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.
Religion and Moral Truth ThemeTracker
Religion and Moral Truth Quotes in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
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.
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.
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.
“Why,” I asked, “is there no general law of guilt and expiation? Has every religion its own ethics, its own answers?”
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.
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.
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.
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?