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Withholding Forgiveness

by Jun 17, 2024Friar Reflection

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus references Exodus 21 in which Moses is explaining the Torah to the people. It is a description of and an attempt to regulate fair punishment for violence so that the punishment did not exceed the injury. The instruction was aimed not at excusing brutality, but at controlling vendetta. Here is a portion of the passage:

23 But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Ex 21:23-25)

In the vein of the Sermon’s “you have heard it said, but I say to you…” Jesus offers: You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say, “Offer no [violent] resistance to one who is evil.” (Mt. 5:38-39). Jesus goes on to give practical examples of what He means to teach. I think Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offers one of the best descriptions of “why.”

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” Martin Luther King, Jr. taught. “Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967, p. 181-2, 191)

Simon Wiesenthal, famed for his post-World War II efforts in hunting down Nazi War Criminals and bringing them to trial, knew the hard hand of violence. Over eighty members of his family died in a Nazi concentration camp. He saw his own mother machine-gunned right in front of him.

Wiesenthal tells the story that one day a nurse came out to where he was working and asked him to follow her. They went to a hospital room where a former-member of the Nazi SS lay dying, he was just a young man. He told Simon how he had been in charge of a unit active in the Holocaust. Raised a Catholic before he became a Nazi, the young man was consumed with guilt over what he had done. The young man had asked that someone Jewish come to see him.

The young man confessed his actions and sins and begged Wiesenthal for forgiveness, as a representative of the Jewish people. Wiesenthal’s only response was to get up and leave the room without saying a word, without offering forgiveness. For the rest of his life, Wiesenthal was troubled by his non-response.

“Offer no [violent] resistance to one who is evil.” But what do we offer? Or perhaps better asked, what would Jesus offer? Jesus takes the place of those who cannot forgive. He comes to us broken as we are and says, all is forgiven and He loves us. When people will not forgive, Jesus will. When people cannot forgive, Jesus will. When people are unable to forgive, Jesus will.

With all apologies to Dr. King, perhaps a variation of his wonderful text might be: “Returning SILENCE for violence adds deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Image credit: Sermon on the Mount (1877) by Carl Heinrich Bloch, Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, Public Domain