Incomprehensible Mercy

Imagine that you’re a Jewish man in 1943, a captive in a Nazi concentration camp. One day, you’re called into the hospital room of a young Nazi soldier, who is dying. The soldier describes to you how his unit massacred Russian Jews, herding them into a house, setting it on fire, and gunning down anyone who attempted to escape. Now on his deathbed, he has apparently repented of that horrific crime, and wants to be forgiven by a Jew. What would you do?

That is exactly what happened to Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew who survived the abominations of the Nazis. He himself said nothing, and left without forgiving the soldier, who died a few days later. He later described this experience in a book called The Sunflower, which also contains fifty-three responses by religious leaders, philosophers, fellow survivors, and others. I was assigned this book in an undergraduate class and found it to be, albeit indirectly, a powerful reflection on the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Many of the respondents were unsure whether Simon should have forgiven this Nazi or not. Others, including many Jewish writers, were clear that, for various reasons, forgiveness should not, or even could not, be offered in this situation. A minority, mostly Christians, believed that forgiving the Nazi would be the right thing to do.

In the class discussion, it became clear that a similar distribution of opinions obtained among the students. Several began their remarks with something like: “This book was an introduction for me to the idea of forgiveness because I didn't grow up religious," or "My family wasn't religious, so I've never really thought about forgiveness before.” In general, it was clear that most students did not consider forgiveness a real moral option for them in their lives.

As I reflected on these reactions, a particular verse of Scripture kept coming to mind – 1 Corinthians 1:22-23, in which St. Paul says:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles

St. Paul realized that the Cross, and the God Who died upon it, was not understandable to those who, like the Jews, did not yet understand the true scope of God’s mercy, nor those who, like the pagans, could not imagine offering love in the face of hate. But to us who believe, this is precisely the lesson of today’s feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The Cross is the symbolic summary of the whole Gospel, the good news that forgiveness has triumphed over sin. Judging another’s decisions, especially when they are as fraught as Simon’s, is not always prudent; however, the powerful weakness and wise foolishness revealed on the Cross tell us one thing for sure: God is love, and friendship with Him must therefore mean that we become like Him, loving even evil men, especially those who have done evil to us. That is what Jesus did for us. That is the hard and narrow way to life.

Br. Anselm Dominic LeFave, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE

Fra Angelico. Kreuzigung mit Lanzenstich des Hauptmanns Longinus (Piercing of Christ's Side). 1437-1446. Museum of San Marco. Florence, Italy.