The Rupture of Forgiveness In a World of Revenge

Today pastors will preach on the day the United States collectively remembers 9/11 ten years later. My sermon title for this morning is the title for this post, “The Rupture of Forgiveness In a World of Revenge.” I don’t often talk about preaching here. Today is different.

I read Will Willimon‘s personal reflection in an article for Christianity Today (HT: Scot McKnight). Near the end of the short piece Willimon asserts,

The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

And when in our own personal relationships we face wrong I fear we reach for our ego, not the Cross. Protecting our fragile projected identities becomes paramount in a therapeutic world of technological imagery. Religion, American Christianity in particular, is often an all-too-willing accomplice. “You don’t deserve that,” becomes the chorus-like refrain. We think it is compassionate, even empathic.

Once we make this sentiment our guiding thought we immediately narrow our possible responses. Any choice at this point takes us captive to revenge of one sort or another. The event now controls us, shapes our disposition going forward. Humanity needs better to stave off lapsing into what my mentor Rick Davis described as, “people who do not smile.”

My 9/11 story – “Where were you?” – finds answer not in geography but more emotionally. Just weeks earlier a young high school junior in our church family did not wake up for his first day of school. We had experienced the tragic death of a young girl who took her life still too fresh on our minds. We would lose a 7-year old just before Christmas. My little “mo mo” (motorcycle) jacket wearing friend Cameron would die the next April, 3-years old. By the fall of 2002, I faced feelings I had not, ever.

Writing here I cannot believe I do not add in 9/11 when telling the story of my experience with depression. I always fail to mention watching those planes and towers in our offices at Snow Hill. Kevin had a television in his office. We watched in disbelief. Calls came in, “Did you see that!” Tuesdays are Lunch Spot days. They have been for about 15 years. We knew we would face a room full of students with questions.

What are pastors supposed to say? Willimon contends we did not do so well witnessed in Christian people reaching for something other than the Cross. It is the event of the Cross that ruptures a world bent on its own way. We often hear talk about what Jesus took on the Cross. He took our guilt, shame, and punishment. In the face of remembering 9/11 ten years later, or the wounding you received at the hands of a friend weeks ago, the event of the Cross becomes a rupture of our natural feelings. It is a place of forgiveness. “Father forgive them they know not what they do.”

Theologians, preachers, and pastors attach meaning to the Cross event, to the life of Jesus. If Scot McKnight is right, and I think he is, our truncated Gospel only focuses on the taking of our guilt, shame, sin, and its punishment to the unhealthy exclusion of the Good News that in Jesus we find a world made right. No longer do we need to follow our natural impulses to get even, or even get back. Those habits are easy to keep up and hard to break. Following Jesus’ Way of forgiveness, now that is a rupture of our own way.

If in Jesus God forgives, Jesus tells those that would follow him we must do the same. (Matt. 18:21-35 – the Gospel text for today.) In fact, in a head scratching parable, Jesus presses the point by contending our failure to forgive means no forgiveness. Some will focus on the odd story on the heels of Jesus telling Peter to forgive more times than offended. But parables are more often intended to address a question we would normally miss. The parable gets to Peter’s question, “How many times?”

Jesus uses the parable to alert Peter to a new way. The Father forgives. You forgive. Concern about how many times, how much, for what, or how often miss the point of Jesus’ answer. Fail to forgive and you tell the world you don’t follow me, you don’t follow the Father. Forgiveness is love. And, looking at forgiveness this way ruptures our normal patterns, with our spouses, our children, our friends, and the all-encompassing neighbor.

We should honor those who lost their lives on 9/11 and any other tragic event. We should honor those public servants – police and firemen among many others – who went into the unknown to rescue people they did not know.

Today we who follow Jesus need be more assertive and face our own needs to forgive in the face of those who wound us. Were we found reaching for the Cross and not our flags, or any other thing, our world might witness the rupture of the Cross of Christ’s forgiveness. Willimon’s last thoughts are stinging but apropos,

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.


About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

10 comments on “The Rupture of Forgiveness In a World of Revenge

  1. Derrick says:

    Todd, I am reminded how much I appreciate your thoughts. Your consistent call to the cross is a voice we need to hear.

    Preach well.

    1. Derrick,
      Thank you. I often think of those conversations in our offices those years ago.

      Preach well too.

  2. Todd, I remembered that we had lost one on the first day of school.. but I forgot that I lost my very close friend that same year just before…. I knew that I was already depressed, but had forgotten how depressed… how lost.. I mean I was just a kid! It was a hard year…2011… as if high school was not hard enough you know…I remember saying a million times.. they know not what they do…. it was something I just held to and to this day I still do! I have a hard time with the revenge thing! I dont think two wrongs make a right! I on the other hand cant imagine letting this happen more than once being ok… help me there…. this is where I end up torn.. kind of with a lot of things! capitol punishment… being another.. I just dont think we should play God.. BUT i dont think giving this person a chance to hurt more people is justified either! thoughts? I fight with myself over this! Great post though!

    1. Brandy,
      Yes you were just a kid. And for many more I am sorry that our collective life took such a turn. No one suggests that the perpetrator of an evil should be free to harm again. The real question lies in the manner we deem necessary to bring about justice. Take a moment and read my friend Guy’s comment. He would in no wise consider we let people harm others indiscriminately. But, there is a way that we execute justice that in itself creates as many or more difficulties. Guy points out the innocent life lost in the pursuit of “justice.”

      We have a hard time with the variety of angles an issue like 9/11, revenge, and justice take. When we talk about forgiveness but have in the back of our mind a “what if,” it undercuts the forgiveness we purport to give. For Christians, vengeance is not our prerogative. For governments we must take great care lest we look like those we “go after.”

  3. Glad your voice is in the world, Todd.

    1. Kristen, the feeling is mutual.

  4. Interesting. I pretty much preached the same thing! Always good to be reminded you are not crazy…

    1. Tim, You know what they say about some minds and same tracks. Maybe we need to adjust the old saying to include something about crazy.

  5. Guy Rittger says:

    Todd – As usual, you have zeroed in on a key feature of the American cultural and political landscape: the inability to forgive those who have wronged us. To even raise the question of what might have motivated the men who carried out the attacks was to put oneself “on the side of the terrorists”. Our self-described Christian president immediately threw down the gantlet: You are for us or against us. We will get “them”, dead or alive. This is a “crusade” of good against evil.

    To my mind, there is nothing Christian whatsoever in that response nor in the actions that have been taken subsequent to 9/11, which have taken the lives of tens of thousands of people, the vast majority as innocent as those killed in the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field.

    Not surprisingly, the Church has largely remained silent during all this, if not enthusiastically supported it in some circles. Perhaps this is ultimately because the notion of radical “forgiveness” is one of those teachings of Jesus that is altogether too hard, and gets discarded, along with a lot of the other inconvenient teachings that would require Christians to take a stand against the prevailing winds of vengeance, hatred and exceptionalism that generally arise when nationalism is stirred up by the wicked, cyncical or misguided.



    1. Guy,
      Great comment. I have often found the objection that the behavior of governments should somehow get a free pass where these matters are concerned. The problem this seems to raise is that we do not handle separating these standards and expectations well so that on personal levels we end up practicing the very thing we endorse in the public sphere. I remarked this morning that a government of, by, and for the people should have some within its polis who rise up and offer a rupture of, as you put it, radical forgiveness. I am not aiming for a dominionist approach, just something a bit more human and humane.

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