Last Sunday was the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I was moved by the many remembrances held for the victims and their families. The media covered virtually every angle, except one: forgiveness. I don’t recall any discussion of forgiveness.
Was it just a coincidence that the Mass readings for last Sunday had a strong theme of forgiveness?
Most people can’t stomach the idea of 9/11 and forgiveness in the same sentence without feeling intense emotions of weakness, vulnerability, fear, naïveté or even betrayal of the victims. Those emotions reflect a common misunderstanding of what forgiveness really is.
Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. It’s not about being a doormat or putting oneself in a position to be abused or hurt again by the offender. Nor does it involve denying or forgetting that an offense occurred.
Real forgiveness, like all virtues, must be grounded in truth, both the truth that the offender committed an unacceptable act and the truth that the victim suffered an injustice. True forgiveness is also compatible with punishment for offenders, such as jail time. True forgiveness never obliges anyone to put themself in a risky situation of suffering another grave injury at the hands of the offender. You may choose to do so if you’re confident that the offender has amended his life, but you don’t have to expose yourself to grave risks. God doesn’t require that. So what does he require?
A wise priest once explained to me that there are two levels of forgiveness.
The deepest level — the one most associated with Christianity — is the forgiveness of someone who is genuinely sorry, apologizes, and promises (at least implicitly) to never do it again. In such a situation, the true Christian desires to emulate his Saviour by forgiving generously from the heart and doing his or her best to rebuild the relationship that was harmed by the offense. We must strive to re-establish communion. People deserve a second chance. Don’t we long to be given second and third chances when we screw up?
Yet, we still don’t have to put ourself at risk of a grave injury, because even if someone is sincere in their repentance they may still relapse due to weakness. So you need to exercise discernment and prudence when it comes to dangerous offenders. For example, a woman who has been severely beaten by her husband has to think twice about putting herself in a vulnerable situation with him.
The second level of forgiveness is more superficial. It comes into play when we’ve been offended by someone who doesn’t repent. This is the case of many victims of crime, as well as the victims of 9/11. How can you forgive someone who isn’t open to repent, who doesn’t admit he did anything wrong, who’s proud of his crime or who killed himself in the process?
Sometimes, if you know the offender personally and you approach him to attempt to patch things up, he will admit his fault and reconcile, in which case you’ve won back a soul to God. But that’s not always possible, as in the case of most crimes or terrorist attacks.
You certainly can’t re-establish communion with such an unrepentant offender. Reconciliation is not possible because it takes two to tango. At that point, God “only”asks you to stop harnessing anger toward the offender and to pray for him. He asks that you avoid wishing bad upon that person, stop thinking about vengeance and not wish that they be condemned to hell. While this can be very difficult (as in the case of 9/11) it certainly falls far short of the reconciliation achieved in the first level of forgiveness described earlier.
“Forgiveness” may not be the best word for this reality. It’s more like: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)
This second level of “forgiveness” will inevitably leave a distance between victim and offender. Such is the reality of free will. Remember that God himself does not forgive the unrepentant sinner.
Letting go of the anger is actually good medicine for the victim because you can never really heal while you dream of revenge or wish the offender be condemned to hell.
And so while we pray for the victims and their families, we also pray for all the terrorists out there, that God may help them see their folly and bring them to a better path.
When framed in such a perspective, forgiveness and 9/11 don’t seem so irreconcilable.