I can remember the angriest I have ever been around fellow Christians. It was on and immediately following September 11, 2001. I woke up to my clock radio going off—but instead of playing the usual programming it sounded like the radio was carrying the feed from one of the local TV stations. I turned on the television to see what was going on and was greeted by the sight of the towers ablaze. I began calling my friends to find out what was going on and slowly began to learn the horrible truth. Terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade buildings and into the Pentagon. I ran to my balcony and saw smoke coming from Virginia, and on the streets below, hundreds of federal and other workers walking on the streets, walking home—like me, dazed.
I was in seminary at the time and called to find out whether we were still having classes. I couldn’t imagine that we were. I called Joe and he said, “Get to campus right away.”
On the drive up I kept hearing planes fly overhead and it was suddenly unnerving—they were of course, Air Force jets patrolling the suddenly empty skies. I spent a lot of that day walking through the dorms, talking with students, trying to make sense of the situation.
At one point, I found myself in Joe’s office. With us was our then Catholic Chaplain Fr. Brien McCarthy. What Brien had to say was astonishing to me. He kept talking about forgiveness and not responding in violence. I remember being dumbfounded—and I will say, not a little bit angry.
That night, I sat down to watch the all night coverage and wept for what seemed like hours, exhausted from the day’s trauma. But more trauma was to come. The following day, back at seminary, I discovered that many of my fellow seminarians were talking this same nonsense that Fr. Brien was—forgiveness, mercy, pacifism. Understanding what we had done wrong to cause these events.
What we had done wrong?!?! My God! I thought. We haven’t done anything wrong! Lunatics have committed acts of war upon our country—upon my beloved New York and my adopted, beloved Washington. It would be a greater crime not to respond. I began to get very, very angry with my colleagues. But the worst part was: I was not angry with them because I thought they were wrong. I was angry with them because I feared they might be right.
It’s hard not to see support for their point of view when you hear a lesson like our Gospel lesson tonight:
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
It should be noted here, that the number seventy-seven could be translated as “seventy times seven” in which case it should be rendered “four hundred ninety”—which is just a Biblical way of saying ‘an innumerable number of times.’ Is Jesus really telling us that we have to forgive people an innumerable number of times? Is Jesus really telling us that our injury and offense should be set aside and that we should forgive those who sin against us an uncountable number of times? It seems that that is the point, for, after the story about the slave who would not forgive one who owed him a debt after having had his debts cancelled by his master, Jesus adds: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” That’s not a threat–it’s a promise.
This teaching of Jesus is a hard lesson. It makes us uncomfortable. It seems to lack justice. How on earth is forgiving someone fair? I have been done wrong. I demand satisfaction. I am just supposed to let this go? Again and again? We are supposed to be disciples for Christ—are we supposed to be doormats for Christ as well? Are we supposed to do the same thing as a nation? It’s okay Japan—we weren’t using those ships anyway. That’s alright Germany—you can have Europe. No problem Britain—we didn’t really need those sailors. You can have them. We forgive you. No. We don’t want to forgive. We don’t want to hear this Jesus-talk about forgiveness. We want the Old Testament God—the one who takes our enemies and drowns them in the sea! That’s the kind of scripture we want read on September 11th, not this nonsense about forgiveness. Who put together this lectionary anyway?
What is all this talk about God being a God of justice if we are required to do all this forgiving? Should we just abolish our social justice committee and reform it as a committee to encourage people to forgive? I’m sorry migrant farm-workers, we’re not going to advocate for your rights anymore—instead, we’re going to help you learn to forgive the greedy business interests that are exploiting you.
I, of course, am not the only Christian throughout history who has been uncomfortable with pacifism. Pacifism was the way of the Church for three centuries. Christians simply did not fight. They went to their deaths willingly, not even trying to escape. An ancient Christian letter from St. Ignatius instructs Christians not to try to liberate him from his Roman prison. He willingly goes to be martyred for Christ.
But once the Roman Empire legalized (and then for a time monopolized) Christianity, suddenly the choices were different. St. Augustine struggled with what the duty of a Christian state was to protect the innocent. He concluded that insofar as it came to him, he would continue to turn the other cheek. He would willingly accept persecution. But, he could not stand by while others suffered—their martyrdom was not his decision to make.
From this we developed the theory of Just War: the conditions under which a state may morally use force in defense of justice. Just war also defines the rules by which one may wage such a war. It is a well established principle and I count myself among those who support the doctrine of Just War. I was fully in support of going into Afghanistan to respond to the attacks on our country.
And yet, there is this nagging feeling that just war is a compromise, a concession from our Christian pacifism—the “put away your sword” pacifism of Christ—to the realities and evils of the world. This nagging feeling that if I were sitting across the table from Jesus talking to him about this, that I would be unable to persuade him that my doctrine was right. And so, even among those of us who support this doctrine, there is a sense that it is a slippery slope, that it is the first in potentially a long line of exceptions to Christ’s teachings on forgiveness and mercy. There is a sense that we run the risk of using justice to trump mercy.
And as Christians, we are called to lives of mercy. In fact, our faith is rooted in mercy. St. Paul says “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
Paul reminds us ultimately of our dependence on mercy. We are all guilty before the judgment of God. In the words of the Prophet: “All we like sheep have gone astray.” No one is blameless before God. As Paul says, “Every one of us is accountable.” We therefore ought to be big fans of mercy—we’re going to need it.
V. THE GOOD NEWS
But here is the Good News: we have already received this mercy. Jesus Christ came and lived, died, and was raised again so that our sins might be forgiven, so that we might be reconciled to God.
There is an old Jewish midrash—a commentary through story—about the Exodus. It says that when God destroyed the Pharaoh’s army, the angels wanted to celebrate and leap for joy but God chastised them saying, “What are you celebrating for? My children are perishing.”
The story of the Exodus is not about a vengeful God destroying the enemies of his chosen people—it is about a God who seeks liberation for all God’s people. The destruction of Pharaoh was not God’s purpose. God—the God of the Old Testament and the New—desires reconciliation not vengeance.
If God desired vengeance, we would all be in a lot of trouble. But instead of vengeance, God sends his Son to live our life and die our death, to be raised to our resurrection in order to break the bonds of our slavery to sin. In order to demonstrate that God is reconciling us to God—that our sins are forgiven. Not will be. Are.
That’s not always an easy thing to grasp. All the more so when we explore Jesus’ parable even further. A talent is equivalent to about a year’s wages. The slave owes his master ten thousand talents, which is the Biblical way of saying “a kajillion dollars”—it’s a staggering amount of money. Impossible to repay. Compared to that, the 100 denarii—100 days wages—is nothing. And yet, Jesus tells us that the merciful master, God, forgives our debts, forgives our sins, freely without cost. And all that the master asks, is that we engage in the forgiveness of others and God has forgiven us.
It’s mind-boggling and adding to our confusion, too, is a sense that forgiveness is weakness—as if God were a pushover. And yet, God is not weak. God is not a doormat. None of us has the ability to make God do something. None of us can make God forgive us. God chooses to. And therein lies our salvation.
And ultimately therein lies the answer to our problem. We don’t forgive and seek reconciliation because we have to or because we are weak. We do it because we want to and because we are strong.
Forgiveness is not done by someone who is weak and has no choice—that’s not forgiveness, that’s capitulation. Forgiveness is done by the strong. By the person who has every right to exact punishment or to collect on a debt, but out of a sense of love or mercy chooses not to.
Christians forgive and seek reconciliation because we have been made strong through Christ. Because we ourselves have been forgiven—liberated from the oppression of our own sinfulness—we are confident in God’s grace and mercy to forgive others and to seek reconciliation. Forgiveness is an expression of love, reflecting the love of Christ who first loved us.
Nor is forgiveness the same thing as pretending that a wrong never existed. Nor does it require that people are not held accountable for the wrongs.What it does require is that our attitude toward the wrongdoer be one that comes out of love rather than out of a desire for revenge. In Just War theology—as counterintuitive as it may be—those who wage war in defense of justice and the innocent are required to do so out of love. We saw something of this after World War II where the moment the surrenders were issued, the Allies began the task of rebuilding their vanquished enemies and reconciling their peoples.
We live in perilous times. Over the past few years we have learned some hard lessons about our national security, the consequences of our policy, the fanaticism of others, the vulnerability of our cities, and the fragility of life, and a whole host of other lessons. And we learn that it would be unjust to ignore the very real threat that terrorism presents. It would be unjust to allow the innocent to be endangered and to suffer on account of our inaction in stopping terrorism. Terrorism must be stopped and those who commit acts of terrorism must be held accountable for their crimes. We do not forget the events of September 11th. We honor the memory of those who have died and recognize that their blood cries out from the earth even now.
And yet there is a greater lesson to learn. The forgiveness and reconciliation we would hope to bring to the world is the result of love. But the opposite of love is fear. All good things flow from love and all that is evil flow from fear: hate, intolerance, violence. If in our struggle to protect the innocent from the ravages of terrorism, we demonize the other, perpetuate the cycle of hate and vengeance, categorize people as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, suspend vital freedoms, seek only punishment without reconciliation, then we will truly have given into terror—given in to fear. And we might someday wonder who truly won the war on terror.
What Christ reminds us is that as the Church, we do not give in to fear—we do not allow fear to shape our lives, but rather the love of Christ. This is not an easy lesson to learn. The teachings of Christ are often hard. All these years later, I still struggle with these lessons, calling me to a place I do not always want to go. But unless we can more fully witness to this transforming love of Christ—unless we can truly internalize the lessons our master Jesus is trying to teach us—we, and our children, and our children’s children will continue to learn the hard lessons of a broken, hurting and fearful world.
19 ¶ The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
21 ¶ Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 ¶ Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
30 ¶ Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
21 ¶ Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 ¶ “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”