I haven’t posted anything in about a month and a half, and I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but never got around to putting it up. Since I’m supposed to be writing a paper right now I figured it was the best time to find something else to do. I also realized when I reread this that I don’t really talk about what I said I was going to talk about, but I guess you can make your own rules in your own blog.
In my Jewish Studies class “Suffering, Healing and Redemption,” we were talking about Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, the story of a Nazi soldier who had shot and killed a young child trying to jump out of a building set on fire by the Nazis. On his deathbed in an infirmary he calls for Simon Wiesenthal as “a Jew” in order to ask for his forgiveness. The story ends without Wiesenthal’s answer intentionally so that the question will remain open ended for the reader’s response.
This in itself was not that interesting to me, this story is pretty popular and the glorification of forgiveness is pretty common nowadays. There are many stories about prisoners forgiving their guards that people seem to love, however my Professor’s response surprised me. Now before, I go on I want to stress that this professor is one of the best I have ever had, and this class is probably my all time favorite. He is able to lecture for three hours straight to a class without a single student falling asleep or pulling out a laptop, which is pretty huge. He is also the most human in a way that I have never encountered before, not in that he is nice and compassionate, but in a way that I hope will be made clear later.
My professor was saying that he himself would forgive the Nazi soldier, right before sending him before a firing squad. This statement ripped me from my preconceived understanding of forgiveness, and the rest of the lecture served to redefine the infatuation of society towards forgiveness. I was uncomfortable with the idea of someone going to his death without being forgiven, especially when he was asking for it. We as people hate to think of having complete responsibility for our actions and decisions. Although this goes totally against my beliefs concerning nature vs. nurture, liberalism, and systematic oppression, it became more and more attractive to me. We do have a death penalty, which I despise, and a penal system; however what I’m talking about more is mainstream’s society’s obsession with being forgiven. Within Christianity “ask and you shall be forgiven” is very prevalent to my knowledge, and the whole concept of Jesus is one intensely concerned with forgiveness. But why do we ask God for forgiveness when the person we hurt is still around? Within Judaism you are not allowed to forgive someone for something that was not done to you. That’s why for a lot of Jewish people the response to Wiesenthal’s story was a simple one. He didn’t kill me so what right do I have to forgive him? That should be up to the child who was murdered, not me. Christians on the other hand are totally comfortable with forgiveness as an abstract entity that can come from anywhere. It seems as if Christianity is the easiest religion out there, if I steal something from a store all I have to do is ask God for forgiveness and go on my way. The intense emphasis upon faith and inner beliefs has largely ignored what many other world religions consider to be of primary importance, the body.
Within the West its “I think therefore I am,” in the East its “I do therefore I become.” For me its when I’m asking for forgiveness for shoplifting and then going on with a clear conscience while the storekeeper is standing behind me with a perplexed look on his face. We’re always looking upwards for redemption and forgiveness, when we should be looking around us. We throw words around without thinking of what it actually implies or reveals about our faiths, whatever they may be; while theoretically the beliefs should manifest within the body.
The most important test for a worldview explaining suffering, according to my professor, is its ability to incorporate the vast diversity of human experience. I believe that this test can and should apply to all facets of any faith, philosophy, or creed; that’s why I put so much importance within the theoretical, because if its possible than it must be taken into account. When we say, “we can do all things through God who strengthens us,” does that mean when we fail that God is no longer with us? The question of suffering has been an uncomfortable one for many mainstream religions, because the explanations are hugely ineffective in the face of the craziness of our world. For me it took a ten year old kid, I love Modern Family, to debunk “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;” a Holocaust to destroy “divine punishment,” genocide in Rwanda to dismantle “tough love.” In essence every explanation for the existence of suffering only works within the narrow confines of the community that believes in it. God is only fair, when you’re the one with all the resources. God is only loving and compassionate when you’ve grown up in a stable family. God only expresses faithfulness and steadfastness when you haven’t experienced complete failure. For every description of God you can find someone who when told of such a divine creator would ask, “where has he been all my life?” I’ve heard the story of the tapestry a number of times: how from the back a tapestry is a jumble of knots and colors, and only the divine creator in the front can see the image it creates, and it would be abnormally arrogant of me to claim wisdom equal to God’s, but honestly that doesn’t fly any more for me.
The story of the Holocaust was of inconceivable evil and suffering that could not be understood by those in it’s midst, and requires a legitimate response. Now I definitely have not suffered, or experienced any of these things, nor do I really believe that all of these attributes are truly incompatible within an understanding of God; what I am saying is that there is a huge disconnect between belief and experience that results in a superficial immature faith. I am also not attacking Christianity over any other; it is simply easier to do since that’s the context from which I am coming from.
I get the sense of true humanness [didn’t know that was a word until spell-check told me I could use it] [I also just found out that spellcheck is not a word, it’s spell-check] from my professor in that in everything he teaches is with an intensely open mind towards the variety of human experience.
I forgot who said this, but your pain becomes suffering when someone else comes along and tries to define your pain for you. I am the only one who can truly understand what it is I am going through, which goes just as much for others. For me organized religion is the business of defining other people’s experiences for them. “You don’t understand your own life, so I will explain it for you.” I could go on for hours, but I have 10 minutes left in class. My professor ended the lecture by saying “the soldier may have been going through extenuating circumstances, but we all go through extenuating circumstances; is it wrong to expect people to rise above them?” [I think I’m butchering his words but that’s the gist of what he said] Throughout Germany, Poland and Austria the police were charged with rounding up Jews throughout the community, taking them out, forcing them to dig their own graves, and then shooting them in the head. Now these were normal everyday people, not members of the SS trained to be hardened soldiers. They had to get drunk everyday before going out to do their work, because they couldn’t handle their heavy consciences. But at the same time there was not a single case of any individual who refused to do what they were assigned, of which there were a good number, being prosecuted or punished for their decisions. The world in which I live cannot handle the thought of that soldier going to his death knowing he was not forgiven. Death bed conversions are totally legitimate in my book probably because I know there’s a possibility that I might try one of my own someday “just in case.”
This has been the longest one yet, but I have to add my disclaimer: I know I say Christians say this and that, and Jews (Sorry if that’s offensive but it sounds better than saying Jewish people) believe this, but I don’t mean to generalize for all Christians and Jews, it just makes for faster writing. And what I’m talking about aren’t really hard and fast rules of my life, just something that interested me; I’m not actually that mad or worried about the state of the world I just waste a lot of time at my computer. My anger/frustration is more a product of my own laziness and unwillingness to work than it is reflection and analysis.