Thursday, September 15, 2011

Forgiveness and Osama

"He who is forgiven little, loves little. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." (Luke 7:47)

Jesus did not say, "he who sins much, loves much." Rather, seeking forgiveness is the essential thing. Going through the experience of being forgiven leads to the capacity for love. Love therefore, is the fruit of forgiveness and redemption. The woman in sin washed Jesus' feet with her tears because she felt sorrow and remorse. They were acts of love and penance that the righteous Pharisee, as Jesus pointed out, did not show him.

Before repentance and penance, however, sin always directly injures our capacity to love. By its definition, sin is a turning away from love, who is God. Unrepented sin hardens the heart and reduces its capacity for love. All it takes is a turning back -- a simple movement of the will which is so hard at times -- to experience the inner transformation from brokenness to wholeness. Repentance involves humility, sorrow, and love for a greater good than oneself. It leads to self-knowledge before God, and that knowledge leads to true love of self, others and God.

Forgiveness has been much on my mind lately. It was the subject of last Sunday's gospel, appropriately because of the remembrance of 9/11. We are called to forgive others, even those who wish to destroy us.

Forgiveness, however, is not passivity. We do not welcome into our homes unarmed the crazed serial killer in order to offer him forgiveness, even as he aims his gun and fires... We are, however, called as Christians to visit him in prison after he is caught in order to help bring him to repentance. In other words, forgiving terrorists does not mean letting them get away with murder.

I've heard many comments about a seeming lack of forgiveness in Americans' joyous reactions to Osama bin Laden's death. I’m sure there may have been some who rejoiced out of hardened hearts. However, I am not ashamed to say that I rejoiced heartily when I heard the news, not because of bloodlust or vengeance, but out of a very real relief that this threat to our peace and security was eliminated.

I lived through the terror of 9/11 in Washington, DC. Once the plane exploded into the Pentagon, it was clear my city was the next target. I ran from my office building at 701 Pennsylvania Avenue – right between the Capitol and the White House, sure targets – across the mall to meet my then-husband, the whole time feeling like a helpless ant scurrying for cover. We quickly walked the couple miles home to Georgetown (Metro was a no-go) – past the White House with snipers on the roof, past the anti-aircraft tanks – all the time scanning the sky for random flying missiles, not knowing when our turn would come, nor realizing that the sacrificial acts of several passengers on a flight surely headed for our city had prevented further destruction and loss of life. I visited New York City for a conference a month after 9/11: Nothing can accurately describe the acrid smells or the vast scale of senseless destruction right in the heart of our nation. It looked and felt like the pit of hell.  

On 9/11, my whole worldview forever changed, in spite of myself. For the first time in my life, I acutely felt what it was like to have an enemy who wanted to destroy me. I had nothing against bin Laden personally, but I knew without a doubt that he did against me and everyone I loved.

The terror of those days eventually muted into a constant, background hum of fear – getting on the subway or riding a bus, opening the mail, attending a Redskins football game, boarding a plane – all were opportunities for my enemy to destroy me. I eventually moved away from the city, tired of being on edge, feeling that life there would never be the same. And I am only one of millions who experienced, to greater and lesser degrees, the terrible effects of terrorist aggression.

Seeking Osama out to destroy him was a necessary evil in order to protect the Christian West -- bin Laden’s own declared enemy for more than 20 years -- from his destructive plans. Now he is gone, and with him, much of the power of his terrorist network. To not to seek to destroy him would have been a great evil. Was it possible to eliminate this threat without killing him and other terrorist leaders directly? No. I believe it is a simple example of the application of the just war theory.

Christ died for all, so that all might live. But if we do not accept Him and repent from our evil ways, then forgiveness cannot be ours. This is as true for terrorists as it is for each of us. We are called to feel compassion and sorrow for those who do evil and do not repent, and to pray for their (and our own) conversion. We are called to hope with sincere hearts that bin Laden repented of his many sins as he died, so that he can experience what it is to “love much,” and spend eternity with his all-loving Father. Only the all-merciful and all-just God knows if this happened for sure.

But we are not called to allow evil to persist through passivity. Our world is safer and more at peace now that Osama and many other terrorist leaders are gone. This we can know for sure, since no terrorist acts have occurred on US soil for ten years. I, and many other peace-loving people, rejoice that it is so.