Thoughts on Forgiveness

“As ministers to their countrymen at arms, German chaplains had an immensely difficult job. Hostile military, state, and party authorities made their work even harder. Some chaplains showed fortitude in bypassing and even defying orders that limited their freedom of operation. Nevertheless, most weighed in on the side of the perpetrators, condoning and blessing their acts through words, actions, and silence.” (Bergen 2001, 232)

Defendants in the dock at the Nuremberg Trials

Choices, behaviors, commitments and betrayals enacted by clergy in Nazi Germany and during the Holocaust can shed light on how theological constructs affect collective and individual actions; how crisis situations short-circuit intellectually-reasoned moral codes; and how different theological constructs put forth by influential religious leaders can lead to distinctly destructive ramifications in history.

How clergy handle every level of a situation of a political crisis—the religious doctrinal and textual treatment of the issue, experiences of people to whom they minister, and threats of an authoritarian state that reinforces minoritization and disempowerment of the targets of persecution—reveals their fundamental values and agendas. The connection between clergy, congregant, crisis and conduct are my abiding fascinations.

A quandary that I confront again and again in my study of religion is the tension between wounding and healing. Religion provokes the best and the worst in us, touching raw nerves and illuminating deep longings and fears, and its intimate power has been employed to ends both just and horrific throughout history. Religious texts and frameworks can be employed to promote pluralism and cooperation between different traditions, or to rationalize marginalization, prejudice and violence. Religion can be wielded as a weapon or a window, a hammer or a mirror, a cage or a glimpse into harmonious eternity. In such contexts as the contemporary United States and Holocaust-era Germany, both rife with affronts to civil rights and the ascendancy of conservativism and nationalism, religious intolerance and power politics can easily become perilous.

The role of religion in the Holocaust is complicated by questions about political agendas, social exclusivism and racism. A focused examination of the role of the religious individual in this time can elucidate the momentum of Hitler’s authoritarian state and how citizens coped with this crisis. An examination of the choices of Christian churches and military chaplains in Nazi Germany, whether complicit or subversive to the Nazi state, can shed some light on fundamental ethical issues facing contemporary clergy of all traditions. I am also curious about the period after the fall of Hitler’s Reich, when war crimes came to light and citizens and local clergy were forced to confront their own involvement in the heinous events at Auschwitz and other Holocaust death camps. Beyond complicity, there was the issue of restoration, a thorny issue indeed; the grey area of Post War reconciliation, apologies, and confessions is immense, and vital.

My confusion about religion’s capacity to hurt and to heal is most relevant in the aftermath of destruction. Victims of brutality and holocaust—and to a lesser but certain extent, those victimized through perpetration and witnessing—suffer a sudden toppling of idealism, of belief in the simplicity of living right and keeping up hope. After savagery and bloodshed comes damage control; after physical wounds heal, psychic trauma surfaces with its own vengeance. Religion is full of rhetoric about forgiveness, apology, compassion and also reconciliation. I often worry that forgiveness and compassion are misconstrued to re-empower offenders and re-harm victims.

Compassion is upheld by Christianity, by Buddhism and by most of the world religions, as a major component of forgiveness. I am concerned that compassion and forgiveness, when applied without limits, bear hazardous shadow sides. In working with survivors of intimate violence, I repeatedly observe the confluence of compassion and condonation of violence. Victims are asked to relate to, to feel pity and tenderness for, the humanity of the abuser. Victims are summoned to place offenders into a better light. In the case of domestic abuse where the victim often has a positive attachment to her abuser, compassion can feed her hope for reconciliation and a bright future. Compassion can inaccurately humanize sociopaths who have no capacity for empathy or transformation. Forgiveness, too, is confused with the obligation to reconcile with an abuser (especially if the abuser is persuasive about his reformation). Forgiveness quickly becomes a burden for victims, constructed into a litmus test of spiritual fortitude. Forgiveness is often equated with re-engagement. And yet, forgiveness is a process that frees the victim, not the perpetrator, and is crucial for the survivor to build a life she wants to live again. A forgiveness practice can counteract crippling bitterness or grief.

My experience on this topic is mostly in the realm of intimate violence. Violence on the scale of the Holocaust is hard for me to imagine. I have been reflecting on the above quote because, no matter what actions German chaplains took during the Holocaust, no matter how paralyzed or conspiratorial they were during the war, after the Reich fell they all had to cope with the collective trauma, guilt, horror, and alienation of their country-people. How did clergy speak to former perpetrators, the defensive sociopaths, the blithely unaccountable, and the conscience-tortured, about what they had done to the death camp prisoners? How did they broach confession and apology? What feelings of inadequacy, guilt or presumption must they have experienced when broaching forgiveness to victims of the Holocaust? How did they begin to think about their own role in the healing process for Germany, which had suffered its own losses and would be demonized for decades to come around the world?

In my line of work and study I’ve spent some time thinking that forgiveness, like liberal idealism, could benefit from boundaries and realism. What are the boundaries between compassion and complicity, between compassion and self-pity? How do we recognize when forgiveness and empathy threatens our dignity? How do we keep forgiveness linked to an accurate assessment of the evildoer’s potential for change? How do we orient compassion toward survival, thriving, and freedom? How does forgiveness fit with disengagement?

I have sought for answers in the thoughts of Martin Luther King, Jr.  King, in Strength to Love, insists, “Forgiveness is a reconciliation, a coming together again” (King 1963, 45). For King, forgiveness equates to continued engagement with the offender so they can see the victim’s humanity, feel contrition and then transform. I heartily disagree. That theory assumes that the abuser has the capacity to recognize and be moved by the humanity of another, or has any capacity for self-awareness and transformation. I argue that disengagement is the only way to healing of both parties, and that disengagement cannot be laced with compassion or tenderness or love or fondness, because then victims stay psychically linked and spiritually depleted. King here seems to insist that it is the abuser that must be loved back. But I think it is the abused who must find the strength to break from her idealistic inclinations to heal the other with her love, and seek out healing elsewhere.

My friend recently remarked that forgiveness that aims toward reconciliation is more classically Christian, whereas forgiveness that aims toward disengagement is more classically Jewish. Could that be true? Could these two traditions regard such a basic human experience as forgiveness in completely, and qualitatively, different ways? It makes sense, given their historical positions.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is right to acknowledge, “The evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is” (ibid.). But even if the victim of brutality is able to admit to some salvageable attribute in her aggressor, she is not then responsible to mediate enlightenment or redemption to him. This is the role of those who rebuild a world after destruction; this is where the chaplains of the smoking battlefield or the prison come back in and root out the seed of good submerged in the worst of humanity, and foster it back into the world. This is not the role of counsel to victims.

I suspect that this must have been the tactic adopted by post-war German chaplains when they confronted the mess of their collapsed country: excavating what humaneness remained within the hearts of those victimized by perpetration and witness. For, undoubtedly, this population ached for healing too, albeit perhaps of a different fashion than did the victims of the Holocaust. Forgiveness, apology and confession—these words don’t seem to go with “Holocaust.” But do they? Did they? How can they? How can a victim decide whether their forgiveness practice behooves reconciliation or disengagement?

“Being religious means asking passionately the questions of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.” – Paul Tillich


Bergen, Doris L. “Totalitarianism: German Military Chaplains in World War II and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy.” Church History 70.02 (2001): 232.

King, Martin Luther. Strength to Love. New York: Fortress Press, 1963.


Downloaded from various websites; located via Google image.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Forgiveness

  1. I’ve only now read this post, but I find it ironic that you conclude with an image of the title page to Milton’s “Apology,” which is not an apology in the modern sense, but rather a very spirited defense of, among other things, the rough and abusive language he had leveled against Bishop Hall in the “Animadversions” alluded to in the title. I guess I’m just curious why you chose it–and hoping, as a Milton aficionado, that there’s some profound comment on Milton’s engagement in the antiprelatical cause lurking behind your choice.

    Milton geekiness aside, I truly appreciate this very thoughtful and practical reflection on forgiveness.

  2. First of all, I am very impressed by your scholarship. The fact that I have no idea what I post when I google-image things like “forgiveness” and “hateful propaganda” and “insincere apology” is hereby shown to be a most unscholarly way of making my posts more funny, albeit blissfully ignorant. I also do not know what antiprelatical means–does it relate to the Lateran councils? In any case. thank you for the note and the education 🙂

  3. Looking back over my comment, the tone seems a bit condescending–I’m sorry for that. In fact, I’ve found the ideas in your piece very helpful in some recent conversations with friends about situations that call for forgiveness, so thanks again. And your posts _are_ funny, so keep ’em coming!

    “Antiprelatical” means “against prelates,” or against the idea that bishops should be lordly, i.e., controlling lands, living in palaces, exercising political power. Some consequences of the movement in which Milton was participating were the expulsion of the English bishops from the House of Lords, the trial and execution of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the abolition of the office of bishop in the Church of England.

  4. no worries, jason. i didn’t really even pick up on any condescension; i’m too self-conscious about my own scholarly gaps.

    i am totally obsessed with this topic and i find this post of mine to be boring, wordy and expired to my own mind. time for an update post.

  5. Interesting post. Thanks for it. It reminds me of Karl Jaspers “The Question of German Guilt,” where he admits the German peoples culpability in the rise of National Socialism.

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