The USA is often portrayed as the “Greatest Country in the World” or, conversely, the “Great Satan,” the place to fulfill the American Dream or the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. On September 11, 2001 the reality of both of those categorizations met when planes were flown into the World Trade Center towers, a knife at the heart of the American Dream from those who considered it the center of evil. But no country, like no person, is a caricature. The US is neither a cesspool of evil nor the epitome of all that is good in the world, so stark, black and white portrayals – “The Best!” and “The Worst!” – will naturally miss the reality. It is also misses the humanity of the individuals who comprise any given country, religion, or ethnic group. I wrote about this in The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television:
“When we do not acknowledge our own propensity to evil, and our own battles with evil, what in Jungian terms might be called acknowledging our shadow side, we are in trouble. If we personify evil as “other” we can do anything to eradicate it, as, for instance, the operatives of Al-Qaeda, who destroyed the World Trade Center buildings and the thousands of people within them, because the United States is “evil.” Left untouched, and beyond examination, is their own propensity to do evil to others and to themselves. When we externalize evil, without accepting it within ourselves, the whole world is in danger.”
Sirach 27:30-28:7 speaks of the need to allow God’s justice to reign not our desire for vengeance, especially because we so often mistake our desire for vengeance with God's justice. Ben Sira writes that “wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.” That depiction of “hugging” our wrath and anger is a powerful image for those of us who, when we are hurt, desire not only justice – a fair response to pain and suffering inflicted by the sins of others – but get caught up in dreams of inflicting vengeance, which we always imagine as righteous, by loving our wounds and nursing the desire to inflict even worse ones on our enemies. The determination as to what constitutes justice and vengeance is not easy, but Ben Sira asks us to consider that
“the vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the LORD? Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins? Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin! Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults.”
The battle against evil, Ben Sira suggests, is not primarily external, but internal. Each of us fights it. When we get caught up in our own sense of righteousness, woundedness and loss, we can fly planes into buildings because the fight is lost. We have determined that evil is other than us, something that defines only amorphous “others,” “enemies,” not ourselves. Evil is America, the “Great Satan,” or Muslims, who all desire our destruction. Permission is given to hate, the battle against evil is a battle against others; "we" are innocent, they are guilty.
Yet, we have a responsibility not just to ourselves, but to each person in this world, to engage the battle internally. Jesus, like Ben Sira, grants us this responsibility. Matthew 18:1-25, which contains the "Unmerciful Debtor" parable, ends what is known to scholars as the Fourth Discourse in Matthew, the “Ecclesial” Discourse, which outlines discipline, authority and proper behavior for those in the Church. It comprises Peter’s question to Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?" and Jesus’ answer, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” The bulk of the passage, though, is the parable in which this succinct question and answer are given flesh and bones.
A debtor is brought before a King and when the King “began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made” (18:24-25). The amount of ten thousand talents is huge, and so the NAB renders it “a huge amount,” but this hardly gives a sense of its vastness. One talent might be considered the equivalent of fifteen years wages for a laborer in the ancient world, so you must consider the amount (15 years of wages x 10,000) as that which cannot be repaid. Still the debtor cries to the King, “'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full’” and the King, “moved with compassion,” forgives him the debt. That same debtor incurs the wrath of the King, though, when he refuses to show mercy to a fellow slave who owes him a fairly large, but eminently payable debt (100 denarii, a few months wages). The King punishes the unmerciful debtor by casting him in prison until the last of his debt would be paid back: "Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" (18:24).
Mercy, how do you forgive those who have hurt you to the core? The pain of genuine loss, of real debts incurred by the sins, the evil, of others is tangible. The balance between mercy and justice is difficult to attain: how do we forgive? When do we forgive? When is justice served? Governments have a responsibility to carry out justice and to bring wrongdoers to account, but followers of Jesus have a responsibility to forgive not only easy debts, but hard debts. Not because we have not been harmed, but because the debts we incur far outweigh those owed to us. That the readings for September 11, 2001 speak of mercy and forgiveness, that they ask us to put aside our desire to hug tightly wrath and anger is a challenge. It does not diminish the evil of the perpetrators of 9/11, the terrible loss of life, the profound bravery of those who cared for the wounded and dying to say that our task is to show mercy in our search for justice and to do so because it is the only way to allow God’s justice full measure and our own evil to be confronted and brought under control. As we have been shown boundless mercy, so too must we offer it. It is easier to do when we do not reduce our enemies to stereotypes or caricatures but fight to see their humanity and ask them to see the same in us.
John W. Martens
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