“of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” -C.S. Lewis
The church often bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the dysfunctional family. There is the authoritarian presence of the minister–the professional who knows all of the answers and calls most of the shots–whom few ever challenge either because they don’t dare to or because they feel it would do no good if they did. There is the outward camaraderie and inward loneliness of the congregation. There are the unspoken rules and hidden agendas, the doubts and disagreements that for propriety’s sake are kept more or less under cover. There are people with all sorts of enthusiasms and creativities which are not often enough made use of or even recognized because the tendency is not to rock the boat but to keep on doing things the way they have always been done.
It’s 9/11/2014. Thirteen years ago, our country experienced the horror of an attack on the United States by terrorists, something unprecedented for most of us. Many innocent lives were lost. Many families lost loved ones. They’re on TV today, the loved ones of those who died, once again reading the names of the lives lost on that infamous day, lives that factored so largely for them. This practice is consistent with our initial commitment shortly after 9/11 that we would “never forget.” As one reporter commented this morning, “time doesn’t heal all wounds.” I agree. The survivors of the tragedy of 9/11, whose lives have been forever altered by the thoughtless, selfish and even “evil” acts of others who decided that their loved ones didn’t matter, still show clear signs of grief and trauma. They haven’t forgotten and I’m not sure how forgiveness of the terrorists who killed their deeply missed ones factors into their future ability to move on and have a meaningful life.
Is it healthy for these survivors and families who lost loved ones to reflect on the events of that day and to acknowledge the remaining feelings of anger and sadness that they still feel? Shouldn’t they just “get over it” and “move on,” especially if they are “Christians?” A day like today and the strong feelings that most of us have about the events of 9/11 evokes feelings in most of us that are inconsistent with the thoughts and advice we glibly offer to victims of trauma. We tell victims of sexual abuse or rape or domestic violence that they are required to forgive. The wife who forgives her abusive husband again guarantees that the cycle of violence will continue to repeat itself. The child who forgives the sexual abuse of a caretaker who has violated their trust creates the opportunity for the cycle to continue. The staff member who covers up the abuse of their former senior pastor does nothing to stop the cycle from repeating with others.
So, which is it? Do we forgive and forget? Or, do we not forget and remember so that we don’t simply allow these things to continue happening? Do we still hold the terrorists accountable? Or, do we give them a pass? When we hold two contradictory thoughts that cannot be reconciled, it is called cognitive dissonance. We feel anxiety, not being able to make sense of things. To reduce dissonance, we typically revise one of the “truths” to make things less uncomfortable. My question today is, “Do you still feel anger about what the terrorists did to our country and to the families that were directly and personally impacted?” If so, how do you reconcile that with your approach to other similar situations where innocent people suffer at the hands of evildoers? How do you reduce the dissonance? In both cases, those who did what they did often show no signs of remorse and would do it again if given the opportunity.
Today is a good day to remember the reality that actions have consequences. We need to understand that being nice to others doesn’t mean that they will respond in kind (I fear that President Obama doesn’t understand this principle.). Removing personal accountability from our interpersonal relationships doesn’t create a better or a safer world. We may need to be reminded that overlooking serious offenses does not solve the problem. It doesn’t prevent future offenses from occurring. It doesn’t validate the damage that has been done to those on the receiving end in the past. It leaves victims with an abiding sense of injustice and sets them up to get stuck in complicated and unresolved grief. To make things worse, we add to the pain they already feel by telling them they need to “forgive” and “forget.” Do you feel comfortable telling the people at ground zero today to forgive the now deceased Osama bin Laden? If you’re not comfortable doing that, why is it so easy to tell a woman that was sexually abused by her father or grandfather to “forgive” him now that he’s gone? When he was living, he never acknowledged the reality of what he had done. He denied her the validation that her pain was real in response to actual events. He made her feel that she was somehow responsible for what “never happened.” Now, we glibly tell her to “forgive” him.
As for me, I identify with the sorrow and despair of those who have suffered and been so deeply impacted by the evil of others. I don’t struggle with mixed feelings about how I feel about them or about those who have perpetrated acts against them. If they’re angry today as they reflect on what happened, I don’t condemn them for feeling that way. In the same way, I identify with and support those who have suffered at the hands of other kinds of “terrorists.” Those who have been terrorized by the destructive acts of those they trusted, who still feel a deep sense of anger or betrayal and struggle daily with trying to move on with life in the aftermath, only evoke empathy in me. Is this somehow inconsistent with the character or commandments of God?
I’ve recently been thinking about the critical place of self-awareness in emotional health and maturity. It’s a critical skill and personal trait that we continue to recognize as perhaps the most important in a leader. It’s also a trait that seems painfully lacking among some of the current celebrity pastors that have “fallen from grace” before the gaze of an onlooking world and a confused church. It’s interesting that it figures so largely in some very well known passages in just that way. James talks about a person who “looks in the mirror” and in short order, “forgets what he or she sees” (James 1:22-25). This person is described as “self-deceived,” a term synonymous with a lack of self-awareness. They are “hearers only” rather than “doers.” They “talk the talk” but fail to “walk the walk.” In our modern American evangelical version of the gospel, have we so emphasized faith alone (the utterance of one “sinner’s prayer”), that we have made passages such as this irrelevant? Is self-awareness, the opposite of self-deception, required as a precursor to true faith that justifies?
Jesus Himself weighed in on this subject, using a graphic and shocking parable depicting the way in which self-awareness factors into our being right with God, justified. It’s found in Luke 18:9-14 (ESV):
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayeda thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Notice the contrast as it relates to self-awareness. The Pharisee has none. He did not see himself as “needy” but successful or “victorious,” a term thrown around in many circles of Christendom today. His lack of self-awareness not only affected his relationship or lack of one with God but also factored largely into the way he treated others, “with contempt.” He failed to see himself as he was and that lack of healthy self-awareness had devastating effects. Contrast the tax collector who saw himself in the mirror of God’s law and felt the appropriate sense of need. He looked into the mirror and saw things as they were, not with the distortion of the Pharisee. That self-awareness produced in him a healthy dose of humility which was the precursor to being justified. Is our “faith” that does not flow from healthy self-awareness, saving or justifying faith at all? How critical is this accurate view of self to not only our emotional maturity and relationships with others now but also to our eternal destiny? Jesus and his half-brother James challenge our contemporary thinking around these subjects.
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Matt. 5:3-7, ESV)