Encore Archive

Welcome to Encore, the place where you will find the latest thoughts and reflections by CLAL faculty and associates on topics of the moment. Each week you will find something new and (hopefully) engaging here!

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[Three weeks ago we reprinted a controversial piece on the Holocaust and forgiveness by Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian. This piece drew many responses which we have reprinted over the past two weeks. This week we reprint Hauerwas's own response to his critics.]

In Response: Forgiveness and Forgetting

Stanley Hauerwas (Sh'ma 11/202, November 28, 1980)

"Never to forget - never to forgive" is the new commandment according to Morris Schappes. ("Holocaust and Resistance," Jewish Currents 33, 11 [December, 1979], 45.) It is such because if Jews forgive they may well lose the ability to recognize and fight the virulent anti-Semitism that remains all too present in our world. Moreover to forgive is not their right since only those who suffered at Auschwitz have the right forgive and the Nazis saw to the fact that most of them no longer exist. To forgive almost appears therefore as a sacrilege of their memory. Even if those that suffered the Holocaust were inclined to forgive, they should not, as that crime is beyond forgiveness. What is required not forgiveness, but punishment and strategies that will insure "never again."

It is rightfully our task to "never forget," but I think we cannot discharge that task if we never forgive. For without forgiveness our memories are clouded by hate, vengeance, and/or denial. Therefore my call for Christians to learn how to be forgiven - forgiven even for a reality as horrible as the Holocaust - was meant to insure that we do not forget what happened there. My hope was that the call for Jews to forgive Christians could be heard as commensurate with their own deepest convictions about God and his special relationship with them.

For Jews and Christians are both people who live through memory made possible by their worship of a forgiving God. As Reinhold Niebuhr points out, "the significant power of memory lies in its capacity to retain unique events whether they fit into a conceptual mold or not. The Self and the Dramas of History) [New York: Scribner's Sons, 1955], p.4) That is why Judaism and Christianity finally defy philosophical expression as the basis of their life rests ultimately on contingent claims which can only be sustained by a remembering people. But to be a people capable of remembering means we must also be a people capable of accepting forgiveness. For part and parcel of the events we remember is accounts of our own unfaithfulness and sin. If we are to remember truthfully therefore we must recognize our sin in the confidence that the God that has called us is also the God who is unfailing in his love.

Christians must shoulder responsibility

I am certainly not suggesting that the Jew should remember the Holocaust because they sinned there. On the contrary, I am suggesting that Christians must make the Holocaust part of our history and memory as a manifestation and judgement on our unfaithfulness to God's calling. Indeed I tried to suggest that it was exactly because Christians had forgotten that we, no less than the Jews, live by memory and forgiveness that provided the background as well as our immediate complicity with the Holocaust.

That is why those of us who did not directly perpetrate the crimes at Auschwitz still ned to ask forgiveness for what happened there. For how can we be sure that we have purged ourselves of the pretensions that resulted in Auschwitz. Moreover, Auschwitz is now part of our history that we can avoid if we are to maintain the continuity of memory necessary for being Christian. Therefore we must be willing to ask as well as accept forgiveness that we might remember our sin as well as find the means to challenge how our sinfulness may continue to be present in our lives. Yet we must be very careful that such claims of guilt do not become but another means of avoiding the horror and responsibility for Auschwitz. In particular it can be no substitute, but rather should be the basis, for Christian concern to challenge every form of anti-Semitism in themselves and the societies in which we live.

Nor does my call for Christians to accept forgiveness for the Holocaust rule out punishment of those that directly perpetrated Auschwitz or who continue to perpetrate crimes against the Jews. Punishment and forgiveness are not incompatible, but rather correlatives. Not to punish is often one of the cruelest means we have of withholding forgiveness as the refusal to punish is a gesture of complete abandonment and severance from the human community.

We must act as if God indeed does exist

Nor does the importance of forgiveness imply that we should disavow the significance of human agency and responsibility for our lives. Of course, we should act in a manner that we avoid and prevent those evils we can. But I think that does not mean, as Mrs. Weiss-Rosmarin suggests, that Christians or Jews ought to act as if God did not exist in order to comply with the mandate of choosing life. "The reason we cannot do so is that the kind of life we are required to choose is that which is God given. Our lives are not at our disposal, but at God's. Surely the failure of Christians to live consistent with that claim, the idea that we could live as if we were the true masters of our destiny, was part of the reason we proved to be so susceptible to those that promised us power in exchange for our cooperation in genocide.

Therefore my sermon was meant only to remind us that if Jews and Christians are to remember the Holocaust, a remembering that, to be sure, will be quite different for each community, neither of us can avoid forgiveness - the one by willing to be forgiven and the other by their willingness to forgive. For as Rabbi David Novak suggests, in a letter to me, "The need for forgiveness follows from the commandment to repent. Just this past Sabbath we read the Cain and Abel story as part of the weekly Torah reading in the synagogue. It is worth remembering that Cain's conviction that he was rejected by God and, therefore, incapable of repentance, led to his worse crime of murdering his brother. Only when he is assured that his guilt is bearable (Genesis 4:13-17) is he able to become the builder of a city rather than a fugitive and a murderer. If Jews do not afford Christians (who are not, and never were, Nazis or Nazi sympathizers) forgiveness, then we are inviting further 'acting out' of previous guilt. As for God's forgiveness, Christians will have to work that out with Him." That surely is right, but it is my conviction that such a "working out" cannot take place apart from our Jewish brothers from whom we first learned what it means to worship a forgiving God.

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