On the Sunday following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a troubled parishioner approached me. "I'm having a real tough time with this notion of 'turning the other cheek,'" he told me. He thought that he was under some obligation to "forgive and forget" what Osama bin Laden's henchmen had done. He also wondered if our country shouldn't seek revenge.
In our conversation, I shared a few thoughts with him, all of which seem relevant today.
First of all, I said that we human beings are incapable of forgetting misdeeds perpetrated against us. According to the Bible, only God is capable of forgetting our sins. Even in interpersonal relationships, we may forgive someone's sins against us and perhaps even rebuild the relationships. But until subsequent events allow trust to be reconstructed between us and the persons who violate us, we're foolish to ignore the things we remember.
Secondly, the New Testament's Greek word for forgive literally means release. We're slaves to our sin and its consequences until we are released from that slavery by God's forgiveness. When we refuse to forgive others, we block God's forgiveness from ourselves. When we do forgive, we allow God's forgiveness to flow to us. To forgive then, is to release another of their moral debts to us. That's why Jesus says that we should pray, "Forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us."
But it's possible to release someone--and therefore, ourselves--from the weight of sin and still allow justice, whether meted out by armies or judges, to be served. In 1981, Pope John Paul II was nearly killed by a would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. The pope recovered and Agca was incarcerated. Some time later, John Paul visited Agca in prison. There, an amazing scene unfolded, one recorded by a photographer. Agca, on bended knee, asked for the pope's forgiveness and John Paul granted it. But, as TIME magazine pointed out at the time, after granting Agca pardon, the pope nonetheless left the man who shot him to serve the balance of his prison sentence.
Forgiveness doesn't ignore the demands of justice. Put slightly differently, the giving of forgiveness doesn't preclude the doing of justice. According to the New Testament, God institutes governments on this earth so that those whose sinful impulses aren't constrained by the grace of God offered through Christ, will be thwarted or punished by the use of coercive power.
As the British government looks to act against the terrorists who bombed the London transportation system, it operates under the solemn obligation to execute justice on behalf of its citizens.
Finally and quite simply, there is a difference between vengeance and justice. Many people think that the Old Testament principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" commends vengeful justice. Not so. The principle, in fact, is designed to limit the vengeful impulses we may feel in executing justice. The punishment, this axiom tells us, is never to exceed the crime. The punishment should fit the offense.
The Old Testament tells us that vengeance is God's and God's alone. But again, God places the responsibility for earthly justice in earthly governments.