St. John the Divine, NY
September 11, 2011
What’s it like to be attacked? And what governs our response? How do we heal and find our way forward?
I wasn’t here ten years ago, but I do have a sense of how confusing and crazy-making a sudden physical attack can be. I was out for my morning run once when a guy who had been sitting on a bench a couple of seconds earlier ran across my path and grabbed me. I was startled and upset, but I couldn’t figure out what he was after. Was he trying to throw me over the rail into the river, or throw me down on the ground? He never said a word. I did – I yelled and kept on yelling, all of a sudden discovered that I had him in a headlock, and then I remembered that applying my foot in a sensitive place might encourage him to let go. I applied my foot once, pretty gently, without any result. We kept struggling and I tried again. Then he did let go, and both of us ran off.
It was pretty clear to me that he was mentally ill. Maybe I had intruded on his space, or maybe he thought I was somebody else. Clearly I was a significant threat. Yet within a few minutes, my biggest worry was about him and his evident illness. What must it be like to live with such terror?
How do we get beyond the small and large threats in life? In recent days the media, and much of our conversation in this city, have been filled with stories of how people have responded to the violence here ten years ago. Many of those stories have been filled with hope, as people have made some sense out of their experience of September 11th, and found strength to reinvest in life.
Those planes literally came out of the blue – the blue of a beautiful morning sky. They brought death to thousands, terror to many more, loss and devastation to a city and a nation. That violence was the result of rage at the society around us, and it was calculated to inflict enormous damage. The results have been both tragic and hopeful. It’s not entirely clear just what the perpetrators wanted – they got immediate death and destruction, yet this nation and the world responded in an enormous outpouring of care and concern. It was quickly followed by many calls for retribution and vengeance. Yet even in the midst of that knee-jerk urge toward retaliation and violence, others sought understanding, reached out to those who would be most vulnerable, and urged a peaceful and healing response.
What has our decade of grieving wrought? Have we found new meaning in life? Have we found some reasonable measure of healing? Have we made sense of that violence? Have we found a way to forgive those who instigated the death and terror?
The last is the hardest question, and there is more than a little irony that the readings we’ve heard this morning weren’t specially chosen for today – they’re scheduled every three years on the Sunday closest to this. We will continue to hear their calls to forgiveness.
Joseph says to his brothers, who tried to kill him and then sold him into slavery, “well, you meant to do evil, but God turned it to good. I forgave you a long time ago, and I will help you in your hour of need.”
The psalmist responds, “God is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”
Paul’s words to the folks in Rome are haunting in our context, “who are you to pass judgment on the servants of another? God will judge them and hold them accountable.”
And Peter asks Jesus how many times he’s supposed to forgive people who offend him. Jesus responds by saying, if you’re counting you haven’t gone far enough. And then he tells of a man’s refusal to forgive a tiny debt, even though he’s experienced enormous forgiveness, and how that only leads to his own destruction.
What do we do with all of that? I don’t believe any of us would be here this morning if we didn’t ultimately believe that forgiveness is possible, and that we are all in search of healing. How do we let go of the desire for vengeance and let God deal with the work of judgment? How might we, like Joseph, even if we’ve been terrorized, come to the aid of brothers and sisters in time of need?
Maybe the most important part is where we locate ourselves in the story. As long as this act of violence is all about me and the hurt and damage I’ve suffered, it’s really hard to let go of a desire for payback. As I reflected on my morning wrestling match, I recognized that in the heat of the moment I had no desire to hurt the guy. I didn’t want to kick him too hard, I just wanted him to let go. We can decide how to respond.
Where and how do we locate the attacker in our story? Were the hijackers personally after each human being who died? Did they intend to hurt and destroy this person’s family or that first responder? If we see that violence as an attack on western society, was it really only about the United States? Or was this lashing out, premeditated though it was, a response to changes in the world that have extinguished hopes or privilege in other communities? Those intrusive airport searches we live with are the same kind of unsought social change. Our current economic situation shares some of the same roots and character.
Forgiveness begins in discovering some element of common humanity with your attacker, even if it is simply a search for understanding – whether rational or irrational. But forgiveness doesn’t end there. The very act of violence that first connects perpetrator and victim binds them together. Joseph was his father’s favorite, and his brothers took it out on him by trying to destroy him. That didn’t break the bonds between them, it actually bound them more closely together – the brothers’ secret vengeance produced a kind of chain gang. At the same time, their act destroyed a good part of the healthy bond with their father. Joseph’s forgiveness set them free in a way that they could not accomplish themselves.
What do we choose? What kind of bonds have we taken on in the last ten years in this city, or as Americans responding to attempts to terrorize us? Are we choosing prison chains or bonds of understanding? Healing emerges from seeking to repair some of the damage from the violence and the quest for retribution. Health is growing in interfaith dialogue, in spite of the vitriol poured on Abdel Rauf and Daisy Khan. Some meant it for evil, but God is working good nevertheless.
We have to tell the stories, including the ugly ones. Real change began in the civil rights movement when the gratuitous violence perpetrated on non-violent marchers began to appear on television. America began to be appalled and embarrassed. This nation began to recognize that human beings were treating fellow human beings in inhuman ways. We began to see how we are bound together.
We can choose how we are bound – by chains of hate, fear, and terror, or through the life-giving possibilities of love, forgiveness, and solidarity. We are a nation built on tenets of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There’s nothing in that declaration about hate and fear, except its absence and end. Like Joseph and his brothers, the central figures in this story are descendants of Abraham. We proclaim a god of love, forgiveness, and peace. Jews, Christians, and Muslims share God’s vision for a healed world where all live together in peace, shalom, salaam. That is the meaning of life and the goal of existence. Our own lives and decisions change as that dream begins to center and shape our lives.
What will you choose in your next experience of affront or attack? How will you share in the world’s healing this year, and ten years from today? What bond do you choose?