Sunday, September 11, 2011

Judgement and forgiveness in the shadow of 9/11

Texts: Romans 14:1-12 (withholding judgement); Matthew 18:15-20 (forgiveness without limits)

Today, millions of us around the world are marking the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States. The attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. on 9/11 caused a tremendous amount of death, sorrow, shock and horror. And the responses to that attack have changed our culture in many ways. So as we mark the anniversary, we have an opportunity to remember, to mourn, and to try to place the tragedy and its aftermath in the context of our faith.

Our two Scripture readings today are heard against the backdrop of 9/11. In the first reading, St. Paul talks about judgement. And in the second, Jesus talks about forgiveness. Today's anniversary, I believe, illustrates in the sharpest possible manner how difficult it is not to judge someone who attacks us; and how difficult it is to forgive such an attack when one does succumb to judgement.

St. Paul urges us to leave judgement to God. In essence he says that, "To err is human; to judge divine." But Paul was writing in the context of disagreements within a loving community. Surely it would be a stretch to extend his thoughts to deadly terrorist attacks and subsequent wars.

In our Gospel reading, Peter asks Jesus a question about forgiveness. In reply, Jesus urges us to forgive without limit. He says that we should forgive a person who sins against us seventy times seven times. Then to illustrate this radical idea, Jesus tells a parable about an unmerciful servant that is filled with wild exaggerations.

The debt owed by the servant is an impossibly large sum. The punishment of enslaving the debtor and his family for non-payment is brutal. The offer of the servant to repay the debt over time is not believable. The ruler's subsequent forgiveness of the debt seems surprising. The lack of mercy by the freed man to someone who owes him a small sum seems hypocritical. And the final punishment of the ruler is as terrible a one as we could ever imagine.

Is Jesus saying here that we are to be as merciful to each other as God is to us and to forgive without limits?

Sometimes the debt a person owes truly is massive. And sometimes a sin can be as terrible as the attack by the 9/11 hijackers. 10 years ago today, 19 men in the span of a few hours killed more than 3,000 people, caused massive economic damage, and traumatized those of us who watched the horrible spectacle live on TV. The notion that the hijackers and the Al-Qadea network behind them could ever expect that their victims would not judge them as evil, or that the families of the victims would ever forgive them seem as beyond belief to me as the details in Jesus' parable.

In the event, the response of the U.S. government to the 9/11 attacks was the opposite of forgiveness. On the day of the attack, George Bush spoke for many when he labeled the event as evil and called its perpetrators evildoers. He sought revenge through two long wars that led to the deaths of 10s of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan. He restricted U.S. civil liberties with the Patriot Act and used torture to gather intelligence both in U.S. detention camps and via third-party states like Syria and Egypt.

Bush's government saw the attacks as a "clash of civilizations," which has sometimes made it difficult for people from countries with largely European and Christian roots, like Canada and the U.S., to relate to people with largely non-European or Islamic roots, like those from North Africa and the Middle East.

In my opinion, the results have been mixed. The wars cost the U.S. and its allies trillions of dollars and have contributed to our current economic problems. The invasion of Iraq -- which had no ties to 9/11 and which, contrary to U.S claims, did not harbour weapons of mass destruction -- led, at first, to a growth in extremism. But today, religious extremists seem to be weaker than before 9/11. The war in Iraq has largely been wound down. And countries like Canada no longer have troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan.

Finally, the popular revolts in Arab countries earlier this year have proven more effective in bringing real change in that part of the Muslim world than invasions and bombings by Western countries.

Today we pray for the families of the victims of 9/11 and for all the military and civilian victims of the wars that have followed it. We remember the 157 Canadian men and women killed in Afghanistan and many other Canadians injured. And we hope that security measures, social development, and cultural reconciliation will led to an end to terrorist attacks and an end to wars in the years ahead.

When any of us are attacked and hurt, our reactions flow automatically. First we feel pain, anger, fear, and a desire to be safe. Then, despite the advice of St. Paul, we often go beyond our feelings to judgement. In the cases of 9/11 and beyond, it seems easy to conclude that the terrorists who killed friends and neighbours, or the countries that bombed and occupied our country, are evil and beyond redemption.

The feelings are natural and acceptable, I think. But the judgements, while also understandable, can cause problems, as both St. Paul and Jesus try to remind us.

Even in the most destructive acts such as 9/11 and its subsequent wars, there are human motives on all sides. We don't have to agree with these motives. But since we are part of one human family, we are called to see ourselves in the mirror of all other people, even those who injure and enrage us the most.

In Al-Qaeda, we could see the shadow side of religious fanaticism. Fortunately, such terrorists are a rare strain within today's religions. But when we confront their fanaticism, we might also see reflections of Christian terror, Christian wars, and Christian genocide of other cultures.

The destruction suffered in New York City 10 years ago still shocks and horrifies us. But it might be a moment for us to also remember incidents like the destruction of what is now Mexico City in the 1500s by invaders from Spain. In a few short weeks, they killed 10s of thousands of people and utterly destroyed a complex and beautiful civilization, all with the support and approval of the Church in Europe.

On 9/11, many of us were shocked when we saw Palestinian teenagers cheering the attacks in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But before we judge them, and without agreeing with their response, we might also ponder why the United States gives more military aid to Israel than to any other country even as Israel has illegally occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in defiance of the United Nations for decades.

One reason to resist judgement, I believe, is that it clouds our own ability to see into our own hearts and mind. When we cry "evil" or "devil" against those who have hurt us, it can prevent us from seeing the hurt caused by our nation or by the religious and economic systems in which we live.

Not judging an attacker, or finding a way to forgive them when we do judge them, does not mean forgetting the attack. It does not mean erasing the feelings of hurt and loss, or rage and fear that the attack causes. It certainly does not mean condoning the attack. Nor does it mean evading our responsibility to keep ourselves safe. However, it does mean opening ourselves as much as is possible to the wider reality of the whole world and all its pain, and not just to our own corner of it.

The people of New York and Washington D.C. suffered terribly on 9/11. Their deep feelings of hurt, sorrow and rage, which we share, are normal and completely acceptable. But unfortunately, we live in a world filled with hurt. It is a world that bears the scars of colonialism, of economic oppression, of poverty beside wealth, and of seemingly endless wars, occupations and cultural insults.

On September 12, 2001, the Paris newspaper Le Monde ran a headline, which I liked. It read, "Nous sommes tous Américains" or "We are all Americans." By the same token when bombs later rained down on Iraq in 2003 and thousands died, we might also say, "Today, we are all Iraqis."

None of us, of course, support the hate-filled actions of those who perpetrated 9/11. But we also no longer support the occupation of North Africa and the Middle East by Britain and France in the 19th and early 20th century or the more recent U.S. support for brutal dictators such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It is sad to say this, but there are no end of victims, and no end of perpetrators.

Jesus and Paul both advise us not to judge those who sin against us even as they also warn us that judgement is inevitable. But they know that it is God's terrible judgement that matters, and not our own flawed judgements or that of our institutions.

The extent to which we can avoid the trap of judgement and find the path to forgiveness is the extent that we can remain humble, confess our own sins, and try to love our neighbours and even our enemies.

Unfortunately, the infinite forgiveness promoted by Jesus is not possible for any of us, and certainly not in horrible situations such as 9/11. That is why we can be cheered to know that God, while being our terrible judge, is also the source of an infinite mercy given to us all.

In Jesus' parable today, the debt of the servant is so huge that it can only be a symbol for life itself. We owe everything to the source of life, love and being, which we call God. The world in which we live, our bodies, and the language and ideas that help make up our minds, all come to us as a free gift. It amounts to a debt that we can never repay. And so we fall down in thanksgiving and praise to our source, who is God, even as we also beg God for mercy.

Many things that we do not like also comes to us unasked for in life -- things such as our fragility, our mortality, and life in a world that is often torn apart by competition and violence. Living in, and being hurt in these tough circumstances often leads us to judge others. And so Jesus calls us to repent and forgive. He calls us to participate in the forgiveness given to us by God in Christ.

This is a call to which we cannot always respond on our own. Being able to forgive requires grace. And the good news is that such amazing grace is offered to us all, on all sides of our wars and disputes, all across this pain-filled world.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we pray for the victims and their families. We pray for an end to terror attacks and an end to retaliatory wars. We pray that people of different religions and backgrounds can build peace and justice together and find unity in our diversity. And we give thanks that, in the face of the terrible judgement of God, we are also offered the infinite mercy of God in Christ. Christ stands with us in our suffering and offers us his mercy in every moment.

When we are attacked, we cannot achieve the perfect forgiveness of God. But as recipients of God's forgiveness, we are sure that God will eventually bring us home to a wholeness and security beyond our human fears and beyond our partial and flawed human judgements.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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