You Have to be Taught…, Proper 19 (A) – 2011
September 11, 2011
You have to be taught to hate.
Little boys do not stitch together their own Klansman robes. Young girls do not look longingly at vests in shop windows with visions of being a suicide bomber. Yes, children will readily turn sticks into swords and guns for their play. But they do not name someone as “other,” the enemy, an object of hate. You have to be taught to name the ones to be feared and fought as “the Russians,” “the Vietnamese,” “the Iraqis.” And while the color of someone’s skin does not readily carry values, children can learn to hate based on the differing tones as easily as they can be taught to hate a group of people for the attractions they feel or the beliefs they hold.
The specific gravity of parents’ thoughts can tip the scales of a child’s heart very easily at the earliest age. Kids can barely grasp the meaning of “cat” and “cup” and “car,” and soon after are taught to use that God-given ability for speech to spew hate.
No one is immune to learning hatred. But the progress of a child’s path is much faster than an adult’s, and we are startled at a kindergartner who hates someone because he is a Jew, or because she is a Muslim, or because the family is Christian. The youngster is not clear on what the words mean, just that the person is “other,” and dangerous to all that is good – or so those he or she loves have said.
This same path to hate can be followed at any age. Teens with no hope of a future can readily be shown how to channel their hopelessness into hate. Grown men and women, too, can channel frustrations and fear into hatred.
How far hatred can carry the human heart was made crushingly clear ten years ago at 8:46 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time. American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston was bound for Los Angeles when it was hijacked 15 minutes into the flight. Loaded with fuel for the cross-country trip, the plane became a guided missile, slamming 91 people into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Within minutes, the media was going live with news of a terrible accident in New York as firefighters and policeman rushed through Manhattan commuter traffic toward the shredded remains of the upper floors of the tower.
Around the city, eyes looked toward the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes after the first accident, many more people saw the impossible happen: a second airliner disappeared into the South Tower. The situation came into focus: no accident had occurred. America was under attack.
Unimaginable tragedies piled one upon another, with a plane crashing into the Pentagon and another into a Pennsylvania field. The Twin Towers fell. Before night fell, the nineteen hijackers had killed 2,973 people and sent out waves of grief around the world.
The hijackers had been fed a steady diet of hate. They were consumed by that hate and fed a desire to lash out against the United States in an act of terror more important to them than their own lives.
The carnage of that morning gouged a deep wound in the psyche of the United States. Ten years later, the wound has not completely healed. We fought back, first against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then against Saddam Hussein and those who supported him in Iraq. Seal Team Six took out Osama Bin Laden, the man behind the terror. Yet none of these actions has brought healing. The surface is scarred over. The pain remains.
On this day, when we remember the carnage wrought, we can recall with crystal clarity the effects of distilled evil. We bring that collective pain here to the altar. And on this day of all days, we hear in our appointed readings of scripture, a mixed message. From Exodus, we get the story of the Children of Israel at the Red Sea. God drives back the water, the people cross on dry land and then Pharaoh and his pursuing army is drowned. The Lord has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. This wrath of God seems appropriate. Good destroys evil.
But that is not what followed September 11. God’s judgment still hangs in the balance.
On this day, we also read Jesus’ parable of grace and forgiveness. Jesus tells of a man who is not simply in debt; he faces an impossibly large mountain of money to repay. One Biblical scholar, Eugene Boring, has calculated that as King Herod’s annual income from all taxes from all his territories was a mere 900 talents per year, the 10,000 talents would exceed all of the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria as well. The parable is hyperbole; no servant could amass a debt so large. Then, when the king cancels the debt, the man, now free from the burden, goes out to demand payment from someone who owes him a debt equal to a hundred days’ wages.
The first debt was so great as to be impossible either to owe or to pay. That is, until we realize that in the parable, it is we who are the debtors. We owe a debt to God that we cannot possibly repay. God has not only given us life, but continues to love us and want what is best for us when our every action falls short of the glory of God. Our sins mount up higher and higher until there is no way we could begin to atone for them. And through faith in Jesus, the Christ, we can repent, turn back from our sins, and find the debt has been canceled. And then, like the merciless servant, we go expecting everyone else to pay up for the hurts they cause us.
Jesus’ point is well made. God has forgiven each of us so much that we should go out to forgive others. But aren’t some acts too great to forgive? On this day of all days, we know how great an evil can grow within the confines of the human heart.
And this one day does not stand alone. World history is packed to the brim with acts of evil. Even within living memory, many of us have seen the killing fields of Cambodia, the wholesale slaughter of Stalin’s iron-fisted reign over Russia, and the genocide of Rwanda. We have learned that once we are taught to demonize those we hate, then any act can be justified. In the death camps of Nazi Germany, we discovered that one can be raised on the poetry of Rilke, the prose of Goethe, the breathtakingly beautiful compositions of Bach, and the moving operas of Wagner, yet use the finest tools of human understanding in the attempt to systematically wipe out a people.
Looking to these acts of extreme violence, we must ask, Are there not some crimes to heinous to forgive? And on this day, we ask, Isn’t forgiving the perpetrators of September 11 too much to ask? How could those of us who remain alive even have the right to forgive?
The answer from scripture is two-fold. First, scripture teaches that judgment is for God alone. Second, we are to forgive as we have been forgiven.
In the reading from Romans, Paul says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
We are, each of us accountable for our actions before God. We are not accountable for the injury done to us, but for our reaction to that hurt. We are then accountable for the actions we do in reaction to the pain we are caused.
Jesus, who taught us to pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” called out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Yet, forgiveness can be so difficult. This is true at the global scale with an act like the terrorist attacks we remember today. And forgiveness can cut just as deep for those not directly touched by 9/11, who wonder if they can forgive a father who committed incest, a business partner who stole money, and too many other private tragedies to name.
Yet, not forgiving, means holding on to the hate. Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison in the hope that the other person will die.
This does not speak to how a nation should react when attacked by another nation or by terrorists. Instead, we are speaking about how one might react to the very personal hurt and betrayals he or she has suffered. Will you let hurt fester until it distills into hate? Or will you pray for the grace to forgive?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu knows about forgiveness through the daring act of helping lead South Africa through truth and reconciliation after the end of Apartheid. This involved thousands of acts of confession and forgiveness. He has written of this process saying, “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”
Forgiveness does not have to mean forgetting, and reconciliation is not always possible. Forgiveness means trusting judgment to God, and this is only possible by the grace that comes from God alone. Archbishop Tutu writes, “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”
God became human in Jesus of Nazareth. He lived among us, not just teaching about love, but more importantly, showing us the love of God. Jesus chose to show power through his powerlessness on the cross. Jesus continually gave the example of turning the other cheek, of offering mercy, love, and forgiveness. God came in Jesus and offered us the redemptive power of his blood. He also gave us a pattern for how humans can live godly lives.
Jesus’ example was vital, as men and women do not naturally let go of past hurts. We have to learn grace and forgiveness. Children do not learn to forgive unless they are shown by example.
You have to be taught to love.
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