Undeserved Forgiveness

by Jeff Jacoby

Ed. Note: This piece was originally published (in the Boston Globe) during Sukkos. The issues Mr. Jacoby raises, however, are similar to those discussed by Rabbi Dovid Gottlied in his contribution of last week, so I thought it still relevant for publication here, even weeks later.

Before writing his article, Jeff sent a letter to several Rabbis seeking their thoughts. His comments about why he wrote this piece have not been published previously, but add considerably to its Jewish context. It is our privilege to post a selection from his email, with his permission:

Twice before I have written about the Christian impulse to express love or forgiveness or charity in the face of depraved evil — once when Pope John Paul II prayed that God should forgive the 9/11 terrorists, and after Arafat died, and George W. Bush’s instinctive reaction was to say, “God bless his soul.” I feel the urge to do so again — I guess because every Jewish instinct in me rebels at the idea that one’s response to cruelty and murder should be compassion and kindness for anyone except the victims. A few years back, Meir Soloveichik wrote a wonderful essay in First Things called “The Virtue of Hate,” which explored this difference between Judaism and Christianity at (magazine) length…

There is also the question of anyone presuming to “forgive” the murder of another. Do you know the famous book of Simon Wiesenthal, “The Sunflower,” in which he tells of being summoned to the deathbed of a Nazi officer, who wanted a Jew — any Jew — to forgive him for what he had done. Wiesenthal wrote that he got up and left the room without saying a word. He submitted the story for comment to a number of writers and thinkers and asked if they thought he had done the right thing. The Jews more or less unanimously approved; the Christians more or less unanimously did not.

“There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass. There were bullet holes everywhere — everywhere.”

That description is from Janice Ballenger, a deputy coroner in Lancaster County, Pa. She was among the first to enter the West Nickel Mines Amish School after Charles Roberts murdered five girls and severely wounded five others there last week. One of the bodies she examined was that of Naomi Rose Ebersol , a 7-year-old who had been shot more than 20 times. “Kneeling next to the body and counting all the bullet holes,” a shaken Ballinger said, “was the worst part.”

How do civilized human beings react to such an atrocity? With horror? Anger? Hatred?

Not the Amish.

Asked by a reporter if the community was angry about the killings, one Amish grandmother, Lizzie Fisher, was adamant. “Oh, no, no, definitely not,” she said. “People don’t feel that around here. We just don’t.”

Roberts planned his attack meticulously, making a list of supplies he would need, then gradually buying them over a six-day period. It makes the skin crawl just to read the inventory: nails, bolts, wrenches, bullets, guns, earplugs, wooden planks, rope. Roberts brought plastic ties to bind his victims’ feet, chains and clamps for restraint, and tubes of K-Y Jelly, a sexual lubricant. He had a change of clothes, toilet paper, and a bucket. Apparently he “planned to dig in for the long siege,” a Pennsylvania State Police colonel surmised, and “intended to victimize these children in many ways prior to executing them.” Instead, rattled perhaps by the arrival of the police, Roberts opened fire on his young hostages.

Confronted with such premeditated malevolence, what decent person wouldn’t seethe with fury and revulsion? What parent or grandparent wouldn’t regard such a massacre as not only unspeakable, but well nigh unforgivable?

The Amish wouldn’t.

“I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive,” one Lancaster County resident was quoted as saying. “We don’t need to think about judgment; we need to think about forgiveness and going on.” Many townspeople announced their forgiveness of Roberts directly to his wife and children .

On CNN, a local pastor recounted how the grandfather of Marian Fisher, one of the murdered girls, told younger relatives not to hate Roberts for killing her.

“As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was . . . saying to the family, ‘We must not think evil of this man,’ “ said the Rev. Robert Schenck. “It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry.”

I can’t deny that it is deeply affecting to see how seriously the Amish strive to heed Jesus’ admonition to return good for evil and turn the other cheek. For many Christians, the Amish determination to forgive their daughters’ murder is awe-inspiring. In his Beliefnet blog, the always eloquent Rod Dreher marvels at CNN’s story of the Amish grandfather. “Could you do that?” he writes. “Could you stand over the body of a dead child and tell the young not to hate her killer? I could not. Please, God, make me into the sort of man who could.”

But hatred is not always wrong, and forgiveness is not always deserved. I admire the Amish villagers’ resolve to live up to their Christian ideals even amid heartbreak, but how many of us would really want to live in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered? In which even the most horrific acts of cruelty were always and instantly forgiven? There is a time to love and a time to hate, Ecclesiastes teaches. If anything deserves to be hated, surely it is the pitiless murder of innocents.

To voluntarily forgive those who have hurt you is beautiful and praiseworthy. That is what Jesus did on the cross, what Christians do when they say the Lord’s Prayer, what observant Jews do when they recite the bedtime Kriat Sh’ma. But to forgive those who have hurt — who have murdered — someone else? I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.

There are indications that the killer in this case may have been in the grip of depression or delusion — he left suicide notes that spoke of unrelenting grief over his infant daughter’s death, and of being tormented by dreams of molesting girls. Perhaps it was madness more than evil that drove him to commit this horror, in which case forgiveness might be more understandable.

But the Amish make it clear that their reaction would be the same either way. I wish them well, but I would not want to be like them, reacting to terrible crimes with dispassion and absolution. “Let those who love the Lord hate evil,” the Psalmist writes. The murder of the Amish girls was a deeply hateful evil. There is nothing godly about pretending it wasn’t.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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6 Responses

  1. Larry says:

    “As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was . . . saying to the family, ‘We must not think evil of this man,’ “ said the Rev. Robert Schenck. “It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry.”

    Rev. Schenck, who was ostensibly born Jewish, is a leader of the Christian Right and the brother of another purported apostate who operated a “Messianic Jewish” church in the Buffalo area. His admiration for those who would ignore the need for evil to be recognized, denounced and confronted demonstrates strikingly the difference between the Judaism into which he was allegedly born and the Christinaity that he has adopted.

  2. One Christian's perspective says:

    Christians do uphold the purity of G-d’s Ten Commandments. We can and do discern evil. Homicidal blood is to be avenged and it is the Lord who does this through His directives to his people and through the court system. We see G-d’s Commandments summed up as: Love G-d and Love man. Forgiveness is an act of love. It doesn’t mean we weaken the law when we forgive others who sin against us. It means we uphold the law because human beings are G-d’s image bearers. It has been said: hate the sin, do not hate the person in your heart lest you fall into temptation.

  3. Ahron says:

    ‘One Christian’,

    I know that most Christians aspire to uphold the Ten Commandments, the question obviously is how to do that–and how to uphold the rest of God’s words. You write: >“Homicidal blood is to be avenged and it is the Lord who does this through His directives to his people and through the court system.”

    Well once the court system is involved then it really is not God who is administering vengeance or justice–it is the human beings who operate the court and the wider society who sent them. Jewish law holds that the establishment of a justice system is one of the Biblical commandments that is incumbent upon every human society. Asserting that “God will take care of it” is unacceptable, and one reason (just one) is that such a statement is a means of abdicating responsibility for both justice and society. Earthly justice and punishment is primarily the domain of man. Justice beyond this earth, however, is for the Creator.

    I’m not familiar with Christian writings so I’m not clear on what “temptation” one risks if you hate a person in your heart. I will only re-cite the directive from Pslams brought above by Mr. Jacoby: “Those who love God must hate evil.” When we forgive someone who committed a limited sin against us in a personal context, and absolve that person from further punishment or consequence then forgiveness can be a great positive force for the rebuilding of a relationship and even a psyche. In a public context, however, when serious evil has been committed–an evil that demands the imposition of justice in response–then forgiveness may well indeed weaken the law, and is likely to chisel at the foundations of social order, civility, and comity.

    I have an additional question: How can anybody but the murder victim forgive a murderer anyway?

  4. Daivd says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if they would have that attitude towards the Jews who they accuse of killing their god.

  5. Tzvi says:

    At the same time that debates about the virtue of the Amish forgiving the murderer broke out, debates within the Jewish community broke out with regard to forgiving the butcher at Shevach meats. Many felt that to be Jewish/Frum is to forgive. Others felt that only God could forgive. I wonder what the readers of Cross-Currents feel and perhaps a contributor can write a post. Of course there is no reason to compare the tragedy of the two situations or the rishus of the perpetrators as they are truly incomparable.

    Thank you

  6. Ahron says:

    Given that the two situations are not similar…

    It seems to me that forgiveness might only be possible in the meat scandal if the responsible party explained his actions, and then begged forgiveness from those who were hurt. In the absence of taking such responsibility, it is very difficult for me to see how or why the responsible party should be forgiven.

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