The following is a reflection on Matthew 18:21-35, the Gospel lesson assigned for September 11th, 2011 according to the Revised Common Lectionary. On this site there is also:
• A reflection on the Hebrew Bible lesson for the same day;
• A version of the Prayers of the People based on the lessons of the day, and
• A longer litany-style prayer written for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Generally, I’m a peacenik. I’m generally anti-war, anti-death-penalty, anti-retributive justice, and anti-violence of all sorts.
But, I confess that I wasn’t in those first few days after September 11th.
I vividly recall driving by myself from the north Georgia mountains back to our home in Atlanta and listening to the radio reports of the first military strikes in Afghanistan. I listened with a lump in my throat, and I must admit, a fair degree of national pride that we were hitting back against those who had struck us.
I certainly experienced some degree of cognitive dissonance, but at the time I was willing to shrug it off.
As I reflect nearly ten years later on Matthew 18:21-35, and quite frankly on most of the teachings of Jesus, the cognitive dissonance grows beyond discomfort.
I have profound respect for the Anabaptist/ Quaker approach to war: war is never right under any circumstance. I personally think that stance is correct 99% of the time-though there is something that gnaws within me that tells me that war is sometimes necessary, though regrettable. That “something” tells me that (at least) the initial action against the Taliban rule in Afghanistan was justifiable.
But, such a hunch comes square against the bedrock teachings of Jesus on forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. John told us to love our enemies. Paul told us to feed our enemies.
One might think that ten years later I’d have figured out this cognitive dissonance. That the lines would be a little clearer. Or, at least I’d have a better thought-through cover story.
And the fact that I’ve since soured on our nation’s war footing really doesn’t help.
Christians, followers-of-Jesus-Christ, can, and do, have many perspectives and approaches to war, violence, and conflict. But, what we can’t afford to erode in our philosophical diversity is the primacy of love, forgiveness and grace.
Internally it is the redemption of Christ on the cross, and baptism which sets us apart as God’s people. But, externally it’s the manner of love we live day-to-day which is meant to set us apart for all the world to see.
Now, admittedly, Matthew 18:21-35 is specifically about forgiving our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith. But, one cannot deny that Jesus, and the rest of the New Testament witness, calls for the same treatment with all, and especially those who strike us on the cheek and demand our cloak.
I have to admit, again, that it scares me to imagine what a foreign policy based on grace (even in the face of atrocity) looks like. (Doesn’t SOMEONE need to carry a big stick? Can we really all just walk softly?) But, it scares me even more that for many Christians in America there doesn’t seem to be even a pause for such imagination.
That the great horrors which were enacted against ordinary people going about their lives and their jobs, and against our country as a whole, have become for many a cause to wrap the cross in a flag of patriotism, is cause for weeping.
Jesus called us to be more than that. In fact, he called us to be the very opposite of that.
I don’t have the answers. I really don’t.
But, this anniversary is a time for me to pray, with a little faith and courage, imagining what the Kingdom would look like if came on earth as it is in heaven. If our foreign policy, and economic policy, and defense strategies were grounded in the Prince of Peace. And grace.
In this parable, Jesus talks about forgiveness by first highlighting the debts of the forgiver. We have been forgiven of much. So much—and therefore we forgive others out of our gratitude.
I know that pondering our country’s sins is heresy in the great national-religion we are all asked to offer incense to. But, Jesus called us to forgive out of the abundance of our thankfulness.
So let us be thankful. And let us at this time of solemn remembrance, prayerfully imagine what grace in the Kingdom of Heaven would look like if it rained down on us. And, on all.