Eight years ago today, nineteen men perpetrated the deadliest terrorist attack in American history. The 9/11 attacks scarred our collective psyche permanently; if you’re like most people, you probably remember where you were when you first heard that planes had crashed into the Twin Towers and into the Pentagon. You may also remember the outpouring of love and compassion that followed the attacks; for a brief time afterward, the United States – and, indeed, most of the modern world – were beautifully unified.

What you probably don’t remember is the call to forgive the nineteen men who wilfully brought about the death of thousands – for no such call occurred. Our nation’s response was not primarily one of clemency, but one of retribution; a mere two months after September 11th, we invaded Afghanistan. We invaded, with scarcely a thought about Jesus’ command to love and to forgive our enemies.

My intention is not at all to criticize any of the political decisions made subsequent to the attacks, nor to minimize the pain and (justifiable) anger of those who lost loved ones on that day. Rather, I would simply like to pose a question: why did Jesus command us to forgive?

The Tribute in Light, a memorial where the Twin Towers once stood

The Tribute in Light, a memorial where the Twin Towers once stood

When I realized that my post was due for 9/11, I immediately knew that I wanted to write about loving our enemies. But I had very little idea of how to expound upon that subject. A post about the incredible depths of Jesus’ forgiveness didn’t strike me as particularly interesting, nor did one about how to forgive our enemies.

But eventually, an interesting post did come to mind, in the form of a question: What would I have done in Osama bin Laden’s place? If I had his background, upbringing, and psychological makeup, what choices would I have made?

For my part, this is not an easy question to answer, if only because I really have no way of analyzing what caused bin Laden to act as he did. Was he abused as a child? Is he congentially predisposed toward violence? If he were, would that be a sufficient excuse? Who knows?

As I thought about it more, I came to the conclusion that my difficulties with answering this question stem, not from my ignorance about bin Laden, but from my knowledge of myself. I can’t speak for bin Laden, but I am a card-carrying, board-certified sinner. As such, I have little faith in myself to say that I would have fared better with bin Laden’s lot than he himself did.  (I don’t mean to say that he didn’t act freely; I mean only to highlight that my free will choices haven’t always been stellar.)

Why should I forgive? God’s forgiveness serves a clear purpose; it redeems us and allows us to have eternal life. But my forgiveness achieves nothing of the sort. Why, then, should I forgive?

One main reason is that forgiveness is an exercise in acknowledging our common sinfulness. Pretty much all of the transgressions that I forgive in my friends are transgressions of which I myself am guilty – and of which I myself have been forgiven. Forgiveness is one way of saying, “I’ve been (or could have been) there.”

If we spend all of our time demonizing terrorists, we’ll forget that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – and we’ll forget that it is just as much our Christian duty to forgive a suicide bomber as it is to assist his victims. On this day of remembrance, then, let us keep in mind that evil is only ever truly vanquished when it is forgiven. Let us strive, not to destroy the evildoers around us, but to redeem the evildoers within us. And let us thank God that the love of Christ can shine even in us sinners – in the policemen, firefighters, and ordinary people whose sacrifice eight years ago we honor today.