Wednesday, May 13, 2009


There was a debate on the radio on Tuesday as to whether accused Nazi death camp soldier John Demjanjuk should be deported to Germany to face war crime charges for his alleged complicity in 29,000 deaths that took place at the hands of the Nazi soldiers in World War II. Whatever your thoughts on the topic might be there is (at least) one spiritual lesson to take away from this discussion. It is spurred on by this comment made by a defender of the action of deportation and trial who happens to live in Youngstown, the city from which Demjanjuk was deported. He said that there are some things that “should never be forgotten and never forgiven.”

Lest anybody be confused, forgiving and forgetting are not Siamese twins. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that one who forgives must also forget. If every time you walked out of Mass on the weekend your pastor jumped out of the bushes and kicked you in the ankle and you very nobly said every time, “I forgive you and I forget!” next week when you walked out of the church you will be kicked in the ankle again.

Nowhere is it mentioned in Scriptures that one must needs forget NOR does it say that you must not let someone face the consequences of his actions. The most loving act in fact may be to allow another person to face the consequences of his actions that he might find opportunity to repent or amend his ways or to protect others who may be in their path of destruction. In these cases it would be foolish and unloving not to allow them to face the consequences of their actions as long as it was not matter vengeance but of justice and salvation.

What is involved in forgiving is relieving oneself of the tyranny of the other. It was said by someone, “To not forgive is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” If you are for Demjanjuk going to trial it cannot be for unforgiveness and vengeance. If that is the case he (if guilty) has succeeded in transforming you into the very thing you claim to hate. If it is for justice, for pricking the conscience of the world, for giving him the opportunity to face his deeds and hopefully at least privately repent, for making a statement that as a human race we will not tolerate these actions against any human person because as men we have inherit dignity given us by our Creator, then we have no choice. But to not forgive makes us the monsters we hate.


Wayne said...

I'm not sure if I've said it on this blog before or on another, but there is a movie that sort of explores this notion of facing the consequences of ones actions no matter how long it has been; it's called "After the Truth." The person on trial here is the "Angel of Death" doctor from Auschwitz (his name is escaping me at the moment) and is produced by Ignatius Press I believe. I would recommend checking it out.

Anonymous said...

Father, Thanks very much for these wise words. Sometimes, I need to forget something that happened so that I don't constantly rehearse the wrongs that can never be undone. To keep remembering them is not helpful. At other times, a long-forgotten hurt comes to the surface. Though I am no longer angry about the incident, it still brings grief to my heart. It's helpful to know that remembering the offense doesn't mean that I haven't forgiven it.

Carol said...

In light of having re-reviewed Abu Ghraib's and other very graphic graphics today in anticipation of a proposed wider release (that we NEVER make this mistake again), it behooves all Christians especially to consider this (attributed to Nietsche, but it could've come from our grand/mothers just as well): "If you fight monsters, guard against becoming one." Not all of us are invulnerable to a fury/pain which can spill over into downright hellish acts of hatred.

As for Demjanjuk, the man is 89, and God loves him no less than He loves any of us. That's the hard part of the Gospel: compassion, forgiveness, letting God be God --the author of life. But that's the transformative part of the Gospel, too. Demjanjuk's son didn't think he'd survive the trip. I'm presuming he did, but I'd have said let him finish out his days here. I don't know what makes any of us think a person who is (and he may not be) guilty of 29,000 deaths would have any kind of life anyway. Men -- none -- were meant to live with such things day in and day out, and I don't believe they do. Not really.

Wayne, there were many angels of death in the camps, in every camp, but perhaps the name you seek is Mengele.

Ugh. I feel like sleeping with the lights on tonight.

Good points, Father. Hard, but necessary.