If one has been the victim of a profoundly evil act, how does one—or, rather, how should one—respond? By a profoundly evil act I do not mean that one is simply the recipient of some unkindness that chafes but is quickly healed, but truly the recipient of a life-altering injustice, something that deprives one of home, friends and family, life-savings, reputation or career, something like the suffering we remember this tenth anniversary of 9-11.
A distinction would be helpful in answering such a question. All men and women of goodwill were injured in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but not all of us were deeply, profoundly wronged. We do an injustice to those acutely affected by the tragedy to presume that we were all equally injured. Still, sometimes the least aggrieved clamor the loudest for revenge. But what about the terribly, the truly wronged?
As hard as it is for the gravely wounded to hear, Sirach bluntly declares that “wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail.” There’s a simple, hard truth about being injured by another. Eventually one has to surrender the anger that one feels in the face of such an injustice. Long-carried hatred weighs down the bearer, until all forward movement, the living of life itself, is impeded.
So, are we to forgive because hatred is more likely to consume us than those who have injured us? As true as that is, scripturally and psychologically, there’s a deeper reason to forgive, one revealed in the cross of Christ and one powerfully expressed by Dom Christian de Chergé, a Trappist monk killed in the civil war that raged in Algeria during the 1990s.
Sometime in the night of March 26, 1996, seven Christian monks were kidnapped from their Trappist Monastery of Mt. Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria. After two months of captivity, held as pawns in that country’s violent conflict, they were decapitated, probably by members of a militant Islamic group. Their story was recently told in the powerful French film, Des Hommes et des Dieux (“Of Gods and Men”).
As the journalist John Kiser made evident in his investigatory book, The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria, the monks were quite aware of the dangers that they faced by remaining in their monastery. In their chapter meetings, they long and fearfully debated their course of action. They knew that they had no right to court martyrdom, but they were also quite reluctant to abandon the villagers of Tibhirine, the vast majority of whom were not Christians but Muslims, who had long since befriended the monks and become, in so many ways, dependent upon the monastery and its infirmary.
Shortly before his death, Dom Christian, the monastery’s prior, wrote the following in a final testament:
If the day comes, and it could be today, that I am a victim of the terrorism that seems to be engulfing all foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, and my family to remember that I have dedicated my life to God and Algeria.
That they accept that the Lord of all life was not a stranger to this savage kind of departure; that they pray for me, wondering how I found myself worthy of such a sacrifice; that they link in their memory this death of mine with all the other deaths equally violent but forgotten in their anonymity.
My life is not worth more than any other—not less, not more. Nor am I an innocent child. I have lived long enough to know that I, too, am an accomplice of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around, even that which might lash out blindly at me. If the moment comes, I would hope to have the presence of mind, and the time, to ask for God’s pardon and for that of my fellowman, and, at the same time, to pardon in all sincerity he who would attack me (244-45).
Dom Christian enunciated the deepest meaning of forgiveness. We forgive not only because God asks it of us, not only because we must find released from the burdens of hatred and revenge, but because we recognize that we are not innocent, that we, too, as Dom Christian wrote, are accomplices “of the evil that seems to prevail in the world around.” We may be innocent of the particular injustice inflicted upon us, but must we not honestly confess that the world has been tainted by our own sinful touch? And no one, save God, can adequately weigh up the relative weights of sin. No one else can trace the strands of evil that emerge from any decision to do wrong.
I know the contempt that some people have for Algerians as a whole. I also know the caricature of Islam that a certain ideology promotes. It is too easy for such people to dismiss, in good conscience, this religion as something hateful by associating it with violent extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are quite different from the commonly held opinion. They are body and soul. I have said enough, I believe about all the good things I have received here, finding so often the meaning of the Gospels, running like some gold thread through my life, and which began first at my mother’s knees, my very first church, here in Algeria, where I learned respect for the Muslims (245).
In the end, we must forgive, as Christ forgave from the cross, because we cannot allow ourselves, or our world, to be swept away in waves of hatred and sin. Standing fast for the good, accepting evil rather than returning it, is the only way the tides of injustice can be turned. We choose life rather than revenge, because choosing life can never be postponed. We can’t hate first and choose life later. Those paths diverge at the foot of the cross, in the very face of the God who is life. Either we choose to love or to hate, to live or to die. There is only God and that which is not.
Obviously my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us what he thinks now.” But such people should know my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able — if God pleases — to see the children of Islam as He sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences (245).
Hard as it is to comprehend, the cross if a gift, wherein we choose life. It is where we come to share in the gift, as Christian called it, of God’s own passion.
Terrance W. Klein