Today’s readings focus on forgiving and being forgiven, so much a part of the Christian gospel that it is sometimes called the Law of Christ. It’s not a comfortable message, especially when great harm has been done. And after the great harm of 9/11, commemorated again last Monday, and all the outrages against people and property since then, including the very recent bomb attack in London, it might seem natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. Sixteen years ago, Arab Americans were shot on the streets of our cities for no reason other than being Arab. A fire-fighter who had been at Ground Zero and joined the army after war was declared on Iraq in October 2002. “I want to kick Arab butt,” he explained. Iraq had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. That didn’t matter.
Since then, more than 200,000 civilians have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance. Some estimates indicate a figure in the millions.[i] In Afghanistan alone, 31,000 civilians have died and another 30,000 have been wounded. Over a thousand European civilians have died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, and Barcelona in the last two years. The cost in national treasure has been enormous – $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.[ii] We don’t seem to know how to stop the killing and the destruction. And yet we read in Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance….”
This is not some odd snippet thrown into scripture. It is a recurrent theme. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our foreign policy?
Clearly, for Paul the opposite of vengeance is active forgiveness, as it was for Jesus. For they were schooled in the Jewish Law, where it was written very early on, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” [Lev. 19:18.] Jesus put it more strongly and widely, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” [Matthew 5:43-45]. Or even more simply, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52].
We tend to think of forgiveness as something distinctively Christian, and it is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. But we find the same message in the Book of Sirach, expressed three hundred years earlier: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” He makes the point three time over, and in each instance he links being forgiven with forgiving. I wonder how many Americans prayed for forgiveness and mercy for the terrorists who carried out the attacks in 2001? And if we are slow in healing, perhaps it is because we are still lacking in forgiveness.
One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France saying “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. That is, until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let loose the dogs of war.
Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our debts, our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. Among his final words before his own death according to Luke, he prayed for his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34]. They still don’t.
People in America and throughout the world turned to God in prayer on 9/11 and the days that followed. Let us also pray, that we as a people will grow beyond grief and anger that may have awakened within us the desire for revenge and retribution. Let us pray that we will remember that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for friends, and that we will find the mercy and forgiveness we seek only by giving it to others.