Forgiveness and Judaism

Interview With Carmelite Father F. Millán

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MADRID, Spain, JULY 27, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Judaism offers a positive challenge to the Christian idea of forgiveness, says Carmelite Father Fernando Millán Romeral.



Father Millán, professor at the faculty of theology of the Pontifical University of Comillas in Madrid, explains in this interview with ZENIT that "modern Judaism has kept some essential features of forgiveness that we Christians -- at certain times and in certain ways, even with the best intentions -- have tended to neglect."

Q: Could you explain the Jewish concept of forgiveness?

Father Millán: First, it must be said that the concept of forgiveness is very important, not only for Judaism, but for all religions. More than that, it is such an essential experience that, understood or misunderstood, it is present in every cultural expression, in the political debate, in family life, etc.

In Judaism, forgiveness is conceived in a very similar way to what we Christians practice -- not in vain did we also inherit from them, among many other things, the idea of forgiveness.

Perhaps -- and this is what I usually speak about -- modern Judaism has kept some essential features of forgiveness that we Christians -- at certain times and in certain ways, even with the best intentions -- have tended to neglect.

Because of this, I believe that thinkers like Vladimir Jankelevitch or experiences such as those recounted by Simon Wiesenthal in his work "The Sunflower" can help us to rethink our idea of forgiveness, the idea that sometimes is addressed in theology and catechesis.

Q: Do you think that Christianity -- or, rather, Christians -- have abandoned the concept of conversion and that the concept of forgiveness has become somewhat "juridical"?

Father Millán: I don't think so. The believer who takes his faith fairly seriously is constantly hearing talk of conversion and forgiveness.

What has perhaps happened, at least in certain milieus, is that by preaching a merciful God, which could not be otherwise, we have forgotten that forgiveness means a "return" to God, a conversion -- that God does not rain down forgiveness and does not distribute it indiscriminately.

God always forgives and he forgives everything. There is no sin that is so great that it cannot be forgiven and that God is not willing to forgive, but only he who wants to be forgiven and this presupposes a series of elements such as the desire to repair in the measure possible the evil committed, sincere repentance, careful attention to the victims of our sin, etc. If it is not so, forgiveness becomes something else.

Of course all this makes sense when we speak of sin in the strong sense; otherwise this discussion becomes a caricature. Perhaps our trivialization of the concept of forgiveness comes from our trivialization of the concept of sin. When anything is called sin, in the end real sin is no longer taken seriously.

Q: Some theologians and pastors speak of a "crisis" of the confessional. Does that crisis exist? What are its causes?

Father Millán: It does exist, though it is also true that there are Christian groups, communities, movements, etc., of very different orientation that have included this element in their journey and in their living of the faith. But, in general terms, a crisis does exist.

The reasons are very varied and very complex: from a loss of a sense of sin in our society […], to a loss of values and moral points of reference, as well as a certain disaffection and lack of appreciation for this sacrament in the pastoral program and in Christian practice.

Also of influence, perhaps, is the trivialization of which we spoke earlier. When forgiveness is granted in a routine way, with little meaning, without consequences on real life, etc., it ends up by being something trivial and, often, believers with a strong faith experience have abandoned this practice.

Likewise the liturgical and symbolic poverty of this sacrament is now something chronic, despite the efforts of the new rite of penance of 1974. ... However, I stress, the causes are very complex.

Q: Does Pope John Paul II's petition for forgiveness for the errors committed by Christians in history, especially toward the Jews, come close to the idea of "conversion"?

Father Millán: I believe that gesture of John Paul II is of enormous grandeur and it will take us centuries to appreciate it properly.

It is true that some Christians might have felt disconcerted, and there were even those who complained that no one asks for forgiveness, only we Christians acknowledge our faults --blessed be God! By asking for forgiveness, one does not lose stature or dignity -- on the contrary.

Nor does this gesture in any way imply looking negatively at 2,000 years of history. Above all the Jubilee was an act of thanksgiving for all that the Church has received in the course of the years and for what she has given the world, but there have also been enormous infidelities, persistent errors, lamentable negligence, and for this the Pope, in the name of the whole Church, asks God for forgiveness.

I think that any person from another religious tradition, if he looks at this gesture of John Paul II without prejudices, would see something beautiful and hopeful in it.

Q: What influence has the Holocaust had on contemporary Jews?

Father Millán: Jean Amery, a Jewish thinker who has written much on this topic, says that the experience of the Holocaust is not only a "shema" Israel, but a "shema" world.

The whole world looks overwhelmed at the experience of the Holocaust, an experience that --without ever attributing more value to the death of one human being over that of another -- had such special characteristics ….

Let us recall, for example, that it was about a systematic, cold and bureaucratic death and a persecution that had no possibility of redemption. Even if a Jew was tall and blond, even if he was a Christian, even if he was affiliated to the Nazi party, he was equally destined to extermination.

The Holocaust should make us all more cautious, more profound in our political analyses. Today when there is so much superficial talk in the political world, the Holocaust is a constant knock on our consciences and an inescapable ethical warning.

Q: Do you think the Holocaust has influenced the dialogue between Jews and Christians? In general, what stage have these relations reached?

Father Millán: It is a very delicate question. Let's not forget that the Holocaust took place in Christian countries, though carried out by a strongly anti-Christian ideology. On the other hand, Jewish thought is not unitary. There is no unique or official Jewish thought.

In this connection, I think that Christians and Jews of good-will look at the Holocaust with the same astonishment and horror. And we also look toward the future. John Paul II was a very positive Pope in this regard and Benedict XVI follows the same line.

If Christianity shows itself to be respectful and willing to dialogue with all religions -- without implying that all is accepted uncritically, especially in certain cases -- in the case of Judaism this is even clearer and easier.

Our relationship with Judaism is not simply the respectful relationship between two religions that are parallel. It is much more: Christianity loses its meaning if it forgets Judaism. Much repeated in this connection is John Paul II's phrase "the Jews are our elder brothers in the faith," and it really sums up well what we are saying.