“The only solution is love”—Remembering 9/11

A decade ago, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 fell on a Sunday when I was the preacher. The Scriptures for that day were strikingly apt, a divine Word spoken directly to us in the turbulent here and now. The questions which 9/11 raised about the American future—and the human future—have not gone away. They have only grown more urgent. The text of my 2011 sermon is below.

9/11 Memorial & Museum, NYC. Virgil’s words from the Aeneid were forged from steel remnants of the Twin Towers by Tom Joyce. The background—2983 unique shades of blue painted by Stuart Finch— is entitled, “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.”

It was one of those perfect late summer mornings, the sky above an impossible blue, the city below humming with life. Suddenly, without warning, the world ended in smoke and fire and falling dust. 

On that day, a great city, and all of us who watched at a distance, suffered a kind of violence strangely new to American experience. In an instant we became citizens of an unfamiliar, nightmarish world. As a Catholic poet noted at the time, on 9/11 “the united states of america spent a night and a day in beirut… walked the length of somalia… entered the gates of auschwitz.” Or as the writer Don DeLillo said about this demise of American exceptionalism, “Parts of our world have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.”

On the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, the Lectionary speaks to us with an eerie timeliness. From the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear the story of the Red Sea, where Pharoah’s entire army is drowned by an act of God. 

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians;
and the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

Thousands dead. An act of God?

Now the miraculous deliverance of unarmed slaves from a pursuing army that wants to slaughter them is not the same thing as deliberate acts of violence committed in God’s name. The Red Sea was not an instance of religious terrorism. But the Exodus passage does raise the uncomfortable topic of sacred violence, where God, whether by proxy or direct intervention, saves some and lets others perish. In God’s defense, such actions are always on the side of the powerless and the oppressed in the Bible. As we recite in the Magnificat at Evening Prayer:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

We find a lot of this casting down in Revelation, a book written to encourage persecuted Christians: Don’t worry. The day is coming when mighty Rome will fall. While consoling to the downtrodden, this is not good news for the powers that be. The 11th chapter delivers this chilling line: the time has come to destroy those who are destroying the earth.(Rev. 11:18). 

These words express the eschatological hope for a better world, but they sound uncomfortably close to the kind of writings that informed the pious, angry young men who hijacked those planes to strike a blow against “godless” modernity. 

John Brown, painted by John Steuart Curry in 1939. After visiting the 9/11 Memorial in 2019, I saw this unsettling portrait at the Whitney Museum. The accompanying commentary strikes a chord in the America of 2021: “Brown’s crazed expression suggests the messianic fervor and wrath that fueled his opposition to human bondage through armed rebellion.”

A critical examination of sacred violence—the blood on religion’s hands—and the way such texts are countered with more life-affirming scriptures—these are complicated subjects for another time. For now let us simply note that passionate religious certainty, and the tendency to escalate difference and conflict into a cosmic struggle between good and evil, is not exclusive to the jihadists. We can find it in our own scriptures. 

On a different day, the Red Sea story might be a joyful celebration of God’s defense of the powerless, or an image of baptismal passage through the waters of death. But on this day—ten years after 9/11—it may simply want to pose a troubling question, lest we be too eager to say that God is on our side. We can’t just dance with the Israelites anymore. We must also weep with the Egyptians. 

A litany published the week after 9/11 embraces this inclusiveness, affirming that Jesus is carrying the “dead, the wounded, and those who mourn; the killers and those who were killed; the frightened, the angry, the sorrowful – Jesus is carrying all of this, all of us, every part of us, into the loving heart of God.”

Our second reading offers the comforting assurance from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that we hear every time we bury a loved one: 

Yet none of us has life in himself or herself.
If we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die, 
we are the Lord’s possession.

The shock of 9/11 inflicted enormous trauma upon the American people, a trauma that still lives in our bodies. We have never fully worked through the grief process, so eager were our leaders to launch into war, short-circuiting the work we really needed to do. 

A recent PBS documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, explored a wide range of religious questions arising from 9/11. And one of the things people talked about in interviews was the presence – or absence – of God in the face of such evil and suffering. There were no easy answers. 

As one rabbi put it, “Since September 11th, people keep asking me, ‘Where was God?’ And they think because I’m a rabbi, I have answers. And I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. If God’s ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It’s upsetting. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s deep. And it’s interesting. No plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things.”

The rabbi goes on to say that he resists any answers that get God off the hook, because “right now, everything is on the hook.”

And yet, wherever or whatever God may be in this, and whether we find ourselves among the living or the dead, we always remain inside the divine mystery, enfolded in the loving arms of God. If I make the grave my bed, you are there also, says the Psalmist. Only such a faith can deliver us from the icy grip of fear and dread. 

Martin Johnson Heade, Approaching Thunder Storm, 1859 (detail). Painted on the eve of the Civil War, the figure peers into the imminent darkness with extraordinary calm.

Today’s final text is from Matthew’s gospel, and what a gospel it is for September 11th! “How long should I keep forgiving, Lord?” And Jesus says, “Oh, about a billion times.” The text actually says seventy-seven, or in the math of King James, seventy times seven. But the point is: stop counting. Don’t keep track. Forgiveness isn’t a one-time transaction; it’s a practice, a way of being. 

We exist to forgive, to reconcile, to mend, to heal— 
generously, unreservedly, endlessly.

A recent feature film, Of Gods and Men, tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the only accessible health care. As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. But they felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.

Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two years before he and his brother monks were killed by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”

What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well. 

The end of his letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.” 

“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this “A-Dieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father.”

Such faithfulness to the way of Jesus is sheer nonsense to the world, and perhaps to many Christians as well. 

How dismal a contrast we find in the official government reaction to 9/11, when our leaders, most of them Christians, set out to hunt down and kill the “evildoers.” Their violent, retaliatory response bequeathed a dark legacy which continues to poison our common life: the politics of fear and division, the launching of endless war, the shameless profiteering that feeds and encourages armed conflict, the stain of Guantanamo and the worldwide network of secret prisons, and the outrageous authorization of torture as national policy. 

In an article entitled “Did Osama bin Laden Win?” —written just after bin Laden’s death—Mark Sumner offers the analogy of the human body’s autoimmune system, where the worst damage is not done by the original disease, but by the overreaction of “the same systems that fought off and destroyed the invader. Long after the bacteria is excised by the body,” he writes, “the damage lingers.” Then turning to the overactive immune system that gave us two ruinous wars as well as the corrosion of the American conscience by torture and other public sins, Sumner points out that “it wasn’t bin Laden who did this. He could never do this. It’s our response to bin Laden. That’s what has already crippled us, and what may yet kill us.”

But there is an antidote for this poison, and it too rose out of the ashes of Ground Zero. A sample of this antidote is contained in a statement by the Catholic Worker communities of California ten years ago.

The Catholic Worker movement was co-founded by Dorothy Day, one of the true saints of the last century. As an eight-year-old child, she was in San Francisco during the great earthquake and fire of 1906. When she witnessed on the streets of San Francisco the same kind of care and camaraderie among strangers as we saw in New York after 9/11, she asked, “Why can’t people live like this all the time?” 

When she grew up, she explored that child’s question through a network of small lay communities who today continue to live among the poorest of the poor to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the sick and imprisoned. 

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this is what the Catholic workers had to say: 

Even after all this… 

Our grief will not be short-circuited with cries of vengeance nor with acts of retribution. We will not cooperate with incitements to become that which we most oppose, namely perpetrators of violence. 

We will honor the deeper levels of grief, acknowledging the woundedness inflicted upon us, and the woundedness that our nation has inflicted upon others…

We invite you to participate with us in all our wildest dreams and visions for peace. For now we sadly know that our affluence, our power, our possessions cannot serve as protection from harm. We invite you to clamber off the wheel of violence. It is the only worthy legacy we can offer to those who have died…

We are Catholic Workers and we still believe… the only solution is love. 

More love, more love … the angels are calling: Oh children, more love. The love that birthed the universe into being and raised the dead. A love as defenseless and potent as Christ on the cross. 

You can’t build empires with it, 
but it is the only true way out of the abyss, 
the only antidote for evil’s poison.

We saw love at work in countless ways in the days after 9/11: 
So much solidarity, generosity, selflessness and compassion, 
so much courage and resilience, 
so much caring for one another. 

We’ve all been moved by the stories. One of my favorites is of a man in Manhattan’s Union Square. Just as people were filing out of a memorial service, he began to sing: “Start spreadin’ the news…” And one by one, others joined in, until hundreds of people were singing “New York, New York” at the top of their lungs, in streets still swirling with the dust of fallen towers. Who knew there was a resurrection hymn in the Sinatra canon?

Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! But is this enough? Can love’s fragile flowers break the rocks in the desert of abandonment and lament? Can they get us through the time of trial? Can they deliver us from evil? I will let a New Yorker answer that question. 

At the end of the documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, we hear several voices reflecting on the haunting televised image of two anonymous people, co-workers or strangers, we don’t know, who jumped together from the south tower. Just before they jumped, they reached out to take each other’s hand. Then they fell into space. Holding hands. 

For an unbelieving novelist in the film interviews, this was an image of human desperation and despair in an indifferent universe. For an NPR correspondent, the gesture of mutual touch was a frail sign of hope that we are not totally alone when we face the abyss. 

As we hear these voice-overs, we don’t see the image they are talking about. That would be unbearable. Instead, we are shown nighttime shots of the two vertical columns of blue light that shine every year on September 11th in the empty space left by the collapsed towers. Emanating from 88 searchlights aimed straight at the heavens, transparent twin towers: ghostly evocations of presence and absence, absence and presence.

The voices continue over these shots, and finally we hear from a Catholic writer, Brian Doyle, a New Yorker by birth. His words speak for all people of faith:

A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand, nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. 

It’s the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It’s everything we’re capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.

It’s what makes me believe that we’re not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them, like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.

The ten best religious films

DCP blessing2

A man goes into a butcher shop and says, “Give me your best piece of meat.” And the butcher replies, “Everything in my shop is the best.” (Zen story)

Top ten lists are inherently fraudulent. By what authority do I declare what is best? And by what criteria? And which religion? But if I had titled this post, “Ten compelling films which engage religious questions from a [mostly] western Christian perspective,” it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. We love rankings, if for no other reason than the pleasure of argument.

My list is totally subjective of course, and infinitely revisable, depending on the day, or where I am in my life (although Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest has topped my list every since I first saw it in Ann Arbor 45 years ago and subsequently had to wander around for a couple of hours on a rainy night until I was capable of returning to ordinary life).

I have restricted myself to one film per director (or else Bresson would take up about six places, and Tarkovsky a few more, etc.). I have also stuck to the western Christian tradition, with the Russian orthodoxy of Tarkovsky the one exception.

And while there are many films with spiritual subjects or theological themes, I have focused primarily on examples of what Paul Schrader calls “transcendental style” – films which are not just about religious experience, but themselves create religious experience in the viewer, through cinematic form and language as much as story. Icon writers know this well. There’s a lot to say about transcendental style, but for now let me simply cite Susan Sontag’s remark about Robert Bresson: “His form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. It is what he wants to say.”

All these films are available on DVD or Blu-ray, and I hope you will be encouraged to explore them. But I must warn you that not all these films are equally accessible. Most of them refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer. But as Iranian director Abbas Kiorastami has said, “I would rather see a film that might even bore me in the act of watching but that later I can’t stop thinking about, than a film that keeps me on the edge of my seat and then is immediately forgotten.”

Here is my list, in alphabetical order.

1) Decalogue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland 1988)   This extraordinary cycle of short films explores various lives within a single apartment block, whose grey concrete bleakness exudes the alienation and melancholy felt by many of its residents. It is the world after the Fall, when instinct and intuition no longer suffice to guide human living. Each film is roughly based on one of the Ten Commandments, but the imperatives of each situation are far from clear. Choices matter intensely (it is not such a godless world that one can do anything one wishes), but most of the characters are bewildered and beset by the questions before them. And yet – grace happens, people connect, souls find mercy. Not every time, but enough to keep alive the hope that God – embodied by a mysterious figure who always seems to be around at key moments – has not abandoned us.

2) Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, France 1950)   Bresson pares away everything inessential to show the story of a soul. The miracle of his “transcendental style” is that he shows us not so much what people do as who they are – not through explaining them psychologically, but by letting their mystery be. As with iconography, a kind of inexpressiveness on the surface allows hidden depths to shine through. As the priest walks his own Stations of the Cross, the sorrowful way becomes a revelation of grace. This is not a film about religious experience – it is religious experience.

3) Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland 2013)   Is the religious life purely a product of environment, or is it indelibly inscribed on the heart? In 1962, a young novice, raised as an orphan in her convent, is sent into the world to visit her only living relative, just prior to taking her final vows. Will her vocation survive outside the cloister? The people she encounters, the discoveries she makes about her past, the suddenly viable prospect of a life in the outside world – all present her with new options for her life and vocation. One of the many beauties of this film is that neither the convent nor the outer world are judged. Both are viewed with sympathy and respect. Until she decides her future, Ida is shown off center, at the edge or bottom of the frame. But in the film’s final shot, she is perfectly centered at last.

4) Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning, Germany 2005)   The director spent 6 months in residence at a Carthusian monastery in the Alps, filming monastic life and worship. Using only natural light, he shows us a numinous world of shadows pierced by the radiance of windows and candles. Dwelling in this world of prayer and silence for nearly three hours, we slow ourselves to the monastic rhythm, and emerge refreshed and centered, and thankful for those who give their lives to providing, as Dan Berrigan once put it, “large reserves of available sanity.”

5) Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA 1999)   Is the world only a confusion of chance and arbitrary choice, or do providence and purpose exist? Is the universe a matter of chaos or love? Anderson explores the possibility of connection, pattern and grace in the intersecting lives of many different characters, all of whom are in some way broken, wounded or lost, casualties of a city (Los Angeles) which, like the biblical Egypt, has produced countless captives and victims. In one unforgettable scene, nine of the characters are shown, each in their particular condition of need and supplication, singing along with the soundtrack, Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (“It’s not going to stop till you wise up”). Their capacity to exit the prison of the self just enough to partake of the soundtrack’s “common prayer” is both ritual transcendence and the tentative praxis of real liberation. As if in answer, a biblical rain of frogs falls from heaven.

6) The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland 2011)   In a windmill perched high above a broad plain teeming with figures, God is a miller grinding the terrors of history into something better, even as the Christ is being dragged to the cross. This strange, haunting and difficult film immerses us within the complex world of a single painting, Pieter Brueghel’s “The Way to Calvary,” where the Passion of Christ is relocated to the painter’s own 16th century world. Through a visually stunning use of computer imaging, we dwell within the painting’s fantastic landscape and mingle at close range with its numerous characters. The effect is astonishing, as if we are dreaming with a premodern mind. The human suffering is arduous and heartbreaking, but it does not have the last word. In the end, the dance goes on.

7) Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia 1983)   All of Tarkovsky’s films practice what he called “sculpting in time,” using a contemplative camera and lengthy shots to register a deeper flow and presence than films that hurry from one incident to the next. For western Christians, the image is usually about something. For an orthodox Christian like Tarkovsky, the image is something. The viewer becomes less a spectator than a supplicant. “The aim of art,” said Tarkovsky, “is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow the soul, rendering it capable of turning to the good.” Nostalghia is more poetry than narrative, rhyming fire and water, dream and memory, ritual and redemption, to counter the malaise of materialism.

8) Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France 2010)   Based on a true story of a monastic community facing martyrdom in 1990’s Algeria, this is a profoundly moving story of self-offering and radical forgiveness. Structured around the liturgical hours and seasons, its unhurried scenes of prayers and chants allow us to worship along with the monks. But they are asked to sacrifice more than praise, and their faithful willingness to take up the cross poses serious questions for our own discipleship.

9) Ordet (Carl Dreyer, Denmark 1955)   Like the parables of Jesus, Ordet (“The Word”) employs the forms and situations of the everyday world only to break open the frame of that world with the startling intrusion of an alternate reality. Dreyer’s film, like its “holy fool” Johannes, presents us with divine impossibility in perpetual tension with the way we expect things to go. It uses material means – faces, architecture, landscape, language, light – to show us the immaterial, but in the end we are led not away from corporeal existence, but rather more deeply into it.

10) To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, USA 2012)   “Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” This line from The Tree of Life (drawn from Dostoevsky) is the theme of every Malick film. While his work has always reflected a deep interest in philosophy and religion, his most recent films have been theologically explicit to a degree unique in American cinema. The Tree of Life covers the biblical span from Creation to Apocalypse, while To the Wonder narrows its focus to the Song of Songs’ analogy between human relationships and divine-human love. Unlike the plot-driven narratives of most films, To the Wonder unfolds in hints, glimpses, ellipses and temporal leaps. We can’t always be sure whether we are seeing events, memories or thoughts. As with Bresson, there is no psychological explaining of characters. They retain the open-endedness of their essential mystery. It’s not so much a film in the usual sense as it is a dance, a poem, even a prayer. The viewers aren’t simply invited to watch the ecstatic images, but to become ecstatic themselves.

Seventy times seven

Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition (1525-26), Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

Jacopo da Pontormo, Deposition (1525-26), Capponi Chapel, Santa Felicita, Florence

A homily on Matthew 18:21-35 for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (and 9/11)

So Peter comes up to Jesus and says, “Lord, forgiveness is really hard work. When do I get to quit?”

And Jesus says, “Peter, sometimes you’re as dumb as a rock. If you want to stay with me, you can never stop forgiving.”

“But Lord, you don’t expect me to forgive everyone, do you?”

“Yes, Peter. Everyone.”

          The Gospel of the Lord.

I once led a workshop exercise based on the Flood story. We all wrote on cards the types of people we thought the world would be better off without – drug dealers, terrorists, polluters, tax collectors and sinners, etc. – and we put our cards in a pile in the center of our circle. Each person had to pick a card, becoming the character they drew. Then they each had to make a case for themselves, to persuade us to let them come aboard the ark rather than be left to die in the flood. Most of us had at least one or two people we didn’t want to sail with, but some of the women – though none of the men – voted to forgive everyone.

How would you vote? Saved, or drowned?

The driver who cut you off on the freeway?
The neighbor who won’t quiet her barking dogs?
The priest who failed to visit you when you were sick?

How would you vote?

The colleague who stabbed you in the back?
The friend who let you down?
The spouse who betrayed you?

How would you vote?

The football player who knocked out his fiancé in an elevator?
The fanatics who flew the planes into the towers?
The lawyers and politicians who made torture a national policy?
The men who beheaded American journalists on YouTube?

Let’s be clear. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or tolerating wicked acts. It doesn’t mean a wife should stay with an abusive husband, or that we can’t feel shock and outrage when we witness hateful instances of oppression or racism or brutality.

What forgiveness does mean is that
we don’t let those things have the last word.

We all know about this on a personal level. You may never forget a wounding encounter, but you know you can’t let it fester inside forever, you can’t give it power over you forever. At some point, you have to let it go.

Tell the truth about it, to the offender if possible, and to yourself. Don’t minimize the damage. But don’t hold on to the hurt. Don’t make your life about the hurt.

Forgiveness means leaving resentment behind. It means letting go of the reactive desire for punishment. There was a POW who said he could never forgive his captors. So a friend told him, “Then they’ve still got you in their prison.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner told a woman who was betrayed and abandoned by her husband: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable… I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman…. you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment. You’re hurting yourself.”

That’s all true as far as it goes. We can be bigger than our hurts. We can live in the present, not the past. But when Jesus told us to forgive, he wasn’t just talking about our personal well-being.

He was talking about a radical revolution in human relations.
He was telling us to exit the endless cycle of violence and retribution.
He was telling us to choose life, not death.

Those terrorists who committed atrocities on YouTube,
they want our rage, they welcome our hate,
because it means we are consenting to play their game of death,
adding our own tributaries of anger to their river of violence.

So we are presented with a clear choice:
Either forgive them,
or become them.

Jesus is asking something very hard of us.
Yes, maybe we can forgive the ordinary hurts of daily life.
But how can we forgive those monsters on YouTube?
That goes against human nature. That seems impossible.

Maybe it was impossible once. But Jesus, who died forgiving his own killers, has redefined what is possible. Jesus has opened the door to redemption for even the worst of sinners.

They may not always go through that door – some may choose to remain in the godless hell of their own self-will, but we are not allowed to close the door on them. We are not allowed to deny anyone the possibility of redemption, the possibility of reconciliation and healing.

God wants to do something new with this world, and as long as we perpetuate the cycle of violence and vengeance, that new thing cannot happen.

If we say that there are some people who cannot be saved, we are limiting the power and grace of God, and we are refusing our own vocation to be God’s agents of grace and forgiveness not only for the people we know, but for the stranger and the enemy as well.

We can do this, Jesus assures us. We can forgive – not because we are saints with extraordinary powers, but because we are sinners who have ourselves been forgiven.

Just ask St. Paul, who reminds us this morning not to judge one another, who asks us to remember that since we all belong to God, we also belong to one another. These are the words of the man who held the coats for Stephen’s murderers while they stoned the first Christian martyr.

If that stoning had been on YouTube, we might still be holding that horrifying image in our minds, still hating Paul as a monster instead of reading his words as Scripture. Paul knew what it meant to be forgiven, and that’s why he could be so eloquent about grace.

“We all stand before the judgment seat of God,” he says.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

When Peter asked his question about forgiveness, Jesus told him a story.

A slave who owes his master a gazillion dollars is forgiven this unpayable debt, but then he goes right out and finds a fellow slave who happens to owe him fifty cents. He grabs him by the throat.
“Pay me now!” he says.
“Have mercy!” the man cries. “I cannot pay you.”
“That’s not my problem,” he says, and throws the man into a dungeon until he can pay what he owes.

It’s one of Jesus’ craziest stories, and it’s meant to be. The absurdity of the parable puts a spotlight on our own absurdity when we who have been forgiven so much refuse to pass that forgiveness on to others.

If we say we have no sin, we are only deceiving ourselves. It’s not just a matter of how we act as individuals. We must also acknowledge our inescapable participation, conscious or unconscious, voluntary or involuntary, in all the systemic processes that negate the flourishing of life on earth. Just by functioning within the habitual realities and practices of a fallen and imperfect world, we become complicit in the things that fall short of God’s intention, the things that disappoint God’s hope for us.

And still, God loves us.
And still, God forgives us.
And still, God keeps heaven’s door open
and leaves the light on for us.

Perhaps you saw the extraordinary film, Of Gods and Men, which came out a few years ago. It tells the true story of eight French Catholic monks who lived in the mountains of Algeria during a time of civil war and terrorist violence in the 1990’s. Their monastery was at the edge of a poor Muslim village, where they lived in harmony with their neighbors, providing the village’s only accessible health care.

As the surrounding political violence escalated, the monks were warned by the government to leave the country. As Catholics in a Muslim country, they would be suspected of trying to make converts. Their very presence was an offense to the religious extremists. But the monks felt called to remain among the people they served, despite the high probability of martyrdom. Despite their own fears.

“If something happens to us, although I do not wish it to,” wrote Brother Michael, one of the monks, “we want to live it here in solidarity with all the Algerians, men and women, who have already paid with their lives, and in union with all unknown innocent victims.”

As for the armed rebels and the armed soldiers who were fighting all around them, the monks called them “our brothers of the mountains and our brothers of the plains.”

Their abbot, Dom Christian, wrote a letter to his family in Advent, 1993, two and a half years before he and his brother monks were beheaded by terrorists. Anticipating his own martyrdom, he insists that he is not exceptional, since so many others in that land were also at risk.

“My life,” he wrote, “is not worth more than any other — not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon … and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity him who would attack me…”

What an extraordinary thing to say: Here is a good and humble and holy man confessing his own complicity in the evils of the world. And what does he hope for? He hopes for the presence of mind, in the very moment of being murdered, to ask forgiveness. Forgiveness not only for himself, but for his killer as well. As he had once said of his monastic community, “we should openly be on the side of love, forgiveness and communion, against hate, vengeance and violence.”

The last part of Christian’s letter is addressed not to his family, his loved ones, but to the unknown violent stranger who will one day kill him, the stranger whom he calls “my friend of the last moment.”

He calls his killer friend, refusing the way of violence and vengeance and hate, and by so doing he plants the kingdom of forgiveness in the very place where his own blood would be spilled by his assassin’s sword.

He commends that assassin not to hell, not to eternal punishment, but to God. A-dieu, he tells him. A-dieu: “to God.” And then he imagines a future that may seem impossible to us, but is the only future which God desires.

Listen to what he says. This is how Christian ends his letter; this is what he wants to tell the stranger who will one day cut off his head:

“And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too, I wish this Merci, this “A-Dieu,” because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.”