Forgiveness and Justice
Like many Jews throughout the country, father did not take the Nazis too seriously at first. How could the solid, cultured Germans fall for that nonsense? But when Hitler became chancellor, well-wishing friends advised my parents to leave Germany. So my father took leave of his beloved homeland, where he was born and raised, and for which he had fought in the First World War. Mother and I followed shortly, and we were reunited in Strasbourg, just over the French border. We took with us only a few of our possessions. It was the end of our normal, accustomed way of life; we had become homeless, wandering Jews, without a nationality and without rights.
For me, a curious three-year-old, it was an exciting time. I quickly learned new customs, a new language, and I made new friends. But a year later we had to move again; as German refugees, we were considered a security risk in border areas. We went to a village in the Vosges – another change. My parents had to learn new trades and a new language, to adapt to a very different culture, to do without most of the comforts of their previous lifestyle – and before that, to make a living under difficult circumstances…
A year later, the factory that employed my mother burned down, which necessitated another move, this time to Marseille. Again my parents tried to eke out a living, and they built up a rather precarious existence. We frequently changed apartments, which meant I frequently had to change schools and friends. I never had the chance to form lasting relationships…
Then the Second World War broke out, and everything went to pieces. I was a stranger again, and an alien one on top of that…France was invaded and then occupied by the German army, and soon the Gestapo were making arrests…Our apartment and my parents’ business were confiscated but, with the help of French friends, we went into hiding. Finally my parents decided that our only hope of survival lay in escaping over the Pyrenees to Spain. After walking for three days through snow-covered mountains, the Spanish Guardia Civil (border police) caught up with us. Luckily they let us through – as they did most of the nearly 10,000 Jews who illegally crossed into Spain. Had we been shipped back to France, it would have meant sure death…
As it was, we were torn apart at the Gerona police station. Father was sent to a camp in Miranda-del-Ebro, and mother to the local prison. I was left behind on my own. I spent the most miserable night of my life alone in a freezing cell, thinking I had lost my parents forever. The next day I landed in Gerona’s orphanage, which did little to improve my spirits. There I turned thirteen (the age Jewish boys are received into the congregation of the faithful) – and missed my bar-mitzvah…
After a few months I was sent to join my mother, and together we were transferred to a prison in Madrid. Later the whole family was reunited, and in 1944, with the assistance of the Jewish Joint Welfare Committee, we were able to move to Palestine.
In spite of all the suffering the Germans caused my family and my people, I still feel attached to their history and culture, which I absorbed through my parents. I have done my best to recreate links with decent Germans. Still, I can never forget the six million Jews – including 1.5 million innocent children – who were tortured and exterminated by the Nazis and their helpers.
If forgiving means renouncing blind hatred and feelings of revenge – yes, then it is possible. I forgive those who stood by helplessly, and those who did not dare to speak up. I know how much courage it takes to stand up to authority and to oppose the kind of terror the Nazis imposed. But what about the monsters who committed the worst atrocities in human memory? Is it possible to forgive Hitler and his henchmen, his SS commanders and soldiers, his death-camp guards, his Gestapo officials? Is it possible to forgive torturers and murderers who starved, machine-gunned, and gassed hundreds of thousands of helpless men, women, and children? Are there no limits to forgiveness?
David’s question is, I think, not motivated by resentment toward the exterminators of his people, but by a fear that forgiving them would somehow spell exoneration. As someone committed to doing what he can to ensure that similar atrocities never happen again, he cannot bring himself to release them of their responsibility and guilt. And he shouldn’t. Who could ever take it upon himself to excuse a man like Hitler? But forgiveness is not about excusing or exonerating people, nor is it about weighing the morality – or immorality – of their actions.
Writing in 1947, when the full horrors of the Holocaust had only just come to light, C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.” Most people, he suggested, don’t like to admit when they’ve done something wrong, so they make excuses for their actions. (In the case of the Nazis, thousands of Germans said after the fall of the Third Reich that they were “only following orders.”) Instead of asking for forgiveness, they try to get others to accept their excuses and “extenuating circumstances,” and to see that they aren’t really to blame. But, Lewis continued, “if one is not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.”
Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the person who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness. while wiTnessing The beaTing of a young man by sheriff’s deputies from the Los Angeles Police Department, Roberto Rodriguez decided to photo-graph them. Before he knew it, he was attacked by the same club-wielding officers.
Hospitalized with a cracked skull, he was then jailed and charged with attempting to kill the officers who almost took his life. Roberto, now a nationally syndicated columnist, fought back, and after seven long years, he won both an acquittal and a federal civil rights lawsuit.In the meantime, however, his attempts to challenge the system made him a marked man:
Once during this time I was handcuffed to a bench in a police station, with my picture posted over me, and an article detailing my legal battle with the police department. Each officer who passed by was told not to forget who I was. Apparently they didn’t, because during the next few years I was continually harassed – and arrested about sixty times.
Ask Roberto what he thinks about forgiving, and he has answers. But he has plenty of questions, too.
You ask me about forgiveness? Do I need to forgive the deputies who beat me, who made me believe – in the middle of the night – that they were driving me to my final destination? Do I need to forgive the officers who falsely arrested me and relentlessly pursued me, the district attorney who filed charges against me, the prosecutors who tried to put me away? Do I need to forgive the politicians who wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot pole when I pleaded with them for help, or the reporters who painted me as a criminal? And what about my own lawyer, who abandoned my case two days before trial?
I realize that we cannot be fully human if we have hatred within us – if we are consumed by anger or harbor resentment. These emotions define our lives. Especially for someone who has been brutalized and dehumanized, getting rid of these debilitating emotions is fundamental to healing. But doing that also means searching for something else to fill the void: searching for what it actually means to be human. I began that search in 1998, on my birthday, when I sang for the first time in almost thirty years. A few months later, I started to paint, and then to write fiction. I had finally begun to regain my humanity.
I still haven’t completely recovered from my trauma, but at least I can smile, laugh, and love life once again, and I can make others laugh and smile. I sing at rest homes and senior centers. I arrived at this through my pursuit of justice, though also through prayer and meditation.
Though thousands of minorities suffer similar mistreatment, most are not so fortunate as Roberto. Most never see justice served. Should they too be expected to forgive their oppressors? Roberto thinks they must, and not only for their own sake: Because these abuses continue year after year, there is a lot of bitterness on America’s streets, especially among those who have been brutalized and falsely imprisoned. Some are zombies. Others are walking time-bombs, filled with hate and ready to explode. And they do explode. Look what happened in Los Angeles in 1992, after the Rodney King verdict. Tragically, such outrage usually hurts the very people it is supposed to avenge: family, friends and neighbors.
All this is not a personal tragedy, but a societal one. It is like an out-ofcontrol disease. Far from being a cure, forgiveness is in this realm a luxury at best. Yet precisely because there continue to be such gross injustices, those who have been dehumanized need to forgive – to heal on their own, without waiting for apologies. Forgiveness does not require apologies. Of course this does not mean simply folding one’s arms and going merrily home, oblivious of ongoing injustices. It simply means that as one struggles to regain one’s humanity and fights for one’s rights, one can do so without anger, hatred, and bitterness.
To be more specific: forgiving one’s brutalizers may help them toward becoming more human. But it is only part of the solution. As a society, we have learned that people who commit acts of violence such as torturing or killing others need more than forgiveness if they are to be prevented from committing similar crimes again. They need to be treated. A brutalizer will never find true peace until he exorcises his own demons.
After louisiana businessman Bill Chadwick lost his son, Michael, to a drunk driver, he “wanted to see justice done.” Like Roberto, however, he discovered that justice alone couldn’t bring him the closure he was looking for. My twenty-one-year-old son Michael was killed instantly on October 23, 1993, in a car crash. His best friend, who was in the back seat, was also killed. The driver, who had been drinking heavily and was speeding recklessly, received minor injuries; he was subsequently charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. Michael had only a trace of alcohol in his system, and his best friend had none.
The wheels of justice grind very slowly. The courts took more than a year to find the case against the driver. We attended hearing after hearing, and each time the case was delayed. There was even an attempt by the defense attorney to discredit the findings of the blood-alcohol tests, although this was unsuccessful. Finally, the defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years per count, to be served concurrently.
We suggested to the probation office that a boot-camp-style program might be of benefit to him – we really weren’t out to hurt him, but we believed he needed to pay for what he had done. All the same, we received a pretty ugly letter from his mother suggesting that we had somehow pushed for the maximum sentence. She said that if it had been her son who died, with Michael driving, she would not have held a grudge. I suggested that until her son were actually dead, she should not talk about what she would or wouldn’t do.
Her son was finally sentenced to six months in boot -camp, with the rest of his six-year sentence to be served on intensive parole. In six months, her son was coming home. Ours was not. I guess I had bought into the belief that, somehow, things would be different after the driver had been brought to justice. I think that is what people mean when they talk about “closure.” We think that if there is someone to blame, then we can put the matter to rest; because then the victim will get some sort of justice, and the pain will finally go away. In the years since Michael’s death, I have read countless accounts of bereaved people who are looking for closure of this sort. I have also seen them on Oprah, shouting for the death penalty, as if having the perpetrator dead would somehow help.
I had to be willing to forgive without the score being even. And this process of forgiveness did not -really involve the driver – it involved me. It was a process that I had to go through; I had to change, no matter what he did. The road to forgiveness was long and painful. I had to forgive more than just the driver. I had to forgive Michael, and God (for allowing it to happen), and myself. Ultimately, it was forgiving myself that was the most difficult. There were many times in my own life I had
driven Michael places when I myself was under the influence of alcohol.
That was a hard recognition – my need to forgive myself. My anger at other people was just my own fear turned outward. I had projected my own guilt onto others – the driver, the courts, God, Michael –
so that I would not have to look at myself. And it wasn’t until I could see my part in this that my outlook could change. This is what I learned: that the closure we seek comes in forgiving. And this closure is really up to us, because the power to forgive does not lie outside us, but within.
In a society like ours, where victim’s rights are increasingly seen as unassailable, Bill’s insights are not popular ones. For many people, even vindication by a court is no longer enough. They want a personal role in the act of retribution. In several states, murder victims’ families are offered spots in the witness rooms of execution chambers, or the opportunity to make statements at sentencing.
Not long ago I read that at the sentencing of Kip Kinkel, a fifteen-yearold who went on a shooting spree in Springfield, Oregon, in 1998, family members of his victims grew so angry that the judge had to cut them off and call the court to order. At one especially chilling moment, the mother of one victim spoke of her agony, and said with unabashed relish that she hoped Kip would be tortured by it in the same way she was – for the rest of his life. “That, for me, is the ultimate justice.”
However justified this woman’s quest might seem, it is a fruitless one. Blinded by her grief – and determined to make the person responsible for it share it with her – she is seeking solace in a place she will never find it: revenge. Though my heart goes out to her, it is clear to me that she will never find healing, but only further heartache and deep disillusionment. Even when the path to forgiveness is daunting or steep, that does not mean it is impossible. In spring 1998, Carroll and Doris King – friends of mine from Pennsylvania – traveled to Iraq with a human rights delegation to examine the effects of the UN sanctions there. While in Baghdad they met Ghaidaa, a woman who had suffered more than any mother I had ever heard of, but was still ready to forgive those who had hurt her.
Ghaidaa lost nine children in the destruction of Al Amariyah, a massive, reinforced concrete shelter in Baghdad that was penetrated by American “smart bombs” during the Gulf War. More than one thousand Iraqi civilians were incinerated in the bombing, most of them women and children. Today, Ghaidaa leads tourists among the shelter ruins, hoping that those who see its horrors – among other things, ghostly silhouettes were left wherever human bodies shielded the walls from the extreme heat – will speak out against future bombings. After taking one of Ghaidaa’s tours, Carroll and Doris, stunned, asked her to forgive them for what America had done to her family and people. A former Air Force officer who had flown bombing sorties over Europe in World War II, Carroll especially felt he bore a share of the guilt. Shaking his hand, then hugging Doris and bursting into tears, Ghaidaa cried, “I forgive you.”
Ghaidaa will never find “justice” on human terms. How can one ever replace nine dead children? She will certainly never be able to forget them. But in finding the hearts of two people who asked her to forgive them, she has found something much greater.
CREDIT TO THE WRITER: Johann Christoph Arnold