On September 11 as I was driving to HIEC I passed one of those famous church signs. It simply read: “There will come a judgment!” If I’m honest I was a little annoyed by the fact that on 9/11 the last thing that people need to be concerned with, or thinking about, is the kind of divine judgment that may be around the corner. After all, like most tragedies that become memorialized, many people who have lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks or in the wars since still ask why God would let such things happen to their loved ones, their communities, and America.
While the Lectionary readings on Sunday did not offer an answer to the question of why, they did suggest a posture of living in the face of tragedy and evil that is hard for anyone; namely, the posture of forgiveness. If there is anything that is hard for those who have experienced loss or hurt at the hands of others to do, it very often to forgive. But Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness are not easy nor simple. That one should forgive is an often overstated part Christianity. What is more difficult is to allow the act of forgiveness to transform the memory of the event into something that fundamentally changes one’s character. That is, that forgiveness (even 77 times as the Gospel reading suggests) is not simply a matter of giving up one’s right to hold someone a culpable, but rather a matter of allowing the event to redefine how one might live in relationship to that person, persons, or others.
In this regard, it wasn’t just the Lectionary readings for Sunday that gave shape to my experience of that church sign on 9/11; rather, it was also the weekly readings from Acts 15. After all, these stories about the inclusion and welcome of Cornelius’ family on the testimony of the Spirit of God are extremely important when considering how the church should go about its use of personal experience in the process of discernment and inclusion in the community. In these few chapters, according to Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture itself canonizes a way of decision-making that ought to influence the way the church thinks on a whole host of issues.
By my read, these two sets of readings, those about forgiveness and those about the church’s process of decision-making, raise fundamental questions about how the church in practice should embrace the call of active dialogue with “the other” down the street. In the case of 9/11, the “other” that most commonly comes to mind are those who worship in the mosques down the street. But if I’m honest, I’m challenged by the readings just as much in my own life to learn how to forgive and be transformed by my forgiving of those whose ideological renderings of Christianity fly in the face of what I believe it to be all about.
In this sense, maybe one of the real challenges for those of us committed to living interfaith lives isn’t just learning how to respect, honor, and welcome the beliefs of Muslims, Jews, and Baha’i in our neighborhoods; but rather, applying this same sense of forgiveness and radical hospitality to those who believe different than us within our own religious groups. Truly, maybe like the challenge of living in a family marked by difference of opinion, this is one of the real challenges of forgiveness and inclusion today.