11 September 2011

Seventy Times Seven

Matthew 18: 21-35

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost/ 11th September 2011

I’ll be perfectly honest.  I didn’t want to preach today.  Not today.  Not on this Sunday— the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  I remember what it was like ten years ago standing in this pulpit trying to offer a message of hope in a time of national crisis, standing so close to the event without really understanding what happened or having any sense of what the response might be. 

Ten years later here we are, a weekend of remembrance and reflection.  Osama bin Ladin (1957-2011) might be dead and al Qaeda disorganized, yet the risk of terror here and abroad remains.  Ten years later—and so much has transpired in these last ten years—and we still struggle to come to grips with what happened that day and why and whether the response to the events of that day have made the world safer—for everyone—or not.  And here’s the rub, the resistance within me.  Although I have my own views and perspectives, I’m not here to offer my views, but to preach, to offer a word of grace, to reframe our views of reality with the gospel, to extend a Word of hope. 

The theological, biblical, Christian response to 9/11 is still being formed; we are still struggling to “make sense” of what occurred.  Ten years later and we’re searching for words and ways to articulate what we’ve learned and are learning from 9/11, not as Americans alone, not as a nation (this, too, is happening in many places this weekend), but as Christians—citizens, to be sure, of the United States, and gratefully so, but also as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  We have dual citizenship. 

            Yesterday morning in my study, trying to write, feeling the weight of resistance, I was drawn to a book that came out several years ago by Serene Jones.  Serene is president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and professor of theology there. In her book Trauma and Grace:  Theology in a Ruptured World, she masterfully engages the theological aspects of trauma and its aftermath.  She helpfully and correctly (I think) characterizes our individual and collective experience of 9/11 as trauma.  At some level, whether directly or indirectly, we have been and continue to be traumatized by what happened that day.  The Greek word for trauma means a “wound” or “an injury inflicted upon the body by an act of violence.”  “To be traumatized is to be slashed or struck down by a hostile external force that threatens to destroy you.  This visual image highlights the assaultlike character of a trauma; it involves an attack,” she writes, “by an external agent upon a vulnerable human body in such a way that a wounding occurs.”[1]  Trauma is violence against one’s body, but it is also violence against one’s psyche, against one’s spirit.  There is a direct correlation between trauma and violence and, as psychologists and sociologists have long known, violence can be experienced both physically and visually.  To see violence, to witness violence can be just as wounding as physically enduring it. 

            Trauma can be experienced individually, but it can also be experienced collectively, nationally.  The nation experienced a collective wounding that day.  We cannot underestimate the impact of watching all those images of violence repeated over and over again, whether on television or in our mind’s eyes or again this anniversary and any anniversary.  We are pulled into the violence and the national reaction to the violence of that day (some might say over-reaction) has only lulled us deeper and deeper into the violence.  To be traumatized is to be threatened, whether real or perceived.  To live anticipating such a threat has profound implications upon one’s psyche, it leads to increased fear, suspicion, isolation, and even acts of violence done in defense of an anticipated attack.  Serene writes, “We saw the real—not merely threatened or feared—annihilation of people who were or could have been our family, friends, neighbors or parishioners.  …There are few people in the history of the world who have witnessed, in the moment of its occurrence, such massive death, a witnessing now made possible by our current telecommunications technology.”[2]

            Serene’s book is about more than trauma, it’s also about grace.  It was written to address this question:  “How do people, whose hearts and minds have been wounded by violence, come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s grace?”  That’s the point, the theological question and response to 9/11.   How do we enter into the wound caused by that day without being defined by the wound?  How do we acknowledge the violence and the amount of destructive violence we have witnessed in the world since then without being further defined by that violence?  What is the distinctive voice, perspective, word that we in the church have to offer?  This is her answer:  “The church is called, as it exists in this space of trauma, to engage in the crucial task of reordering the collective imagination of its people and to be wise and passionate in this task.[3]  “…reordering the collective imagination….”

            How does the church do this?  Actually, the Holy Spirit does this—the Holy Spirit is the Great Re-Orderer —in us, because that’s exactly what Jesus does, he reorders our imagination, reframes how we look at ourselves, our neighbors, and the world, in order that we see everything in a new light, from a different perspective, from God’s perspective.  This is exactly what Jesus is getting at in his conversation with Peter on forgiveness—not seven times, but seventy times seven.   This requires a reordered imagination. In telling this disturbing parable Jesus drives the point home—forgiveness is serious business, especially for those who have been on the receiving end of forgiveness.  Forgiveness stands at the core of the Christian experience; it’s is also at the core of the Judaism and Islam.  All three Abrahamic faiths urge mercy, forgiveness, grace—why?  Because as children of God, we know that God is merciful, forgiving, rich in grace.  This is who God is.  However, those who have received mercy from God, but then withhold it from a neighbor (and even an enemy) cheapen the mercy received from God.

            These are demanding and difficult words to hear on a day like today.  In God’s providence, this is the lectionary text for today—I didn’t choose it.  Every three years this is the lectionary reading for the thirteenth week after Pentecost.  This year it happens to fall on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. We are called to privilege the text over the circumstances of the day, to allow the text to speak to us, so that our imaginations might be reordered.  When we do so we just might hear what the Spirit is trying to say to the church, of the way grace is seeking to enter into our trauma, our wound, our pain, and offer a different narrative, a new horizon of hope, not confined and defined by narratives of violence and destruction.

            This is tough.  We have to be very careful here.  Talking about forgiveness requires nuance and theological, biblical maturity.  We have to proceed with caution so as not to cheapen the meaning of forgiveness.  In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) makes it crystal clear that apologies that don’t cost you anything don’t change anything.  Cheap grace is the idea that forgiveness just wipes the past away. Some then equate forgiveness with forgetting.[4]  Those with really good memories, who feel obliged to never forget, are often the same ones reluctant to forgive. 

            There are plenty of Christians, however, who forgive too soon, who never really honor themselves by denying the magnitude of their hurt.  Because they think forgiveness is the Christian thing to do, some move right to forgiveness immediately after a wrong without acknowledging the pain that has been caused, without respecting one’s feelings, which only causes further psychological wounding.  This often occurs in domestic violence situations in which battered women are pressured to “forgive, forgive” without real repentance and change on the part of their batterers.  “This pressure to forgive on the part of victims without repentance and change on the part of victimizers is sometimes given a religious interpretation.”  In a soon to be released book, theologian Susan Thistlewaite shares that, “Countless women have told me that their priest or minister had advised them, as ‘good Christian women’ to accept beatings by their husbands as ‘Christ accepted the cross.’”  I heard similar stories just last week in the Democratic Republic of Congo, stories of Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy who told women they had to forgive their husbands for abusing them because it was the Christian thing to do.  Thistlewaite makes an important observation, “The ‘forgive, forgive’ dynamic in domestic violence fails at the crucial step of recognizing that unequal power relations are at the root of violent relationships, whether personal, national, or international.  The ‘spiral of violence’ will not be interrupted unless the power inequalities that helped to give rise to violence are changed.”[5]

            Jesus’ words of forgiveness need to be part of the church’s narrative regarding 9/11.  What this actually looks like is difficult to say, but it cannot be ignored.  Again, on the one hand, forgiveness is not simply about forgetting what took place, “moving on.”  On the other hand, we also have to admit that remembering, never forgetting, holding on to the pain of that moment prevents one from being present and facing the future.  “Never Forget” translated as “Never Forgive” yields paralysis, where we are, to quote U2, “stuck in a moment and now [we] can’t get out of it.”[6]  The moment holds us in its grip and although we think we’re honoring what occurred, the trauma is actually defining us, shaping us. 

In his book, The End of MemoryRightly Remembering in a Violent World, theologian Miroslav Volf makes a provocative claim.  Writing from his own experience living through the ethnic cleansing in Serbo-Croatia, he wonders whether if forgetting may be a gift bestowed by a merciful God and remembering may be evidence of a failure to receive that gift.  How long should we remember?  Are we not told in scripture that God is good at forgetting?  “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:32). “And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17).[7]

            In both of these verses, as well as in Matthew 18, we discover that forgiveness is not an end in itself.  Forgiveness is the means to an end and the end, the goal, the objective of forgiveness, the goal of the kingdom is reconciliation.  In Judaism, forgiveness is embodied in shalom, peace, a return (teshuvah) to relationship, a re-integration, on both the cosmic and the personal level.[8]  Similar claims are made in Islam. In Christianity, forgiveness is fulfilled in reconciliation, forgiveness if offered and won so that humanity might be reconciled to God and humanity to humanity.  In order to get to the point of reconciliation something has to occur, something has to change, people need to change, admit responsibility, acknowledge sin, enter the trauma and reframe it.

            More than eighty years ago, theologian H. R. Mackintosh (1870-1936) wrote that forgiveness is a “shattering experience” for the one who forgives as well as for the one who is forgiven.[9] “This is because forgiveness, unlike a mere pardon, seeks to win the offender back into relationship.  And reconciliation is costly because there are resistances to it in the attitude of the person who has offended; the one who sets out to forgive must aim to remove those blockages and restore the relationship.”[10]  This is costly, requiring time and effort, mental and physical strength. Unless we suffer through this, we will be caught in the spiral of violence, forever bound by trauma, defined by violence, and we run the risk of becoming the very thing that we fear.

            These are some of the alternate narratives that the church can offer on this 9/11.  Alternate narratives, stories, interpretations are needed, lest we be defined by the suffering and violence of that day.  You might have seen the story on the front page of Friday’s Washington Post about the 9/11 cross.  The image of the two iron beams forming a cross that seemed to rise up out of the ashes at Ground Zero.  The “World Trade Cross” became the focus of worship, of hope, of praying, and blessing in the aftermath of 9/11.  Father Brian Jordan saw the cross as a sign that “God had not abandoned Ground Zero.”[11]  It will be placed as part of the 9/11 Memorial in New York, but not without some controversy, especially from atheists who object to a Christian icon being placed on the site.  As the article indicates, the cross became a symbol of hope for Christians and Jews and people of other faiths.  Perhaps the symbol has power because it speaks of our hope to frame the destruction of 9/11 within a different narrative, a different story, a different way to “making sense” of the trauma, reordering our imaginations: that a symbol of torture and pain and suffering like the cross can become a symbol of suffering love and be associated with grace, with mercy. This requires a reordered imagination. This is an entirely different kind of narrative.

            There were other articles and images in the The Post on Friday.  But I was stunned by one image in the On Faith section—the wrinkled pages of an open Bible that had been fused with metal.  It was found by a NY firefighter at Ground Zero.[12]  I zoomed in on the photo in order to see what part of the Bible it was open to.  It wasn’t Matthew 18: 21-35 (that would have been too perfect)—but Matthew 5, from the Sermon on the Mount.  You can make out the sub-heading in the chapter:  “Retaliation” followed by Jesus’ teaching against retaliation, and “Love” followed by Jesus’ teaching on the love of one’s enemies. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 4:44-45).  To live this way requires an enormous, grace-filled reordering of our imaginations.

            The last words from the people in the towers and on the planes, spoken from phones and cell phones, left on voicemail, over and over again that day were “I love you.”  Over and over again, the message was the same, “I love you.”  “I love you.”  Several days after 9/11, novelist Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian, “Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers.”[13]  That’s what we have to offer as the church, this is what reorders our imaginations; we can provide an alternative, grace-filled, compassionate, merciful narrative, a different kind of response to 9/11.  That’s what Jesus himself calls us toward, over and over again.

[1]Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace:  Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 12.
[2] Jones, 28.
[3] Jones, 31. Emphasis in the text.
[5] Susan Thistlewaite is editor of a forthcoming book Interfaith Just Peacemaking:Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War (Palgrave Macmillan: Fall, 2011) that outlines top practices of peacemaking that have been going on across Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  This book is out of the Interfaith Just Peacemaking project.  For ten years a group of thirty religious leaders (with equal representation from the three religions) have been meeting and working toward a practical guide to Just Peacemaking and creating a hermeneutic that looks at the actual peacemaking practices shared among the sacred texts, finding common practices, and determining how they are actually being used around the world.  My references come from a chapter of the book shared in advance by Thistlewaite with the members of my pastor-theologian study group.
[6] U2, “Stuck in A Moment,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Universal-Island Records, Ltd., 2000.
[7] Miroslav Volf, The End of MemoryRightly Remembering in a Violent World (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006), 133-134.  I’m grateful to the Reverend Roy Howard for this reference.
[8] David Gordis’ contribution to the Thistlewaite text.  A classic and instructive formulation of teshuvah is found in the writings of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).  He suggested that teshuvah requires three steps:  harata (remorse), vidui (confession), and teshuvah (the actual accomplishment of the “return”).
[10] Paul S. Fiddes’ summary of Mackintosh in Participating in God:  A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 192-193.
[13] Ian McEwan, The Guardian, September 15, 2001.  See also Kenneth E. Kovacs, “Choruses from ‘The Rock,’” David James Randolph, ed., Candles in the Dark:  Flames for the Future:  Preaching and Poetry in Times of Crisis (New Way Media, 2003), 56.