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 I kept on yelling, all of a sudden I 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 we both ran off.
It was pretty clear to me that he was mentally ill. Maybe I had intruded on his space, or perhaps he thought I was somebody else. Clearly I was a significant threat. But after I got a few feet farther, 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 much of our conversation in this city and much of the media reporting 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 the strength to reinvest in life.
What has our decade of grieving wrought? Have we found a 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?
That last one is the hardest question, and there is more than a little irony that the readings we’ve heard this morning weren’t chosen specifically for today – they’re scheduled every three years on the Sunday closest to this one. 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 people in Rome are haunting in our context, “who are you to pass judgment on the servants of another? God will judge them. God will 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 has himself experienced enormous forgiveness, and how that only leads to his own destruction.
What do we do with all of that? I don’t believe that 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 realized 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.
Forgiveness begins in discovering some element of common humanity with your attacker, even if it is simply a search for understanding – whether it’s 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 they had 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 may have 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 other human beings in inhuman ways. We began to see how we are bound together.