9-11-2001

Ten years ago, out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, came, with scimitar in hand, the cruel children of a lonely god. They came to lay waste to the world, or at least that part of the world they had deemed infidel. So began our decade long national nightmare; so began a decade of wondering when, never mind how, our world will ever right itself. The question, as it always is, in matters both big and small, is how do we never forget and yet still live? How, pray tell, do we forgive?

Sixty years ago, the world was no different. “To paraphrase a well-known saying from C.S. Lewis, everybody agrees in principle that forgiveness is a mostly lovely idea and this agreement continues right up until that moment when you have an actual person in front of you whom you must forgive—then suddenly caveats, nuances, and provisos start to fill the air. Lewis wrote that shortly after the completion of World War II and so used the prospect of forgiving the Nazis and the Italians as his key example of where one’s high-flying rhetoric about forgiveness sometimes smashes into the hard wall of bitter reality.”

And it is a bitter reality. One of the great things about Christianity is that Christians are expected to deal with reality, to not only detect but to interact with everything, good and bad, that is presented before us. Our goal, then, as Christians, is not to take the Buddhist way out; we are not called to transcend reality but rather to help redeem it. Christians are called not to leave reality behind, but to transform it. We have God Himself as our example; God didn’t sprinkle pixie dust all over the world to redeem us, but He rather sent His Son to live in the world as we live in it. His world smashed into the hard wood of the Cross.

It’s in that world that we live, that world of bitter realities. Jesus knew it, and His disciples were smart enough to ask Him about it while they were still all hanging out. St. Peter, who asked more questions than the others, went to Jesus and asked Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” That sounds pretty reasonable, almost generous. Let’s say your best friend steals your wife, sets your house on fire, lets the air out of breaks on the trucks, kicks your cat, empties your bank account, tells the cops you run a dog fighting ring, and then lets a bear loose in your backyard during your birthday party. How often, Lord, am I supposed to forgive? Seven times? That sounds more than reasonable; that sounds either saintly or crazy. But it’s not enough.

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” I did the math, that’s 490 times. But the numbers here don’t add up to Jesus’ point, which was total forgiveness. Forgive times infinity. Easy for Jesus to say, you might think, until you hear Him forgive the soldier who’s pounding a nail through His hand.

But we’re not Jesus. Some of us may be Saints in the making, but makin’ a saint ain’t easy. All of us have to deal with the realities of this world, the wounds and the scars. Some scars seem like they will never fade, the wounds ran so deep. Some wounds ran right into the very earth around us; New York, Arlington, and Shanksville bear our collective scars, even as our wounded hearts still grieve. We find it hard or even impossible to forgive, and no one has bothered to ask for our forgiveness anyway.

And yet, here we are, here we are before the living God, the God who forgives us as we forgive others. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Forgive times infinity. I don’t want to hear those words of Jesus any more than you do. I don’t want to forgive our enemies; it’s difficult to forgive people who are trying to kill you. But here we are, before the living God who not only expects us to forgive our enemies, but gives us the power to do so. I think, in the context of 9-11, forgiveness does not mean letting bygones be bygones, but rather not wishing any more punishment on our enemies than they deserve. I think it means winning a war, not exacting revenge. I think it means hoping and praying that our enemies will someday no longer be our enemies, and not just because they’re dead. And I think all this begins and ends in looking to Jesus, and begging Him for the peace only He can give.

iG.K. Chesterton
iiScott Hoezee, This Week.

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