In the days following the terrible attacks on New York and Washington, all of us are torn by powerful emotions. In many hearts the overwhelming horror and grief have already given way to powerful currents of anger and hatred.
Each of us faces one of the most difficult choices of his or her life. There is no escaping it. Will we respond with hatred or with compassion? Will we seek vengeance or healing? How we choose will determine our future, individually and collectively, one way or another. It will affect the course of history, the lives of our children and of children to come.
We are at a turning point rarely seen in history. These days present our nation with an opportunity for a flood of compassion or for a bloodthirsty drive for revenge. Which will it be? Will we hate those who hate us, and become like them? Or will we respond by loving each other more? If we do, evil will be broken, suffering eased, and we can start the long process of healing.
Already there has been a tremendous outpouring of goodwill. Thousands have volunteered to help in the relief effort, donating time, services, money, food, and even their own blood. Millions have lit candles and sent up prayers. Many gave their lives trying to save others.
One of those killed in Manhattan was a fellow pastor and close friend of mine. A true man of God, Father Mychal Judge was killed while administering last rites to a fireman injured during the rescue effort. Through Father Mychal and the hundreds of police, firefighters, and other rescue workers who lost their lives while helping others, the words of Jesus have become newly alive: "No greater service can a man do than to lay down his life for his friend."
Father Mychal's service was not limited to New York. Over the last years he has traveled to Northern Ireland three times with me and our mutual friend, NYPD Detective Steven McDonald, to spread a message of reconciliation there. We were planning a similar trip to Israel this October.
In these places torn by years of violence, Steven, shot in the line of duty by a teenager and paralyzed from the neck down, would tell people, "The only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would only have extended my tragic injury into my soul, further hurting my wife, son, and others. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury."
At Steven's side, Father Mychal said, "When peace comes to this country, and it will come some day, there will be memories, there will be families that were torn apart. Forgiveness is a tremendously long, ongoing process and it needs great grace and strength from above. I have my own problems, my own hates, my own harsh feelings; I am as human as anybody else. So I have to have this ongoing forgiveness in my heart, too."
Unfortunately, many Americans' anger has been misdirected at Muslim Americans and innocent civilians in the Arab world. Some religious figures, such as Jerry Falwell, have even suggested that America's homosexuals and liberals are to blame for the carnage. In this hour of national grief and mourning, we need to hold hands, not point fingers. Every human being, no matter their race or creed, has been created in the image of God. As I watched images of desperate people jumping from the Twin Towers, I became more convinced than ever that God is loving and merciful, and that everyone who died fell straight into his arms. The television images didn't show it, but I believe the skyline of lower Manhattan was filled with angels receiving the souls of the departed and bringing them to God.
Unrestrained, our thirst for vengeance may lead to thousands more dying overseas--including many American sons and daughters, if our leaders' pronouncements are any indication. But such anger can also destroy us personally. As a counselor, I have watched many beautiful people become emotionally paralyzed by a bitterness that eats at their souls like a cancer.
I have also met ordinary people who, like Steven McDonald, have suffered greatly, yet refused to let anger control their lives. Another example that comes to mind is my friend Bud Welch, whose daughter was one of 168 people killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. In my book, "Why Forgive?" I quote Bud's words: "I still have moments of rage. Forgiving is not something you just wake up one morning and decide to do. You have to work through your anger and your hatred as long as it's there." My counseling experience confirms these words, as well as those of Alan Paton, the South African author who wrote, "There is a hard law.When a deep injury is done to us, we never recover until we forgive."