September 11 and the truth of forgiveness

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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Sept. 11, 2011
Sir 27:30–28:7; Ps 103; Rom 14:7-9; Matt 18:21-35

Today we hear strong teaching from our Lord Jesus on how we must forgive others. And this comes as our nation recalls the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—ten years ago. As we recall that day, and the days and weeks that followed—a time of pain and fear and uncertainty—we may well wonder: What does forgiveness have to do with that?

For the actions of September 11 caused great harm: physical death for nearly 3000; physical injury for many more; emotional pain and damage, in different degrees, for the entire country and even the world; as well as much physical destruction. They also sparked great fear for the future, as we saw that our defenses had failed to prevent these attacks; and that there were organized groups planning more of them. And the attacks were unjust. They violated the moral norms given by God for how human beings should act toward each other: violating human rights, damaging the common good, causing terrible harm that was undeserved.

And in this way, the 9/11 attacks are a large and complicated version of what we experience everyday: when we or someone we love are harmed, and harmed unjustly; and often we see that the same source may cause harm again in the future. And so we often feel anger, which is the passion or emotion that desires vindication, the setting right of what the unjust action has made wrong, often through requiring acts of reparation by the wrongdoer. And at base, on the natural level, this is a good reaction, a good desire. We should be angry at injustice; we should desire to see it set right! Now, this must not go too far: the anger we feel should not become immoderate or extreme; the vindication we seek should not mushroom into cruel vengeance; and often we ourselves are not authorized to carry out that vindication, which is instead reserved to God or to human authorities—as we hear so often in the Scriptures, including in our first reading. And we all have experienced those extremes, haven’t we?—perhaps even on September 11. But, as long as our response does not go to those extremes, but stays appropriate and on target, the response of feeling anger and desiring that injustice should be set right is a good, natural response.

And yet: our Lord Jesus asks us to set that response aside. He asks us to go beyond the natural; to set aside our natural rights; and instead to forgive. What does that mean? How does it all fit together? For there are a lot of false and inadequate ideas running around our society masquerading as forgiveness.

First, we need to situate the topic of forgiveness within Christ’s larger commandment to love: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 19:19), “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34), “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44). But what is it that our Lord is commanding here? We will misunderstand it if we follow the tendency of our culture to think of everything subjectively—about what you feel or I feel, what you want or I want. To love in the way that Christ commands is to will the good of another. This “good” is objective; it is a part of God’s creation; every one of his creatures, including human beings, has a “good” that is objectively the purpose for which we were created, the objective fulfillment of what we were created to be. And we can well imagine that someone who is wicked or just very misguided will be mistaken about this good. They will feel it is unpleasant; they will not want it. And yet true, self-giving love will desire their true good for them, even when they do not. True love will desire it for them; true love will even seek to bring it about, when possible. And so, often, love must be tough.

And so forgiveness fits within love. So that, as St. Thomas Aquinas writes, when someone does unjust harm to us, we are not pushed into excessive anger, but we continue firmly in the virtue of meekness; we are not pushed into vindictive action, but we continue to act in the virtue of clemency. We continue to desire the true good of the wrongdoer, in spite of the harm that he does to us. We are strong enough to forgive.

So what are some of the false ideas that go around about what forgiveness is?

First, forgiveness is not the same as merely excusing or condoning something. It does not say: “That was just a little thing; no harm done; no problem!” No, it says: “It was significantly harmful, it was unjust; but I will set aside my natural right to exact a vindication from the wrongdoer.”

Second, forgiveness does not mean failing to protect others from future harm. And this applies to legitimate civil authorities with the duty to protect the society entrusted to them; to parents with the duty to protect their family; and even to each of us, with our right and even duty to certain forms of self-defense. Even as we forgive a wrongdoer and continue to will his true good, we still take note of how likely it is that he will cause that harm again and we take morally appropriate steps to prevent that harm or protect against it.

Third, forgiveness does not mean that the harm no longer needs to be set right. This is still a duty of the wrongdoer. Sometimes civil authority can make this reparation happen; sometimes we just pray that the wrongdoer will come to see the error of his ways and make things right.

Fourth, forgiveness does not mean that we will always feel better right away. Forgiveness is first of all an act of the will, to continue living out the true love that Christ commands, in what we do and in what we don’t do. It can take time to reach the full internal peace that we desire—the cessation and freedom from anger. It can take real work to fully recognize the harm we have suffered and the feelings it has provoked, and to find sources of healing for this. And yet, with time and effort and grace, we may reach the fullness of forgiveness.

Cheryl McGuinness was the widow of the co-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center towers. Almost a year of September 11, she had to visit the site of Ground Zero. Up until then, she had not been able to forgive the terrorists who had caused her husband’s death. When she arrived, she looked down into the pit where the buildings once stood, and she saw only one steel structure left standing—in the shape of a cross.

She prayed, “Lord, they killed my husband.” And then she seemed to see herself at the foot of Christ’s cross on Calvary. And within her heart, she heard the Lord asking her to forgive those terrorists. “Why?” she asked. And he answered: “Because I forgave you.” And in that moment, she recognized the sins that she had committed—not terrorism, but nevertheless real sins, real harm—and she saw the fact that Christ had forgiven her. And she received the grace of new inner strength to forgive those men as well. And it changed her life.

If you have not been able to forgive as Christ commands—if you have tried to forgive but not succeeded; or if you haven’t really tried—then I ask you: have you received his forgiveness of your sins? The sacrament of confession is a powerful source of freedom that he offers: freedom from your own sins, and freedom, from forgiving others. If there are any serious sins you have not brought to confession; or if it has been more than a month since you last went; please go and receive the forgiveness that Christ longs to give you. For when, in that sacrament, you drop all pretense and stand before the Lord with all your sinfulness and the harm you have done laid bare, and you discover that Christ meets you with love and forgiveness, and strengthens you for the future, then you can do the supernatural thing that he commands, of seeing others as he sees them, and forgiving them as well.

“Lord, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

“Why should I forgive them?” “Because I forgave you.”

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