Finding forgiveness, overcoming anger

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The past two days have been terrible.

What we have witnessed seems unreal.

No matter how many times I see pictures of downtown New York or of the Pentagon, I can’t seem to get my mind around the reality of this whole nightmare.

Tens of thousands of people are sure to have died in such a violent way. What possible response can we give to such senseless actions? Nothing seems appropriate. Shock, fear, anger, grief and hurt mixed within us, leaving us feeling helpless and uncertain of how to respond.

For many, the desire to retaliate with military force is strong. This response feels right. It comes from our most instinctive nature and gives us a focus for our own pain. The desire for revenge is seductive that way. It lets us feel justified in our desire to return violence for violence.

That instinctive anger seems commonplace this week. I’ve heard it in many conversations on campus. I felt it in my own initial reactions.

In his homily at the evening prayer service on Tuesday night, Michael Doody, S.J. confessed that even he struggled with anger and desire for vengeance.

His confession comforted me. I felt less alone in my struggles to respond out of faith instead of grief.

Grief was a very present companion on Tuesday.

For me it was personal. Coming from New York, I have family who had worked in the World Trade Center. No one had heard from my cousin throughout the day. I was certain that we never would hear from him again. Thankfully, I was wrong.

So many others, however, will receive no reassuring phone call in the middle of the night.

The deep pain that I felt from my personal experience is not unique to those with family immediately involved; it is our shared pain. One does not have to be from New York or Washington D.C. to grieve for these deaths.

I cried constantly throughout that first day; partly because I presumed the worst for my cousin, but mostly because I knew how much I wanted to give in to my own hurt and have our government retaliate.

While my fears and sadness numbed me, I knew that I needed to be with others in prayer. Rarely has prayer been such a heart-rending experience for me. I’m a minister.

Forgiveness and the desire for reconciliation should be second nature to me. This time, however, it didn’t come so easily.

The answer that prayer did give, the only answer promising lasting comfort in any of this, is the realization that pain and anger will only perpetuate themselves if we give them the attention they crave.

God calls us to find comfort not in revenge, but in forgiveness and reconciliation. Hanging from the cross, a victim of torture and extreme violence himself, Jesus called out to God in anguish and prayer, “Forgive them, they know not what they have done.”

Forgiveness, not revenge, was what Jesus asked for his torturers; for those who killed him. This too must be our constant prayer in the days to come.

This prayer of forgiveness does not deny the need to pursue justice. Crimes should be addressed, and justice does call us to find those who are responsible for these acts and hold them responsible for what they have done.

Forgiveness, however, calls us to seek justice, with love not vengeance. Love in the light of this evil act requires that we seek to understand those who acted and why they did what they did on Tuesday.

In this act of seeking understanding, we might not like what we see. These evil acts were not ones of spontaneous aggression. They were well planned.

In seeking to understand this, it would not surprise me if we found some indication that these acts were done in retaliation for some perceived violence or aggression committed by our own government elsewhere in the world.

If that turns out to be the case, it would not justify those who acted on Tuesday. No! Such violence can never be condoned and must be always condemned.

In seeking forgiveness in our quest for justice, however, we might find that the cycle of violence in which these people acted did not start this week and may not be one-sided.

If that is indeed the case, then the violence that we witnessed on Tuesday will only continue and lead to more death and destruction, unless we strive to understand the full context in which the attacks occurred and to seek reconciliation with those who carried them out.

Forgiveness can only lead to reconciliation if full knowledge of the sins and their context are understood. Through reconciliation, peace may have the final word.

If our faith in God has any claim in our hearts, we need to pray: “Forgive those who plotted these attacks, O God. Forgive those who hijacked the planes and delivered death with them. For they know not what they have done.”

We must also pray for courage to seek reconciliation. This prayer might call us to say with deep humility, “Forgive us our sins, O God, for we know not what we have done.”

These prayers will not be easy ones to make, to be sure. Indeed this may be the hardest challenge we will ever face. In the days to come, media coverage will focus on every detail of the tragedy in near-voyeuristic fashion.

The messages we will hear will likely be ones calling for revenge and retribution. These cries for retaliation might very well rub salt in our wounds, which will so very raw.

The temptation to join cries for revenge will be strong. The call to forgiveness and reconciliation will be hard for us to make.

Our God calls us to cry out for forgiveness and reconciliation. Evil did not have the final word when forgiveness cried out from the cross.

In our faith, we must pray now for help in responding to the evil in our world not with the violence that created the cross, but with the forgiveness that made the cross the way to salvation.

Harry O’Rourke is the peace and social justice campus minister in the Loyola Center for Campus Ministry.