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09 September 2011

Forgiveness and September 11

Every temptation to approach the 9/11 anniversary from a Theology of Glory was challenged this past weekend when the Gospel forced us to abandon anger, brute force and judgment for grace, mercy and forgiveness. While many us were ready for a juicy "eye for an eye" sort of text, Jesus' invention of the unforgiving slave hit us right in between the eyes and made us come up short.

Many of us have chewed on the story before, and perhaps have spit it out, but what struck me this year was how Jesus traps us by letting us hold on to the whole idea of seeking justice by going to "the authorities".

After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins. So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’  Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will repay you.’ But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place. Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.

Going to the authorities, or so we believe, is going to make the wrongs right.  But entrusting this king with this problem leads to chaos. He goes back on his word; his judgment is "over the top"; he is outright frigthening. God is not like that!  Jesus has led us, as German theologians like to say, "ad absurdum", to the point of absurdity.  Even when we take our own logic of justice to its logical end, it ends up all wrong.  That's because the king of the parable operates by human standards, and God does not.  That's because human ideas of justice and God's idea of mercy don't go together.

Like those fellow slaves in Jesus' story who want "the authorities" to make things right and end up with a frigthening despot for a king, after 9/11 all of us asked "the authorities" to make us feel safe, and in the process we ended up with governments that are harsh, intrusive and often disproportionately merciless.  When fear becomes a whole world's way of life, we know that our ever-growing need for more security (even when invoked in the name of justice), will only lead into a vicious cycle that feeds on our fear.

Led "ad absurdum" by Jesus, we can stop acting like we belong to this world and like we believe that there is nothing better than this. As we remember his invitation to be "in the world, but never of the world", we are called to re-learn love and compassion, to be curious about our neighbors, our fellow human beings.  As we remember that no one is "other" (no matter what "they" try to sell us out there), we learn to forgive.

One day, Gautam Buddha heard of a man who was feared by everyone, one named Angulimal, literally "the garland of human fingers".  Angulimal had vowed to kill one thousand people, and every time he killed a person, he added one of their fingers to his garland.  At the time the Buddha entered the closed road on which Angulimal lived, deep in the mountains somewhere, Angulimal was considered especially dangerous, since he had already 999 fingers on his garland -- only one more person to kill.

Buddha met several guards on the road; each urged him to go back. "We have orders from the king to not let anyone pass this road", they said, "for Angulimal is a dangerous madman and even his mother has stopped coming. Please return where you came from."  "But if I don't go," said Buddha, "who will?" The guards shook their heads, but let Buddha pass; those of Buddha's disciples who were traveling with him were afraid and slowed down greatly.

As Buddha approached, Angulimal was sitting on a rock, sword in hand; he was very confused; he didn't know what to make of this stranger who didn't seem to fear him at all. When Buddha was just a few feet away, Angulimal shouted, "Don't get any closer.  I am warning you.  You don't know who I am."  Buddha quietly said, "Well, do you know who you are?" "Your life is in danger," said Angulimal, and Buddha replied, "No, it's your life that's in danger". 

As Buddha came closer still, Anguilimal simply said, "I may be forced to kill you". Buddha said, "Alright, but before you cut my head off, let me have one small wish." Angulimal said, "What do you want?" and Buddha asked that he cut him a tree branch with flowers.  Angulimal took his sword and cut off a branch full of flowers and Buddha said, "Oh how wonderful to take in their fragrance just one more time"; then he looked at Angulimal and said quietly, "And now the second part of my wish: Please put the branch back on the tree."  Angulimal became angry and thundered, "Stuff and nonsense, it's cut; it's done; it can't be undone.  And people think I am the one who is crazy around here!"

Buddha said, "If you cannot create life, you have no right to take it.  If you can't give life, you have no business bringing death."  There was a moment of silence, a great moment of transformation, and then the sword fell out of Angulimal's hand.  Angulimal knelt before the Buddha and said, "I don't know who you are, Sir, but I want to be yours.  Take me home, please". 

When Buddha's disciples realized that Buddha was still alive, they came running and said, "We have heard you are making that fellow over there one of us; you can't be serious: he is a murderer, and everyone knows it."  But Buddha said, "He deserves my love and forgiveness just because he is another human being.  It doesn't matter whether he is a murdered or a baker or a silversmith."

Research shows a strong correlation between forgiveness and mental health; it seems as though people who hold on to their anger and resentment simply shorten their lives. This reminds me of Nelson Mandela, who said that resentment "is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies".

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
All are sinners.  All are invited.  None is excluded. -- Everyone is a "wretch" like me, and like you.  We are all one, each created in God's image.  -- Psalm 17 says that God keeps each of us "as the apple of his eye".

Yes, on first sight, an "eye for an eye" sort of text would have suited us "just fine" this past Sunday. But the universe doesn't work that way. The "an eye for an eye" idea is limiting and suitable only for this temporary world in which we happen to be guests; it's based on the demands of a bruised ego.  As citizens of God's new world we need to learn to control our egos -- love and compassion don't come to a person who's a slave of his or her own ego.

How can we not forgive?
Matthew 18:21-35

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