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Can We Forgive 9/11?
By Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.
The attacks of 9/11 claimed nearly three thousand lives, scarred a nation's self-esteem and shook the foundations of or faith. Can we forgive?

Q U I C K S C A N

Why Did God Let This Happen?
Dealing With Violation and With Suffering
Is Forgiveness Possible?
Is There a Way Forward?


© iStockphoto.com/ Shavar Ross

IT HAS BEEN five years since the tragedies struck the United States on September 11, 2001. Memories of that fateful day continue to reverberate in our hearts and minds. With those memories, we sense little closure on many of the questions those events raised for us. Now, from a distance of five years, it is perhaps time to revisit them.

The questions I will try to examine here are these:

• Where was God when these things happened, and why did God allow them to happen?

• How, as a country, do we deal with the sense of violation we feel by those events, and how do we come to terms with our suffering, as individuals and as a people?

• Is it possible to forgive those who planned and carried out the attacks, since they have shown no repentance?

• Is there a way forward for us, despite all these unanswered questions, and can anything positive come out of this terrible experience? Of course, these questions do not allow any easy answers or solutions. But sometimes, simply returning to them gives us the chance to gain new insights and see things a little more clearly.

Why Did God Let This Happen?

Where was God? This question is the first that springs to mind for us as believers. If God loves us and watches over us, how could something like this even occur? Where was God when this happened? Why did God allow this to happen?

Whenever tragedy strikes and evil happens, it challenges our very understanding of who God is.

The tragedy of 9/11 was neither the first time nor will it be the last time we are going to ask these questions. Think of the tsunami that struck South Asia in 2004 or what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans in 2005. Older people will remember the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or even the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Whether tragedy comes to us through a natural disaster (which we call an “act of God”) or through the cunning of human beings, God seems to have to answer for it.

All such events lead us to question either God’s power to prevent such things or God’s love that truly cares for us. Theologians have grappled with these questions for centuries and have not come up with a satisfactory answer.

For some, tragedies such as natural disasters are a punishment from God for our collective sins. (Some televangelists cited collective sin as causing 9/11, as well.) Other people point to the shifting tectonic plates or meteorological maps to explain why earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding happen. When acts of human beings are the cause, people usually point to the fact that God gives us our freedom, even to sin and to do wrong.

But perhaps pursuing God as a punisher or as indifferent is not the way to go. If we look at these nagging questions from another angle, we can see a common thread running through them—whether it is about large events or single tragedies. The web of relationships in our lives—relationships with our families, our neighbors, our country and God—has been torn asunder. We are asking questions about how those relationships can ever be restored. We wish that we could go back to how things were before all of this happened.

When we ask “why” questions and “how” questions, we are trying to repair the broken relationships around us, relationships we cannot live without. We soon come to realize that things can never be as they were before. Instead of going backward, we need to find a way to move forward. That does not mean that we must forget what has happened or abandon our love for those who have perished. But we have to find a new way of relating to those events and those dear people.

The stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after the resurrection give us a cue here. Time and again, Jesus gives his disciples a new orientation, a way through their grief at losing him. He does not take them back to where they were before but sends them forward.

Take, for example, the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). The two disciples are locked in their grief and growing despair. They keep telling themselves the same story over and over. Jesus listens to their story and then tells it back to them another way. Their hearts are on fire. After Jesus disappears, they rush back to Jerusalem full of excitement.

In this and the other appearance stories, Jesus asks them to have faith— trust in him and what he is doing. A network of relationships is restored. And it changes their lives.

Trust and faith are about reconnecting all those relationships that have been damaged or severed in the terrible experience. That so many people went to their churches, mosques and synagogues on the day itself and on the weekends after 9/11 was a sign of trying to reconnect with God. That seems to indicate that the real and deeper question was about reconnecting with God and with one another rather than questioning their trust in God.

When we struggle to understand the “why” and the “how” after a tragic event, we need to remember that perhaps our real question is: How will we be able to reconnect and move ahead after all of this?

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Dealing With Violation and With Suffering

In the aftermath of 9/11, a second set of questions has loomed large, questions that deal with our feelings of violation and the suffering that ensued.

Violation is an experience of transgression: Perpetrators have entered into an intimate part of our lives—a place where they are not welcome—and have deliberately dishonored us. That sense of intrusion and disrespect gnaws away at our self-esteem and our sense of the trustworthiness of our environment. We feel hollow and empty.

Suffering is the response to these feelings. It is a psychological state of uneasiness and diminished energy. For those who lost loved ones in the attack, that suffering can be sharp and ongoing. They may experience flashbacks to the moment when they heard and saw what was happening. Any new experience of violation brings them back to those terrible moments again. Their sleep may be disturbed and their waking hours marked by a perpetual haze.

Suffering is something we cannot control. We cannot turn it off at will. If suffering endures, it wears us down and diminishes our humanity. It makes no sense; it lacks any meaning. Can there be a way out of suffering?

One of the most helpful ways of diminishing suffering is by linking it to something greater than ourselves. Christians from time immemorial have done this by linking their suffering to the Passion of Christ. St. Paul puts it in terms of his earnest desire to know Christ “and the power of his resurrection and [the] sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). By connecting our meaningless suffering to the suffering of the innocent Christ, we might also somehow come to participate in his being raised from the dead.

The mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, by which God is making reconciliation in the world happen, can become a pathway for us to situate our own suffering in the wounds of Christ—wounds that healed the Apostle Thomas’s broken heart (John 20:27-28), wounds that can heal our own (1 Peter 2:24).

Finding meaning in our suffering by connecting it to the suffering of Jesus can help relieve personal suffering. But what about our sense of violation as a nation? It is important that we name the violation for what it is: a trespass upon our honor and dignity.

Moreover, we need to remind ourselves that our honor will not be restored by violating the honor of others. When nations are violated in the way we were, the impulse is to strike back. But then we are not acting out of our best instincts, and we do no honor to ourselves.

To restore dignity, we need to seek out ways that will change the moral landscape, rather than defile it once again. We must rise to higher moral ground than those who defiled us. Only in this way can we hope to restore a moral and spiritual order.

Is Forgiveness Possible?

Can we forgive the perpetrators of 9/11 for their heinous acts? Apart from the enormity of the wrongdoing, it is even harder to think about forgiveness knowing that the 19 men who carried out the attacks all died in the process; hence, there is no way that they can repent, apologize and seek forgiveness.

Our first reaction to the question of forgiveness is probably refusal. Not only did the perpetrators not repent, but also forgiving them would seem to be disloyal to those who died on that day. It might say that their deaths were not important, or that we need not remember their suffering and violent demise.

But on the other hand, we know that forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message. Jesus not only forgave others, but also enjoined his followers to forgive—not just seven times but 77 times (Matthew 18:22). In the prayer Jesus taught us, we ask God to forgive us in the way that we forgive others. We tell ourselves all the time that we should “forgive and forget.” So what are we to do?

Forgiveness is never easy, especially when we have to forgive something that has forever changed our lives. Forgiveness takes time as well. Instant forgiveness usually strikes us as superficial and not the real thing.

Where might we stand now, five years after 9/11? Certainly the passage of time has alleviated some of the suffering and resentment, even though it has not begun to erase it entirely. When we think about perhaps forgiving something as terrible as this, we need to attend to the teaching of Jesus closely.

First of all, it is God who forgives sin and wrongdoing. Only God has sufficient perspective to grasp the extent of damage that sin and wrongdoing create in our lives and in the lives of those against whom we sin.

In the act of forgiving, we participate in God’s larger act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is something that comes from God—it is a gift of God to us. If we listen closely to Jesus’ words, we will discover that. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ first word on the cross is about forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We often read this as Jesus forgiving his executioners. But in actual fact, Jesus is calling on God, his Father, to forgive them. Jesus is still in the midst of his suffering. He cannot forgive his executioners for something they have not yet completed. But he can call on his Father to forgive.

This act of Jesus can be a great source of comfort to us when we struggle to forgive but cannot. We can call upon God, who sees all things, to forgive. And that is a prayer that we too someday may be able to forgive.

The advice to “forgive and forget” means that we should not hold on to resentment after we have forgiven someone. In something so heinous as the 9/11 attacks, we can feel that forgetting betrays those who have died. Do we have to forget when we forgive?

Actually, we neither have to nor should. That injunction is nowhere in the Bible. Our repulsion at forgetting is a correct human reaction. When something has so changed our lives as did the events of 9/11, forgetting would diminish our humanity and trivialize the suffering of those days.

The issue is not forgetting, but rather how we remember. Forgiveness is often made possible by our ability to see the wrongdoer from a different angle: not as a despicable, immoral person, but as a weak, fragile and sometimes confused human being, as we ourselves often are.

Put another way, when we forgive, we do not forget—we remember in a different way. We no longer reduce the wrongdoers to the deed that has been committed. We see them from other perspectives. This does not condone the deed or dismiss what they did. We see the event as more complex, not reducible to a single motivation.

Forgiveness means that the wrongful deed of the past no longer controls our lives. By remembering in a different way, we do not forget what happened, but it is no longer allowed to poison the present and the future. But even to achieve that, we will need God’s help.

Is There a Way Forward?

Even if we can reach some measure of forgiveness and free ourselves from being overwhelmed by the past, we still have to ask ourselves whether anything positive or meaningful can come out of this experience. Our first answer is to insist that nothing positive can come from this. In many ways, we are perhaps still too close to the event to give a more hopeful response to this question.

In a way, trying to look forward brings us back to our first question: We tried to find out where God was when all of this happened. We discovered that, although we are not able to answer this question to anyone’s satisfaction, it did reveal another question lurking on the sidelines: How can we reweave the broken fabric of our relationships? When we ask about a possible way forward, or what might be learned from the situation, we are asking about those relationships once again.

Indeed, we must try to learn something from what happened, rather than let it sit like a black hole on our social landscape. The attack that drew the United States into World War II might provide some parallels here. Although that attack and the war that followed brought untold suffering for millions of people, by 1945 we had learned something. We learned that we needed to take steps to make sure no war ever happened again on that scale.

Rather than punishing the vanquished (as we did after World War I), we helped Germany and Japan rebuild. One of the consequences of that decision has been that there has not been another war of that size and scale in the 60 years since.

Resentment and the desire to punish are poor guideposts for building a better future. We cannot undo the past. But we can try to build a better future. Here is where the likely positive outcomes of 9/11 will be found. Can we do something to still the resentment and hatred that led the perpetrators to plot and carry out the attacks?

Our efforts will always be insufficient and incomplete, but we must struggle to try to make a difference. The malaise we are experiencing on many fronts in this country at the moment seems to indicate we still have not arrived at that point. But, as Christians, we must continue to seek ways to make a better and safer future.


Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S., is a professor of theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Among the many books he’s written is The Ministry of Reconciliation (Orbis Books). Father Schreiter also serves as a consultant to reconciliation and peace-building programs around the world.


Remembering 9/11: Find ways to remember the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in our special feature.

 


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