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."
Granted, in the present situation, in which the horror of Oklahoma City is multiplied a hundredfold, the pain may still be too near, the loss too real, and the idea of letting go of hatred too hard to fathom. But we should bear in mind the ancient Chinese proverb that states: "Whoever opts for revenge should dig two graves." Like Bud, we are all "in this for the rest of our lives."
Each of us can contribute to the good in the world, or add fuel to the fires of fear and hatred. What future will we choose: one filled with fear or one filled with hope? If we choose revenge, the victims will become mere statistics in an endless tit-for-tat that will eventually destroy our civilization. We know from history that violence only begets more violence in a vicious cycle. If, on the other hand, we choose forgiveness, we give the victims dignity, so that they will not have died in vain. America can become a stronger, more united, and more caring nation through this ordeal.
In a show of true leadership, President Bush refrained from instant retaliation, and instead called on all Americans to observe a national day of prayer and remembrance. Even if his tone has changed since, we as citizens should respect and support the God-ordained authority placed on our leaders to punish evildoers, as Paul writes in Romans 13. The forgiveness I describe in no way absolves the killers or negates the need to bring them to justice. It is rather a process involving those who have been hurt, not the perpetrators. It is something we can do for ourselves, for our own healing. Otherwise we become paralyzed with hatred that in the end will destroy the moral fiber of our nation.
As we pray for the souls of the departed, for their families, and for our country, let us pray that hearts are not hardened by what has happened. Let us pray that we as citizens can find it within us to rise above the urges of hatred and vengeance that gave birth to this horrible atrocity, and which will surely spawn even more dastardly deeds if we respond in kind. And let us pray for our leaders, who are facing the same life-or-death choices we are.
Beyond that, as we continue to search for meaning amidst all the suffering visited on our country on September 11, may we be guided by this remarkable prayer, found on an old wrapping paper in the Ravensbrück concentration camp at the end of World War II:
Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Remember rather the fruits we brought, thanks to this suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown out of this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.