“Lending” forgiveness


True forgiveness is about my offender, not about me

By Dan Copeland


I recently watched a fascinating documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, directed and produced by Bob Hercules and Cheri Pugh. The documentary chronicles the life of Eva Kor, a survivor of Auschwitz. Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, were the subject of experiments conducted by the infamous German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer and physician, Josef Mengele.

As an adult, Kor searched for Mengele’s files from the camp in order to help American doctors treat Auschwitz victims with strange symptoms, including her own sister. In the process, Kor publicly forgave Mengele and his Nazi associates for the atrocities committed at the camp. Her act of forgiveness drew international attention.

Eva Kor is obviously a strong woman, with great depth of character and a very compassionate heart. She has helped thousands of people find healing from countless tragedies and founded the Candles Holocaust Museum. Her story is emotional and inspiring! But I disagree rather strongly with her understanding of forgiveness.

 In the film, Kor describes forgiveness as “an act of self-healing,” and says, “It has nothing to do with the perpetrator…. It has only to do with the way the victim is empowering himself or herself and taking back their life.” Later in the film, Kor says, “Forgiveness means that their actions don’t hurt you anymore.”

While forgiveness can bring healing to victims, Kor’s statements encourage people to focus on themselves. But I submit that true forgiveness is not about the offended party; forgiveness is about the offender. Forgiveness is grace given by the victim to the perpetrator. True forgiveness costs the victim and only benefits him or her after the fact. 

I like to think of forgiveness as a credit account, and I am the lender. When someone offends me, that person has used credit and owes me a debt. Forgiveness is acknowledging that the offender can never really pay me back, so I move his debt onto my personal account. Now I owe the debt to myself, and he is cleared. 

One of the hard things about this view is accepting that the offense still hurts, but the debt is no longer the offender’s. Being a visual person, I sometimes have to close my eyes and imagine a real credit card statement. When I want to make the offender pay back the debt he owes, I look at the name on the statement, and it is mine, not his. 

I think this concept of forgiveness is biblical. On the cross, Christ took on a debt that was not his.  He in no way owed a penalty for sin—we did. But when justice had to be satisfied, Jesus took the debt upon himself and paid it in full.  If he were to ever be like us and feel like taking that forgiveness back, he needs only look at his own hands, feet and side and say, “It is already paid.”

Eva Kor suffered much, and her desire for freedom from bitterness and pain is very understandable. We must not trivialize her suffering or her efforts to bring healing to herself and others. But the truth remains that forgiveness comes with a price, and Christ set the example that we are to follow. A man-centered form of forgiveness may put a bandage on a wound, but it is ultimately powerless to heal.

Dan Copeland is a member of Bethesda Church, a USMB congregation in Huron, SD, and teaches Bible at James Valley Christian School, a private high school in Huron.



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