Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that. —Corrie Ten Boom, Author and Holocaust Survivor (1892-1983)
PRAYER: (from the Lectionary)
“O God, because without You we are not able to please You, mercifully grant that Your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, AMEN.”
SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)
PRAYER FOCUS: FORGIVENESS.
This week marks the thirteenth anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 (“9-11”) terror attacks against the United States. It seems an uncanny coincidence that this week’s Lectionary is centered on Forgiveness and Tolerance: Joseph and his brothers (Genesis), removing our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalms), the parable of the ungrateful servant (Matthew).
Thirteen years later, how should Christians mark such a dark and tragic memorial? Should we forgive the terrorists of 9-11? This might seem a moot point, since the hijackers are all dead. But for the surviving family members and loved ones of the victims, this is a very real question with very real consequences for spiritual and emotional health.
The evil men who commandeered and crashed civilian airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon never asked to be forgiven. They expressed zero remorse as they joined their victims in death. Likewise, the evil men who sent them, those who financed them, and those who applauded their deadly success have never spent a moment regretting what happened. It is important to remember that this latter group has not gone to the bar of justice willingly. The ones who have been caught were taken by force—in most cases, by military force.
Let us be clear on this—evil unchallenged is evil condoned. To lower one’s guard in the face of a real and gathering threat can amount to suicide. To forgive and forget, as German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “means to throw valuable experience out the window.” Those who forget history’s lessons frequently repeat them. Therefore, even as we forgive our enemies, let us not forget what happened on that dreadful day. And let us not relax our guard against the evil forces that even now gather against God’s children.
As we see in our Lectionary Scriptures, what matters most is what we do with our injury…
Corrie Ten Boom (1892-1983) was living in Amsterdam when the Nazis invaded in 1940. By 1942, she and her family were working with the Dutch resistance hiding Jews and helping them escape from Europe. The Nazis arrested the entire Ten Boom family in February 1944. They were sent to the Scheveningen prison, where her father died ten days later. Corrie and her sister Betsie were then sent to the Vught political concentration camp in the Netherlands, and finally to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany.
Betsie died in captivity in December 1944. Because of a clerical error, Corrie was released a few days later, on New Year’s Eve. The week following her release, all the women prisoners her age in the camp were killed.
In her later years Corrie Ten Boom wrote several books. The following is a condensed narrative from Tramp for the Lord (1974):
It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. The year was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever…’
The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’
No, he did not remember me.
But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then…
How should we mark this Thursday’s dark memorial? Definitely in prayer.
And in that posture of prayer, perhaps there’s an opportunity to survey the people you need to forgive.
It’s not about them, Christian—and it’s not about what they did to you. It’s about what your forgiving and tolerant Father-God has done for you. He wants your healing to be complete. Many of the 9-11 widows now work in ministries helping people forgive others who have hurt them. Corrie Ten Boom devoted the rest of her life to a reconciliation ministry that set thousands of captives free from depression and bitterness.
Is unforgiveness crippling you? Wouldn’t this be a good time to let it go? It’s Monday Morning. Don’t wait for Thursday…