Sunday, September 11, 2011

Response to 9/11

13th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19) – Year A
Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

Genesis 50.15-21; Psalm 103.(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14.1-12;
Matthew 18.21-35

Sunday, September 11, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

It was a pleasant summer morning as I walked into St. George’s parish in Riverside, for our regular Tuesday morning Eucharist. When I walked in, I could immediately tell something was wrong. Everyone looked in shock. That’s when I learned that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, and that another plane had just crashed into the Pentagon. We sat huddled around a radio in the rector’s office, listening for something that would help us make sense out of what was happening. The 7:00 a.m. Eucharist service, our usual breakfast afterwards, and the rest of the day, seemed surreal. Everything seemed so still and quiet. Things seemed to move in slow motion. Everyone you saw had the same look of shock. Everyone kept asking “why?”

By the end of the day, we knew that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Another had crashed into the Pentagon. And yet another, intended for an unknown target in Washington, D.C., crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. All four planes had been hijacked by members of a previously little-known Islamist militant group called al Qaeda. In time we would come to find out that 2,977 people lost their lives in those events, including 411 emergency services personnel who died while conducting search and rescue operations at Ground Zero. Over 6,000 other people were injured.

On that day, America was forever changed. This was only the second time in our history that we had been attacked by a foreign entity, and the first time the continental United States had been so attacked. With that attack, we lost our innocence, having to face a reality citizens of many other nations live with day in and day out – the vulnerability to and possibility of terrorist attacks. We lost our sense of security that we are the safest and most well-protected country in the world. We had a new emotion to deal with – fear, and the accompanying paranoia about who might try to hurt us next. This event caused us to reassess who we are – that we are no longer the impervious, invincible superpower we imagined ourselves to be and the world thought us to be.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America proved itself to be noble and good, exhibiting what we think of as the best virtues of a professed Christian nation. There was a sense of unity rarely seen in our often polarized society. There was a coming together to help our neighbors in New York. Emergency response personnel from all over the country rushed to Ground Zero to help out. Individuals and groups collected money to help with rescue efforts and to assist the families of those lost in the attacks. Churches and individuals fervently prayed for those affected by the events of that day. We all somehow became a little more compassionate and patient, more kind and caring. In the wake of tragedy, much good happened, as we stepped outside of ourselves and focused on those truly in need. In those days, we were able to truly exhibit the best that humanity has to offer – and for us people of faith, what it means to live the Great Commandment and the Golden Rule.

But sadly, there was also the ugly side of the response to 9/11. Out of a sense of fear, many became paranoid of any who might be different from themselves. People of Arab descent and followers of Islam were assumed to be sympathetic to, if not just like, those who perpetrated the attacks. Such people and many others who happened to look a little different or have different beliefs were unjustly targeted as being a potential threat. Despite calls from Presidents Bush and Obama to distinguish terrorism from Islam, many have engaged in aggressive expressions of Christian nationalism, holding up their constitutional right to practice their Christian faith, while condemning and seeking to deny Muslim Americans the right to practice their faith.

As we consider 9/11, we cannot just stop with the events of that one day and the immediate aftermath. The response to 9/11 did not just last for a few days or a few weeks or even a few months. The response to 9/11 continues to this day, having occupied much of our political, economic, and social energy for the last ten years. For the aftermath of 9/11 and our chosen response has shaped our existence as a nation for the past decade and continues to do so.

Less than a month after 9/11, we went to war in Afghanistan – a direct response to 9/11, with the goal of eliminating al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters. Ten years later, we continue to fight in Afghanistan, making it the longest war in American history. Eighteen months after we invaded Afghanistan, we began a second war in Iraq, believing Saddam Hussein to similarly be a terrorist threat. Eight and a half years later, we continue to fight in Iraq, making it the second longest war in American history. During that time, 2.3 million American soldiers have served, with hundreds of thousands having served multiple tours of duty. Nearly 7,500 coalition troops have been killed, 6,200 of these, Americans. About 40,000 American soldiers have been wounded, some quite seriously. And lest we forgot, the death toll on the other side is estimated to be approximately 200,000 Afghanis, Iraqis, and Pakistanis. To date, these two wars have cost us $1.25 trillion, with estimates that the total direct and indirect costs could eventually top $4 trillion. And while we ultimately got Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are we or the world any safer, any less vulnerable to terrorism. The sad fact is the answer is “probably not.” If anything, the world is probably a more dangerous place, with groups like al Qaeda even more determined to harm America, which they feel has replaced the Devil as the enemy of Islam. Witness the truck bomb attack last night at an American base in Afghanistan, killing two Afghanis and injuring 77 American soldiers.

All of this in direct response to 9/11 – the inspiring response in the immediate days following 9/11 vastly overshadowed by the events of the succeeding ten years. As people of faith, we have to ask ourselves, was this response worth it? We have to ask, is this the response our God would have us give?

As we remember the events of 9/11 and the response of the last decade, our lectionary readings deal with issues of forgiveness and judgment. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It’s amazing how the lectionary readings for a particular day happen to be just the right readings for that occasion. Today the lectionary calendar and history’s calendar are in perfect synch, giving us words that we need to hear, as hard is it may be to hear them. And even harder though it may be to live them.

In today’s Gospel, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” While Peter’s question specifically asks about forgiveness relative to members of the church, we are forced to recognize that as people of faith, as those who follow the Christ who came for the benefit of all humanity, that our calling to forgive, our obligation to forgive, does not stop at these walls. Today’s passage opens the opportunity to explore the meaning of forgiveness at a number of levels: in relationship with ourselves, with those we love (family and friends), with those we don’t know but encounter in our day-to-day lives, with God, with those of other faiths, with our enemies. The nature of this particular day pushes us to consider what may be the most difficult forgiveness of all – forgiveness of our enemies.

Today’s Gospel lesson implies that forgiveness is more radical than we can imagine. Peter is willing to not forgive just once, not twice, but all the way up to seven times. As hard as it is for most of us to forgive someone who has wronged us, to forgive seven times would be considered quite gracious. But that is not enough, according to Jesus. We need to forgive far more than that. In Jewish numerology, seven is the number of completeness. So in saying that we must forgive 77 times, Jesus is really saying we must absolutely, positively, completely, 100 percent, no two ways about it, always and forever, forgive. Jesus is also recognizing that forgiveness is hard. Really hard. It is something that we really have to work on. We have to commit to it. We need to keep doing it again and again until it sticks. That’s why seven times is not enough. That’s why Jesus commands, not suggests, but commands, that we forgive and that we do it over and over again.

Jesus then goes on to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant. In this parable, the first servant owes 10,000 talents, or approximately $2.5 billion at today’s minimum wage. The king has mercy on the servant and forgives this massive debt. The servant then runs into someone who owes him 100 denarii, or about $6,400 in today’s terms, but does not seem to remember the mercy shown him by the king and demands immediate payment in full. The first servant then has the second thrown in jail when he cannot pay up. Upon hearing of this, the king has the first servant thrown in jail until he can pay off his debt.

Obviously the amounts being dealt with are ridiculously high for servants, but the point is that the king, who represents God, has forgiven the gigantic debt of the first servant, who represents us. Just as God has freely forgiven our sinfulness, so too are we to forgive the sin others do to us. This parable exemplifies the vast greatness by which forgiveness is to be exercised, and further, connects our human forgiveness with divine forgiveness. Our forgiveness is to mirror God’s forgiveness and mercy made real through Jesus Christ.

We are reminded of the need to forgive every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. There’s that line, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” which means we are asking that God’s forgiveness of our sins be like our forgiveness of those who sin against us. What this means is that if we freely forgive others, we are asking God to freely forgive us. But if we do not forgive others, what we are really asking for is that God not forgive us. Is that what we really want?

Admittedly, for many of us, forgiveness is a difficult thing under the best of circumstances. Limit situations like 9/11 push our imagination when it comes to forgiveness. If we have a hard time forgiving someone we know for some minor offense, how much harder is it for us to forgive an enemy that kills thousands of people? In such situations, we often prefer revenge to forgiveness. We take the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and turn it around to “Do unto others as they have done unto you – only harder.” At times like this, forgiveness does not even seem to be an option. It’s as if we feel that forgiveness would be a sign of weakness. That if we forgive, we have to pretend it never happened. Or that if we forgive, we give up any right or hope for justice. Not so. Nonetheless, in many ways, forgiveness is harder than retaliation or retribution.

What we need to remember is that forgiveness is not about denying what happened, about denying the hurt. Rather, to forgive we need to acknowledge what has happened, to acknowledge the pain, to acknowledge that another has done this to us. But it also necessitates letting go of the other, refusing to allow them and what they did to have power over our lives, to dictate who we are, to control how we live and how we view the world around us. Forgiveness is refusing to be held captive by the actions of another, no matter how painful or damaging. Forgiveness is leaving the past behind and moving forward into the future that God is calling us to. But even so, it does not mean we have to forget. And in some cases, we should never forget.

A great example of this is the change in our relationship with Japan following World War II. At least at some formal level, we each acknowledged what we had done to the other. We forgave each other. And we made the conscious choice to reestablish relationship. As a result of reconciliation, Japan, formerly our most bitter and deadly of enemies, has become one of our strongest political allies, one of our largest economic trading partners, one of our closest friends. Does that mean that we have forgotten Pearl Harbor? No. Does that mean Japan has forgotten Hiroshima or Nagasaki? No. But we were both able to put that behind us and move forward in friendship.

Now, when it comes to al Qaeda, I seriously doubt reconciliation is a possibility. They have such anger and hatred toward the United States, and we suffered such pain at their hands, that we will likely never be friends. But that does not mean that forgiveness cannot occur. I know for many, that’s asking the impossible. But at the very least, maybe it means not buying into the cycle of hatred the events of 9/11 precipitated. Maybe it means truly trying to live the Gospel mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves, to live the injunction in our Baptismal Covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” That begins in small ways, with each of us doing our part.

To this end, Scott Bader-Saye, professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest writes, “The church’s capacity to respond to an event like 9/11 is formed long before the event in all the small ways we learn to practice patience, love, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. It is these practices that we needed on 9/11 to give light in the dusty darkness, and it is these practices that we need ten years later to empower our witness for peace and reconciliation” (Bader-Saye, 10).

There are no easy answers. But we do know that change can happen and is happening. Christians and Muslims in this city, in this country and around the world are choosing not to engage in the hostilities their governments are engaged in. They are choosing to work together, to learn about and from each other, to become friends. In their actions, they are choosing to affirm across religious lines the loving and reconciling God worshiped by all the Abrahamic faiths – Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

One commentator sums it up quite eloquently when he writes, “This anniversary is not a time to focus on aggression or victory by way of violence or war. Violence only begets violence. While there is and needs to be an accountability, accountability does not heal, retribution does not heal, violence does not heal. Forgiveness heals for it is in forgiveness that we meet the other, sister or brother, as one for whom Christ died” (Giere, 158).

In this, Peter’s question in today’s Gospel speaks volumes, particularly as we face difficult acts of forgiveness. His inquiry of Jesus, “how often should I forgive” was intended to determine when we can stop forgiving. The meaning of forgiving seventy-seven times is crystal clear: we never stop forgiving. Ours is a God who forgives completely, and we as the body of Christ are commanded to do likewise. But the real question is not when we can stop forgiving, but rather, when do we start?

Bader-Saye, Scott. “9/11: Ten Years Later.” Christian Century, August 23, 2011, 10-12.

Giere, S. D., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2011, Easter through Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe in forgiveness and it's power to heal. I also believe it is easier to forgive an enemy that is impersonal such as radical groups in the middle east then that of someone close whose betrayal cuts deep. Did Christ forgive Judas? If so, how did he do it?