I’ve been in an argument with Jesus this week. The death of Osama bin Laden has captivated our attention for over a week now. The following is part of my reckoning with his death, my life, and Christ’s call to forgive.
One of the things we have taught our children is that when someone says I’m sorry, don’t respond, “that’s ok.” That’s ok says that what they did was ok, that it was acceptable. It denies the hurt and pain, the fear and the anger. It covers over the festering wound, but does nothing to heal it. When someone hurts us, it is not ok. The only appropriate response as a Christian is not “that’s ok,” but “I forgive you.”
Forgiveness releases us from pain and gives us a chance to be restored in relationship with one another. Forgiveness doesn’t cover over a festering wound, but heals it from the inside out. Forgiveness isn’t about letting another person off the hook, it is about setting yourself free from fear and anger. Sometimes forgiveness does not even lead to reconciliation. Sometimes it just means I refuse to be held captive by fear and anger anymore. I’ve been struggling a lot with forgiveness this week. I’ve got a lot of fear and anger stored up. God has been on my case. I want to share my journey with you.
I remember watching the events of 9/11 with horror and disbelief. As the day unfolded, my disbelief turned to anger, which deepened to fear and a dread sense of foreboding for our country and our world. Over the course of the last 10 years, I thought most of those feelings had been put behind me. I was wrong.
As I crawled out of bed toward the coffee pot on the morning of May 2, my wife, Liz, rolled over and told me to turn on the news. The president had announced Osama bin Laden’s death late the night before.
My initial reaction was jubilant. Yessss! They got that sucker, finally! I ran downstairs to watch the news. I saw the crowds celebrating across from the White House and at Ground Zero. My heart was celebrating with them. As the day wore on, however, my initial relief began once again to turn to fear, and that fear to an even deeper foreboding. When I am honest, I don’t feel all that different. Why?
As I got into conversations with my more spiritually mature Christian friends during the week, I discovered my reaction was far from universal. Most of them were not jubilant. They were ambivalent, at best. Some were even sad and lamented the way the course of events went down.
I got on facebook to see what people were saying. Immediately I saw a reflection written by one of my best friends, Pastor Tim Dearhamer who serves St. Anne’s Lutheran Church in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the city of London (link at right). Tim rides the tube into work every day. Arguably he is in far more danger than I am every day.
Tim shared about a question his eight-year-old daughter asked while watching the celebrations over bin Laden’s death on TV. “Daddy, should we have a party since he died?”
“No,” he told her, “Christians do not celebrate the death of anyone.”
Tim’s comment has haunted & challenged me all week. I began to argue with Jesus. His responses to me are in italics.
Isn’t it a good thing this sucker died? He lived a life filled with hate. His purpose not only to kill people, but also to motivate, train, and equip his followers to kill innocent people on a massive scale. If anyone ever deserved to die, surely it was he.
Do you really believe that?
Of course I do! The world is a better and safer place without him.
I think so– shouldn’t it be? After all, he masterminded mass murder.
But is the world a safer place? Did killing him end violence?
Does violence ever end violence?
No, but justice has been done.
Our justice, he killed our people and we killed him– that’s justice. Your own law says so: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life (Deuteronomy 19:21).
What do you mean? I know your Word.
Do you? Look again. What did I say in the Sermon on the Mount?
You just preached on it. Were you not listening?
“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other one also” (Matthew 5:38-39). That’s all well and good, Jesus, but we’re not talking about a slap to the cheek here, we’re talking murder.
And I condemn murder too, but do you remember what else I said?
“You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). Why are you getting on my case? I haven’t murdered anyone, he did.
Are you angry?
Of course, he murdered 3000 of my people! Shouldn’t I be angry? Besides, the scripture says specifically, “if you are angry with a brother.” He’s not my brother.
You sound like Cain (Genesis 4:9).
Aw, come on. That’s not fair. Abel really was Cain’s brother, not his sworn enemy intent on inflicting violence at every turn. Aren’t we justified in using violence to stop violence?
Did I use violence to stop Cain?
No, but you could have, justice would have been done.
Again, that phrase. Whose justice?
My justice? or Your vengeance?
Do you not remember my word: Vengeance is mine, says who?
says the Lord, (I mumbled)
Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord (Romans 12:19).
Why do you want to take what is mine?
Why do you insist on wanting me to behave like you?
What did I teach you about your enemies?
“You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). But come on, Jesus. He killed 3000 innocent people. You never faced an enemy like that.
I regretted as soon as I said it.
Didn’t I? Do you not remember the story you told just 3 weeks ago?
Do you not remember that I died not for the innocent, but for the guilty?
Do you not remember that I looked into the stone-cold eyes of Pilate who asked me, “what is truth?” because violence was the only truth he knew? (John 18:38).
Do you not remember the very words I uttered from the cross?
Father forgive them, (I mumbled again).
I CAN’T HEAR YOU
Father, forgive them (Luke 23:34).
As I argued with Jesus, I started thinking about the disciples locked in the upper room. They holed up there, the scriptures say, out of fear (John 20:19-23). The innocent one had been murdered, crucified. Were they next? Would the powers come after them too?
I suppose they too were angry, angry at Pilate for ordering the crucifixion, angry at Caiaphas and the authorities for orchestrating the trial, angry at the crowds for mocking Jesus and cheering his death.
The scriptures tell us they spent a week locked in that room. Even after Jesus had visited them, they remained locked up, afraid. What do you think they talked about? I can imagine their fear driving a conversation about how to escape the wrath of the world outside. I can imagine their anger driving a conversation about vengeance, perhaps even plotting the assassination of Pilate or Caiaphas. No one knows what they talked about, but we do know how they felt.
Not once, but twice Jesus came to them while they were locked in that upper room and said, “Peace be with you.” He said twice to them locked away in fear and anger, “peace be with you.” Then he said to them, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, but if you retain the sins of any, they will hold on to you” (John 20:23).
Before this week, I always thought Jesus was giving his disciples, and through his disciples the church, the ability to decide who was forgiven and who was not, who would be rewarded and who condemned. But this week, I hear Jesus’ words differently.
They are holed up in the upper room, held captive their by fear and anger. Jesus hands them the keys not to heaven and hell, but the keys to leave the upper room. Before they could leave, they had to forgive. As long as they held on to their fear and anger, they would be held captive. Jesus handed them the key to the upper room. The only way in or out was through forgiveness. That is how Jesus got into the locked room, and it is how he could lead them out.
Forgiveness is God’s way of saying “stop” to the violence of the world. If we are to escape the tomb of the upper room, God asks us to forgive. If we want to live as Easter People, set free from violence, fear, anger and hate, God asks us to do as Jesus did. The only way to find peace is through forgiveness.
I realized this week how bound in captivity I have been. I have harbored fear of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but it goes way beyond that. I have harbored anger at people who have hurt me and those I love throughout my life. I have held on to their sins and let them have control over my life. I have let myself get holed up in the upper room and have not known how to get out.
If you forgive the sins of any, Jesus said, they are forgiven. If you hold on to the sins of any, they will hold on to you. Forgiveness isn’t about letting another person off the hook, it is about setting yourself free from fear and anger. Sometimes forgiveness does not even lead to reconciliation. Sometimes it just means I refuse to be held captive by fear and anger anymore.
Just over a year ago, our eight-year-old son was playing with a friend in the backyard. I was preparing dinner and went to the storm door on the porch and called him in. I went to the counter to put the finishing touches on the salad I was making when I heard the heavy footfalls of a race. Apparently our son’s friend challenged him to a race to the back door.
I heard a crash and a cry. I looked around the door and saw my son’s hand and head inside the glass of the storm door, and the rest of his body outside. As he pulled himself out, angry shards of glass pierced his back and arm. I took him immediately to urgent care where he was stitched up. As we looked over his body for other injuries, we found a thin cut right over the jugular vein.
I wrote about the terror of parenting in a previous post. But here’s my reflection a year later. Around Easter the boy who raced my son came to play again in our yard, for the first time since the accident. As they were playing outside, I heard my son tell the boy, “I forgive you.”
His words froze in my veins as I realized that I had not forgiven him. Intellectually, I know it was only an accident, but my whole being was still crying out in fear for my son’s life.
The broken glass was mended, but my heart was still shattered. I was still afraid. I would rather have closed and locked the door forever. I would rather hold my son close and never let him go, but my eight-year-old understood better than I did what it means to be Easter People. He is helping me forgive; he is helping me heal from the inside out. He has shown me how to unlock the door; he is leading me out into the backyard to play again, to be set free.
I’m still learning what it means to be one of Jesus’ Easter People, raised to new life. I’m still learning to forgive, to let go of my fear and anger. In many ways I’m still trapped in the upper room, but Jesus keeps coming to me and saying to me: “peace be with you.” The only way to find peace is through forgiveness. Jesus has given me the keys. I’m still afraid, but I don’t want to be trapped anymore.