway near the Cathedral had vases of sunflowers punctuating the display of bouquets under the awning.  I even saw a movie last night whose opening credits included a slow pan across a sea of sunflowers in a field.

Now sunflowers are normally a cheery thing, big, bright, colorful, harbingers of harvest.  But like all things bright and beautiful they can sometimes signify an opposing force, darkness instead of light.  Vincent Van Gogh’s oil paintings depicting vases filled with sunflowers are both masterpieces of technique and disquieting in their odd, boiling quality, indicative of the restless spirit beneath the hardened paint.   And I’ve been rereading Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, an activity that can forever discolor one’s view of sunflowers, because in this book they are markers planted on the graves of those who died as “heroes” fighting for the Nazi Third Reich, splashes of living color honoring those who died in the service of evil.

The book’s plot line is simple yet endlessly provocative:  a mortally wounded German soldier wishes to confess his crime of setting fire to a building full of trapped Jews who perish horribly in the blaze.  Now near death and repentant of his part in that atrocity, he asks to talk to a Jew – any Jew – so that he can unburden his conscience, receive forgiveness, and die in peace.  Wiesenthal, a concentration camp prisoner at the time, is summoned to hear the Nazi soldier’s confession.  Having seen and been the object of incomprehensible brutalities by the Nazis, it takes all of his strength to even remain at the soldier’s bedside.  He does stay, however, and shoos flies away from the dying man’s wounds, listens quietly but resentfully, even hands him a glass of water at one point, but remains silent when pressed for forgiveness by the soldier.  After Wiesenthal leaves, the soldier dies. Back in the concentration camp, Wiesenthal finds himself troubled by his own actions, particularly by whether he had done the right thing by withholding forgiveness.  After the war, Wiesenthal seeks out the soldier’s mother, who idolizes her son, and he refrains from telling her about the crimes her son had committed, preferring to leave her with the undisturbed belief that her son was “a very good boy.”

Wiesenthal ends the book with a question for the reader:  what would you have done?  Then he asks that question of dozens of prominent religious leaders, politicians, human rights activists, authors, and artists, including Desmond Tutu, Albert Speer, the Dalai Lama, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Harry Wu.  These “responses” form the heart of the book, and raise a host of deep, complex, multivalent questions.  Here are just a few:

What right does someone have to forgive harm done to someone else?

Can a victimized people (as a group) forgive their brutalizers (as a group) – and if so, what of individuals within the victimized community who do not wish to forgive – does the forgiveness offered in their name deny their dignity as a person?

Must someone be truly repentant in order to receive – or even to be offered – forgiveness?

Does forgiving atrocities give “permission” for others to commit atrocities knowing that forgiveness is possible?

What right do those in a group that has not been victimized have to tell those who have suffered irreparable harm to “get over it” and forgive?

Is a future possible for a person or a people who have been deeply sinned against but who refuse to forgive?

Is there a kind of continuum of forgiveness, a “tipping point” beyond which forgiveness is not possible?

Is forgiveness possible without belief in a God who will provide ultimate judgment and justice?

Is forgiveness always a necessary prelude to reconciliation?

Here’s my confession:  I do not know how I would have reacted in Wiesenthal’s situation.  I am an Episcopal priest, yes, and I live in the painful yet awesome knowledge that I cannot survive without God’s constant stream of forgiveness and healing love.  But I also know that I am quick to condemn and slow to forgive, and I burn with anger when I read of atrocities – whether committed in the name of God or not – both in Wiesenthal’s book and in our daily news reports.  This anger does not transmute easily to forgiveness, especially since I, like many of us, feel called to fight injustice wherever we find it.  How does forgiveness jibe with our need to hold people accountable for their actions that harm others?

The subtitle of Wiesenthal’s book is “On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.”  We Christians know that in the gospels, Jesus tells us to forgive wrongs “seven times seventy” times; which is to say, always.  We know that Jesus forgave his own murderers from the cross, asking God to “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  We know that other followers of Jesus, like Saint Stephen, followed suit and forgave their killers as well.  And we have seen remarkable examples of forgiveness even in our own society, clear and shining examples of God’s grace, like the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, who forgave the man who slaughtered their children in their schoolhouse, and showed kindness and compassion to the gunman’s family back in 2006.

But it is the rare human being who not only has possibilities but limits on the capacity to forgive.  Most of us regularly withhold forgiveness, sometimes unconsciously, in the belief that it confers power upon us.  Often, we can feel that unforgiveness is toxic to our health spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically, yet it is as hard to give up as the most addictive drug.  And we don’t only harbor unforgiveness as individuals:  across our world nations fight war after war over grudges, slights, and disputes both current and long past, violence born of the desire for revenge and the lust for power.   This world of grief, death, and horror coexists daily with a world filled with astonishing beauty and shining spirits, abundant signs of light and life, healing and joy.

Have you been seeing sunflowers lately?  I have, everywhere.