Journeying from Victimhood to Forgiveness
If reconciliation in all its fullness is being sought, then it is essential to take into account five ‘drivers’ of reconciliation, namely, memory and remembering, forgiveness, victimhood, otherness and gift. These five areas feed and give direction to the process of reconciliation. What I want to do in this session is to focus on victimhood and forgiveness which, in today’s climate, are two of the most explosive of the five areas. And I want to focus them through a set of events that happened a few months ago in a court in Lueneburg Northern Germany.
In the court, 81 year old Eva Kor gave a chilling account of the horror she, and her twin sister Miriam, experienced in Auschwitz, where they were used as objects for experiments by Dr Josef Mengele – I actually visited Auschwitz for the first time a few weeks ago and my own experience was that it was far worse than I had imagined. Eva lost 119 members of her family in the Holocaust, and was giving evidence against a 94 year old former SS officer (Oskar Groening – known as the book-keeper of Auschwitz), who was on trial for accessory to the murder of 300,000 prisoners at Auschwitz.
There was an electrifying moment in the trial when Eva looked towards Groening and told him that she forgave him any wrongdoing, but added that her forgiveness did not absolve the perpgotten.etrator from taking responsibility for his actions. In other words, even with her forgiveness, the requirements of justice could not be forgotten. What was even more astonishing was the embrace she gave him after giving evidence, and her subsequent comments that former SS officers should no longer be prosecuted but should come forward to speak publicly – as Groening himself has done -- about their inhumane actions.
Eva Kor’s comments, which were not favourably received by other Holocaust survivors, evoked the atmosphere of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where survivors and perpetrators were enabled to tell their stories and liberated to move forward. The TRC’s slogan was “The truth hurts, but silence kills.”
In subsequent interviews, Eva Kor spoke of the time, 20 years ago, when she finally felt that she was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, or a prisoner of her tragic past; and that she was even free of Mengele. Moving on from victimhood enabled her to forgive, even though those who tormented her did not repent and ask for forgiveness.
Yet, as Eva Kor has commented, society is bent on nurturing victimhood and this is profoundly unhealthy for the individuals concerned and for society. A popular media ploy is to encourage people who have suffered terrible loss or maltreatment to give emotional interviews in order to say how their lives have been permanently damaged by what has happened. Now, of course, it is important not to underestimate another’s suffering and trauma and to be with people in their suffering, but for the media to give this so much prominence is not only intrusive and prurient but also encourages society in its victimhood mentality. Others resist being cast in the role of the victim.
Some time ago, I attended a conference in Bethlehem which focused on social, political and religious issues between Israel and Palestine. In the middle of a discussion, a Palestinian sociologist banged the table and said, “I refuse to be a victim. Palestinians are not victims.” He recognised that human beings can choose to accept or reject victimhood: we may be victimised but that does not mean we have to accept victimhood. A trauma may render me powerless for a while, but there will hopefully come a time, and it may take some years, when I can take back the reins of power, and become the subject of my own story rather than its object. If we seek reconciliation, it will not happen if there is a ‘victim’ in the process.
Christianity has for centuries had an ambivalent and, at times, unhealthy relationship with victimhood. Jesus Christ is often depicted in art and in hymns, as a “victim”. The 17th century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurburan’s picture ‘Agnus Dei’ reinforces this idea with the ‘lamb of God’ tied up and prepared for sacrifice. The hymn “Alleluia, sing to Jesus” includes the line, “Thou on earth both Priest and Victim”. Michael Saward’s hymn, ‘Christ triumphant’ has the phrase ‘victim crucified.’ But Jesus was not a victim in the way that victimhood is understood in the twenty-first century. When Jesus’ followers tried to explain the significance of his life and death to fellow Jews, they turned to the sacrificial system in the Hebrew Scriptures which their contemporaries would have understood. They argued that Jesus’ self-offering superseded the offering of animals and put an end to any more sacrifices as Jesus’ offering was both superior and “once for all”. This was how the crucifixion could be understood: Jesus, instead of the animal, was the sacrificial victim.
Here, however, the similarity between Jesus and the animal ends. Whereas an animal has no choice in being the sacrificial victim, Jesus did. St John reports Jesus as saying, “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it up again” (John 10.18). It is at the very moment when Jesus is dying on the cross and portrayed as a supreme victim that his task of reconciling God with humanity is finally achieved. It may be powerlessness in the world’s eyes, but this was the most powerful moment in Jesus’ life. Victimhood traps and imprisons us in the past. Victimhood holds back any moves towards reconciliation because reconciliation can only happen between people who regard themselves as having as much power as others around the table: a victim, in some ways, has little power.
As I reflect over my years in ministry, I recognise that victimhood plays a significant role in ministry and it is often fed by the church. Victimhood is a place which we may all inhabit at sometime in our journey, but it is not a creative place to be – perversely it can be a place of considerable power and manipulation – and it is our calling to support and encourage people, which includes ourselves in moving from victimhood in the journey towards reconciliation.
Forgiveness is bound up with moving on from victimhood. Eva Kor describes forgiveness as “the best revenge of all”. Desmond Tutu (who chaired the TRC) describes it as “the best form of self interest”, as it releases the grip of past trauma and tormentors. Yet forgiveness is tough. Expecting people to forgive before they are ready to do so increases the trauma. To say to somebody who has suffered at the hands of another person or of a political system that it is their Christian duty to forgive will pour guilt on top of the trouble of the person who has suffered and in the long run can only make the situation worse. Some may never be ready to forgive and if that is the case, then pressure cannot be put on them to do so.
There is also need to distinguish between God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness. The Lord’s prayer makes it clear that God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are related as we are encouraged to forgive those who wrong us as God forgives the sin we commit against God. But this is an aspiration to which we need to strive and it may be very difficult to reach that point.
When, after World War II, a party of West German church leaders first visited Moscow to begin a dialogue with members of the Russian Orthodox Church, the German leaders expressed their sorrow over the horrors inflicted upon the Russian people by the Germans during the war. They asked to be forgiven. During the worship, there were many tears as they all remembered the cruelties and slaughter of the time. Then the Russians said ‘God may forgive you’ and they kissed the crosses of the German church leaders and asked for their blessings. The Russian Christians were not saying ‘God may forgive you, but we cannot,’ rather they were saying that God will give them the strength to forgive and overcome their traumatic memories.
Even Jesus does not himself forgive those who nail him to the cross, but asks his Father to forgive them with the words, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
There is a lot of literature on forgiveness at the moment. It’s quite a growth industry and there are widely varying views. Desmond Tutu and his grand-daughter Mpho have jointly written a book on forgiveness. There are some moving stories in the Forgiveness Project. Currently I am being challenged by a book which was published a few weeks ago by American theologian Maria Mayo called The Limits of Forgiveness who says that there has been a lot of misreading of the evidence in the New Testament and repentance is required in more places than usually acknowledged.
To have survived horrors such as those of the Holocaust and Apartheid and still be able to forgive shows the heights to which the human spirit can soar. Social theorist Hannah Arendt argues that forgiveness, demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ, is something which can enrich society as a whole and need not be regarded as something purely religious. The Christian Gospel views forgiveness in a unique way. We can give thanks for this and need to handle it with respect and care recognising that God forgives in a radical way.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are not identical. But there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness....and there can be no reconciliation until and unless there is a move from victimhood.
Rochester Clergy Conference - University of Hertfordshire - 9th September, 2015. Lecture 2.