Tomorrow’s observance of the Triumph of the Cross marks the half-way point to the great Paschal mysteries that ordinarily begin around the middle of March. It’s a moment to recall the dying words of Jesus, which are so much at the heart of his teaching: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34). For today’s readings focus on forgiving and being forgiven, 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 Friday, and all the outrages against people and property since then, it might seem natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. But what have we gained from the slaughter that followed? (See Sir 27:30–28:9, Rom 14:7-9, and Mt 18:21-35.)
Since 2001, close to a million people have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance, a majority of them most likely innocent civilians. In 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released an estimate of the total death toll from the U.S. wars in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “The numbers, while conservatively estimated, are staggering. Brown’s researchers estimate that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” [https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror/]
Over a thousand European civilians also died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, Madrid and Barcelona. The cost in national treasure has been enormous – more than $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone.
More recently, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the death toll from the U.S.-supported war in Yemen, is now over 100,000, including more than 12,000 civilians, as well as estimates of more than 85,000 dead as a result of an ongoing famine due to the war. [https://acleddata.com/2020/03/25/acled-resources-war-in-yemen/]
Add to these four examples, the staggering loss of life in the United States from gun violence, including suicides and accident: “When all firearm injuries are considered, over 100,000 Americans are killed or injured each year as a result of firearms and nonfatal firearm injuries have increased from 22.1 to 26.7 per 100,000 population during the last decade.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849457/]
We don’t seem to know how to stop the killing and the destruction. And yet we read today in Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance…”
Yet forgiveness is a recurrent theme in Christian teaching. 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 campaign speeches and foreign policy?
If we have come to think of forgiveness as something distinctively Christian, it is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. But today especially 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. If we are slow in healing from the terrible events of 2001, perhaps it is because we are still lacking in forgiveness.
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].
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 shouting “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 that continue to prowl to this day.
Like those of Ben Sira and St. Paul, 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. The metaphor of debt-forgiveness, cancellation, that we find so prominent in Jesus’ parable, is not an accident, as we see in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Forgiveness means writing off the debt, and is still used that way in banking. It is an apt metaphor and one perhaps never more appropriate.
Above all else, the cross of Christ is a sign not of punishment, but of love, a love that the power of hate, the lure of revenge, and the might of oppression can not stifle, “a love,” as the old hymn has it, “so amazing, so divine that it demands our soul, our life, our all….” [“When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts, 1674-1748].