The texts for September 11 are a great example of how relevant and timely the lectionary can be. How interesting is it on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. to contrast a classic Gospel lesson on forgiveness with Israel’s celebration of the crushing defeat of their hated enemies, the Egyptians, in the waters of the Red Sea?
I’ve been dreading this 10th anniversary of 9/11 all year, fearing that it will be an excuse to fan the flames of fear and hatred and revenge on those who perpetrated the attacks in 2001, and even worse, on any one of Arab or Islamic heritage. I hope I’m wrong and that this anniversary will be more about healing and understanding than about revenge. To that end, I share this amazing story from the Jewish Talmud about the Hebrew fugitives crossing the Red Sea.
The Talmudic interpretation picks up after the Biblical account and Miriam’s song and victory dance celebrating Yahweh as a “warrior” or even worse in the older version of the Revised Standard Version, “a man of war.” According to the Talmud God had been away that day and left the angels in charge. God returns to find the angels joining in the celebration and cheering that they got those darn Egyptians, drowned the whole lot of them and all their horses too! To the great surprise of the angels, God is not pleased with their celebration. When they inquire why not, God shakes his head and says, “Don’t you understand, the Egyptians are my children too?” And that story is told by the Jews!
Knowing how hard it will be, my prayer is that American Christians will take very seriously the challenge of Jesus to forgive and even love our enemies as we remember and commemorate the historic and tragic events of September 11, 2001.
As I said in last week’s blog on Romans 13, putting on Christ as our “armor of light” makes it possible for us to live up to God’s expectations for us when we cannot do it on our own. In Colossians 3, Paul spells out what some of the core qualities of Christian discipleship are. He says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, …forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive.” (vs. 12-13)
As we consider forgiveness as a core Christian value, you may benefit more if you remember specific situations in your life where forgiveness is needed. Take a minute to think of someone who has wronged you or hurt you; someone whose bad habits drive you crazy. (Stop and get a picture in your mind of that person.) That’s easy right? Most of us have a long list of folks like that who have made our lives difficult.
And now the hard part. Call to mind a mistake you’ve made, intentional or careless, minor or major, that has hurt someone in your life. Take time to experience the regret and the desire for peace and release from that burden. It may be recent. It may have been with you a very long time. Forgiveness is the only way to ease that burden and be at peace.
A marvelous true story about forgiveness in told in the movie “The Straight Story,” about Alvin Straight, a 73 year old man who journeys from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his dying brother, Lyle. So far, that doesn’t sound out of the ordinary, right? What makes this story unique is that Alvin, because he no longer has a driver’s license, makes the 370 mile trip on a John Deere lawn tractor!!! The two brothers were estranged for years and had not spoken because of stubborn pride and anger over a long-forgotten conflict. But Lyle’s stroke convinces Alvin now is the time to make amends. Along his journey Alvin meets a host of interesting characters who are deeply touched by his desire to make up with his brother. When Alvin finally arrives, Lyle asks him if he has ridden “that thing” 370 miles just to see him. Alvin replies, “Whatever it was that made us angry, I want to make peace and look up at the stars,” something they had enjoyed doing together as young boys.
Great story which reminds us that forgiveness is not easy; those who forgive must overcome obstacles, including our own resistance. Alvin did not wait for his brother to ask for forgiveness or to apologize; he took the risk of initiating the forgiveness, even though he no longer remembered the original problem.
The most famous cliché about forgiveness is of course, “forgive and forget,” but we all know that in real life overcoming the past is never that simple. Anthony de Mello illustrates how true that is in a humorous vignette about love’s forgetfulness: ‘Why do you keep talking about my past mistakes?” said the husband. “I thought you had forgiven and forgotten.” “I have indeed, forgiven and forgotten,’ said the wife. ‘But I want to make sure you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.”
Forgiveness is not easy – but it is an essential, core value and behavior for those who want the peace of Christ in their hearts. Why? Because none of us escape the pain of frustration, disappointment, betrayal, conflicts, and problems in life and in love. That means, as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi puts it, “all of us have unhealed scar tissue that keeps our hearts closed and armored against repeated injuries.” Reb Zalman adds, that “when we refuse to forgive someone who has wronged us, we mobilize our own inner criminal justice system to punish the offender. As judge and jury, we sentence the person to a long prison term in a prison that we construct from the bricks and mortar of our hardened hearts. Now as jailer and warden, we must spend as much time in prison as the prisoner we are guarding. All the energy we put into maintaining this prison system comes out of our energy budget. Bearing a grudge is very costly because holding long-held feelings of anger, resentment, and fear drain our energy and imprison our vitality and creativity.” That’s why the Chinese have a saying: “one who pursues revenge should dig two graves.”
So much for the “don’t get mad, get even” philosophy. Forgiveness may seem harder than revenge, but the payoff is priceless.
Diana and I were in Japan two years ago. We saw many interesting sites and enjoyed the graciousness of the Japanese people very much. But for me the most memorable and moving part of the trip by far was our visit to Hiroshima and the site of the first atomic bomb. As we stood on the very spot where so much death and devastation took place, we saw pictures and read accounts of the unbelievable power unleashed on that city, of the 70,000 people who were annihilated by the blast and perhaps 200,000 more who died later after horrible suffering from radiation poisoning. A lot of thoughts and feelings ran thru my mind – but the strongest words were those of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The same words echo in my mind as 9/11 approaches again, along with the question, how is it possible to forgive such horrible acts of injustice? Does God really expect us to forgive the Hitlers of the world? Can victims of sexual abuse ever forgive their abusers? Can a people that have been enslaved by others ever be reconciled with their oppressors? Can parents ever forgive a drunk driver who kills or maims a child? Can the families of the thousands of 9/11 victims ever forgive the terrorists who flew those planes into the twin towers or the Pentagon or that field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania? Or the first responders who will never be fully healthy again because they chose to run to ground zero as others ran from it? Or the millions of us who live under a heightened terrorist alert that has forever changed the way we live our lives? Could Jesus possibly mean this kind of act of inhumane cruelty when he says, “if someone strikes you on the cheek (or the North Tower), turn to them the other as well?”
Corrie ten Boom, a survivor of the Nazi death camps offers a powerful answer to how that kind of forgiveness is possible. Corrie’s family was among the millions executed by the Nazi’s during World War II, but she miraculously survived. After the war she felt compelled to travel around Europe proclaiming a message of Christian forgiveness for those who exterminated so many innocent people. One night as she got up in a church to give her testimony she looked out into the audience and felt her blood run cold. There in the crowd was one of the very SS guards who had been responsible for the murder of her family. She delivered her message from memory and tried to make a hasty retreat after she finished. To her dismay she saw the former Nazi guard coming straight for her and could not avoid him. He stretched out his hand to her and thanked her profusely for her message. He said, “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that word of forgiveness to lift the burden of guilt I feel for what we did to your people.” He stood there waiting to shake her hand. Corrie says she was paralyzed. Her hands were frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity. Finally she prayed, “Lord, if you want this man forgiven, you’re going to have to do it because I can’t.” At that point, she says she felt the most amazing peace come over her. She reached out and took the hand of her former enemy and felt a power run through her body that she had never experienced before.
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Notice what that verse says? “Father, forgive them….” Just like Corrie ten Boom asks God to forgive her enemy, Jesus asks God to do the forgiving – perhaps because in his pain and agony, in his human suffering, he cannot muster the strength to do it himself? If even Jesus has to rely on God to provide the power to forgive, how much more should we rely on that same source of mercy and forgiveness. The scriptures tell us, that “with God all things are possible” – even forgiving unrepentant offenders and hated terrorists.
Forgiveness is a gift – and true gifts are given without strings or conditions attached. The best part is that forgiveness is not just for those we forgive, but is a gift for ourselves that frees the giver from a terrible burden of anger, pain and being a victim to the past that cannot be changed or undone.
I’m not saying it’s easy or quick to experience that peace. For some it may happen in a sudden conversion experience, but for most of us, forgiveness is a process – it takes time and practice, even 70 x 7 times, patience with ourselves, unlearning old attitudes and allowing the love of Christ and God to work in our hearts. The hurt and pain may not ever go away completely, but the more we can surrender the pain and anger and resentment at others or at our own mistakes, the more room we make in our hearts for peace and contentment.
A key to forgiveness is accepting our human imperfection. We are all fallible human beings. God has endowed us with a freedom of choice that guarantees we will all screw up on a regular basis. All of us make mistakes. That may not sound like good news, but it is – it means there’s no need to beat ourselves up for making mistakes. Mistakes R Us – they go with the human territory, and once an unkind word is spoken, or a careless act done that injures someone else, or a foolish decision made about a job or an investment, or a relationship – that toothpaste is out of the tube and can’t be crammed back in no matter how much we wish it so. The bomb can’t be undropped on Hiroshima; the Holocaust can’t be erased from the history books, or the dark saga of human slavery and racism in various parts of the world. Inequality for women for most of human history can’t be ignored. Addictions to substances, junk food or sex or power or consumption only grow stronger if they are denied. 9/11 can be remembered and heroes memorialized, but that dark day cannot be undone.
So the first step in the healing process of forgiveness is accepting the reality of human frailty – including and most especially our own. The famous parable of the prodigal son says the son came to his senses, realized what a mess he had made of his life, and then and only then was he able to say “I’m sorry” and accept the gift of forgiveness that his father was always ready to give. This bad son, the prodigal, realized the need to ask for forgiveness – and he was reconciled, whereas his older brother ended up angry and bitter, because he couldn’t forgive his brother’s mistakes or the “unfair” way his father handled the situation.
So forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and others – whether other people receive that gift or deserve it doesn’t matter – because forgiveness does more for the giver than it does for the forgiven. If someone wrongs me and I carry a grudge and feel like a victim of that wrong for the rest of my life – who is really suffering?
There is one more kind of forgiveness that most of us don’t think about, but it is critical to finding peace in our lives. It’s the need to forgive God – yes, I said forgive God. What does God need to be forgiven for? I first discovered this aspect of forgiveness in the marvelous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Kushner says we need to forgive God for making an imperfect world–for the things insurance companies call “acts of God.” Have you ever noticed that all the things in that category are bad? Hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, sink holes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions?
So does God need our forgiveness for life being as it is? Maybe not, but we need to give it, for the same reason we need to forgive ourselves and others. Because if we are angry at God for all the problems in the world and in our lives – if we blame God for innocent children suffering, for all manner of bad things that happen to good people, we will never be at peace. And, more importantly, if we blame God for all our problems, we will never take responsibility for making things better.
Does forgiveness mean being a door mat? Does it mean just rolling over and being passive and helpless? No – injustices are made to be righted, crises are opportunities for service and compassion, tragedies are prime examples of times to learn from the mistakes of the past so we don’t’ make them over again. But for those things we cannot change or even understand, forgiving God for the imperfections of our world and our own understanding of it, is the only way to find the peace that the world cannot give.
What do we need to ask God to forgive? What guilt do we burden ourselves with that we can surrender to God? What anger and resentment toward others is keeping us locked into a victim mindset to our past? What resentments toward God that keep us from total freedom and joy in life do we need to release?
Those burdens keep us from worshipping and praising and trusting God completely – and they will do so till we acknowledge them and are reconciled with human imperfection in ourselves and in others.
Jesus said, “Father forgive them.” Maybe in his human agony and pain he could not find the strength to forgive those enemies who were responsible for his suffering. But he knew someone who could forgive them, and so do we.