Remembering 9/11: Between Forgiveness and Revenge

On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke to a grieving nation: "The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge, huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness and a quiet, unyielding anger. None of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."

Over the last 10 years, "Never forget" has become a rallying cry for Americans. Memorials have been designed and constructed, and pillars of light climb into the Manhattan sky on each anniversary. The very date -- 9/11 -- has become a symbol of our national vulnerability and commitment to renewed security and strength. Images of the planes crashing into the towers serve as ubiquitous calls to grief and anger. A poignant photograph of firefighters erecting an American flag among the ruins symbolizes a fierce nation that will not be cowed by displays of terror and destruction. Never forget.

Last May, President Barack Obama visited firefighters in New York City. He assured them that the killing of Osama bin Laden "sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say."

Today marks the 10th anniversary of that blue-sky Tuesday morning. And it is true that no one has forgotten the shock, the loss and the wrenching pain of that day. In the intervening years, the United States has tightened security measures at airports and borders. We have sought criminals in the Middle East and waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have hunted and killed the leader of al Qaeda. We have not forgotten, and we have also not forgiven.

Seventy-six percent of Americans call themselves Christians. They cite forgiveness as a cornerstone of their faith and a hallmark of the work of Jesus in the world. The New Testament's messages on forgiveness are sometimes mixed: Jesus calls for forgiveness without bound ("seventy times seven," Matthew 18:22), but also forgiveness "if there is repentance" (Luke 17:3). There are sins that even God will not forgive (Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10), and on the cross, Jesus prays for the forgiveness of his attackers rather than forgiving them directly (Luke 23:34). But in spite of these inconsistencies, the general consensus is that forgiveness is a non-negotiable duty of faithful Christians.

And yet. The national discourse around Sept.11 contains few mentions of forgiveness. There are even T-shirts and coffee mugs that take the familiar mantra a step further: "Never forget; never forgive," thus echoing Bush's early words about "unyielding anger." Last year, protesters raised their voices in outrage at the possibility of an Islamic center built in the vicinity of Ground Zero, angrily holding all Muslims accountable for the 9/11 attacks and reducing Islam to an offensive symbol. On May 1, elite members of the military assassinated Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. This grand display of retributive justice was met stateside with raucous cheering and flag-waving. No doubt many of those celebrating in the streets that Sunday night had attended church that morning, where they would have heard that day's lectionary text about the importance of forgiveness from the Gospel of John (20:19-31). Even so, when it comes to 9/11, anger and revenge take the day.

This is not to say that it's time to talk about forgiving those responsible, or that forgiveness is even a relevant concept on a day like today. "Never forget" is exactly the right way to stand in the face of something so monstrous and so grave. In this case, collective forgiveness may have no place, because the victims -- not all Americans -- are the only ones with the ability to forgive, and the perpetrators -- not all Arabs, and not all Muslims -- are the only ones whose repentance really matters. Forgiving is in the province of the victims, but remembering is something that everyone can do, and America is a nation that does it well.

But when "Never forget" becomes a call not just for remembrance, but also for revenge, questions of forgiveness begin to play a role. And especially for American Christians, they have to. The Old Testament commands, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). And in Romans, Paul instructs, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'" (Romans 12:19). "An eye for an eye" (Exodus 21:24; Matthew 5:38), often cited as justification for revenge, was actually meant to be a prescription for reciprocal justice, not a warrant to wreak vengeful havoc.

The opposite of revenge does not have to be forgiveness. Forgoing revenge does not necessarily mean excusing the violence, or canceling the debt incurred by actions of the hijackers on that day. There is a lot of room on the spectrum between forgiveness and revenge, and we suffer when we think there are only two ways we can respond to wrongdoing.

Mary Fetchet's 24-year-old son Brad worked on the 89th floor of Tower 2. After his death, Fetchet channeled her grief and anger into lobbying Washington for an official investigation into the attack and subsequent rescue efforts. Fechet's work was instrumental in the creation of the 9/11 Commission, where she called not for revenge, but for change. "We want to prevent other families from suffering the loss we've had to endure," she said. "We want answers to our questions. We want systemic failures identified and problems resolved."

Just after the death of Osama bin Laden, Fetchet appeared on NBC Nightly News. "There is no closure when you lose a son in a terrorist attack," she said. "I wanted accountability, but I feel if you have revenge, then they win in the end." She went on to emphasize that commemoration of the victims is ultimately more productive than any act of revenge. The organization she founded, Voices of September 11, works on behalf of victims and survivors toward commemoration as well as prevention and preparedness related to terrorism.

For all Americans, especially American Christians, this 10th anniversary is a call for reflection. Must forgiveness and revenge be the only options in the wake of such a tragedy? Mary Fetchet's organization works toward remembrance and justice in the names of the nearly 3,000 victims, including 372 foreign nationals and more than 60 American Muslims. Letting go of anger and revenge does not have to mean forgiving, but it can make way for more constructive responses like activism and memorialization.

Faithful Christians are called perhaps to consider forgiveness, but definitely to eschew revenge. The American criminal justice system offers a path between these two, but when we deny the worst criminals trial by jury, as with Osama bin Laden, we embrace revenge rather than the blind justice we so value as a nation. Through memorialization we can fix the trauma in the past in meaningful ways, but when "never forget" becomes a rallying cry, we drag the past into the present in a vicious cycle of violence. When the quest for justice becomes a manhunt, the cycle repeats. And when forgiveness comes too early or too easily, the cycle stands to repeat again.

Ten years later, a way opens for the rest of Paul's words on how we should regard those who harm us: "'If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:20-21). Perhaps this looks too much like forgiveness, and perhaps it comes far too soon. For Christians, though, it presents a serious challenge: to stand in between, and to seek to repair the world rather than continue to strike blows against it. It is a way of remembering who we are, and who we are not. It is one way, perhaps, never to forget.