The year is 1944. Eva and her twin sister, Miriam, are escorted onto a train departing from the Romanian ghetto where they are living. The sisters are told that they are headed to a work camp. They are dropped off on the platform at the Auschwitz death camp. They are 10 years old.1
Being twins, Eva and her sister are immediately of interest to a Nazi doctor there named Josef Mengele, or the “Angel of Death,” as most called him, and the girls become the continual subject of his cruel experiments.
After nine months of near starvation and constant torture of these experimentations, the two young girls are liberated by the Soviet Army along with other survivors. Still, for Eva, her experiences of unimaginable pain and suffering at the death camp will mean that the horrors of the Holocaust will follow her away from that place. From childhood into adolescence, adolescence into adulthood, for the next 50 years of her life, she will carry the bitterness of the unfathomable evil that she and others suffered.
Apartheid South Africa, the year is 1985. Adriaan Vlok has just been appointed as Deputy Minister of law and order, a role he will now hold concurrently with that of Deputy Minister of Defense.2 Vlok claims his Christian faith. He also claims a belief in white supremacy, and under his command of the police, thousands will be killed by law enforcement in a bloody and violent war against black activists fighting apartheid. Around 30,000 people will be detained and locked up without trial, all under the watch of Adriaan Vlok.3
He comes to be known as one of the most evil men in South Africa; the worst of the worst of those in the apartheid regime. And though guilty of many heinous crimes, including the bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, Adriaan Vlok will be granted amnesty in 1999.4
Ancient Assyria. Jonah gazes upon Nineveh, the capital of a nation that has brought so much suffering to his people, the Israelites. The Assyrians have at times invaded Israel, laid siege to their communities and deported its people.
Jonah had entered Nineveh to warn of his God’s intent to destroy that wicked city, but now his God has decided that the city and its inhabitants will be spared. Rather than receiving the wrath that Jonah warned of, they will now be the recipients of divine mercy. Ninevah! The city of his enemy!? The last thing Jonah wanted was to be successful in getting Nineveh to repent as they have. He would rather die than watch God offer deliverance of his enemies.
Under the cool shade of a bush, Jonah reflects on how he got here. He just knew from the moment God had asked him to go to Nineveh that his God was a gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing…and Jonah is furious.
It was the famous author and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, who once wrote that “There is no use in talking as if forgiveness were easy.”5 I could not agree more. This world that you and I live in is filled with real pain and real suffering, where wounds run deep in communities and wide across generations. The Holocaust, Apartheid, terrorism— foreign and domestic, war amongst nations, cultures, and races. Images of burning buildings and scattering crowds engraved in our minds. The title I have pinned to this morning’s message comes directly from the title of a work written by Janet Howe Gaines, because I believe that it captures precisely the central challenge in our efforts to forgive: this is a wounded world.6 In it we struggle to imagine forgiveness of misdeeds—whether they’re the ordinary lacerations of everyday living or human catastrophes on an international scale; there is no use in talking about forgiveness as if it were easy…and then Jesus comes along and says, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). His disciple, Peter, asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother or sister that has sinned against him, and Jesus says, “seventy times seven!” (Matt 18:22). That’s a tall order! Are we really cut out for this forgiveness thing?
I will be the first to admit that I struggle with forgiveness and accepting enemies as deserving of it. If I am truly honest, I also join Jonah’s protest in the fact that our God may, indeed, be merciful to our enemies. Just look at the example of divine forgiveness in our scripture today, extended to a city that Jonah believes is only deserving of God’s wrath.
Despite its wicked ways, Ninevah heeds the call to repent, and the Lord’s forgiveness seems to be implied in sparing the city and its inhabitants. Here in Jonah, the Lords mercy is abounding, even to Jonah himself. If you thought the God of the Old Testament was all wrath, you might want to reread this one. From the beginning of the story Jonah fights tooth and claw to avoid God’s call to preach repentance to the Ninevites, and yet God is merciful despite his disobedience. God was merciful in deliverance from the storm on that boat, and provided Jonah a new lease on life after three days in the belly of a fish, and even protected Jonah while walking through a city filled with his enemies. Instead of receiving judgement, God created a way for Jonah that led him back to his appointed task. And thanks be to God—for our own sake—that our God is so ready to offer forgiveness, even when we’re not.
We discover in the story of Jonah that there is the difference between this divine forgiveness and our human attempts it. When the city of Nineveh repents, the story suggests that God’s forgiveness should be awarded, but never suggests that an angry Jonah follow suit. God forgives offenses against God, and Jonah’s going to have to come to grips with that. But humans, we must make amends for transgressions committed against one another, and herein lies an important truth: no one in heaven or on earth can force another to forgive; there must be a desire to do so.7
Of course, there are seemingly legitimate reasons that we may withhold forgiveness. After all, forgiving is a response to the question “Will you forgive me?” In Jonah’s case, the story never says that the Ninevites ask for his forgiveness, so he may feel unable to pardon them. Margaret Kornfeld, a professor of pastoral care, points out that “Jesus, on the cross, did not forgive those who were killing him. They did not ask him to. But Jesus did ask God to forgive them ‘because they did not know what they are doing’.”8 He loved them, and prayed for those who persecuted him. We, too, must learn to lean upon our forgiving God to help us carry the burden of our response to those who persecute us.9
For those who are in a position to forgive, the act is as much internal as it is an external one. Exercising the power of forgiveness allows us to lay down the burden of anger and it can be a relief that offers us emotional well-being.10 When offered in suitable ways, forgiveness lifts the one who forgives to a higher space. But we withhold pardon, we may end up locking ourselves in a dark, cold tower of internal resentment. In Jonah’s case, he seems unwilling to release his feelings of anger and resentment about God’s choices. And who can blame him, there’s no sense in talking about forgiveness as if it were easy, especially in a wounded world like this one, and one must ask themselves, “Are we really cut out for this forgiveness thing?”
The year was 1995, 50 years after Eva Kor was imprisoned at Auschwitz, she returned to the site of the death camp.11 She did this because she knew it was important for people to learn about what really happened there. A Nazi doctor, who had been there at the time she had been, agreed to go with her to sign a declaration about what he had witnessed and participated in.
After Eva returned to her home in the States, she wanted to thank the man for signing the declaration, but she wasn’t sure how to thank a Nazi. Then it came to her. It would take her four month to compose, but at last she sent him a letter of forgiveness. That process and act of forgiveness was so profoundly liberating to Eva that she then play acted that she was in a room with the then-deceased Dr. Mengele, and after looking up every bad word in the dictionary she could find to describe him, she forgave him, too.
2016. A white man in his late 70’s removes a crate from the back of his car in Pretoria township on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa.
He is delivering free food to needy families in that community. Ideally, Adriaan Vlok should have gone to prison for a very long time. But it was necessary, in the wisdom of Nelson Mandela, to make such compromises.13 For the last ten years, though, Adriaan has undergone a transformation because of his faith. He came to realize the sin of seeing his black countrymen as inferior, and so he has made a number of public statements of repentance and has actively sought forgiveness from an entire nation he has wronged. To this day, he is the sole cabinet minister of the apartheid regime to have admitted committing crimes, and in 2006, Vlok came forward on his own with public apologies for a number of acts that he had not disclosed previously, and for which he has been prosecuted and received a ten year suspended sentence.14
Dinah Sekese, is a 43 year old, black South African, who runs a non-profit in the area where Vlok is delivering food. As an 18-year-old, she protested against the apartheid regime and has scars on her body to prove it. She knows who Adriaan was.
“Here in our country,” Dinah says in an interview, “the only thing that we appreciate is when a person comes out and says, sorry. Can you please forgive me? It’s what we want. And I believe it’s something that builds this peace that we have in this country.”15
Adriaan Vlok says he will dedicate his remaining years to peace and reconciliation one day at a time. But forgiveness comes hard. Vlok is not naive to the fact that his penitent efforts cannot erase the scars left by his wrongdoings. There is still enormous bitterness among black South Africans because of the crimes committed by the apartheid regime, and the continued disparity between affluent whites and poor blacks in the country. Not everyone is willing to forgive so easily.
The outskirts of Nineveh: Jonah glares through tears of anger at the city. There was a shade bush where Jonah is sitting, but God commanded a worm to attack that bush, leaving him unsheltered from a scorching sun. He wipes the sweat from his brow. It’s clear that this prophet cared far more for his own comfort under that bush than for this city of 120,000 people and the other creatures living there.
In Jonah’s case, God’s mercy towards him was far more than a brief reprieve from the sun, though. God had been merciful in so many ways…but that’s the point!…Now, his enemy will be the recipient of that same mercy from his God!
Jonah had had it out in conversation with God, but, God had the final word, of course. The brooding prophet would rather not think about it, but his mind keeps circling back to that rhetorical question God had left him with: “…and should not I care about Nineveh…!” Silently, Jonah turns inward, deeper into his own conscience.
I’d like to tell you about what Jonah does next but the Book of Jonah end here. I wonder if he’ll ever come to terms with the truth that God’s mercy and loving-kindness are more than he can imagine, or even cares to comprehend. I wonder if he’ll find a pathway forward by emulating the sort of divine forgiveness that he was the recipient of in his journey and which was extended to Nineveh. Or perhaps, Jonah stays forever trapped in his self-made prison of anger and resentment over God’s decisions. I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine, because, after all, you and I are Jonah.
But as you struggle to decide if we’re really cut out for this forgiveness thing, I will offer you this truth, in which I stand confident: the Lord, your God, is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing12…even toward those who you call enemy. And that is truly good news, my friends, because you and I happen to share something in common with even the worst of our enemies: we all need God’s forgiveness.
Will you pray with me?
God of Jonah, God of Nineveh, God of us, God of our enemies, you are merciful and your forgiveness is scandalous. We ask that you forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We pray this in the name of Christ, the one who paid so great a cost that we might be forgiven. Amen.
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1 Whitefield, Mimi. “After 50 Years, Holocaust Survivor Forgives the Nazis.” Miami Herald, 5 Apr. 2017, 6:00am, www.miamiherald.com/news/local/article142764569.html.
2“A Ruthless Defender of Apartheid Now Seeks Forgiveness.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 17 Feb. 2016, 6:30pm, www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/a-ruthless-defender-of-apartheid-now-seeks-forgiveness/.
4“Adriaan Vlok.” Wikipedia, 6 Oct. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adriaan_Vlok.
5 C.S. Lewis. Reflections on the Psalms, chap. 3, para. 10. p 24.
6 Gaines, Janet Howe. Forgiveness in a Wounded World: Jonah’s Dilemma. Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
7 Ibid., 243.
8 Kornfeld, Margaret. Cultivating Wholeness: a Guide to Care and Counseling in Faith Communities. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011, p 274.
9 Ibid., 275.
10 Gaines, Janet Howe, 119.
11 Whitefield, Mimi. “After 50 Years, Holocaust Survivor Forgives the Nazis.”
13 “A Ruthless Defender of Apartheid Now Seeks Forgiveness.”
14 “Adriann Vlok.” South African History Online, 17 Feb. 2011, www.sahistory.org.za/people/adriaan-vlok.
15 “A Ruthless Defender of Apartheid Now Seeks Forgiveness.”