Few if any of us will ever forget where we were on the fateful day, September 11, 2001. Seared into our memories, for many of us we know exactly what we were doing or exactly where we were when we first heard the news. I was reading the newspaper early that morning and ironically was saying to myself, “There really isn’t much happening in the news today”. I then proceeded to say my morning prayers and prepare for mass. Listening to NPR there was an announcement that a plane had struck one of the towers at the World Trade Center in New York. I turned on CNN to see the horror of it all unfold minute after minute. Phones began to ring in the rectory. School children were arriving – it was all happening so fast. As the enormity of the sheer evil of that day grew hour by hour, it was like a bad nightmare for us all. A nightmare from which none of us, unfortunately, would awake. 9/11 has left its tragic mark on our collective psyche in this land of the free and home of the brave.
In the shadow of our annual anniversary of 9/11, paradoxically and, I would like to think, providentially, God’s word sets before us a message that perhaps many of us don’t want to hear in the face of such dark evil. It is, of course, a word of forgiveness. A hard concept to swallow when every bone in many of our bodies would more naturally cry out for vengeance and retaliation.
My sisters and brothers, it is only natural for us all when we hear of stories that speak of incredible acts of human cruelty like 9/11, or cruelty toward children, the defenseless and innocent people of this world - that we recoil in horror and think, perhaps of retribution and retaliation. It is in the midst of the darkness, of such evil talk, that to speak of forgiveness appears to be either super human or utterly foolish.
God’s word this day challenges us in the midst of humanity’s dark history of potential evil toward one another, to stop the senseless cycle of violence that so often begins and festers with burning anger and resentment in our hearts.
Are we to understand that in the face of such horror as senseless brutality toward the innocent, as Christians we are to do nothing but only forgive – seventy-seven times as we heard today in Matthew’s Gospel? Such a conclusion, of course, would be a foolish caricature of the Christian message regarding both love and forgiveness. Jesus challenged his followers to live lives of integrity and responsibility. To protect and lay down our lives for another reflects, in the words of Jesus, “no greater love.” Christian theology from its earliest days has always accepted the legitimate right of individuals and societies to protect themselves from harm, whether that be physical, spiritual or moral. Societies and governments have the responsibility of protecting, maintaining and securing the common good. Sometimes this requires the use of force or confinement of individuals that is proportionate to their transgressions.
The Christian message of love sometimes requires what some today refer to as “tough love.” - the necessity to challenge or restrain the destructive behavior of others. The difficult question, however, will always revolve around what are truly appropriate methods of “tough love?” Is it forgiving and loving for a friend to enable the self-destructive behavior of an alcoholic by offering him or her a drink? Is it appropriate for a spouse to call the police and press charges against a physically abusive spouse or is this a failure to love and forgive? Is it authentic tough love to have your son or daughter who is perceived to be “out of control” taken in the middle of the night and sent to a rehabilitation boot camp in the South Pacific for months or are parents acting in a cruel and sadistic manner? There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions, yet as Christians we must struggle - sometimes daily - to discern the legitimate balance between a forgiving and loving heart and our responsibility to be our brothers or sisters - keeper - that is, to challenge others to responsible behavior.
In the midst of both a moral and “discipline-neutral” society, we Christians and especially parents are entrusted with a grave responsibility. We are called to shape a society not on anger, revenge and retaliation, but rather one that is loving and forgiving enough to challenge its members toward responsible, mature and life giving behavior. At times, this will indeed require tough love. Tough love within families and tough love within the family of nations to preserve the common good. However, the transformation of hearts and in turn, society, is more often than not achieved by living lives that are characterized by compassion rather than judgment; forgiveness rather than retaliation; healing love rather than vengeance. Let us pray for the wisdom to know the difference.