Two Concepts of Forgiveness


[1] Each year at Augustana College, a faculty committee selects a book which all first-year students are encouraged to read over the summer prior to beginning their college careers. The book chosen for the 2007-2008 academic year was The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, an extended essay written by Simon Wiesenthal with responses by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Bishop Desmond Tutu and others. Wiesenthal recounts an episode in his experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Part of a work detail of 50 men, their forced march took them to Janowski Street in Lemberg, a street Wiesenthal knew very well, having "sauntered along it, as a student and later as an architect." They turned left on Sapiehy Street, on which the Technical High School was located. Wiesenthal recalled, "For years I had walked along this street several times a day, when I was working for the Polish diploma" (17).

[2] The Technical High School had been converted to a hospital. A Red Cross nurse asked him to accompany her. After climbing the stairs to the upper hall, the nurse asked him to wait by the door to what had been the office of the Dean of Architecture. A few moments later, the nurse returned, took him by the arm and pushed him through the door. The writing desk and other once-familiar pieces of furniture had been replaced by a hospital bed in which there was a dying man, his head completely bandaged with openings only for his mouth, nose and ears. From the bed, a weak voice asked Wiesenthal to come closer.


[3] The voice was that of a German soldier-a member of the hated SS. After recalling his childhood years and the events that led to his joining the SS, he spoke of an atrocity in which he had participated in Dnepropetrovsk during the Russian campaign. At the square in Dnepropetrovsk, there was a huddled mass of perhaps 200 civilians, all of them Jews, many of them children. A truck arrived with cans of gasoline, which the SS detachment forced the stronger prisoners to carry to the upper stories of a house. They then forced the prisoners to enter the house. A truck arrived with more Jews, who were also crammed into the house. Hand grenades were thrown through the windows to ignite the gasoline. Those who tried to escape were shot (31-43).


[4] Haunted by the memory of this horrific atrocity, the dying Nazi "longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness." Wiesenthal had been brought in to hear his confession. Wiesenthal listened but left without responding (54-55).


[5] The story is set against the backdrop of a very traditional notion of forgiveness-one that involves being pardoned and by being pardoned no longer being held liable for what one has done. This notion of forgiveness and the accompanying notion of absolution have traditionally played a significant role in Christian thought. For example, in Setting One of Holy Communion in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the presiding minister announces after the confession of sin:


In the mercy of almighty God,

Jesus Christ was given to die for us,

and for his sake

God forgives us all our sins.

As a called and ordained minister

of the church of Christ,

and by his authority,

I therefore declare to you

the entire forgiveness of your sins . . . (96).




[6] The notion of authority is intrinsic to this concept of forgiveness, be it in a religious context or in a secular setting. You and I do not have the authority to grant a pardon to someone convicted of a crime; only the governor of the state where the trial was held can do that or, in the case of a federal crime, the president of the United States.


[7] If that was the sense of forgiveness the dying Nazi had in mind, he had come to the wrong address. Wiesenthal was correct in observing, "If he had really rediscovered his faith in Christianity, a priest should have been sent for, a priest who could help him die in peace" (34).


[8] There is, however, also an entirely different sense of forgiveness. One of the most insightful (and least noted) Biblical passages tells of Jesus having dinner with tax collectors and other sinners:


And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Matthew 9.10-13 NRSV).


[9] The tax collectors of Jesus' day were notorious crooks who cheated taxpayers by charging them more than they owed and cheated the government by skimming off part of the take. Yet, here was Jesus dinner with them. The religious types were aghast! Didn't Jesus realize what he was doing?


[10] In this story, Jesus, of course, was in no way condoning cheating or any of the other terrible things the crooked tax collectors were doing. And when Jesus was paying whatever taxes carpenters and itinerant teachers paid in those days, I seriously doubt that he said, "I don't mind being cheated. Help yourself. Take whatever you want."


[11] That, however, is not the point of the story. Rather, the story serves to remind us that Jesus was able to see something most of us fail to see-the person behind the faults. While not excusing their conduct (more on the notion of accountability later), Jesus realized that even crooked tax collectors are human beings who are precious in God's eyes.


[12] The people most of us meet in day-to-day life have flaws of character of far lesser magnitude than the crooked tax collectors of Jesus' time or the dying Nazi whose confession Wiesenthal was summoned to hear. Yet we often magnify what we perceive to be the faults of others, making mountains of things that are trivial. By so doing, we block out any possibility of seeing their humanity. When we start criticizing other people for this and that, for wrongs that we perceive or imagine, it is very easy to overlook the fact that those with whom we share life on planet earth are real people just like ourselves. People who have hopes and fears, moments of joy and moments of sorrow, times of success and times of failure.


[13] In short, this second notion of forgiveness involves being able to see the person behind the faults without in any way excusing the faults or suggesting that she or he should not have to suffer the consequences for what he or she has done. Even though Wiesenthal did not respond to the dying Nazi's request for forgiveness, there is a certain sense in which he did extend forgiveness to the Nazi, for in this conversation under the most difficult of circumstances, he became aware of and recognized the humanity of Karl, the dying Nazi. This is underscored by the fact that after the war, Mr. Wiesenthal searched for-and found-Karl's mother. As Wiesenthal stood in front of Karl's portrait, his mother said of him, "He was my only son, a dear good boy." Wiesenthal made no attempt to persuade her that Karl was not "a dear good boy" (85-87).


[14] The second notion of forgiveness is part of what is at stake in the story of Jesus having dinner with tax collectors and other sinners - but only part. As noted in the text quoted above, when Jesus was questioned about what he was doing, he responded by saying, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." A longtime colleague who is now retired has frequently noted that, in contrast to the traditional view that repentance must precede forgiveness, it is often the other way around with the experience of being forgiven helping set the stage for repentance. In having dinner with the tax collectors and other sinners, Jesus was reaching out to them as human beings in the hope that they would change their ways and be restored to wholeness.


[15] It is worth noting that just as there are two contrasting notions of forgiveness, there are also two contrasting notions of salvation-contrasting notions that roughly parallel the two notions of forgiveness. The traditional notion of salvation, at least as it has developed in popular Christianity, characterizes salvation as being saved from the fires of hell by no longer being held accountable for the sins that one has done. It is, of course, this notion of salvation to which the traditional sense of forgiveness is closely linked.


[16] There is, however, a second notion of salvation, one that dovetails with the second notion of forgiveness. This second notion characterizes salvation as being restored to wholeness-i.e., a process of healing.  It is this second sense of salvation that was operative when Jesus used the metaphor of a physician to describe what he was doing when having dinner with tax collectors and other sinners to the consternation of the religious types of his time. Being restored to wholeness is often understood within the context of restoration of community. It is not coincidental that the story noted above involves a meal, for it is in sharing a meal that the fullness of community is often realized.


[17] Granted, repentance and restoration to wholeness do not always occur. Apart from Matthew, we have no way of knowing how many of the tax collectors and other sinners with whom Jesus had dinner-if any-changed their ways as a result of Jesus reaching out to them and treating them as human beings. That, however, does not exempt us from the obligation to treat all of our fellow human beings as human beings. That is something we ought to do simply because each person is precious in the eyes of God. And it is something we must do if we are to be a part of the process of healing and restoration to wholeness.


[18] Back to the notion of accountability. By wiping the slate clean, the first notion of forgiveness in effect says that those who are forgiven are no longer accountable for what they have done. It is, when all things are considered, escape from punishment.  In contrast, the second notion of forgiveness does not exempt wrongdoers from the consequences of what they have done. Indeed, part of the process of repentance and restoration to wholeness often is making amends for the wrongs that one has done.


[19] Several years ago while in Pittsburgh doing research for a book on intergenerational issues, I had occasion to have a conversation with Glenn Surgest, who had just been released from prison after doing time for homicide. "I know I can't bring that guy back," he noted with great sadness in his voice. "I took a life; now I want to give something back." The something he is giving back is helping others by being a good parent and a good friend. "God gave me the strength to change," he stated. "I'm lucky; I'm blessed. The friends I've got, I cherish them" (Lee, 140-141). Glenn didn't use the language of salvation to describe what he was experiencing, but that is what it was.


[20] The friend Glenn was helping when our paths happened to cross on a busy street in Pittsburgh was Tyia Carrington, who was struggling to deal with the paralysis resulting from multiple sclerosis. Like Glenn, he was doing what he could to help others, often visiting patients in the Veterans Hospital where he was treated and telling them, "God didn't bring us this far to leave us" (148-150).


[21] By challenging us to see the person behind the faults without in any way exempting others from accountability for the wrongs they have done, the second notion of forgiveness demands of us both love and justice. It is far easier to have love without justice or justice without love. Love without justice recognizes the humanity of others but brushes aside the question of accountability. Justice without love condemns others for the wrongs they have done and by focusing only on the wrongs they have done gives short shrift to their humanity. Neither is acceptable if one is to have an ethic of both love and justice, which is precisely what the second notion of forgiveness demands of us.    


[22] In placing so much emphasis on the second notion of forgiveness, I am not by implication suggesting that the traditional notion of forgiveness should be abandoned, though it has lost a good deal of its persuasive impact now that belief in a fiery hell has diminished. I am suggesting, however, that we would all do well to do a better job of seeing the person behind the faults, rather than just focusing on what we perceive to be their faults.


[23] Granted, this is sometimes far easier said than done. Even though seven years have passed since 9/11, it is still exceedingly difficult to look beyond the horrible acts of violence perpetrated at the behest of Osama bin Laden and gain any sense of his humanity.  There is a time for anger.


[24] But there is also a time for forgiveness. Why should we forgive others? It is as much for our own sake as for their sake. We all know individuals who have lived for years with chips on their shoulders because they cannot bring themselves to forgive those who have wronged them. Is that any way to live? Forgiveness sets the stage for healing, reconciliation and restoration of community, which, as noted above, are intrinsic to the second notion of salvation. Developing our forgiving skills is also essential if we are to realize our own humanity, for it is in discovering the humanity of others that we discover our own humanity.


Sources Cited:

Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Lee, Daniel E. Generations and the Challenge of Justice. Lanham, Maryland:

University Press of America, 1996.

Weisenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. 

Rev. ed. Trans. H.A. Pichler. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.




© September 2008
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 8, Issue 9