COMMENTARY: Forgiving without forgetting

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ As we stood on the roof of his new six-story apartment building in Greenwich Village, my oldest son pointed south and asked, “Could we have seen the World Trade Center from here?”

“Yes,” I replied. At 110 stories, the twin towers were visible from much of New York City, a symbol of the city’s prowess. Their absence since the 9/11 terrorist attacks seven years ago is constantly visible, too.

Despite a gaping hole at Ground Zero that warring politicians might never agree how to fill, the missing skyline serves today as a symbol of something more than prowess. I’d call it vibrancy, flexibility and, yes, forgiveness.

Politicians in Washington might have used terrorist attacks to justify the war they wanted to fight anyway and an erosion of civil liberties that affirmed their ideology. But the city has moved on and, indeed, has thrived as never before. In the areas around Ground Zero, new jobs and new housing have been a magnet for young professionals.

In an ironic bookend that would confuse those who see only destruction, the booming area known as Battery Park City began 30 years ago using fill from construction of the World Trade Center to create new land along the Hudson River. The development’s latest gleaming expansion is using debris from Ground Zero.

No one has forgotten. Anytime a loud and strange noise occurs in Manhattan, such as the tall construction cranes that have been toppling lately, people wonder if another attack is under way. Thousands visit Ground Zero every day.

This week, as we mark the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, citizens and first-responders are crowding into worship places to remember those who died.

This determination to remember and yet to move on stands in stark contrast to the culture of endless vengeance and unquenchable extremism that launched passenger jets as missiles. That’s why I call it forgiveness.

Despite the blithe saying “forgive and forget,” true forgiveness doesn’t depend on memory lapse. True forgiveness breaks the tragic link between remembering and revenge, in which one is duty-bound to pick up the ancestral grievance and carry it forward indefinitely.

Forgetting isn’t the foundation of forgiveness. If anything, forgetting leads to more and worse offenses. Forgiveness grows out of a determination to live _ to see God’s spark of life in death, God’s healing in a wound, God’s mercy in injustice _ and then to treasure that life, even the life of the enemy, as having infinitely higher purpose than the sour, short-lived satisfaction of revenge.

This isn’t a universal view, even within Christianity. Over the centuries, Christians have written the book on never forgiving, never ceasing to punish. People tend to savor the gaping holes and their invitation to retaliation.

Yet Jesus was unmistakably clear. How many offenses must we forgive? There is no limit. “Seventy times seven” times, he said, using a convention for an infinitely large number.

In other words, stop counting the wrongs, and start living.

Will a determination to move on prevent further destruction? Will new offices, new homes and new vibrancy prevent another attack? Not likely. Life always remains a target for death. Freedom always offends oppression. Forgiveness seems weak to the vengeful.

It is a short walk from Ground Zero to Battery Park City. That walk might be America’s latest expression of freedom.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, http://www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

KRE DS END EHRICH

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