Forgiveness and Compassion Theme in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

Should criminals involved in mass crimes be forgiven? This is the difficult question with different answers that many ponder. Simon Wiesenthal investigates this question along with other authors in the The Sunflower. Simon was in a Nazi concentration camp during World War 2.

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One day during his imprisonment, he was sent to remove waste from a German army hospital, where he was then called over to the bedside of a soldier. The SS soldier, Karl, was mortally wounded and was dying. The soldier asked for Simon, because he needed someone of the Jewish faith to confess to. Karl asked for forgiveness from Simon when he confessed and repented his evil doings of murdering a mass number of people by burning a building and shooting at anyone who tried to escape. While Simon listened to Karl’s confession, he was fighting with his mind the matter of forgiveness. After Karl’s confession, Simon did not give Karl an answer if he forgave him, instead, Simon walked out silently. From that day forward, Simon presses the issue of forgiveness. While some argue that we should strive for compassion and understanding to forgive, others believe that we shouldn’t forgive, because to forgive you must forget. I can understand both viewpoints. I believe that forgiveness is a personal decision and is up to the individual and circumstances. By not forgiving, it will ensure that the same crimes will not be repeated, because perpetrators won’t take advantage of forgiveness and will learn from their actions. By forgiving, the actions of the perpetrator will not turn the victim into bitterness and the memories will be permanent notes to not repeat the same crimes, because victims can use their memories as knowledge and let go. Some may argue that we should show compassion and forgive criminals of mass crime, such as the crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The act of compassion is showing pity for others while understanding that they’re fully responsible for their actions. We all have an innate ability to show compassion and understanding which empowers us to let go of self-righteous feelings of resentment to forgive. Dith Pran says in The Sunflower that, The key to forgiveness is understanding (Pran 232). Pran suggests that in order for us to forgive, we must understand. Understanding the position and conscience of the perpetrator allows one to be liberated from the negative feelings that can oppress one; which allows one to forgive. Showing compassion or forgiving doesn’t reprimand one’s actions, instead, it brings awareness. With awareness and new understanding, one will find healing, the ability to forgive, and a great strength of compassion. While arguing that we should forgive, Matthieu Ricard in The Sunflower states that, The notion of a stable and autonomous self is, from the Buddhist point of view, itself the source of inner poisons such as hatred, obsession, pride, and jealousy, for it divides us from others and prevents us from being more compassionate (Ricard 235). Ricard emphases that not forgiving will allow negative beliefs to manifest in us, which prevents us from being compassionate and forgiving.

When we forgive, we become truly compassionate about the pain of those who have inflicted pain. Ricard also states that true compassion has to accept all things and everyone, even the righteous and the guilty, and the friend and the enemy (Ricard 235). Ricard is saying that we should show compassion and forgiveness for everyone, so that everyone and everything has the opportunity to be refined from pain and suffering to good. Forgiveness is a deep and personal process, but with compassion, forgiveness can be offered to everyone. Many people argue that we should not forgive perpetrators of mass crimes. Many say that to forgive, you must forget all the wrongdoings made. This excuses and dismisses the crimes, and the suffering made by the perpreptor, which is unacceptable. Sven Alkalaj says in The Sunflower that forgetting crimes is worse than forgiving, because forgetting belittles the humanity that vanished in the atrocities (Alkalaj 102). Alkalaj suggests that by forgetting the injustices, such as the ones that the Jewish people received, it would disparage the sufferings and trauma that one has beared. It is hard to visualize that anyone would be capable of forgiving the suffering and inhumanity endured by the victims of the Nazis. Moshe Bejski claims in The Sunflower that, Such an act of mercy would have been a kind of betrayal and repudiation of the memory of innocent victims who were unjustly murdered, among them, the members of his family (Bejski 115). Bejski conveys that showing pity for the criminals involved is not only impertinent to the victims and their family; but it would cause us to forget the killings and tortures committed. We cannot forgive if the memories of the atrocity continues to haunt and enslave the victims. Bejski also states, The survivors have been sentenced to bear their pain and sadness to the grave. Without forgetting there can be no forgiving (Bejski 116). Bejski is saying we should not forgive, because survivors are given a life sentence of trauma and pain that cannot be rehabilitated or healed. The crimes carried out will remain in the victims’, and their loved ones’ minds forever.

These viewpoints provide ample evidence on whether to grant forgiveness. Some say that we should forgive to show compassion and understanding. While the other side recognizes that we shouldn’t forgive, because we would have to discard all sufferings. I can acknowledge both sides of the argument and believe that forgiveness is up to the individual and how they feel.

Although, a part of me argues that we should show compassion and forgive criminals of mass crimes, a part of me believe we should not. Perpetrators who were forgiven have a possibility of exploiting and abusing what was granted to them and not learning from their mistakes. Therefore that would dismiss the atrocity, because there is no real consequence. In The Sunflower Robert McAfee Brown points out that, If we forgive, it will be a sign to those in the future that they can act without fear of punishment, and that the universe has a moral escape valve labeled ‘forgiveness’ that permits evil not only to survive but to thrive (Brown 121). Others need to know that if one commits a crime, there will be consequences. Punishment for crimes will set an example for others not to commit crimes. If we allow criminals to escape punishment, it will be an injustice for the victims. The victims of perpetrators would have to suffer with the trauma, while the perpetrators are granted to move on. In the case for the Nazis, many of them were not brought to justice and continued living their lives, while 17 million people, including 6 million Jews, lost theirs. Moshe Bejski states that the number of Nazi criminals being brought to justice is decreasing, which leave thousands of Germans involved in committing genocide and crimes to return to their quiet, peaceful homes and lives without feeling remorse or a troubled conscience (Bejski 116). Bejski is highlighting how we should not forgive criminals who have committed mass crimes, because they do not deserve forgiveness. Perpetrators show no remorse during and after committing heinous crimes, therefore it would be hard to show compassion and grant them forgiveness. Primo Levi states in The Sunflower that, When an act of violence or an offense has been committed it is forever irreparable (Levi 191). Levi shows that when such destruction has been done, it cannot be undone. The actions made by perpetrators cannot be repaired or forgotten and for that reason, we should not grant forgiveness to criminals of mass crimes. Although, some say that to forgive you must forget, I argue that we should forgive, but no forget. Criminals and victims must remember the actions done to ensure that crimes and atrocities don’t reoccur. By forgiving, we are letting go of the anger and hatred that holds us down. By remembering, we are making sure the wrongdoing doesn’t occur again.

In The Sunflower Mary Gordon states that, Forgiveness can, of course, be good for both sides, but forgetting almost never is, first because it is a form of denial, and second because only a recognition of guilt by both sides can begin to prevent repetition of the same heinous deed (Gordon 152). Gordon emphasizes that forgiveness is good for us, but we should never forget, because it is a form of denial and we should make a permanent note of the penitence from both sides to prevent the same destructive actions from happening again. Nothing can change the memory the victim holds within their minds, because the crime has already been done; so the best thing to do is learn from that memory and forgive. In The Sunflower Matthew Fox states that, One should forgive”but not out of altruism but out of the need to be free to get on with one’s life”but we ought not forget…Simon did not forget…His story prevents our forgetting (148). Fox highlights how we should forgive, but not forget so that our stories, just like Simon’s, can be learned from and reminders for others not to allow the same mistakes to happen. Remembering is essential, because it allows us to have the past knowledge in knowing what to do, so that mistakes aren’t repeated. Robert McAfee Brown says that the phrase never forget is a clear lesson and if we do forget there will be a time where worst atrocities will occur against anyone by ones who wish to destroy power (Brown 121). Brown is saying that we have to remember crimes because there may be a period in the future where worst monstrosities will occur. If a worst monstrocity is in the works in the future, we’ll have our memories and others’ stories to help overcome it. Forgetting is not good for us, as memories are who we are. Memories are a way of moving forward and granting forgiveness.

Additionally, forgiveness is something we should all strive for to move forward. We should forgive to expel all the hatred and bitterness that we hold with us. By holding on to the hatred, resentment, and bitterness, we are only hurting ourselves. You can see forgiveness as something to benefit yourself rather than the perpetrator. Forgiveness lets perpetrators know that their actions were hateful, but you don’t carry the hatred for them so you can better yourself. Forgiveness allows one to define themselves rather than allow the perpetrator to define them. In The Sunflower Harold S. Kushner recalls a conversation with a woman were he states, I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman (Kushner 185). Kushner is saying that no one deserves the ability to turn you into something evil. Anger and bitterness from not forgiving puts heavy weights on us and hold us back. Ricard states that, For the victim, forgiveness is a way of transforming his own grief, resentment, or hatred into good (Ricard 236). Ricard shows that forgiveness is a kind of transformation, it can turn one from anger and hate into good and happiness. We shouldn’t let grudges and hatred define us or create new pain. Forgiving can be a way for one to cope with their trauma, because it helps the victims move on. Kushner express how forgiveness represents letting go of grievance and the role of victim (186). Kushner indicates that we should forgive to not only let go of resentment, but to also let go of defining ourselves as the victim. Victims will always be suffers of crimes committed against them, but they don’t have to let that determine them or their future.

Granting forgiveness relieves the heaviness of the past and gives us the opportunity to move toward to greatness.To sum up, many people have different opinions on whether to grant forgiveness to those who have committed mass crimes. Forgiveness is a personal and deep choice, therefore there are no right or wrong answers to granting forgiveness. Some may say that we should aim for compassion and understanding to always grant forgiveness for everyone, including those who have commited mass crimes. Others will say that we should never forgive perpetrators of mass crimes, because they don’t deserve it and we will forget their wrongdoings. I understand both viewpoints and argue for both sides. By not forgiving, perpetrators won’t abuse the power of forgiveness and will learn from their actions. This is significant, because this will ensure that the same crimes won’t be repeated in the future. By forgiving, victims will let go of the resentment and hatred, but will not forget the injustice and sufferings inflicted. This is important, because one must not let the actions of perpetrators turn them into bitterness and should allow the memories to be preserved so crimes don’t repeat themselves. Forgiveness could be circumstantial, but in the end, it is up to the individuals’ decisions on whether to forgive.

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