What Have We Become?
Ten years ago this very day, our nation was brought to a standstill at the news of terrorist attacks in NYC, Washington DC and Shanksville PA. The whole world was horrified beyond words and shed many tears for America. And the memory of that dreadful morning continues still to sear our minds and hearts with sadness and anger. Our first and most immediate response was inconsolable grief and indignation. Some lost a family member or a friend that day, some who knew someone who did. Yet we all experienced that pain intensely and personally. We would never be the same again, we have been told repeatedly. Ten years later, how exactly have we changed? Tragic events will force us to adjust, sometimes painfully, or we turn to stone. But we have power to determine exactly how we are to adjust. Have we chosen, after ten years of remembering, that we will be better people, that we will be better Christians, that we will be better Catholics? We are mindful of legitimate concerns from the viewpoint of national security, to better protect our citizens, to prevent future acts of terrorism, to confront those who would harm us. But we are also people of deep faith for whom the gospel of Jesus Christ is the ultimate guide and challenge for our living. How have we chosen, these last ten years, to live that gospel with greater authenticity in a culture that puts greater importance on this passing world and its values? As we look back upon that awful day, should we be proud or ashamed of what we have become?
The scriptures today challenge my sense of justice. I can confuse forgiveness with a total disregard for justice. I sometimes think forgiveness releases the offender from responsibility for their wrongdoing. I cannot pretend that nothing happened at all. That is not forgiveness. The gospel tells me forgiveness transcends justice. When I forgive I let go of resentment and the desire to repay evil for evil. I release the offender from a debt that can never be repaid. It does require I lay aside the need for vengeance, and when I do, I set myself free. The memory of the injustice will linger long after I extend forgiveness. But this memory reminds me that forgiveness is not one single act. Rather, forgiveness must be extended again and again, until I no longer want to repay evil with further evil, and I no longer wish to hurt the offender, only to transform them.
Why must I forgive my brother or sister? It has nothing to do with justice, or the gravity of the offense, or the guilt of the offender, or the loss I have suffered. Instead, it reminds me of the debt I owe, which I can never repay, a debt I owe to God who has power and authority to inflict a punishment more terrible than jail or a death sentence. I have been given an inheritance beyond measure, a free gift for no merit of my own, and I am not obligated to reciprocate with a gift. For starters, I have no such gift to give. And whatever I have will never equal in magnitude what I have received. What I owe is a tremendous debt of gratitude. And gratitude demands I extend willingly to others such kindness as I have received.
The book of Sirach reminds us of the debt we owe to God, a debt we often easily forget when we think of what others owe us. I can become exacting and demanding, forgetful of my own debt. God warns us to be careful how we seek to even the score. “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for God remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; so when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.”
St. Paul tells the Christian community to live in solidarity. In God’s household, we are all of equal status; we are all servants. We all depend totally on the mercy of God. None of us has any right to place ourselves over another, or regard another with disdain. “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord, so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” It all complements Jesus’ instruction on forgiveness. And Jesus warns us against presuming forgiveness for ourselves, “Unless each of you forgives each other from your heart, my heavenly Father will do the same to you.”
When I am hateful and resentful, I am declaring the injustice of God’s justice. Since God won’t take care of the problem, I will have to take matters in my own hands. And until God does his job right, like punish the wicked and those who make my life difficult, I cannot rely on God to take care of things.
When I am hateful and resentful, I am declaring the ineffectiveness and waste of time that is patience and kindness. I am saying there is no point in turning the other cheek, in restraining my anger, in giving other people the benefit of the doubt. If I keep extending forgiveness and compassion, I cannot expect anyone to observe the law. If I forgive just because they ask, that makes me look weak.
When I am hateful and resentful, I am declaring myself to be above all others, that if they don’t know what I know, there must be something wrong with them. I know I’m right, and we have nothing to do with each other until people are willing to admit they’re wrong. You have nothing to say to me because you’re wrong. What else is there to talk about?
Forgiveness implies not simply an understanding, but a conviction that there is goodness in the other, even when my senses fail me. Forgiveness implies a willingness to rise above what is earthly, limited, and imperfect, and welcome a fresh, new start. Forgiveness implies a trust in the power of God’s healing love, that the justice of God will triumph in the end, and that God is still and will always be ruler over all the earth.
Forgiveness for our sins is a gift God bestows on those who are repentant, and it is a gift that Jesus invites us to share with one another. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we really mean what we are saying? Either we mean sincerely what we say when we pray, or we skip that line altogether until we truly believe what Jesus meant when he taught it to us.
Ten years ago, our nation suffered a terrible blow. It has since defined us as a people, as individuals, maybe even as a church. When we look back upon that day, can we be proud or should we be ashamed of what we have become?