On Restitution and Forgiveness

“On Restitution”

A Sermon and Service for Holocaust Remembrance Day

for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of

Columbia, South Carolina

April 30, 2017

The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister

Opening Words:  the words of Algene Ballif, in a critique of the Broadway play of, The Diary of Anne Frank:

“If the diary of Anne Frank is remarkable for any one thing, it is for the way in which she is able to command our deepest seriousness about everything she is going through–  the way she makes us forget she is an adolescent and makes us wish that this way of experiencing life were not so soon lost by some of us, and [makes us wish that this way of experiencing life were] much sooner found by most of us.  Ironically for her, the Anne Frank on Broadway cannot command our seriousness, for all Anne’s true seriousness  –her honesty, intelligence, and inner strength–  has been left out of the script . . .  If we in America cannot present her with the respect and integrity and seriousness she deserves, then I think we should not try to present her at all.  Not all adolescents, even in America, are the absurd young animals we know from stage and screen . . .

Anne Frank was not the American adolescent, as Hackett and Goodrich would have us believe.  She was an unaffected young girl, uniquely alive, and self-aware–  experiencing more, and in a better way perhaps, than most of us do in a lifetime.”

Offertory “Take it Down,” by John Hiatt, performed by The Wailin’ Jennys

The Morning Reading, from, The Diary of Anne Frank:

“Anyone who claims that the older ones have a more difficult time here certainly doesn’t realize to what extent our problems weigh down on us, problems for which we are probably much too young, but which thrust themselves upon us continually, until, after a long time, we think we’ve found a solution, but the solution doesn’t seem able to resist the facts which reduce it to nothing again.  That’s the difficulty in these times:  ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered.  It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out.  Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.  I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.  I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Litany of Forgiveness, by Cathy Cartwright-Chow [see OOS]


Holocaust Remembrance Day was Monday–  It has always been difficult for me to discern how to honor that day in a sermon or service–  The event itself is overwhelming and most tragic.  But a few months ago, a Religious Education Director helped me figure out what to do for this Sunday.  We were taking part in a discussion about forgiveness, and how we can help the congregations we serve discuss forgiveness and put it into practice.  Then the topic of restitution came up.  And the Religious Education Director recommended to me a book by Simon Wiesenthal called, The Sunflower – On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.  Mr. Wiesenthal is a Holocaust Survivor.  The book begins with a biographical essay by him in which a dying SS man asks Mr. Wiesenthal to forgive the atrocities he has done to other Jews.  What follows in the book is a collection of short essays in which forty-six respondents discern what they might have done had they been in Mr. Wiesenthal’s shoes.  The respondents are theologians, political leaders, writers, jurists, psychiatrists, human rights activists, and some people who were survivors of extreme trauma.  Their answers reflect beliefs that are Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, secular, and agnostic.  The responses vary greatly, yet they all reflect deep aforethought.  As such, the whole book, The Sunflower helps us each discern what we believe about the possibilities and limits of forgiveness.


Mr. Wiesenthal’s essay is beautifully written and compelling.  In his quietly understated way, he keeps questioning whether or not he did the right thing, and respectfully asks us what we would have done.  What he did do was act with great compassion, courage, and restraint.  When the SS man told Mr. Wiesenthal he was dying, Mr. Wiesenthal immediately ran to find a doctor.  But the doctor only said that many, many people were dying, and there was nothing he could do to be of help.  So Mr. Wiesenthal listened to the SS man’s confession, which was long, detailed, and horrific.  The SS man was sincerely repentant for the murders and suffering he had caused.  His guilt was tormenting him.  He asked for forgiveness so he could die in peace.  What Mr. Wiesenthal did was listen in silence, then walk away in silence.  Mr. Wiesenthal was eventually liberated and joined a commission that located Nazi criminals, investigated them, and brought them to trial so they were publicly accountable for their crimes.  Many nations have thanked him for his restorative work in that arena.  And many people have said that he showed enormous compassion and restraint in not spewing hateful language at the SS man, a man he probably could even have killed with a pillow.


One of the essays in the book is by the Dalai Lama.  His Holiness begins by stating that while forgiveness is important, “one should be aware and remember these experiences so that efforts can be made to check the reoccurrence of such atrocities in the future.”  He then tells of a Tibetan monk who had been imprisoned in a Chinese prison for eighteen years, but had escaped to India.  The Dalai Lama asked the monk “what he felt was the biggest threat or danger while he was in prison.  [He] was amazed by [the monk’s] answer.  It was extraordinary and inspiring.  [The Dalai Lama] was expecting him to say something else; instead he said that what he most feared was losing his compassion for the Chinese.”


A religious scholar named Eva Fleischner states that her interpretation of the Christian scripture “turn the other cheek” is that we are to try to forgive transgressions against ourselves, but that Christian scripture does not tell us to forgive wrongs done to others.  Her interpretation of Jewish teachings is that forgiveness isn’t possible to receive unless there has also been restitution or atonement.  When someone asks for forgiveness, they also have to try to “make up for it in some way.”  So she poses the question:  could the SS man have done something to save even some of the Jewish people around him? And ‘would such an act perhaps have constituted atonement?”


The Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writes, in his essay:


“I am not sure there is such a thing as forgiving another person, though I know there is such a thing as being forgiven.  To be forgiven is to feel the weight of the past lift from our shoulders, to feel the stain of past wrongdoing washed away. To be forgiven is to feel free to step into the future unburdened by the precedent of who we have been and what we have done in previous times…  Unfortunately, by summoning one Jew to absolve him of what he had done to other Jews, [the SS man] leaves us doubting whether he has in fact transcended the Nazi view of seeing Jews as less than human, interchangeable entities rather than unique human beings, even as a person sins by hating all blacks, [or] whites, [or] Christians, [or] Jews, [or] Germans because of what some other blacks, whites, etc., may have done to him.”


To me, restitution means some kind of way  –a real and valuable and true and public and lasting way–  that injustice of the past is balanced out with justice in the present that will permeate into the future–  that will significantly change the future for the better.


What the SS man did was unfair and irresponsible–  He was asking for forgiveness from the wrong person in a wrong way at the wrong time.  The scenario the SS man created is parallel to two people on the platform beside a train that’s about to depart–  One person says something burdensome and violating to the other, then jumps onto the train that speeds away, leaving the other person on the platform without any opportunity to have a conversation–  a conversation that seeks to arrive at truth, accountability, and fairness.  One of the main things I, as a clergyperson, do is to provide opportunities for individuals, groups, families, and whole congregations to have conversations that seek to arrive at truth, accountability, and fairness.  Timing is important.  Helping people to name things for themselves, in their own way, and in their own words is important.  [I’ve done that for several people, in a variety of settings, here, this year.]  But what’s perhaps most important is for none of us to avoid helping those conversations to happen due to lack of courage.


Forgiveness can only result from a conversation in which two parties have somehow started on the same page.  If I were Mr. Wiesenthal, the SS man would not have been enough on the same page as me for me to forgive him.  However, Mr. Wiesenthal does not say, “I could never in my whole life forgive you.”  It was gracious that he did not say that.  Very gracious indeed, under the circumstances of such an imbalance of power and justice.


There are things the SS man could have done to use the power he had to make things right–  to change the system which was cruel.  And he didn’t–  his motivation came from the fact that he could not sleep, and that he was dying.  He should have gone to people who had the power to change things–  And he didn’t.  There are times when restitution is necessary, and this was one of those times. But he didn’t go the route of providing restitution–  Instead he went to someone who had no power to help the victims of the cruel system–  And he expected that person to forgive him.  He was trying to skip a necessary step.  The SS man was going for cheap grace–  quick and private and, in a manner of speaking, brushing the cruelty under the rug.  What was needed was for the system itself to change. And in order for that to happen, there needed to be a public acknowledgment of the cruelty and the SS man’s part in it.  Real justice is making things right in the big picture, and in lasting ways.  A quick and secret verbal forgiveness is not real justice.


Restitution is the balancing out of negative destructive energy with constructive creative energy–  Anne Frank was killed by the Nazis.  But she wrote a testament of her life and death that became regarded as a work of art the world over.  Though she was killed, that diary became her immortality.  To this day, it continues to wash over the world with intelligence, soulfulness, and love of humankind.


In these alarming political times, when injustices and imbalances of power exist between so many peoples, we must find examples of people coming together and gifting to the world energy that is creative and restorative. It is always an honor to look to the wisdom and courageous example of Representative John Lewis.  I’ll close this morning with his personal reflection as re-told by Parker Palmer, in Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. Dr. Palmer writes of his experience, in March of 2011, taking part in the annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute, and led by Congressman John Lewis:


“At the end of the Pilgrimage [Dr. Palmer said], after we had marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we boarded a bus to take us to the Montgomery Airport for the flight home. By happenstance, I sat just behind John Lewis and one of his staffers where I overhead Lewis telling a story. In 1961, he and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend ‘did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.’ They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work. In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. ‘Mr. Lewis,’ he said, ‘my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?’ Lewis said, ‘I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.’ As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice  –as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him-  Lewis said, ‘People can change…  People can change…’  When I heard John Lewis say, ‘People can change… People can change…,’ I felt a sense of hope, not simply for ‘them’ but for me. The belief that change is possible  –personal as well as social change–  can keep us engaged with this endless experiment for the long haul, doing whatever we can to help democracy not only survive, but thrive.”


*Closing Hymn #121  We’ll Build a Land


*Parting Words [poet Rodger Kamenetz; his imagined letter to Simon Wiesenthal]:

“Dear Simon Wiesenthal…  You yourself saw [the SS man] as a particular person, a human being.  That is to your credit.  If he had also reached the same point, then the conversation about forgiveness could begin.”

Extinguishing the Chalice