September 11, 2011 - Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

I was watching the news coverage from ten years ago last night. I suppose a lot of you have done that in recent days, along with all the memorials on television. It was so sad to watch those planes hit knowing that I was watching hundreds of people die, knowing that almost 3000 would be dead before the day was over, remembering the passengers of United 93 who fought back and successfully prevented a fourth attack.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 present a troubling question for Christians: should we forgive the terrorists? After considering this question over the past 10 years, I believe the answer is No. There are two teachings on forgiveness that pervade the Gospels. On the one hand, Jesus tells us that we ought to forgive freely and often, that no crime is so bad that we would not forgive. On the other hand, there is an intrinsic relationship between forgiveness and repentance. Throughout the Scriptures there is nothing that suggests that we should forgive someone who is not sorry. Our Gospel last Sunday, which comes before this Gospel on forgiveness, was all about how to seek repentance from someone who has harmed us.

If Osama bin Laden had appeared a year ago and asked for forgiveness, it would have been the duty of every Christian to forgive him, from the families of the dead to every American, but he did not. Even if we forgave him, he would have still been arrested. Forgiveness does not mean the removal of all consequences but the acceptance of repentance. We would have been eager to forgive him, if he had been sorry, but he was not so we cannot.

We do not even withhold forgiveness until we are satisfied that the person is truly sorry. Just the beginning of sorrow is enough. We do not have to wait for an elaborate heartfelt apology. As soon as a person is even the slightest bit sorry, we must forgive immediately but to forgive without repentance is meaningless; it is an insult to the meaning of forgiveness to try and forgive someone who is not sorry.

Consider this: Jesus did not forgive those who crucified him but he did forgive the repentant thief crucified next to him. About the others, he said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This is an example for us. We cannot forgive those who do not show repentance, so we hand over the work of forgiveness to our Heavenly Father who knows the depths of each man’s heart. If he finds repentance there, he can forgive them. If he does not, he can lead them to repent.

As for us, what should we do, having handed over the work of forgiveness to our Father? I think that the proper word for someone who we cannot forgive is an enemy, and we have clear instructions for what to do to our enemies: Jesus says, “Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” There are some people who we cannot forgive, so we love them instead.

But how? How do we love our enemies? Love consists of three parts: attraction, desire, and goodwill. Attraction means seeing the good in the other person. This is particularly important with enemies. Sometimes we have to struggle to see the good. In the end, if we cannot see any other good, we can begin by remembering that they were created by God and he loves them just like us.

Concentrating of the good of the other person, be it ever so small, is important because it prevents us from hating them, from concentrating on the bad. As our first reading from Sirach says, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” If we do not actively work at loving our enemies we will start hating them, staying up at night going over our grievances against them, letting anger burn us like acid, until we are destroyed. Hatred is poison for our souls, so we must fight it with love.

The second part of love is desire. The desire of true love is all about respect. Once we get past anger, the temptation is to despise our enemy. If we desire the love of our enemy, that means that we respect them as human beings; we wish that they were not our enemy. If we think that our enemy is less than human, we are wrong. They are just like us. As Sirach says, “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself?” The hijackers were men just like us, even though they are horribly mistaken.

The third part of love is goodwill, wishing and doing good things for others. We should wish our enemies well. This does not mean wishing them success, but it does mean that we hope to see them in heaven someday. Goodwill is opposed to revenge, which we must always avoid. Sirach tells us that “The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance”, and it is written in another place “God says, ‘Vengence is mine. I will repay.’” It is written in Scripture, not once but twice, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” There is no revenge as satisfying as helping someone who has hurt you, because you get to be the better person.

Love everyone, especially your enemies. It feels good to nurse hatred at first, but hatred will ruin us in the end. There is no reason to hate anyone at all since we can love them instead. Hatred is more our enemy than any person. The attacks ten years ago were motivated by hatred. The death and destruction is a testament to what hatred can do. We will never end hatred with wars or security checkpoints. These are only coping with the symptoms. We must attack the root of it all, we can destroy the root of it all, which is hatred, only with love. Love is powerful enough to take on hatred and win.