The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

by

Simon Wiesenthal

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Religion and Moral Truth Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Forgiveness and Compassion Theme Icon
Religion and Moral Truth Theme Icon
Remembrance Theme Icon
Anti-Semitism and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Silence, Guilt, and Resistance Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion and Moral Truth Theme Icon

Simon worries about whether his decision to leave Karl unforgiven was the right thing to do, and at the end of his narrative, he asks what others might have done in his place. A variety of politicians, philosophers, and religious leaders respond, but they come to no clear consensus as to what Simon should have done. While many religions make a claim to absolute moral truth, the range of religious responses to Simon’s dilemma suggests that no person or religion can claim a monopoly on moral truth. Instead, by presenting so many conflicting perspectives and leaving it to readers to attempt to reconcile them, the book seems to suggest that morality springs from a person’s individual experiences and values, and particularly from their religious background. In the process, moral truth is shown to be deeply relative and personal rather than absolute or universal.

Almost all respondents who are Jewish argue in favor of not forgiving Karl, and many of them base this argument in religious teachings and Jewish tradition. Many of them cite the idea of teshuvah—the Hebrew word for repentance. Teshuvah, as Deborah E. Lipstadt explains in her response, demands that one must first ask forgiveness of the victims before asking forgiveness from God. In the case of Karl, then, he cannot be forgiven by Simon because he did not commit any crimes against Simon personally. Additionally, in Judaism, repentance alone does not does not warrant forgiveness: one must do kaparah (atonement), as well. Kaparah can involve different actions, but the word generally denotes the need to “pay” for one’s sins (whether symbolically or literally) to merit forgiveness, which Karl has not done. Therefore, many of the Jewish respondents argue, he is not worthy of forgiveness.

Many of the Christian respondents, however, see forgiveness as a moral imperative. One such respondent, Christopher Hollis, argues that Jesus should serve as a model for Simon because he exemplifies “absolute moral law.” Christ prayed at His crucifixion for the forgiveness of His own murderers; therefore, Simon should forgive those who have committed crimes against him and his fellow Jews. Forgiveness, as Cardinal Franz König states, is an “act of almost superhuman goodness.” For Christians, then, the goal is to be godlike, and therefore to be merciful. In other words, Theodore M. Hesburgh states, “I would forgive because God would forgive.”

Many writers outside of the Judeo-Christian religions also argue for forgiveness, but come at it from a slightly different angle, arguing that forgiveness is important because it liberates the victim, not the perpetrator. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist, argues that sinful actions are those that produce suffering while virtuous acts bring about more happiness in the world. For Buddhists, forgiveness is always an option, regardless of what someone has done—an idea that the Dalai Lama confirms in his own response. Ricard also argues for forgiveness because he believes that Karl is destined to undergo a lot of suffering in his future lives. José Hobday, who provides a Native American perspective, argues that Simon should have forgiven Karl for his own peace of mind. She recalls how her mother taught her that the act of forgiving brings peace and harmony.

While all religions have their own ideas of absolute moral truth, the variety of responses to Simon’s dilemma underscores that moral truth is always subjective because each religion has different models of a moral life. This is what drives Simon to speak to his friends in the concentration camp about his encounter with Karl and to write the book: he is unsure of his own moral beliefs relating to forgiveness, and he questions whether he did the right thing. In a sense, then, Simon’s quest to learn from a variety of people and then see which responses make the most sense to him demonstrates his understanding of the complex nature of morality. This suggests that Simon’s own ambivalence over whether he did the right thing is, in itself, a moral position, as it acknowledges that he can never determine definitively whether he was right or wrong.

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Religion and Moral Truth Quotes in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness

Below you will find the important quotes in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness related to the theme of Religion and Moral Truth.
Book 1: The Sunflower Quotes

It is impossible to believe anything in a world that has ceased to regard man as man, which repeatedly “proves” that one is no longer a man.

Related Characters: Simon (speaker), Karl, Arthur
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

One really begins to think that God is on leave. Otherwise the present state of things wouldn’t be possible […] What the old woman had said in no way shocked me, she had simply stated what I had long felt to be true.

Related Characters: Simon (speaker), Arthur, Josek
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

For me there would be no sunflower. I would be buried in a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of me. No sunflower would ever bring light into my darkness, and no butterflies would dance above my dreadful tomb.

Related Characters: Simon (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sunflower
Page Number: 14-15
Explanation and Analysis:

“Why,” I asked, “is there no general law of guilt and expiation? Has every religion its own ethics, its own answers?”

“Probably, yes.”

Related Characters: Simon (speaker), Arthur (speaker), Karl, Josek
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

You, who have just read this sad and tragic episode in my life, can mentally change places with me and ask yourself the crucial question, “What would I have done?”

Related Characters: Simon (speaker), Karl, Arthur
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:
Moshe Bejski Quotes

Even if Wiesenthal believed that he was empowered to grant a pardon in the name of the murdered masses, such an act of mercy would have been a kind of betrayal and repudiation of the memory of millions of innocent victims who were unjustly murdered, among them, the members of his family.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:
Robert Coles Quotes

Let us […] take to heart what may be, finally, the author’s real intent for us: that we never, ever forget what happened to him and millions of others…

Related Characters: Simon
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:
Hans Habe Quotes

Forgiveness is the imitation of God. Punishment too is an imitation of God. God punishes and forgives, in that order. But God never hates. That is the moral value worth striving for, but perhaps unattainable.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
Theodore M. Hesburgh Quotes

Can we aspire to be as forgiving of each other as God is of us?

Of course, the sin here is monumental. It is still finite and God's mercy is infinite.

If asked to forgive, by anyone for anything, I would forgive because God would forgive.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:
Abraham Joshua Heschel Quotes

No one can forgive crimes committed against other people […] According to Jewish tradition, even God Himself can only forgive sins committed against Himself, not against man.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:
José Hobday Quotes

I would have forgiven, as much for my own peace as for Karl’s […] No one, no memory, should have the power to hold us down, to deny us peace. Forgiving is the real power.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:
Cardinal Franz König Quotes

Nevertheless, you had an opportunity to put forward an act of almost superhuman goodness in the midst of a subhuman and bestial world of atrocities.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:
Matthieu Ricard Quotes

To grant forgiveness to someone who has truly changed is not a way of condoning or forgetting his or her past crimes, but of acknowledging whom he or she has become.

Related Characters: Simon, Karl
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:
Tzvetan Todorov Quotes

We are not contemplating an action in the present, but the place of a past action in our memory. What can we do with evil in the past, how can we put it to use in the service of our moral education?

Related Characters: Simon
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis: