Finding a Way to Forgive Doers of Evil
A sermon based on Matthew 23:26-34
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 11, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
In the fall of 2001 I was practicing law in a small town in Oregon. On Tuesday morning, September 11th I was in church. I do not recall why I initially was there, but Rev. Charles Busch and I found ourselves glued to the news and watched the horror of the very unpeaceful events of that day unfold on a small black and white television set up in the fellowship hall. That day, and those attacks, are moments seared into our memories. Basically cold hard “factually” what happened was that
19 militants associated with . . . al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center . . . a third plane hit the Pentagon . . . and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. . . . the attacks resulted in extensive death and destruction . . . Over 3,000 people were killed . . . 1
Those events are not just seared into our individual minds, but the consciousness of the nation. It will for generations of Americans be the attack that epitomizes the meaning of “terrorism” and “terrorists.”
Mirriam-Webster defines “terrorism” in relevant part more broadly as
1.The act of terrorizing . . . a mode of government by terror or intimidation. 2. The practise of coercing governments to accede to political demands by committing violence on civilian targets; [and] any similar use of violence to achieve goals. . . 2
The general definition of “terrorist” is: One who commits terrorism or governs by terrorism or intimidation. 3.
Last month I read a Facebook post that suggested before the Apostle Paul became a Jesus Follower he was a “religious extremist terrorist”– you may recall Paul is reported in Acts to have helped kill one or more followers of Jesus. The idea that Paul was once a terrorist is provocative all on it’s own but the Facebook friend asked an even more provocative question: What kind of heart and prayers might God want for us to have toward religious extremist terrorists today?
This is disturbing and upsetting stuff to think about . . . to preach about. First of all it opens compelling lines of thought, about terrorists in the Bible, and we could similarly name as terrorists other opponents of the Jesus Movement, like Rome and Rome’s agents– those who opposed and eventually captured and executed Jesus, they certainly ruled by terror and intimidation.
If Paul was a terrorist, then Rome was certainly a terrorist by today’s standards. It’s not so hard to see enemies of God’s Son and God’s people as terrorists– they are opponents of those we side with. But the idea begs the question about who else in the Bible might fit the modern definition of terrorist. For example, what about Joshua and the Israelites who crossed the Jordan and coerced accession to their political demands by among other things attacking a civilian location? The walls of Jericho surrounded a city filled with civilians and Joshua made those walls come tumbling down terrorizing and then slaughtering the inhabitants. Was Joshua a terrorist leader? If not in our eyes, the eyes of his enemies? Objectively? Or is it a subjective label?
And if we are going to ask that about Bible characters, what if we ask it about nations in history? Let’s think about that. Those we picture as enemies and opponents of our view, like Rome and Nazi Germany and al Quaeda, might be easy to call terrorists, but were the Christian nations behind the Crusades that invaded and waged war with Islam in order to impose Christianity and Western ways on Muslims, were they terrorists?
Were the Spanish and Portugese agents who invaded the Americas and terrorized the natives, terrorists? Was Britain a terrorist nation when it did that in North America? Was the USA when it did it here in Ohio and elsewhere in Indian territories? Was Britain terrorizing the Colonial Revolutionaries, or were the Revolutionaries terrorists? Were both Britain and the US terrorists when they terrorized Africa capturing slaves and importing them on godawful ships? And what about at home when terror was used to keep them and their offspring enslaved? Or later when Jim Crow laws and other forms of terror were used to keep African Americans oppressed after the Civil War?
Don’t hear me wrong, calling the evil on the 9-11 terrorism, and the work of terrorists, is accurate. But it can be a slippery slope when we start poking around history and apply the objective meaning elsewhere. I’ve just listed few.
And frankly as I explored all of this for this sermon it was disturbing to me. It makes ME very uneasy. Part of my dis-ease is because it somehow seems to downplay the awful evil acts of terror on 9-11, as if somehow objectively trying to look at terrorism dilutes Al Queada’s acts of evil. It doesn’t. Or shouldn’t. It just points out the sad reality that terrorism “The act of terrorizing . . . a mode of government by terror or intimidation and the practice of coercing governments to accede to political demands by committing violence on civilian targets; [and] similar use of violence to achieve goals” is sadly not unique in history. That means have not been the only victims of terrorists. But we were victims and so we think of the acts as evil, and rightly so. It was not just any terrorism, but one that hurt us and our nation and our people. We are still very upset about it. This is so, because we felt the affects of that evil very personally in our cities and homes. And our lifestyle since.
And thinking and feeling the acts were evil is accurate. The hard part for Christians– and this makes me cringe to say (which tells me how much work I personally have to do)– is that Jesus had some very particular hard to wriggle out of teachings on how we are supposed to respond to such terrorists and any other enemies. The culture teaches us to love our neighbors, but hate our enemies. Jesus’ culture taught that too. But he said – and don’t blame me, Jesus said it– in Matthew 5 (43-44) Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies . . .” How do we do that?
How can we ever love the Hitler-esque and bin-Laden’s and members of Al Qaeda? To bring it up to date, how can we love ISIS members or mass shooters who quite literally violently hate and hurt us? I am confessing this morning that I struggle greatly with this. I find that I am still very angry about the evil actions on 911 and I consider the actors and their supporters enemies. I suspect most, if not all of us here this morning feel that way–to some extent. And it has been 15 years to this day since that awful attack.
Now I want to point out that besides Jesus’ disturbing teaching about responding to enemies with love, the Bible has long prohibited terrorism. It is a sin–unmistakenly so. I found this interesting article on line with no author attribution which notes that in the Old Testament
Ancient armies were far more likely to deliberately target innocents . . . Israel was given explicit instructions for warfare that greatly humanized their military operations. Soldiers were given the option to return home if they were newly married, afraid, or otherwise unready for warfare. They were not encouraged to suicidally throw themselves into battle (Deuteronomy 20:5–8). Israel was commanded to offer peace—and with it a warning—to a city prior to any attack (Deuteronomy 20:10). This procedure not only left room for peace, but it gave non-combatants an opportunity to flee prior to the battle.
[And] Israel was not encouraged to go out of their way to attack civilians instead of soldiers, as modern terrorism does. And the Israelites were frequently reminded that their limited, one-time-only orders to attack were based on the wickedness of [nations], not their own superiority [to others] (Deuteronomy 9:4–6).
The Bible also expresses a strong condemnation for the shedding of innocent blood. Over and over, the Scriptures lambaste those who use violence against the helpless and inoffensive (Deuteronomy 27:25; Proverbs 6:16–18). Those who use common terrorist tactics such as attacking non-combatants and trying to inspire terror are also rebuked (Jeremiah 7:6; 19:4; 22:3, 17). Even on a small scale, using ambush tactics in order to kill those one hates is treated as murder (Deuteronomy 19:11).
This theme is continued in the New Testament, where Christians are explicitly told not to use bloodshed in an attempt to defend Christ (Matthew 10:52). Attempts to violently overthrow or influence the government are also off-limits (Romans 13:1). Rather, Christians are to overcome evil through good (Romans 12:21).
All in all, terrorism is simply incompatible with a biblical worldview. Opposition to terrorism is expressed both in the Old and New Testaments. The principles apply both to nations and to individual people. The Bible does not explicitly address the 21st-century concept of terrorism, but it clearly condemns everything about it. 4
So even before Jesus issued the command that we are to love our enemies, God was understood to prohibit intentionally using the tools of terrorism. God’s people are not supposed to be terrorists. And if we go back to Jesus, since he’s the one we are to follow, what he says is supposed to guide our lives, to be our way. The terrorists, the Hitlers, bin -Ladens, Al Queadas, ISIS or other people who commit evil acts of terror are to us in a word, enemies. Culturally we are conditioned to want to hate them as most people have hated enemies throughout history.
Personally and culturally certainly many of us do tend to have a hate for enemies. As we heard, Jesus had something to say about this, he has a teaching, a Way to deal with them. It is actually not an optional thing, it is a commandment. It is remarkably clear. Most of us do not want to hear it, or apply it to our own actual enemies. But Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies . . .” We may want to ignore that when it comes to our enemies, but as followers of Jesus we have to face it. We are not suppose to ignore it. In fact the one things Jesus himself is thought by scholars to have uniquely brought into a religion that others before him had not, is this idea that we have to love our enemies. Following Jesus necessarily includes acting on that teaching.
In his day, like ours, the cultural idea was: ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ . . .” But Jesus stretched it out to include every neighbor hated or not “I tell you, love your enemies . . .’ ” He commands that.
But how? How do we love our personal and cultural enemies? That just seems too much, even wrong when it comes to the likes of bin Laden, Al Queada, ISIS, or actually any people or nations that hates or hurt us or terrorize anyone.
The answer to how we do this, follow Jesus’ command . . . well, we saw the answer and the power it has when played out last year. When our brothers and sisters in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston we’re ruthlessly terrorized by a White Supremacist and the families of his murder victims forgave that terrorist even though his evil acts killed our brothers and sisters in Christ. We saw it too in 2006 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when our Amish brothers and sisters forgave the schoolhouse shooter who terrorized and murdered their children and then that also lovingly tended to the shooter’s family. We see it too in our lesson today. Where Jesus, through the intentional acts of terror by the Roman government is tortured and dying an awful death on the cross but finds the means while in the throes of great agony and pain to ask God to forgive his terrorist enemies. “Father, forgive them . . .”
Forgiveness is the key to loving enemies. We cannot love them without forgiving them. Forgiveness is powerful. It comes from love, it is an act of love, and it leads to peace. And let me remind us all that forgiveness is not forgetting. We have talked about this before. Forgiveness is the restoration of a good relationship with God and others. It is usually not an instant happening, it is a process that takes time and begins by taking steps toward forgiveness. The wrongdoers are mostly gone regarding 911 but as victims we can still work on our steps which are to (1) express the harm get it our in the open and then work toward; (2) abandoning interest in revenge; and (3) then work to see the wrongdoer as a worthy child of God again, sinful and broken though they may be. 5 That’s what victims need to do to one day get to forgiveness and love and peace . . . Man, is it hard stuff.
Thinking about it IS a step, a beginning. Consider what step or steps toward forgiveness we might be willing to take to help heal the still open 9/11 wounds– ours, others’, the nation’s, the world’s. Try to visualize the steps. Pray about them. Pray that you –I– might be guided toward forgiveness, toward seeing the way to detail our harm, abandon interest in revenge and see the wrongdoers as worthful to God in spite of their great acts of sin.
As impossible and counter-intuitive as that sounds, we need to pray about it. Think about what steps toward forgiveness we could take. It’s very difficult. It will take a lot more time but my prayer is that one day we can take each step in the process of forgiveness. It’s not easy. Give it lots of thought. Give it lots of prayer. In Mark 11 Jesus says: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone . . .”
This forgiveness stuff it is for well being, it’s for our well being. It’s for everyone’s well being. The word love in the Bible means the desire for well being and the word peace means well being for everyone. We cannot love without a desire for well being. We cannot have peace without well being for everyone.
We have to love everyone and desire peace for everyone – even our enemies. Jesus understood this. And he understood that such well being requires forgiveness. Until we find a way to begin to forgive the people who committed the evil acts on 9-1-1, we will not be able to love our enemies – a prime directive of Jesus. May we pray about it. And pray some more about it. I know I have much, much work to do in this regard. We all do.
2. Mirriam Webster on line at http://www.webster-dictionary.org/definition/Terrorism
4. Ideas from short article at: Author(s) not stated.
5. I derived these steps and the ideas during a course at Eden Theological Seminary on Forgiveness taught by Dr. Joretta Marshall in 2004.
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