By choosing to forgive, we choose not to perpetuate cycle of revenge

Published August 30, 2006

On Sept. 11th, 2001, five years ago, I was in my office just three blocks south of the World Trade Center site when I heard a loud crack. Once it had been determined that a plane had collided with the World Trade Center towers, I ran up the street to see what I could do to help. Having recently been appointed as the priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s Chapel just across Church Street from the World Trade Center, whenever anyone asked me how many members I had in my congregation, I automatically replied, “60,000.” That’s how many people worked at the Trade Center. What followed that day was a harrowing melange of near-escapes, fear, heroism, and confusion. But the horror and heroics of 9/11 are only the beginning. Equally important is the story of 9/12: the day we decided as individuals and as a community to respond to the acts of violence with hearts of courage and compassion as we sought to rescue survivors and, ultimately, to find the remains of the dead. That day really lasted until June 2, 2002, when it was declared that recovery work at the World Trade Center site was finished.

On Sept. 12, I put on my boots and I walked the mile and a half from our apartment in Greenwich Village to St. Paul’s Chapel. Every step of the way my heart was beating in my throat, fully expecting to find St. Paul’s demolished. However, when I first saw the spire of St. Paul’s Chapel standing defiantly, it took my breath away. As I walked around the church, which was covered in debris and ashes, I marveled at the fact that it was still standing. But, we now had a big job to do. Over the course of the next eight and a half months, we were privileged to serve more than a half million meals, to offer chiropractors, massage therapists, podiatrists, grief counselors, food service personnel and clergy to help the rescuers in a ministry that went round-the-clock, day after day, month after month. To me this nine-month ministry at St. Paul’s was nothing less than a glimpse into the truth of the kingdom of God.

In addition to overseeing the relief efforts at St. Paul’s Chapel, I also made it a priority to make a pastoral visit every day into the World Trade Center site. As I walked through the site smelling the smells, hearing the sounds, seeing these overwhelming sights – twisted, gnarly steel and debris and the agonizing faces of the men and women doing the digging in the site – and as I said last rites and prayers and blessings over body bags and remains, the question kept coming to me, day after day: “How in God’s name – literally – how in God’s name do we end this cycle of violence, revenge, and retribution?”

Over time the answer to my heartfelt, gut-wrenching question emerged as the word forgiveness. Forgiveness, as Jesus did on the cross when he was slandered and crucified. While I had been preaching about forgiveness for years, Jesus’ agonizing words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” suddenly had deep meaning for me. In the context of the devastation and the agony referred to as Ground Zero, I finally caught a glimpse of the message of the one to whom I had dedicated my life. Forgiveness. By choosing to forgive, we choose intentionally not to perpetuate the cycle of violence and revenge. Gandhi once said that “an eye for an eye leaves both eyes blind.” Forgiveness allows us to replace “an eye for an eye” with “an eye for a heart.”

A while ago I connected with the work of Dr. Frederic Luskin who is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. He is the author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Dr. Luskin’s work shows that learning to forgive is good for our physical and emotional health. His research has shown that forgiveness reduces blood pressure, releases anger, anxiety and stress, and increases hope, compassion and wellness in those willing to forgive.

The Stanford Forgiveness Projects created a simple methodology for forgiving those who have trespassed against us. Dr. Luskin’s nine steps of forgiveness show us how to do what Jesus has asked us to do these 2,000 years since his death: to forgive. Dr. Luskin reminds us forgiveness does not mean that we excuse the evil acts perpetrated against us. Forgiveness does not mean that we cannot or should not defend ourselves. Forgiveness does not mean that we condone destructive behavior. Forgiveness does not even mean that we must reconcile ourselves with the perpetrator. Forgiveness means that we take stock of what has happened, we grieve our losses, and we deliberately make the world a better place by not repaying violence for violence.

What I would urge is that, five years after the horrific attacks of 9/11, we, the church community, publicly commit ourselves to the message of forgiveness. We commit to teaching forgiveness in our churches and model a forgiving nature. We commit to the vision of 9/12 where each of us helps heal this world which is riddled with hatred and violence. We commit ourselves to releasing our own grudges and grievances and to teach our parishes to do so as well. Finally, we commit to learn how to forgive; whether that is through prayer or to partner with those who have proven methods so that forgiveness becomes more common in this world than anger and revenge.

Rev. Lyndon F. Harris was the priest in charge of relief ministries at Ground Zero offered through Saint Paul’s Chapel after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He and Dr. Frederic Luskin are co-chairs of The Garden of Forgiveness initiative in New York (


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