Pentecost XVIII, Proper 19 (A)
September 14, 2008
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 15:1b-11, 20-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Let us pray. Gracious God, we ask that you fill our hearts with gratitude. Like children, we cry for our wants rather than our needs. Our sense of entitlement is immense. Focus our minds on our abundance, rather than on what we lack. Keep us always aware that we have everything that we could possibly need – and then some. Amen.
For most of American history, Christians have practiced a philosophy of corrections that advocates the moral reformation of offenders. But this approach has largely been abandoned in the latter third of the 20th century as voters often approve measures to keep offenders locked up longer.
"Americans are lied to by politicians every four years, and this affects the way prisons are run in our country," says Jeff Park, executive director of the 18-year-old Coalition of Prison Evangelists (COPE) in Charlotte, North Carolina, which now has 600 ministry members. "Politicians know absolutely that treatment is more effective and more cost-effective than punishment, but harsh sentences get votes."
[Emmett] Solomon, who founded the Restorative Justice Ministry Network, says theology plays a major role in how we view criminal justice. "We have so stressed holy living that we're mad at anybody who doesn't live up to that," he says. "The back side of this emphasis on holy living is a lack of forgiveness." (Steve Rabey, "Redeeming the Prisoners," Christianity Today, March 1, 1999, 27.)
This morning, I want to tell you a story about forgiveness and moral reformation.
He was the kind of villain that we love to hate in the movies. But this was no movie: It was the real-life city of Rome under Nazi rule during the Second World War. The villain of this story is Colonel Herman Kappler, commander of the SS forces occupying Rome. As villains go, he has an impressive résumé:
Upon the occupation of Rome the Gestapo demanded a multimillion dollar ransom for the lives of the Roman Jews. With the help of Pope Pius XII, the chief rabbi of Rome raised the money within 24 hours, but the Nazis weren't satisfied, and under Kappler's supervision began to herd the Jews away in cattle trucks and wagons bound for the concentration camps.
Kappler's SS routinely tortured and executed suspected members of the resistance.
When a bomb planted by the militant communist underground killed 32 German soldiers in Rome, Kappler responded by randomly selecting 320 mostly civilian prisoners for slaughter – a 10-to-1 reprisal ratio – including political prisoners, petty thieves and prostitutes. They were bound, marched through the streets of Rome, herded onto trucks and mowed down by machine gun fire in the Ardeatine Caves. The entrances to the caves were then blown up, sealing the dead and wounded behind hundreds of tons of rock.
Yet for all his brutality, Kappler had not been able to capture the man who was behind the massive underground network that aided escaped Allied POWs and Jews in Rome. Kappler knew who the man was, but there was a problem: He was a Vatican priest. As long as he remained on neutral Vatican territory, Kappler couldn't touch him.
But this tough Irish priest was not the neutral territory type: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was a tall, broad-shouldered, accomplished amateur boxer who didn't run away from a fight. Through his wit and impressive golf game he had won over many of Rome's elite and was unlikely to sit out the war and allow his contacts to go unused. So Kappler had O'Flaherty watched, and finally, on one bright sunny winter morning, had him cornered.
The Nazi SS had the palazzo of Prince Filipo Doria Pamphili surrounded. O'Flaherty was inside. Colonel Kappler stepped out of his black limousine to personally apprehend the troublesome priest. O'Flaherty raced down a narrow stone staircase into the cellar – there was no way out, nowhere to hide. The Germans were in the building and he could hear them yelling upstairs. In a matter of moments they would pull the place apart looking for him and find his sub-terranean hiding place.
There was too much at stake for too many people for him to surrender to Kappler now – but especially for Prince Filipo and the others upstairs who were compromised by O'Flaherty's presence. If he could somehow escape, the Nazis wouldn't be able to prove he had been there and would be forced to let the matter drop.
As O’Flaherty edged along the passageway that led to the cellar beneath the courtyard, he noticed a strange sound, like rocks rolling down a mountain. As he moved closer to the sound, he saw light – it was daylight! The prince's winter coal supply was sliding into a coal bin through an open trapdoor in the courtyard.
He scrambled up the pile of shifting coal and stuck his head out of the trapdoor. Two Italian coalmen were between him and the courtyard gates where the SS troops were keeping watch for him. The coal truck was parked outside the gates.
Moving quickly, O'Flaherty took off his black monsignor's robe and hat put them into an empty coal sack. He tore his collarless shirt to his waist and rubbed coal dust all over himself from head to toe. With the cooperation of one of the coalmen who had no love for the Nazis, O'Flaherty strolled right past the two lines of SS troops, who disdainfully gave him a broad berth so they wouldn't get their uniforms dirty.
When he was out of the soldiers' sight, he took his priestly robe and hat out of the coal sack slung over his shoulder, tucked them under his arm, and rushed to the nearest church, where he cleaned up and set off for the safety of the Vatican. After several hours, he called Prince Filipo who said that everyone was safe and that Kappler was furious.
A few months earlier, this Catholic priest from neutral Ireland working in the neutral Vatican city-state during the Second World War would never have imagined being in such a predicament. He had grown up an IRA sympathizer who detested the British. As a result, in the early years of the war, he dismissed accounts of German atrocities as Allied propaganda. "I read the propaganda on both sides," he would say, "and I don't believe much of it. I don't think there is anything to choose between Britain and Germany."
And so O'Flaherty's efforts to aid escaping Allied POWs could just as easily have been made on behalf of escaping Nazi POWs if he had been in the midst of an Allied occupation. Initially all that he was doing was simply helping souls in need.
But the sight of the Nazis carting away Roman Jews in 1943 made it impossible for O'Flaherty to remain neutral.
The Nazis' treatment of the Roman Jews transformed O'Flaherty, who in turn transformed his fledgling, informal network of contacts into a massive partisan effort to save as many Allied soldiers and Roman Jews as possible. He came to understand that the Nazis had to be defeated. As a result, this Irishman who detested the British saved more Allied lives than any other single person in World War II – more British than any other nationality. His efforts earned him the nickname, "the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican," and he was decorated, somewhat ironically, a Commander of the British Empire.
Kappler and O'Flaherty played a life-and-death cat-and-mouse game in which O'Flaherty always managed to stay one step ahead of his arch nemesis. In frustration, Kappler even attempted to have the Irish priest forcibly dragged off the neutral Vatican territory and assassinated. However, O'Flaherty's network got word of the plan and arranged instead for the two Gestapo assassins to receive a good beating at the hands of four Swiss guards.
The bitter rivalry between this German Nazi and this Irish priest sets the stage for O'Flaherty's most remarkable rescue.
After the war, Colonel Kappler was tried and convicted for war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the slaughter of the 320 at the Ardeatine Caves.
Over 60 years later, our popular imagination still finds it difficult to conceive of a villain more detestable than a Nazi war criminal who sent Jews to concentration camps and tortured and murdered innocent civilians. Imagine the hatred of those who actually experienced his evil, the hatred we might feel today for men like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, or John King, the Texas dragging-death murderer, or Osama ben Laden.
Or maybe the stakes are more personal. Maybe it's our hatred for that vicious gossip at work or next door, or for that alleged pedophile living near the local elementary school, or for that no-good son-in-law who treats your daughter so abusively, or for the jerk who just cut you off at five corners.
It's the righteous hatred we feel when we know we're right, when we know that someone else has done something wrong, when we are absolutely certain that he owes us or our loved ones or society something. It's the hatred of the unforgiving servant who throttles his fellow servant and has him thrown in jail. "Let him rot till he's paid me back!"
There was only one person ever visited Kappler in prison. For years, almost every month, a tall, broad-shouldered figure of a man would call on the former Nazi. As you may have guessed, it was the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, on a different kind of rescue mission, reaching out to a soul in need.
More than most of us, I suspect, this tough Irishman had the courage to fight evil and to seek justice at tremendous personal risk. But he also knew that we are called to love our enemies and that even villains need mercy.
Peter came up and asked Jesus, "Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?" "No," Jesus replied, "Not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times"(Matthew 18:21-22, NAB).
Forgiveness is not saying the offense never happened. It did.
Forgiveness is not saying that everything's okay. It isn't.
Forgiveness is not saying we no longer feel the pain of the offense. We do.
For Father O'Flaherty, forgiveness was saying "I still feel the pain, but I am willing to let go of your involvement in my pain."
For Father O'Flaherty, forgiveness was an attitude of faith whereby he was able to turn over to God the business of how the other guy is doing.
For Father O'Flaherty, forgiveness was saying to Kappler, "I'm okay, and I am willing to let God deal with whether you are okay, and I am willing to let go of my need to be the instrument of correction and rebuke in your life."
In fact, Father O'Flaherty continued to visit Kappler and show him the love of Christ.
At last, one day in March 1959, Herman Kappler, former SS colonel, Nazi war criminal, sought forgiveness and salvation in the waters of baptism poured by the hand of none other than Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty.
"Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?" "No," Jesus replied, "not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times". Amen.