“Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 18:21-22)
Having this as the lectionary gospel reading for today, the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks against our country, is only the most recent evidence which suggests that God does indeed have a sly sense of humor. Today, any church in the world that uses the lectionary has to at least hear the words read, has to at least wrestle with this idea. Seventy seven times forgiveness.
There have been many occasions this past week to recall the events of September 11, 2001. Many amazing stories told of witnesses, and family members of those killed, and surviving firefighters who were on the scene at Ground Zero. If you can go there, I’d like to invite you to go back briefly one more time and recall those first days after the buildings fell. It was, overwhelmingly, a time dominated by both compassion and confusion. It is truly amazing some of the bravery and selflessness that took place during and after the attacks. I caught an interview this week of a firefighter captain who had been up in the north tower, had gotten word that the south tower had just collapsed, and was making his way down the stairway to escape before their tower came down. Along the way he and his team stopped to carry with them a woman who had been injured, even though they knew this would slow them down, even though she told them to leave her behind. The north tower collapsed when they were in the fourth floor stairway. Because the way the building collapsed outward, they all survived, including the woman. Compassion was also evident in the global outpouring of solidarity with the US and the victims and their families, one reason being, no doubt, because many countries had citizens of their own in New York who were killed. There was a brief window when much of the world mourned together this violence.
And there was confusion. We were asking a lot of questions. Who all is injured and killed? How many? How much physical damage has this done to New York and the Pentagon? Who did this? Why did this happen?
Recalling that initial stew of compassion and confusion, when it was yet unclear what this all meant and where we were all headed in the upcoming years, it’s tempting to imagine an alternative ending to the story. It’s tempting to imagine what other possibilities were present within that pregnant moment. What if, for example, our leaders would have heeded the words of Representative Barbara Lee of California, speaking tearfully, addressing Congress, three days after the attacks, urging military restraint and calling for a time of national mourning before we act, “so that this does not spiral out of control.” “So that we do not become the evil we deplore.”
What if, for example, we would have taken the counsel of the more than 4000 religious leaders of all faiths who signed on to a statement that appeared as a full page ad in the New York Times several weeks after 9/11? “We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to…We assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. America must be a safe place for all our citizens in all their diversity. It is especially important that our citizens who share national origins, ethnicity, or religion with whoever attacked us are, themselves, protected among us.” (Cited in Jim Wallis essay in Sept/Oct Sojourners magazine, p. 7).
It’s tempting to imagine an alternative path out of those initial days and weeks after September 11, 2001.
Those of us for whom following Jesus means committing to a life of peacemaking have been deeply challenged to find ways to live that alternative path in our own lives.
In the aftermath of violence, trauma, and devastation, forgiveness is a rather loaded word to throw into the mix.
To get a sense of what Jesus may have been speaking to when he said that we are to forgive not seven times, but seventy seven times, I suggest that it is important to let our minds take another trip back, this time to the early scenes of Genesis. These opening scenes of the human story which, in the Hebrew imagination, set the stage for the rest of history.
The original human family, we’ll recall, doesn’t make it very far out the gate before there is an act of violence. The older brother Cain murders his younger brother Abel. Rather than Cain being praised as a hero, the victor, the last man standing, he is confronted by the Divinity, Yahweh, who tells Cain Yahweh has heard his brother’s blood crying out from the ground. This begins a consistent theme throughout scripture of Yahweh taking the side of the weaker party, the victim, the mythic younger brother. Yahweh declares that this bloodied ground is now cursed for Cain and will not yield fruit for him. Cain is doomed to be a wanderer and fugitive. Cain then claims the role of victim of Yahweh’s punishment and declares that this is too great for him to bear, and that anyone who meets him in his wanderings will kill him. And so we get the first attempt to answer the question of how to end the cycle of violence. Cain has killed his brother, and what’s to keep another from killing him? Yahweh’s response is something of an experimental suggestion, an alpha version of how humanity might be redeemed from violence. Yahweh gives Cain a mark on his forehead and tells him that whoever kills him will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. The mark and the threat of seven fold vengeance are to serve as a deterrent to protect Cain. Surely no one would risk losing their own life and the lives of six family members just to take out Cain.
We’re not told how this worked out for Cain, but we do know that he lived long enough to have children. In the very next verses that follow, the geneology of Cain’s descendants, we hear about the direction all of this goes. Several generations down the line after Cain we hear of Lamech, whose only recorded words include him saying, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.” Here the logic of vengeance and retaliation is taken to a new extreme. Perhaps this will end the cycle of violence? One strike against Lamech would lead to an all out assault on the perpetrator and his entire clan, until 77 have met the same fate.
But after the genealogy works its way through all of these ancient fathers begetting their only slightly less ancient sons, we arrive at the days of Noah where it is reported, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” And God is sorry to have made these human creatures. Rather than nipping it in the bud, this strategy of exponential vengeance has backfired and violence has spread all over the face of the earth.
Although it’s a little odd for us to get our head around theologically, the Hebrew Scriptures seem to have no problem with God making mistakes, repenting, being sorry for certain decisions God made. The mark of Cain and increased violence as a deterrent against further violence fall into that category of failed divine experiments. God’s next action, famously, is to wipe the slate almost clean, with the flood, and start over, an extremely violent act that leads to another act of repentance from God who promises to never do it again. The divine nuclear option is now off the table, and with it we get our first hints that the myth of redemptive violence has crumbled and is falling away.
The face of the earth is new, Noah and his family and the animals step out of the ark, and the question remains, is there an alternative path, another way, to the cycle of violence and retaliation that has so defined this family of homo sapiens?
This is one of the primary questions the Bible asks, a question that gets worked out through the story of Israel and the coming of Abraham and Moses and Christ and that mystical collection of people who come to think of themselves as the body of Christ, the church. Are we doomed to the perpetual practice of vengeance and the escalation of violence, or can Israel, can a people of God, embody an alternative way of being human, an alternative to self-destructive retaliation?
The most recent official account is that 2,996 people died in the attacks against us on September 11, 2001. This includes the 19 highjackers who were carrying out what they wrongly believed was a divinely-ordained act of retaliation. Official accounts of how many have died as a result of the wars since then are hard to come by. General Tommy Franks declared early in the War on Terror, “We don’t do body counts.” But others have. There is good reason to believe that nearly 1 million people, 1 million people, have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, the overwhelming majority of these in Iraq. The Iraq Body Count website has come to be an often sited source of civilian deaths in Iraq, but there is good reason to believe their estimate of a little over 100,000 deaths is not accurate. A major reason is that they only count as official deaths those that are reported in English language newpapers or television. The most recent estimate from www.unknownnews.org is 919,967 people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is named as the lowest credible estimate. They include on their site a list of their methodology for getting these numbers (HERE). This number is as impossible to ponder as the trillions of dollars that have gone and will go to wage these wars.
Of course, the majority of these deaths did not come from our own military. The violence between political and ethnic groups in these countries is a major part of these numbers. But if 3000 is the starting place of this spout of violence, then the amount of people dead after this represents a 303 times vengeance that the cycle of violence, as a power in itself, has taken in this situation. Cain and Lamech would be proud. Or appalled. It’s hard to know for sure. As my professor Paul Keim once declared: “Violence is killing us.”
Lamech’s declaration of 77 fold vengeance and the escalation of violence that follows is the background to what Jesus is proposing in his response to Peter when he offers a path of 77 fold forgiveness. More than merely an act of personal kindness toward an individual who has wronged us, might we see in Jesus’ statement here the foundations of an alternative path? The beginnings of showing us the contours, the practices, the substance of a new humanity, a new creation, a new human family coming into being in the midst of the old? Forgiveness not so much as a single act that must happen in a completed state as soon as we can bear it, but forgiveness as an orientation toward the world, an entire way of relating to an old creation still in the throws of its own violence, still blindly lashing out, and creating more and more victims. Only this time some of those victims refuse to perpetuate the old story of retaliation. A community begins to form in which pain and violence are slowly transformed and healed and another way starts to become visible. A community whose mission is that of reverse revenge. Waging peace as an act of retaliation and rebuke against the forces of violence. Making peace with enemies. Not seven times, but seventy seven times.
The downfall of the man in the parable Jesus tells is that, once forgiven himself, he fails to accept this invitation to participate in the cycle of forgiveness, and so dooms himself to the tortured pattern of the old way.
Father Richard Rohr often says of pain: “If you don’t transform it, you will transmit it.” If you don’t transform pain, you will transmit pain. What a tremendous, humbling calling this is to allow pain to be transformed within our very being, within our circle of relationships, so that we can transmit something much more life giving.
We humans are a stubborn species. We cling to hope despite all evidence to the contrary. We are encouraged by even the smallest signs that there can be another way which leads us out of this death spiral of escalating violence.
The book of Genesis offers us a second lectionary reading of the day. We’ve noted some of those opening Genesis stories, but this one is the last story of Genesis, which contains a sign that the new humanity is already coming into being. Joseph has been deeply wronged by his brothers. Full of jealously and bitterness they sell him off into slavery and tell their father that Joseph has died. Now years later, after Joseph has lived in Egypt, rising up the ranks in power to overseeing the food distribution of the entire empire, Joseph and his brother meet again. The brothers come to Egypt because of a famine. Joseph sees and recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. What is Joseph, the younger brother, to do? If Abel were to come back and meet up with Cain, what might he do? How many times vengeance might he seek for all those years of loss?
Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. And there’s no better way to tell the story than what the text says. NRSV Genesis 50:15-21 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
This is the alternative path that allows for the preservation and the building up of the people of Israel, the sons and daughters of Jacob.
This story also contains what we can consider to be one of those first steps down that path. After confronting his brother after all these years, Joseph weeps, which in turn leads his brothers to weep. Weeping, mourning, over the sorrows of the world is one of the first steps toward finding our way down the alternative path. It is the very act that Representative Barbara Lee urged us all to participate in, while the dust was still clearing from the towers and the nation remained in stunned confusion. Mourning, lamenting, confessing are words that the church knows well, and our willingness to do these things, to walk in the first steps of forgiveness, may very well be one of the greatest gifts we can offer our nation, our world, at this time.