Copyright © 2019 by John L. Sowalsky. All Rights Reserved.

Forgiveness

May 19, 2019

 

It is worth noting that the majority of the German population prior to, during, and after the Third Reich rose to power identified as Christian, whether Protestant or Catholic. Even Hitler himself at least masqueraded as a Christian, and the Nazi leadership advocated for so-called "Positive Christianity," which, while eschewing many of the salient features of the Christian faith, was an attempt to profit from the label, a thin veneer, of Christianity.

At the time I wrote Passing, I identified as Christian, despite having been born into a Jewish family. I have since renounced my faith, in no small part as a result of the Pittsburgh shootings, which served as the proverbial straw heaped onto the back of an already increasingly overburdened camel. There are several layers of irony buried in these circumstances, and I won't bother to dig them all out here. But I will note that it became apparent to me, after the Tree of Life massacre, that even within a highly progressive branch of post-evangelicalism there lurked a latent, passive anti-Semitism, and that I was merely "passing" as Christian, a limitation I was incapable, by dint of my blood, to ever overcome.

This having been said, when I presented a reading of an early draft of "Passing" at the 2017 Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival, it was not lost on me that I had written a story about Jews and the Holocaust which, nonetheless, exemplified the central message of the Gospel, namely to love one's enemies. Among the last words attributed to Jesus are the following, spoken in reference to his tormentors, and found in Luke 23:34: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." As it turns out, these words are more easily uttered than lived, at least for most of us mere mortals.

It is also worth noting that much of the Christian ethos is foreshadowed by the Torah and other books of the Jewish Bible. Christianity, after all, is, at the end of the day, simply a breakaway Jewish sect. At no time during their lives did Jesus, the Apostles, or, indeed, any of the earliest members of what has come to be known as "the Church" cease to identify themselves as Jewish. There was even vigorous debate within the early Church, as indicated in the Epistles, as to whether Gentile converts were expected to adopt the Jewish faith and its traditions.

There remains some debate over how and why some Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were able to forgive their tormentors. Of course, many of them -- probably the majority -- were not able to do so, and this is perfectly understandable. Yet somehow some of them did. This is a great metaphysical mystery, and while it is worth contemplating, no definitive answers will ever be forthcoming. It is likely that each case must be considered on its own merits, such that no blanket explanations will ever suffice. However, it is worth noting the following passage, found in Leviticus 19:18: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself."

This is a clear foreshadowing of Christ's primary imperative. There are those who have been quick to point out that the phrase "among your people" limits this Levitical injunction to considerably less than the entire populace of the planet. Yet here we run up against further parallels between Judaism and Christianity. Both faiths are seemingly exclusionary: Judaism requires a bloodline and conformance to a covenant (i.e., male circumcision) in order to claim membership among the "chosen people," while Christianity requires a profession of faith in Jesus Christ in order to obtain the salvation of one's soul. It is often assumed that Christianity practices a type of evangelism foreign to Judaism. But nothing could be further from the truth. In a significant sense, Jews were the first Evangelicals. Time and again throughout the Jewish Bible we see the door opened to Gentiles. Indeed, the command to Abraham was not to circumcise every male member of his family, but every male member of his household. Conspicuous examples of this Jewish evangelism can also be found at various points in the Book of Exodus and, most famously, in the Book of Ruth, as well as elsewhere.

Christian commentators are quick to point to the Levitical lex talionis as the singular, fundamental distinction between the Jewish and the Christian ethos. Yet there are many example in the Jewish Bible of forgiveness: Jacob forgave Laban, Essau forgave Jacob, and Joseph, in yet another foreshadowing of the New Testament, forgave his eleven brothers. Contrast this with the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the actions of the nominally Christian Nazis -- let alone the tone and tenor of the current-day Evangelical movement -- and it raises legitimate questions as to the supposedly unique and innovative nature of Christ's central mandate. When it comes to forgiveness, there's nothing new under the sun. Or under the Son.

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