Most of us struggle with unforgiveness over what in the grand scheme of things are fairly minor offenses, truth be told. And yet minor as the offenses may be, the act of forgiving remains monumentally divine in each case.
If we ever to learn how to forgive and love our enemies, we could do worse than to listen to those whose enemies form the fabric of history. From the VOM archives comes this letter from Rev. Richard Wurmbrand to the famed Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Rev. Wurmbrand had contacted Wiesenthal in the hope that working together they might somehow help Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg served as Sweden’s special envoy in Hungary in the closing stages of World War II, helping to save thousands of Jews. When the Red Army invaded Hungary their intelligence organization, SMERSH, detained Wallenberg on suspicion and he disappeared.
But this is hardly the musty stuff of bygone days. Rev. Wurmbrand commends here, from personal experience, a rich theology of enemy love–a profoundly challenging and practical word which could only be addressed to one sufferer of historic proportions by another. We are permitted to overhear as Rev. Wurmbrand shares what he calls his “reserves.” “I shuddered when I read how you refused to a dying man the forgiveness for which he asked,” he wrote. “Lack of love is never excusable.”
But how to love? Here Rev. Wurmbrand turns to Dostoyevsky, “who loved the criminals because he understood the tragedy which makes a man to become a criminal.” Rev. Wurmbrand sends Mr. Wiesenthal a copy of his book, In God’s Underground, noting that in its pages Mr. Wiesenthal “will find meetings with some of the war criminals whom you made to arrive to prison in Romania.”
As the letter shows, Rev. Wurmbrand’s highest aspiration was not to see such men brought to justice but rather to see them brought to surrender to the love and mercy of Christ, who infinitely more than Dostoyevsky understands the cosmic tragedy which has turned all of us into criminals.
November 15, 1973
Dear Mr. Wiesenthal,
I am sorry to have to dictate this letter in English because my secretary does not know German, but I know that you understand every word.
It was a very great pleasure and honor for me to make your acquaintance. I hope also that our intervention for Wallenberg will be successful.
I had often thought about you before meeting you. I fully agree with you that men who have committed such horrible crimes as those of the Nazis have to receive their due punishment from human courts before they arrive to the final judgment of God.
The state is ordained by God to reward the good and to punish evil as the church is ordained by God to bring men to eternal salvation. The state has to fulfill its duty. Private men can help the state to do it, but our inner attitude must always be dictated by love, a love which should embrace the whole creature. To love the one who does you good is easy. Men have a very high calling and they must embrace in their love their enemies too. I can make an enemy to be punished if he has committed horrible things. It is good for the criminal to receive a punishment. The philosopher Kant had said, “The criminal has a right to be punished.” Punishment is also necessary as a deterrent for others who would commit the same wicked deeds. But the criminal is also a fellow-man, and as a person I must have towards him attitudes of love, understanding, and forgiveness.Christ has taught us not to judge men. Courts can judge. Private individuals should not judge because we don’t have all the elements of a right judgment. We don’t know the terrible impulses inherited from ancestors. We don’t know the traumas which criminals suffered in their childhood. We don’t know how their glands and their brain function. We don’t know to what social pressure they have been exposed. We don’t know the satanic influences upon them. There are very many imponderables. It is only God who can give a righteous judgment.I myself have been in prison not only with war criminals, but also with other murderers, with some who have killed their mother and father, and I agree fully with Dostoievski who loved the criminals because he understood the tragedy which makes a man to become a criminal.I repeat: criminals should be punished by courts. Private individuals should collaborate to help courts to establish justice, but only on the condition to remain in love even towards those whom they punish. Lack of love is never excusable.
I shuddered when I read how you refused to a dying man the forgiveness for which he asked. What would a good word have cost you, and to a fellow man of yours who passed through the drama of having committed crimes would have died a quieter death. The last judgment would have remained with God.I understand through what states of soul you have passed when you saw the children killed in Nazi concentration camps. If you will read the Old Testament, you will see how Joshua killed whole populations inclusive of children. This has happened throughout the whole of history. Innocent children have died in all wars, innocent Israeli and Arab children die even today. Wherever justice can do it, it should
punish evil deeds, but we should understand that all men are sinners. I am a sinner too. I longed after the forgiveness of God. I obtained it through the sacrifice which Jesus brought on the cross for me, and I from my side forgive to every one who has wronged me.I have a very great admiration for your work to find out the war criminals. I must tell you also my reserve. Some of the war criminals appeared before Western courts where
they had the possibility to defend themselves and where they were treated humanly. Some of the war criminals which you have caught have entered into the hands of the Communist police which is a police as criminal as the Nazi police. I have been with them in prison. I have seen how terribly they have been tortured. I know that they have not the slightest possibility of defense. Not every one suspected or accused is guilty. They had not the slightest possibility of defense and afterwards they were submitted to a prison regime which was at least as bad as the prison regime in
Nazi concentration camps.I am also against death sentences because they are irreparable. What would have happened if France would have had in its legislation death sentence for treason and Captain Dreyfuss would have been sentenced to death. How would the injustice have been repaired. There can be injustices on all sides. I am for mildness towards everybody. The horrible crimes of somebody else should not shake a man from his position of an all-embracing and all-understanding love.I felt it to be my duty as a pastor to tell you these things. You bear your own responsibility before God. If ever you are oppressed by the thought of your sins, there exists forgiveness for you too with God.I have also another reserve. I am no more the man who I have been 30 years ago, neither are you the same man. We are the not the same men physically. I don’t possess in my body one single atom of those which constituted my body at that time. I don’t have the same thoughts and the same sentiments. The idea of prescription is philosophically, religiously and legally right. For men like Eichmann, who have committed things which surpass all understanding, it was righteous that he should respond for his deeds even when years have passed. But these are exceptional cases. Normally prescription should work.I have just communicated to you some of my thoughts. You surely will proceed according to your own convictions. God will judge all things. There is a God. He is a mystery for us as we are mysteries even for each other. Therefore, there is so little understanding among man and among nations. There is a God; He loved me; He loves you; He loves those whom you love; He loves also those whom you hate. He will work in the hearts of all that His kingdom of righteousness and love might triumph.I wish you God’s rich blessings upon everything which is good in your endeavors. I look forward to get your book. I have sent you through separate mail also two of my books.In the book IN GOD’S UNDERGROUND, you will find meetings with some of the war criminals whom you made to arrive to prison in Romania.With sincere sentiments,Yours,Rev. Richard Wurmbrand