Forgiveness Between Nations: Stories in the Aftermath of the World Wars

Chapter 4

Forgiveness Between Nations:  Stories in the Aftermath of the World Wars


10% expendable!  I’ve been living on our planet and have seen, like many others, how politicians have been manipulating the people.  As if only 10% of the people are suffering then it’s okay.  For an individual, suffering is 150%.  We’ve got to preserve the social fabric.  – Ayub Ogada (1)

In this chapter I extend the guidelines on forgiveness established in the previous chapters into the issues of international conflict.   I do this by furthering the debate between Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Buber about the implications of World War II for peacemaking in the 21st Century.  Analyzing the facets of their debate helps establish guidelines for peacemakers who find themselves caught in the extreme circumstances of wide-spread regional or international conflict.


World Wars I and II have changed the terms in which we think about our place in the world.  No longer can we ignore the global implications of local conflicts.  These wars have also changed many of our concepts of human nature.  For instance, before WWI Sigmund Freud thought of violence as a quality that the sexual instinct could take on.  But the cruelties of the war convinced Freud that violence was an instinct in its own right, co-equal with the sexual instinct (similar to the ancient Mesopotamian concept of good and evil as co-equal forces in the universe).  In 1923 Freud published The Ego and the Id (Das Ich und das Es, or literally, “The I and the It”) which outlines this philosophy (first articulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle).  That same year, Martin Buber (also a Jew) published his best-known book I and Thou (Ich und Du, or colloquially, “I and You”) which describes a more humane perception of human reality with an awareness of the global implications of this perception.  The potential for global conflict raises the stakes on how we think and how we act on these basic issues.

No person has had more influence on the philosophy and practice of settling international differences than Mohandas Gandhi.  His methods have been described and analyzed in many studies and we can see the fruits of these methods in such places as the Philippines where the People Power movement affected the non-violent overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, resulting in the election of Corazon Aquino in 1986.  Instead of reviewing these methods, which have been well documented, I will analyze some the dilemmas confronting the peace-maker that became apparent with World War II.   A good way to do this is to reopen a dialogue that started between Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Buber and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  In this dialogue we will find some useful guidelines on how to handle our emotions in extreme circumstances.  We will be exploring situations in which the limits of human forgiveness are tested and some things must be left to God.

Gandhi and Buber

In 1938 the debate between Gandhi and Buber was over whether the methods of non-violent resistance should be promoted and applied to the situation with Nazi Germany.  Although little was known about the enormity of Hitler’s crimes at this time, Buber made the case that the British colonial power in India was not the genocidal machine that the Nazis had constructed, and therefore one should not expect the Jews to use the same methods of moral persuasion to try to stop the Nazis as Gandhi successfully used to end colonial rule:

In the five years which I myself spent under the present regime, I observed many instances of genuine satyagraha (non-violent resistance) among the Jews, instances showing a strength of spirit wherein there was no question of bartering their rights or of being bowed down, and where neither force nor cunning was used to escape the consequences of their behavior.  Such action, however, apparently exerted not the slightest influence on their opponents…A diabolical universal steam-roller cannot thus be withstood…Testimony without acknowledgment, ineffective, unobserved martyrdom, a martyrdom cast to the winds — that is the fate of innumerable Jews in Germany.  God alone accepts their testimony, and God “seals” it, as it is said in our prayers…Such martyrdom is a deed — but who would venture to demand it? (2)

People still have very strong emotions stemming from this very debate. The debate has at times been over-simplified as a debate between “pacifists” and “militarists”.  But this over-simplification does not appreciate the complexity of their debate nor the respect these two men had for each other.  To better understand their debate it is important to understand the courage of these two men.  Gandhi wrote many things on the issue of courage and it could be helpful to review some of his writings that detail his thinking on what has been aptly termed “righteous indignation.”   In these writings we will find that Gandhi was far from being the practitioner of detachment that many assume him to have been.

First of all let us consider Gandhi’s feelings about oppression and oppressors.  In the following passages Gandhi uses the classic Christian distinction to sort out his feelings:

“Hate the sin and not the sinner” is a precept which, though easy enough to understand is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world. (3)

By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody.  I know this is a big claim.  Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.  But I can and do hate evil wherever it exists.  I hate the system of government that the British people have set up in India.  I hate the ruthless exploitation of India even as I hate from the bottom of my heart the hideous system of untouchability for which millions of Hindus have made themselves responsible.  But I do not hate the domineering Englishmen as I refuse to hate the domineering Hindus.  I seek to reform them in all the loving ways that are open to me. (4)

Although Gandhi depersonalizes his feelings by directing his anger at evil actions rather than at their perpetrators, he does not detach from his feelings.  In fact, Gandhi relates to his anger in much the same way that St. Thomas Aquinas says that anger gives us the energy to fight injustice:

I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.

It is not that I do not get angry.  I don’t give vent to my anger.  I cultivate the quality of patience as angerlessness, and generally speaking, I succeed.  But I only control my anger when it comes.  How I find it possible to control it would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice. (5)

In addition to this, the practice of non-violence involves much more than the refusal to use force.  Just as we do not act to retaliate, neither do we act to surrender.  Neither hate nor despair should be guides for our actions.  Courage is the main attribute of true non-violence, and Gandhi consistently maintained that it is better to fight out of courage than to flee out of cowardice.  In fact, Gandhi denies the power of forgiveness not only to the cowardly but also to the weak:

What is true of individuals is true of nations.  One cannot forgive too much.  The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. (6)  Abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature. (7)

We need not go to this extreme to believe that a true act of forgiveness does not proceed from fear.  But the issue Gandhi raises here relates to the distinction between a forgiving attitude and a forgiving act:  the deed cannot be accomplished without the power to address the crime with the perpetrator.  This issue of the “power to forgive” came up in the aftermaths of military dictatorships in Latin America where the victims of torture endeavored to repair the social fabric.  In a review of the book by Lawrence Weschler, A Miracle, A Universe:  Settling Accounts with Torturers, Lee Siegel describes the need for this “power”:

The victims of [the regimes] in Brazil and Uruguay — or currently under malevolent governments, left and right, throughout the world — had their bodies broken into, their identities stolen and hidden from them behind the omnipresent gaze of the regime.  What they still seek is to violate the torture chambers, drag out the secret crimes, and in so doing recover the force of their individual wills.  Once powerless, they want the “power to forgive,” and that could indeed pose a danger to them and to their societies, for it also implies the power to punish, and creates the possibility of another hell.  Nevertheless, taking such a risk, as Weschler eloquently concludes, seems to be the only answer to torturers whose single article of faith is their assurance to the victim that “No one will ever know.” (8)


In large-scale conflicts, part of this power to forgive requires that crimes committed by state officials be acknowledged officially, rather than left on the level of common knowledge where they can continue to be denied by those in power.  This “acknowledgment” was the goal of the Nunca Mais (“never again”) project in Brazil with the demise of the oppressive military regime or the 1960s and 70s, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, headed by Desmond Tutu (which explored both the crimes of the Apartheid Regime and the excesses of the African National Congress armed struggle). (9)

It is important to understand first that Gandhi’s principle of non-violence (ahimsa) is practical rather than ideological:  what is non-violent depends on the situation.  This is not to say that Gandhi practices a “situation ethics”, but that he wants his response to relate to the realities of the situation:

In life, it is impossible to eschew violence completely.  Now the question arises, where is one to draw the line?  The line cannot be the same for everyone.  For, although, essentially the principle is the same, yet everyone applies it in his or her own way.  What is one man’s food can be another’s poison.  Meat-eating is a sin for me.  Yet, for another person, who has always lived on meat and never seen anything wrong in it, to give it up, simply in order to copy me, will be a sin.

If I wish to be an agriculturist and stay in a jungle, I will have to use the minimum unavoidable violence, in order to protect my fields.  I will have to kill monkeys, birds and insects, which eat up my crops.  If I do not wish to do so myself, I will have to engage someone to do it for me.  There is not much difference between the two.  To allow crops to be eaten up by animals, in the name of ahimsa (non-violence), while there is a famine in the land, is certainly a sin.  Evil and good are relative terms.  What is good under certain conditions can become an evil or a sin, under a different set of conditions.

Man is not to drown himself in the well of the shastras (Hindu scriptures), but he is to dive in their broad ocean and bring out pearls.  At every step he has to use his discrimination as to what is ahimsa (non-violence) and what is himsa (violence).  In this, there is no room for shame or cowardice.  The poet had said that the road leading up to God is for the brave, never for the cowardly. (10)

This perception of Gandhi’s is very similar to the Jewish idea of the “evil urge”:  the same impulses that lead to betrayal and destruction (such as lust, greed) can and should be channeled for good (love, family and home, civic pride). Gandhi even considers that the defense of life may require the deliberate taking of life:

Taking life may be a duty.  We do destroy as much life as we think necessary for sustaining our body…Even man-slaughter may be necessary in certain cases.  Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about, sword in hand, and killing anyone that comes in his way, and no one dares to capture him alive.  Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man. (11)

These passages from Gandhi mostly precede the rise to power of the Nazis and give us a good idea of some of the considerations he had in his response to WWII.  During WWII, Gandhi recognized Hitler’s crimes as unprecedented and stated that there was certainly solid justification for waging war against him.  Nonetheless Gandhi still promoted the non-violent alternative for the German Jews on the basis that the results were equally unsure for both options and that the non-violent alternative would set a better example for future generations. (12)

Now let us review the considerations that arose in the debate between Gandhi and Buber and then outline a series of responses (illustrated by stories) that reveal important aspects of these considerations.

First of all, with both Buber and Gandhi we find in their outrage at injustice a primary concern for the welfare of others over the self. This is the outlook of compassion or charity.  For instance, Gandhi said that he would rather be killed than kill, but when he considers the duty to kill, it is in the context of stopping someone from murdering others.  Similarly, Buber does not challenge Gandhi for expecting Buber himself to choose an anonymous martyrdom; rather, he criticizes him for expecting it of the Jewish people as a whole.

The issue Buber raises is a complex one.  For instance, the majority of the German Catholic bishops thought it would be demanding too much of the laity to ask them to openly oppose the Nazis.  There is strong evidence that this decision was based on cowardice rather than charity. (13)  But the difference between the Catholics and the Jews in Nazi Germany is that the Catholics were not subjected to genocidal persecution.  The counter-argument to this is that the Jews were bound to die anyway so they might as well die resisting non-violently.  But if there is a chance to live by some means, or to save someone else, then what?  The dilemmas are acute, and we should know the particulars before judging a response as selfish or charitable.  A recent example of someone caught in this dilemma was during Mikhael Gorbachev’s imprisonment when he had to consider the threat of harm made against his wife Raisa while deciding to oppose the Soviet coup attempt in 1991.  They decided it was a risk worth taking, a harm worth bearing.  This reluctance based on family concerns has since been interpreted as cowardice on Gorbachev’s part (giving a tacit nod to the would-be-coup), but we should not be so quick to judge.

Given these various considerations in choosing a course of action in extreme circumstances, let us consider some examples of different responses.  These examples will be arranged from the most submissive to the most resistant.

Non-Violent Resistance

Buber says that there is value in God’s eyes of an anonymous martyrdom.  There is value in dying with dignity.  But not all martyrdom is as anonymous as it may seem.  For instance, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in the company of strangers, one witness was so impressed by the dignified manner in which Bonhoeffer died that the witnesses’ story found its way into Bonhoeffer’s biography and has become a source of inspiration for future generations. (14)

A similar story was presented in chapter one, titled “Good Morning, Herr Müller.”  This story demonstrates a gentle resistance to the systematic oppression of the Nazis.  By simply greeting his fellow human, in spite of the inhuman conditions of the concentration camps, the Rabbi achieves his survival and the survival of the tradition he embodies.   With his “Good morning, Herr Müller,” the Rabbi showed that he was prepared to die with dignity and was spared for that reason contrary to all the Nazi criteria that would have sent him to his death.  This can be considered a form of non-violent resistance, and an effective one given the circumstances.   But Herr Müller (the official who became a Nazi) was not as evil as Hitler.

A story from WWII that closely realizes Gandhi’s ideal of non-violent resistance is the story of Martin Niemöller.  It is a unique story of someone in a position to challenge Hitler’s authority who did so directly.   Niemöller was in a good position to challenge Hitler in this way because he was a decorated WWI military hero who became a prominent Protestant minister.  In 1934 Niemöller was part of the Pastor’s Emergency League which was trying to prevent the subjugation of the German churches to the constraints of Nazi ideology (as manifest in the Aryan Clause and the Muzzling Decree).  At the end of their meeting with Hitler and Göring on January 25th, Hitler’s final word was as follows:

Hitler retorted sharply that the clergy should leave the care of the Third Reich to him and, as Niemöller recalled, the pastors should concern themselves with getting people to heaven and looking after the church. (15)

But shortly before this Niemöller had noticed something about Hitler that transformed Niemöller’s feelings within the situation.   Enraged, Hitler had made a series of accusations and complaints:

Everyone was making life difficult for him, he complained, as was Pastor Niemöller.  “I was very frightened”, Niemöller said later.  “I thought, what do I answer to all his complaints and accusations?  He was still speaking, speaking, speaking.  I thought, dear God, let him stop.”

At that moment Hitler heard a motor car turning in the half-circle outside the Chancellery.  Niemöller remembered that the Reich chancellor, by whose authority he had been completely overawed till that moment, then said, “Every time I leave this Chancellery in my car, I am aware that someone might take a revolver and shoot at me.”  At those words, Niemöller recalled, “I felt absolutely liberated.  That was my salvation.  I knew this man was more anxious than I was.  I felt, ‘You have given yourself away.  If he has more anxieties than I have, then I have the courage to face him.’  His authority was absolutely negated when I felt that he was more governed by fear than me.” (16)

So when it was finally time to leave:

As the pastors prepared to leave, Niemöller wondered whether Hitler, following the usual habit of shaking hands with everyone, would actually shake hands with him.  He had determined, if possible, to give the Führer one more short word, about his remarks on the sole duty of the church being to bring people to heaven, in a way that showed that he did not feel inferior to Hitler.  He now felt, he recalled, “quite tranquil.”

Hitler did shake hands with Martin Niemöller, and Niemöller said to him, “A moment ago, Herr Reich Chancellor, you told us that you would take care of the German people.  But as Christians and men of the church, we too have a responsibility for the German people, laid upon us by God.  Neither you nor anyone else can take that away from us.” As Niemöller later remembered, “Hitler didn’t say a single word any more.  He just touched my hand, took his hand away and went on.” (17)

Soon after this incident Niemöller was made a “personal prisoner” of Hitler for the duration of the war.  Only his prominence prevented him from being executed, as is the situation with many political prisoners of our day.  His imprisonment did have an effect, though, by advertising that the German military was not united behind Hitler. Military officers played an important part in the plot to assassinate Hitler that we will consider later.

An example of a public non-violent protest against the Nazi regime was the “Rosenstrasse Protest” held in the heart of old Berlin.  In 1943, the Nazis began the Final Roundup of German Jews in Berlin.  There were 2,000 Intermarried Jews (i.e. with Gentile spouses) who were imprisoned at the former Jewish Community Center on Rosenstrasse, waiting deportation to the concentration camps and gas chambers.  For a week, the Gentile spouses, mostly women, protested in open defiance of Nazi machine-gunners threatening to mow them down.  This courageous protest resulted in the release of the Intermarried Jews during the most vicious period of Nazi atrocities.

A more recent example of successful mass non-violent resistance was the People Power movement in the Philippines headed by Benigno Aquino (martyred in the cause in 1983) that led to the removal of the Marcos dictatorship and the election of Aquino’s widow, Corazon.  This example of People Power will later be contrasted with the example of the course taken by the African National Congress in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Now that we have covered the range of responses from dignified submission to non-violent resistance, let us move into the range where the methods of “force and cunning” mentioned by Buber are employed.   Remember, we are dealing here with situations in which the perpetrators of serious crimes show no signs of repentance, where lies govern the course of events, and where the criminals have both the means and the will to commit further, and more serious, crimes.  Jon Sobrino (1986) gives a good definition of the balance between forgiveness and protection against harm when he addresses the issue of socio-economic sin in Latin America: “Through love we have to be prepared to welcome the sinner and forgive him; and we have to be prepared to make it impossible for him to continue with his deeds which dehumanize others and himself.” (18)

Just War

The first example is not exactly a use of force, but presents a vivid picture of one way to respond to someone who makes a mockery of their faith while pretending to be sincere.  This story comes from the Eastern Orthodox tradition of St. Seraphim of Sarov. (19)  In this story, the female saint Pelagia challenges a bishop who is generating an atmosphere of lies.  This story shows that lying blocks the opportunity for forgiveness:

Rather more shocking was the behaviour of the Russian woman Pelagia (1809-1884).  She was a yuroditsa, or “fool for Christ”, attached to a nunnery where there was dissension, and the worldly party within the nunnery was being supported by the Bishop of Nizhni Novgorod.  In 1860 this bishop visited the nunnery and by a combination of smooth words and veiled threats overbore the just group within the community. Afterwards, traveling back in his carriage on the road to Nizhni Novgorod, he saw Pelagia sitting under a hedge by the roadside and knowing her reputation for holiness, as well as her firm opposition to his behaviour, he went up to her and unctuously greeted her.  At which she promptly gave him a clout on the cheek.  The bishop, however, had read his New Testament and knew that there were certain rules about how to respond in such circumstances, so he turned the other cheek to Pelagia.  But she simply said, “One is enough for you.”  Pelagia was a real Zen practitioner, trying to awaken the bishop out of his dream of concepts and rules into reality. (20)

Back to WWII, the following “Tale from the Holocaust” is an example of where cunning is used for the protection of the innocent:

Bronia and her son boarded a passenger train filled with German officers.  Her blond hair, blue eyes, and Berlin-accented German were a perfect cover, but she was fearful on account of little Yitzhak.  Because the family had lived in Berlin until the Zbaszyn Affair they all spoke the German language, but Yitzhak’s German was intermingled with Yiddish words because he had been born and raised in occupied Poland.  Bronia held the child in her lap, displaying his beautiful shock of blond curls.  Yitzhak was asleep, and Bronia prayed that he would stay asleep until Bochnia, their destination.

The German officers seated next to Bronia struck up a conversation with her.  Before long, they were discussing the Germans’ favorite topic — the Jews.  Their remarks were brutal and vulgar, although they apologized to Bronia for using such vile language in the presence of a lady.  Soon one officer was recalling how, on a similar journey, he had discovered a Jew who was traveling on Aryan papers:  “I sniffed him out, I have a special talent for it.  Right here in the middle of the compartment I made him pull down his trousers.  I was right.  The poor devil never made it to the next station.”  He told the story gleefully, trying to amuse beautiful Bronia.

Little Yitzhak turned his head in his sleep.  To think about the fact that he was circumcised made Bronia’s heart pound louder than the locomotive’s puffings, and her blood raced through her veins like the train in the dark night.  But she managed to smile her calm, charming smile.  She pointed to the sleeping child and said:  “Gentlemen, you don’t want to wake up a future soldier.”  The conversation continued in hushed voices.  One officer remarked that Bronia was the embodiment of German motherhood.  She reminded him of a beautiful madonna and child in his native Bavarian village of Saint Ottilier.

When the train stopped in Bochnia, Bronia, without giving any sign that it was her stop, remained in her seat.  Just as the train was about to pull out of the station, she swiftly stepped down to the platform.  The train pulled out of the station and Bronia waved to the German officers from below.  They responded warmly as the train sped on its way. Bronia breathed a sigh of relief.  The cool crisp air was refreshing. She hugged and kissed her little son, thanking him for being such a good boy.  Moments later, she was already planning the next step, the rescue of the other members of her family. (21)

In this example, honesty as a form of “non-violent resistance” could have resulted in the death of her child, and deception was a courageous and effective response.  Notice that Bronia must suspend her feelings of fear and anger, masking her feelings with calm and charming behavior. It is important to remember that Bronia’s deception was for the purpose of saving the child, not herself.  There are stories of non-Nazis who, in order to avoid imprisonment, pretended to be Nazis with the result that they rose to power in the Nazi ranks and became murderers.  Solely for self-protection, deception can be a tricky business.  The guidelines for self-protection outlined by Victor Frankl in his book From Death-Camp to Existentialism avoid this danger – by providing only minimal information to the Nazis (avoiding giving false information whenever possible), Frankl was better able to protect himself from the Nazis without endangering his fellow prisoners.  For instance, by identifying himself as a doctor rather than more specifically as a psychiatrist, Frankl not only gained more power to survive personally (a doctor being more useful than a psychiatrist), but also gained more power to help his fellow prisoners survive. (22)

Now let us consider the use of both cunning and force on a larger scale with the conspiracy of the German resistance to assassinate Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Protestant theologian in Germany and a member of a prominent family.  His grandmother had publicly protested the early abuses of the Jews by the Nazis.  For ten years Bonhoeffer had planned to visit India, and finally in 1936 had made arrangements with Bishop Bell of London to stay with Gandhi during a six month period.  Bonhoeffer’s interest in Gandhi’s methods had drawn criticism from his theological mentor Karl Barth.  Barth characterized Gandhi as non-Christian, and without Christ his teaching amounted to no more than secular humanism.  Contrary to this, Bonhoeffer perceived Gandhi as a Christian Hindu and as representing an ancient form of Christianity.

But Bonhoeffer canceled his trip to India in order to work on the German churches’ attempts to prevent their nationalization by the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer was prohibited from teaching in 1936 and in 1939 turned down a position in the U.S. in order to return to Germany and join the resistance.  This decision was based on his belief that a retreat to safety would for him be a sin of omission, a failure to respond to the call of duty to prevent the escalating crimes of the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer did not want to write his “confessions of a guilty by-stander.”

The main co-conspirator with Bonhoeffer in the resistance was his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer who was documenting Hitler’s war crimes.  The original plot was to organize a coup in which Hitler would be arrested for war crimes and declared criminally insane by Bonhoeffer’s father, a psychiatrist.  But when France surrendered on June 17, 1940, Bonhoeffer realized that this plot was no longer feasible.  After this, Bonhoeffer was the main advocate for the plot to assassinate Hitler to start a coup.  This plot resulted in three bombing attempts.  Bonhoeffer was imprisoned before the last bombing attempt, which he helped make possible through secret messages smuggled from prison.  The final attempt of July 20, 1944, although failing to kill Hitler, did injure Hitler sufficiently to remove him from command of the state (Himmler took over).  Within ten months Hitler had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide.

In Bonhoeffer’s biography, the following story gives a vivid picture of the effect of France’s surrender on his decision to practice deception:

While we were enjoying the sun, there suddenly boomed out from the cafe’s loudspeaker the fanfare signal for a special announcement:  the message was that France had surrendered.  The people round about at the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs.  With outstretched arms they sang “Deutschland über alles” and the Horst-Wessel song.  We had stood up, too. Bonhoeffer had raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed.  “Raise your arm!  Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later:  “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” (23)

Bonhoeffer never directly addressed the issues of conspiracy in his writings, but he did address the issue of deception under extreme circumstances in a section of his book Ethics titled “Telling the Truth.”  In it he counters Kant’s contention that the categorical imperative requires a person to reveal the location of a friend to a murderer by saying that he would hope to tell a “robust lie” in order to save his friend’s life. (24)  The commandment to love thy neighbor supersedes the rule against lying, making the lie a necessary evil given the circumstances.  By extension, in the face of Hitler’s genocide, the commandment to love thy neighbor takes precedence over the commandment to not kill, and killing becomes the necessary evil as the only way to stop the “man run amuck.”

There were those, like Gandhi and the Quakers, who maintained that Hitler’s redemption could be attained through non-violence and love. Bonhoeffer concluded that Hitler would not repent so long as he remained in power.  One way to understand this is that Hitler’s power was built on lies and that lies by their nature preclude repentance and consequently block any opportunity for forgiveness.  But this does not mean that Bonhoeffer became cynical or acted out of anger – he maintained a forgiving attitude even though he figured that he himself could not achieve forgiveness with Hitler. Repentance and forgiveness were still possible for Hitler, but only after the temptations of power had been removed, only once the illusions of the world had been stripped from the face of God.

This lack of bitterness on Bonhoeffer’s part can best be found in the way he responded to his imminent execution, as related by a doctor who didn’t know who Bonhoeffer was at the time:

On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster…and Reichsgerichtsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them.  Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was so deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.  In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. (25)

Now that, more than fifty years later, we have access to the love letters from prison between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer (26),  we can even better appreciate this observation of the way Bonhoeffer went to his death.

South Africa:  Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu

Ideally in this debate over WWII we would be able to determine the exact circumstances in which non-violent resistance is viable and when it becomes no more than an invitation to slaughter.   A good example of this judgment call is the policy changes of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa since it was founded in 1912.  The ANC was explicitly established on the non-violent resistance principles of Mohandas Gandhi (a South African “colored” of Indian descent whose first grass-roots resistance campaign was against the racial laws in South Africa from 1897-1915; an adopted son of Gandhi was in the ANC leadership). Ideally this policy would have achieved the kind of results that proved possible for Gandhi in India and for Aquino in the Philippines.  But after the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960, and the outlawing of the ANC soon thereafter, the ANC changed strategy and adopted a policy of armed struggle.  The armed struggle was waged until the power balance was affected and the “power to forgive” was restored, symbolized by the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990.  This power shift resulted in the resumption of non-violent policies by the ANC and the implementation of democratic elections and what currently appears to be a just distribution of power in order to bring national reconciliation.  The leadership demonstrated by President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu has certainly been important for making possible this positive turn of events. Mandela exemplified the just war position in this struggle, while Tutu maintained a position of non-violent resistance.   It is interesting to note the parallels between the differences of Mandela and Tutu and those of Buber and Gandhi.

The clearly defined differences along with the obvious and evident respect between Mandela and Tutu are interesting to explore.   The respect between these two South Africans can be seen in Mandela’s foreword to Tutu’s book of speeches and letters (The Rainbow People of God, 1994), as well as Tutu’s foreword to the important biography of Mandela written by Mary Benson in 1986.  In The Rainbow People of God, Tutu’s letter to President Botha, dated April 8, 1988 states:

I told you in my interview that I support the ANC in its objectives to establish a nonracial, democratic South Africa; but I do not support its methods.  That is a statement I made in the Supreme Court in Pretoria and on other occasions.  My views have never been clandestine…You know I went to Lusaka twice last year.  I tried to persuade the ANC to suspend the armed struggle; that is a matter of public record. (27)

In Mandela’s foreword to this book, he calls Tutu an “outstanding patriot” and “an eminent example” of “the struggles and sacrifices of peace-loving South Africans.”  In Tutu’s foreword to the Mandela biography, he calls Mandela a “remarkable” and “great man.”  Tutu continues:

God is good.  This man and those imprisoned with him should by now be embittered, disillusioned persons.  But they are remarkably abreast with what is happening in our land.  They can express concern about the welfare of others outside prison.  (Incredible!  He sent a message to me when he heard that some people had tried to break into my house.) And perhaps more effective than anything is his undoubted ability as an orator who can express the feelings of many in eloquent, well-chosen words; when you read his testimony in court you are proud that you too are black. (28)

To have this kind of mutual respect endure the pressures of oppression, investigation, persecution, imprisonment and state-sponsored terrorism is unique indeed.  But between two leaders who disagree on the basic methods of struggle, this kind of mutual esteem is nothing less than a miracle.  The extent of this esteem can be found in the following report after Mandela’s release from prison:

The occasion was a press conference held outdoors on the tree-shaded backyard lawn of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Anglican archbishop had put his home, one of the most luxurious in the virtually all-white suburb of Bishops Court, at Mandela’s disposal. In this more intimate setting, Mandela seemed a different person, and the incredible warmth and humanity of the man came forth…

For someone who had not held a press conference for thirty years, Mandela gave a stunning performance that day.  In fifty minutes, I revised all my impressions of his character gleaned from his appearance at the Old City Hall the day before.  Instead of straining to show he was still a tried and true ANC militant, he projected a personality full of compassion, compromise, and great hope.  His qualities as a statesman and diplomat came through immediately as he began answering our questions.  Speaking in a soft, slightly raspy voice, he fielded an enormous variety of questions about his long life in prison and his first impressions of freedom.  There was an ease and quickness in his answers that astounded his questioners.  Mandela exuded an inner calm, a quietness and certainty about himself that was unexpected and overpowering.  Most remarkable to many of us was the absence of any trace of bitterness about having spent the best years of his life behind bars… (29)

Tutu’s home becomes Mandela’s home.  The common ground establishes the basis for making peace.  Mandela feels at home in the respect granted by Tutu, and is able to extend that respect to his enemies and opponents.

Part of what makes this respect of Mandela possible for Tutu is his understanding of his role as a religious pastor.  When political leaders are imprisoned for political reasons, it is the duty of the pastor to speak out against political injustice until the political leaders are restored to a position in which they can address political issues themselves (30).  Tutu’s understanding of the pastor’s role of ministering to the flock in times of political oppression is similar to that espoused by Martin Niemöller in his confrontation with Hitler (see above).  Both of them use Biblical language to justify their role (31).

Even if we could determine the exact point at which non-violence becomes an invitation to slaughter, and when just war is called for, this still would not answer the question if there is some higher historical or spiritual value to a slaughter.  Ultimately this becomes a matter of individual conscience.  But it should be an informed conscience, a conscience developed in the company of practitioners of forgiveness such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corazon Aquino, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

The Vietnam War and Reconciliation

An interesting example of forgiveness between nations comes from the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam.  The scars from that war are deep on both sides.  Nonetheless, a consensus about the war has developed and the healing process has taken root.

Although there are strictly economic motives for normalization of relations, the spiritual dimension of improved relations certainly owes much to the long-terms efforts of peace-makers such as Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk who opposed both the United States war effort and the Vietnamese government persecution of religion.  Recent stories reveal the unique quality of forgiveness and reconciliation leading up to Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s laying of the cornerstone for the new consulate in Ho Chi Minh City in June, 1997.

It is well known that Senator John McCain of Arizona was a long-term prisoner of war in Hanoi, and suffered terribly during that experience.  Nonetheless, McCain was a minority in the Republican Party advocating for normalization of relations with Vietnam.  What was less well-known was the reason McCain was a prisoner rather than a casualty of war.  This story was told in the November 1996 news story “Senator Meets His Savior in Vietnam:  Enemy soldier rescued McCain.” (32)  When McCain’s bomber was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, he was twice rescued by a North Vietnamese soldier named Mai Van On.  McCain probably would have drowned when his injured body parachuted into an icy lake.  Mai Van On pulled McCain from the lake and later protected McCain from the attacks of an angry crowd who were reacting to the wide-spread bombing that was taking place.  Upon finally meeting On 29 years later,   McCain said of him:  “He’s a wonderful man.  It’s very touching to talk with him.”  After embracing McCain, On said of the rescue:  “I don’t know why I saved him at the time.  But now I know.  He is an important American senator who is trying to help Vietnam.”

The personal dimensions of forgiveness between nations are further revealed through two stories involving photographs and two stories about the My Lai Massacre of 1968.  The first “photograph” story is recounted at the beginning of this book, the story of U.S. soldier Richard Luttrell and the photograph he retrieved of Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Tran Ngoan and his daughter that haunted Luttrell for 30 years.

Even more than Luttrell’s story, the story of Pham Thi Kim Phuc shows how a photograph can begin the process of inserting the personal dimension into a war that was largely waged by remote control.  In 1972, when she was nine years old, Kim Phuc’s village was attacked by U.S. forces, bombing and napalming.  The image of Kim running away from the attack with other children, her clothes having been burned off by the napalm, was captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut.  This photograph won a Pulitzer Prize and became a symbol of the cruelties of the war.

Since then, Kim went through seventeen operations and still lives with pain.  She lives in Toronto, is married and has a child.   On Veteran’s Day in November 1996, she addressed the observance at the Vietnam War Memorial, offering forgiveness to those responsible for the attack in 1972.  After Kim’s talk, a former officer and helicopter pilot, John Plummer, approached her and told her how sorry he was for his responsibility in the attack.  (33)

The exact nature of Plummer’s responsibility for the 1972 attack has since come into question (34).   What is clear is that at the time of the attack, Plummer and others thought that the village had no civilians, only soldiers.  But when he saw Nick Ut’s photograph the next day, Plummer realized that they had been wrong.   The image of Kim haunted Plummer for decades. His conscience bothered him; he turned to alcohol, and went through two divorces.  Finally, he converted, became a Protestant Minister, and came to the conclusion about the girl in the photograph:  “It took a long time, but I came to realize I would never have any peace unless I could talk to her. I had to look in her eyes and say how sorry I am.”


Plummer got his chance to meet Kim at the Memorial Day observance in 1996.  Although Plummer’s responsibility for the attack was more remote than what was originally reported, a bigger question is why those more responsible for the attack did not seek to do what Plummer did.   Plummer’s expression of sorrow and Kim’s exclamation of forgiveness have brought new meaning to one of the numerous tragic events of the Vietnam War.  That war, with its emphasis on air power and remote-control weapons, made the anonymity of killing into a daily routine.  The photograph of Kim made it possible to re-humanize that dehumanized condition.

The My Lai Massacre was emblematic for revealing the evils of the U.S. military efforts in Vietnam.  Little known until recently, there was a true U.S. military hero at the scene of the My Lai war crime.  During the attack, U.S. copter pilot Hugh Thompson realized that innocent civilians were being slaughtered and he ordered his copter crew to land and protect on pain of death the group of civilians over which they took control (13 survivors).  He personally ordered to shoot any U.S. military that attacked the Vietnamese civilians and effectively faced down an immediate threat of another war crime in the midst of the wide-spread slaughter which killed a total of 504 innocent villagers.  Not only are those civilians indebted to this act of bravery, but we as U.S. citizens owe a similar debt of gratitude to Hugh Thompson as the Germans do to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis.  Thompson was belatedly awarded a Soldier’s Medal in 1998, thirty years after his bravery.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in May, 2000 brought to light many hope-filled stories between the United States and Vietnam.  Among these stories are:  1)  the marriage in 1999 of former POW Pete Peterson, who became U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, to Vi Le, who was born in Saigon and became Australian diplomat to Vietnam; 2)  the documentary “Regret to Inform” by Vietnam War widow Barbara Sonneborn, who tells the stories of widows in both the United States and Vietnam, revealing the common tragedies and struggles resulting from war; 3)  the efforts of various Vietnam Veteran’s groups, such as Veterans for Peace, to help community development programs in war-ravaged Southeast Asia.  These efforts include removing mines and unexploded munitions, countering the wide-spread toxic effects of Agent Orange that continue to poison that land, setting up medical clinics and reforestation.

These stories illustrate two themes in this chapter.  First:  even in conditions of war, it is the personal stories of kindness, repentance and forgiveness that make the difference.  Second:  these personal stories can only make a difference for the long-term when there is an official acknowledgment of the war crimes.  Only then is there the power to make forgiveness succeed.  An example of this was the American media coverage of the 25 year memorial in Hanoi of “Operation Linebacker II” – from December 18th to the 26th 1972, one month before the peace agreement of January 27, 1973, United States bombers executed a massive bombing campaign that killed 1,600 civilians in Hanoi (35).   Without recognition of facts like this, normalization would lack the spiritual dimension of forgiveness, and there would be no true reparation in renewed economic activity.


Neutrality versus Multi-Partiality

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressors.  – Desmond Tutu

It is a common idea that peace-makers should be neutral and detached.  The stories in this chapter show that the best practitioners of forgiveness do not conform to this idea.  Far from being detached, they were passionately, as well as prayerfully, engaged.  They converted anger into compassion and fear into bravery, accepting their own limitations while being vigilant against self-deception.   They put their own lives on the line in a way that makes death a victory.  What this calls for is not an attitude of objective neutrality, but of balanced wisdom.  We only find truth by becoming part of truth.  The potential dangers of a neutral position in situations of extreme conflict became apparent in Bosnia:  United Nation Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted that the UN peacekeeping policy of neutrality was responsible for allowing widespread slaughter (36).  The laissez-faire neutrality of the Senior Bush administration towards the crimes of Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic led to the later necessity of the NATO armed intervention during the Kosovo atrocities in 1999.  Without that armed intervention, Milosevic would never have been brought to justice before the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

All too often a balanced approach is not sufficiently distinguished from a neutral one.  Let us consider some of the essential qualities involved in a truly balanced approach, beginning with an example.

During the 1989 democracy demonstrations in China, one of the few instances in which demonstrators resorted to violence shows the dangers of allowing passions to get the better of one’s judgment.  There was an incident in which a soldier started machine-gunning a crowd without any provocation, slaughtering many. The crowd managed to catch the soldier and made his execution into a public spectacle.  It may be possible that the soldier needed to be killed to prevent him from further murder, but the way in which the soldier was executed became a powerful propaganda tool for the Chinese hard-liners.  By showing film footage of the execution of the soldier without reference to the soldier’s slaughter of innocents, the regime had a better chance of portraying the democracy movement as made up of violent criminals and treasonous thugs.  This incident was therefore instrumental in helping the regime bury the truth.  The revenge practiced upon the body of the soldier backfired, leading to greater oppression rather than more freedom.

Nowhere is this principle that excess retaliation backfires more eloquently stated than in the May 1995 statement by the imprisoned Palestinian Samir Kuntar.  In 1979 he engaged in a plot to disrupt the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt by killing civilians (he had been orphaned at age twelve as a result of Israeli attacks on Lebanon):

We, the Palestinian nation, must carry out some serious soul-searching. The decision taken by our organizations, principally in the early 1970s, allowing for violence against civilians, was a terrible mistake – a boomerang…The result was the creation of an environment among us that encouraged indiscriminate violence. (37)

Simply stated, two wrongs don’t make a right, nor do they make things equal or neutral.  In mediation what this means is that we must avoid the perception that admission of wrong on one side automatically justifies, or makes right, the position or conduct of the other side (my offense does not justify your revenge, nor your  revenge justify my recommitting the offense).  But another thing that “balanced” does not mean is having the same attitude towards the violator and the violated.  A violation may be part of a larger story, but each violation is a story in its own right and mediators should avoid minimizing or discounting the harm done.  It is a brave heart, not a hardened heart, that is ready to help resolve conflicts.  Donald Nicholl vividly describes the test he set for his own attitude before taking on the role of peace-maker in his position as the rector of the Tantur Institute for Theological Research near Jerusalem.  In answer to the question, “Is there any sign available to indicate when one’s heart is becoming corrupted?,” he writes:

It is simple.  If your immediate spontaneous reaction — if the movement of your heart — upon hearing of some tragedy, is an ideological one, then your heart has become corrupted, and you should leave straight away and go on pilgrimage until it is cleansed.  Suppose you hear, for instance, that scores of civilians have been killed in an air raid upon PLO headquarters in Beirut, and your immediate reaction is, “Well, what else do they expect if they share quarters with terrorists?”  In that case your reaction is not a human one but an ideological one.  Your ideology may even be correct; but if it is primary then you have lost your heart of flesh and set up in its place an idol of stone.

I quoted this example to a high-placed Israeli official, and when I noticed how his facial muscles twitched I realized that he was grieved by what had been revealed to him in the cave of his heart.  A good man, nevertheless; and he grieved.  More saddening was my encounter with a Marxist whom I know.  After describing to him the sign of discernment that I had been given, I proposed a different illustration as a test, an incident in Haifa bus station.  There a bomb planted by the PLO killed a number of innocent citizens.  Again, I said, if one’s instant reaction is to sigh, “Well, such things are only to be expected if they are oppressing another people,” then an ideology has turned one’s heart to stone.  However, my Marxist brother seemed not to be grieved, as my Israeli brother had been, by what had revealed itself in the cave of his own heart.  Instead he attacked me sharply for being obscurantist, for not recognizing that ideas also “have life.” (38)

Finally, for those who have committed themselves to reconciliation and peace-making, one of the greatest obstacles to maintaining a balanced attitude is the danger of becoming obsessed.  Dwelling on tragedy, we can lose our hope and passion for life.   Obsession hampers our imagination and fuels anger and fear.  The best defense against obsession is a strong, non-cynical sense of humor.  We find this perspective amongst the best practitioners of forgiveness. The value of humor in the work of forgiveness is the subject of the next chapter.  But in general a good sense of humor under extreme circumstances involves using our imagination to resolve the struggle between duty and free-will.  The following passage from William Ernest Hocking provides a good example of how this can be done:

The answer cannot be found in the idea of duty; it must lie in a disclosure of the nature of the world.  For a demand upon feeling calls for a transformation of desire; and desire, formed in us by nature, can be transformed only by a vision of unsuspected beauty and meaning in the heart of things. (39)





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