Feeling Guilt; Receiving Forgiveness 2

Smoke from a forest fire behind charred trees - guilt of the one who starts the fire and forgiveness from those who suffer

A Forest on Fire

As I write this, the Columbia Gorge is burning. Like many people, my heart is heavy at the loss of so much life and beauty. Raging flames engulf trees, moss, flowers, animals, trails, and buildings. So much is already gone.

Somehow the tragedy seems worse because the fire was started by a few teenagers who, even though they were warned, tossed fireworks into the dry brush.

How many of us have done stupid things that might have led to destruction and even death, yet because of some twist of fate, did not? The window didn’t break, for instance, the house didn’t burn, our friend didn’t die, we didn’t die. Not all of us are so lucky.

At Eagle Creek, where the fire started, there was no luck. Thoughtlessness, yes. Bravado, defiance, and youthful insouciance, perhaps. Regardless, the blaze these youth started has destroyed wilderness and threatened businesses and human lives. How do we respond? How do we assess guilt, parcel out blame, and punish wrongdoing?

Smoke from a forest fire behind charred trees - guilt of the one who starts the fire and forgiveness from those who suffer

Punishment or Restitution

The first thing I think about is how horrible to be those young people and have to live with the knowledge that they caused so much harm. Of course, I don’t know them. Even now, their internal defenses may be protecting them from the pain of guilt. From what I read in the Oregonian, at least one of them is cooperating with the criminal investigation, so I guess they’re accepting responsibility. Yet if they they feel blamed or attacked, they might minimize their actions. They might even say crass things such as that they didn’t mean anything by what they did, and who cares about a few worms and foxes, anyway?

At times, I am amazed at how little our words relate to what we really think and feel, especially when we are afraid or ashamed.

It’s possible, of course, that these youngsters have no capacity to feel empathy, that they are nothing but empty shells that only look human. Maybe they thought starting a fire would be great fun. Maybe they have so much anger trapped inside themselves, they just wanted to see the world burn. One eyewitness reported that they giggled at their antics and acted annoyed at the adults who chastised them. Does this mean, though, that they don’t care?

Who Can Judge?

How often we misread one another. We see laughter, and we assume the one who laughs is happy or pleased. But we mammals laugh when we’re scared, ashamed, startled. We laugh to smooth over disagreements or because we don’t know what to do or say.

So I do not presume to judge these young people. I cannot know what is in their hearts. True, whoever started the fire caused immeasurable harm and heartache, so they ought to face some consequence beyond a searing guilt. Intense guilt feels like a form of punishment in itself, but guilt doesn’t mend hurts, doesn’t compensate others for their losses, doesn’t make us better human beings, or offer restitution or reconciliation. Neither, however, does punishment.

What of Forgiveness?

What of forgiveness? Through forgiveness, do we grow, change, become better? Does forgiveness restore relationships and mend wrongs? Who deserves forgiveness, and when do we offer it?

To answer these questions, and others, I want to refer to a book called, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. The first section of the book tells Simon Wiesenthal’s story of his years in a Nazi concentration camp, where he experienced torture, starvation, and humiliation. Although his description of his days in the camp is heart-wrenching on its own, within his narrative lies a story of a Nazi soldier named Karl that shows us the incredible cruelty we humans are capable of.

Begging Forgiveness

One day a Nazi nurse brought Simon into a room where Karl was dying from wounds. Karl insisted that Simon listen to the story of a terrible wrong he had committed. Along with his fellow soldiers, he had rounded up some Jews and packed them into a house. They then set the house on fire, shooting all who tried to escape.

Horrified, Simon listened mutely. When he finished his tale, Karl, obviously remorseful and guilt-ridden, begged the Jewish man to forgive him.

During the Nazi’s recitation, Simon showed incredible forbearance. Although sickened and pained, he heard the man’s words without censure. When a fly buzzed at the soldier’s sores, Simon brushed the insect away. Yet when the moment came to forgive the man, Simon stood up and, without saying a word, walked away. He could offer the Nazi murderer nothing.

When Do we Forgive?

Should he have forgiven the young man?

For years afterwards, Wiesenthal asked himself that question. He talked with friends and colleagues, but found no lasting answer. Finally, he wrote about his experience in the book and invited responses from writers and thinkers of the day. The second part of the book contains their replies.

As you might imagine, those replies range from a strict refusal of forgiveness to an insistence that we must forgive. Obviously, there’s no “correct” answer to Wiesenthal’s question. Yet still we ask ourselves how to forgive, when to forgive, who has the right to forgive or to receive forgiveness. Are some crimes unforgivable? Was the soldier’s remorse enough to earn him forgiveness? Is remorse ever enough?

The Need for Moral Courage

Alan L. Berger, chair of the Holocaust Studies at Florida Atlantic University, points out that repentance means to turn away from evil. It is not enough that we feel bad. Our remorse must also cause us to behave differently. Berger says we must have “moral courage,” that ability to do right even when we might be punished for our actions. [1]

As far we can tell, Karl showed no such courage. He did what he was told. In this way, he was weak.

I think it’s easy, though, for the victim to judge the perpetrator. If we have never been in a situation where we had to decide between two unthinkable things, such as taking the life of someone else or losing our own, we can be quick to judge the one who does not do what is right, who follows unjust orders out of fear and ignorance.

Yet how many of us would do better? Most of us have never been tested in this way, so how do we know? How can we judge?

Yes, some incredible souls will stop the wrongdoer, put themselves in harm’s way because their conscience tells them to, will disobey orders because the orders are immoral. From what history shows, very few have that kind of strength and determination.

Understanding and Forgiveness

That is why the photojournalist Dith Pran, whose family was murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and who himself endured starvation and torture in forced labor camps, forgives the soldiers who harmed him and his family. Although he still feels anger at the leaders who ordered the bloodshed, he realizes the soldiers were poor, uneducated, brainwashed. With their families threatened if they didn’t follow orders, what else could the soldiers do? [2]

Pran understands them, which makes it easier to forgive.

Yet is understanding enough? Do we not also need some evidence that the perpetrator realizes what he has done, that he understands the humanity of the people he harmed?

Understanding the Other

In his response to Wiesenthal’s question, the poet Rodger Kamenetz makes the important point that Karl did not truly realize the magnitude of what he’d done. Nor did he recognize his arrogance when he asked for some Jew at random to listen to his terrible tale. He treated Simon not as an individual, but as a representative of a group. By neglecting to see Simon as a real person, the soldier showed that he had not resolved with Kamenetz calls “the deeper sickness of his soul.” [3] He did not understand his own bigotry.

Unless we understand that the one sitting before is as real as we ourselves, how can we find common ground? How can we begin the conversation about right and wrong, grief and remorse, compassion and forgiveness? Kamenetz suggests we cannot.

Letting Go of Punishment

Yet perhaps forgiveness isn’t about deserving or about dialogue. Perhaps forgiveness is about letting go of our right to punish another.

Robert McAfee Brown, professor emeritus of Theology and Ethics at the Pacific School of Religion, tells of a Nicaraguan Sandinista fighter named Tomas Borge who was captured and tortured. After the war ended and the contras were being tried in court, Borge had the opportunity to face his tormentor and name his punishment. He said, “My punishment is to forgive you.” [4]

Does such an action change the heart of a villain? Does forgiveness soften evil? If we forgive even the unforgivable, will the world become gentler, more compassionate? Or do we thereby encourage evil, ugliness, and hatred?

In his response, the archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acknowledges the difficulty of forgiving those who have grievously harmed us. On the other hand, he cautions that retributive justice brings only more harm, more pain, and more evil to the world. “Forgiveness,” he writes, “is practical politics.” If we refuse to forgive, he tells us, there will be no future. [5]

Forgiveness and Accountability

But do the perpetrators not deserve to suffer? Should they not somehow pay?

Perhaps our confusion lies in thinking that by forgiving someone we set them free from their responsibility to the world, to those they’ve harmed, to their god, and to themselves. The Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, points out that forgiveness doesn’t absolve us. Instead, it provides “an opportunity for the inner transformation of both victim and perpetrator.” [6]

Josè Hobday, a Franciscan nun of Native American descent, recognizes that forgiveness is difficult. That’s why it transforms us, because it forces to ask challenging questions, to search our hearts, to change our emotions. For Hobday, the difficulty itself makes the path of forgiveness a strength.

Everywhere, people hurt one another. Genocide is far too common. Assaults on individuals occur every day. We are wronged, and we wrong others. Yet in spite of her own pain and suffering, Hobday remembers what her mother used to say: “Do not be so ignorant and stupid and inhuman as they are.” [7] Instead, her mother counseled, go to an elder to receive a medicine that will transform one’s “heart from bitterness to sweetness.” [8]

Guilt, Forgiveness, and Transformation

Though I see value in forgiveness, I have no right to tell anyone who or what they must forgive. I can listen, I can affirm the wrongs a person has done and those she has experienced. I can applaud her desire to change. Whatever anger lies in my own heart, I can transform it, if I choose. Letting go of my own guilt is harder, though I have found it is not impossible.

In as much as I have been hurt by the actions of those teens who set fire to a forest, I forgive them. Yet my harm is minimal. What of the animals who die, the trees that burn, the insects and birds caught by smoke and heat and terror? What of the millions murdered by regimes throughout the world, maimed from bombings? What of the abused women and children, the people whose skin color marks them as prey, and those who starve because of others’ greed? Who can forgive for them?

Misery and sadness fill our world. So do people like Wiesenthal who, though he couldn’t bring himself to speak words of absolution, found tenderness enough to be gentle and kind to a dying man.

None of us is always brave, right, nor smart. Certainly, we are not always safe. Still, we can learn to hold one another and forgive one another. Out of the charred ground, new plants grow. Trees sprout. Insects and animals return. I bow in awe to the power of the wisdom, compassion, and deliverance that survivors of Holocausts and genocides sometimes show.

Hatred and violence are never the last words. Either is guilt. If there is to be a world in the future, Tutu is right: the last word must be forgiveness.

In faith and fondness,


  1. Wiesenthal, Simon, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, eds. Harry James Cargas and Bonny V. Fetterman, New York: Schocken, 1998, 119.
  2. Ibid 210.
  3. Ibid 181.
  4. Ibid 123.
  5. Ibid 268.
  6. Ibid 235.
  7. Ibid 174-175.
  8. Ibid 175.

Photo by Bjørn Tore Økland from Unsplash

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