I recently visited the Glade of Light memorial to the 22 victims of the Manchester Arena bombing which took place in May 2017. No-one who has seen it can fail to be touched by the poignancy and complete waste of life and pointlessness of the killer’s actions that tragic evening. I’m sure other similar memorials to such disasters throughout the country conjure up the same feelings of senselessness.
Who can forget the almost unbelievable sight, played out ‘live’ on television, of the 9/11 ‘plane crashes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001 which killed almost 3,000 people?
Who in their right mind can countenance any act of vengeance so horrific in the name of advancing a political, religious, racial, ideological cause or any other distorted belief?
And how many ‘near-misses’ have there been where other lives would have been lost or devastated had it not been for the police and security services intercepting the plotters’ evil plans?
Terrorist attacks have not changed World or Governmental policies or methods of dealing with such incidents and in fact have just ensured that security of public buildings is toughened up, with increased surveillance and improved inter-security service intelligence and co-operation.
I have no doubt that those people perpetrating such attacks have been brain-washed to believe that their actions are justifiable in the name of whatever organisation they belong to, or even ‘lone wolf’ operators acting independently who firmly believe their skewed doctrines and view of the world.
Many people, and particularly those whose loved ones have been killed or seriously maimed by terrorist activities, would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to forgive the attackers involved. Indeed, some of them may have lost their religious faith or beliefs because they do not understand how God can allow this type of incident to happen.
So, Graham, have you had any personal experience of people whose lives have been devastated in this way? Also, how do you think it’s possible for God to forgive such terrorists?
Rev Graham replies:
Thank you, Carol, for your question about the relationship between God and a terrorist and whether or not God is able, or would want to, forgive them. It is said that two wrongs do not make a right and it may be also said that two rights may produce a wrong!!
Life gets very complicated but there are three aspects to Christian ethics that differ from world philosophy and religions that include: Justice, Forgiveness and Love. As Christians we have the human and divine characteristics of Jesus Christ living within us by the presence of the Holy Spirit which can be found in his teaching to his disciples and exampled in the Lord’s Prayer.
In using the term terrorist, it has become quite derogatory and has different connotations depending on whom you are speaking to and what actions and feelings have been evoked. You mentioned, Carol, the events related to the Glade of Light in Manchester that acts as a memorial to the 22 people killed by a bomber who believed he was completing a noble and righteous act on behalf of Allah and the terrorist group he represented. One person’s terrorist action may be seen as humanitarian or as a sacred act on behalf of God which does not require forgiveness but perhaps praise!
However, for those who lost their lives and loved ones, they can only see it as an act of horror and one in which justice and punishment has to take place rather than any act of retribution.
In the broadest sense we may say that a terrorist is someone who seeks to use violence and intimidation to promote their own political and ideological aims. This may take place during peace times or to non-combatants during a war, seeking to produce individual and community feelings of fear. Within most societies, anyone who trespasses against another will have to face justice and imprisonment that sends a message to individuals and communities that justice and punishment has to be seen to take place to maintain law and order.
I remember working as a youth leader at Proctors Gym in Hulme, Manchester, and on various occasions we had local gangs from Moss Side visiting and wanting to create fear and terror. As staff, we had to lock the building and call the police to ensure the safety of all attending. Sometimes we also acted as peacemakers during fights and incidences amongst individual gang members.
When I worked as a Project Worker for Adullam Homes in Bury, Greater Manchester, I often visited prisons and interviewed individuals who wanted supported accommodation upon their release from custody. In conversations, I found that many were truly remorseful for the criminal acts they had committed and some found it hard to forgive themselves for what they had done to others.
A number of individuals were proud that justice had been served upon them and so ‘if they had done the time for the crime’ then they could confidently move forward in life. There were other individuals who, for whatever reason, had not been able to forgive those who had trespassed against them and felt that they had been served a life sentence that included anger, loss, sadness and an inability to move forward in life.
Forgiveness that includes saying sorry
Many people I have worked with take a view that life is Amoral, in that there is no right or wrong and all that exists is a form of jungle law where only the strongest survive and thrive in an evolutionary process. I found working with such individuals very difficult because there was no moral compass to compare actions and reactions that related to justice, consequences and resolutions.
Within such a moral framework the person/persons offended had little opportunity to find peace regarding the offence received and the person who has offended felt and expressed little sense of remorse or wrong-doing. Such an attitude is very dangerous for any society as, in the long term, it may form a recipe for anarchy.
Acts of terrorism and wars do result in the shedding of blood. When people have transgressed upon us, we are encouraged to forgive their wrong-doing as we have been forgiven before a Holy God for our own shortcomings. For the Christian, it is only through the shedding of Jesus’ blood that we are able to repent and say sorry for our own sins before God and therein receive a supernatural sense of being forgiven, upon which we are then able to forgive others (Ephesians 1: 7, Hebrews 9: 22).
It is said that we reap what we sow and, if we sow to unrighteousness, then we reap a harvest that will be different to fruit that is in-keeping with repentance and one that represents the fruit of God’s spirit. (Matthew 3: 8). To be able to feel forgiven and then offer forgiveness is a very liberating experience and something which we imitate as part of God’s amazing character which can be found in the following bible verses.
Nehemiah declares that ‘you are a forgiving God‘ (Nehemiah 9: 17). We read that ‘the Lord our God is merciful and forgiving’ (Daniel 9: 9). The character of God is one of being ‘kind and forgiving’ (Psalm 86: 5) and we have the reassurance that God ‘forgives all our sins’ (Psalm 103:3).
Love and Placement
In life, accidents and incidents happen that produce devastating consequences in which we may find it hard to forgive. Life and hope has been taken from us; we have no space in our minds and hearts to forgive. However, when we have received the everlasting love of God into our hearts through Jesus Christ, we then can have an assurance that all our own trespasses have been forgiven. In a miraculous way we find a grace to forgive those who have deeply grieved us as expressed in the famous prayer of St Francis of Assisi
Lord make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
In the experiences of life at home, work and within community, it is important to maintain justice for all peoples that are oppressed and experience injustice. We then try to move on to a place of compassion and understanding after we have apologised for anything we have done against another. This helps us to forgive those who have transgressed against us and move into an area in our hearts and minds that can be called ‘Placement’.
It is a very important area that will be a separate place where all the unforgettable hurts and troubles that have affected us may reside. We have heard it said so often “I have forgiven but I will not forget“. When true justice has completed its course and forgiveness is shared, then we have to try to let go and move on.
Pastorally I have worked with many individuals who have encountered all manner of losses which have been very hard to bear and comprehend. So, Carol, in answer to your question, can God forgive the actions of an individual terrorist and group? I would say a big Yes, because his character is one of wrath, justice, forgiveness and mercy. However, the person or group, as outlined, have to confess to their actions, be contrite and seek forgiveness and then believe that God mercifully forgives all our sins.
When we think of the most hideous crimes ever committed and all those that are taking place at the moment, it begs the question how can God allow them to take place and then forgive them? In an ironic manner, God must have allowed or invented it as a way to overcome pain and suffering and used it as a means of salvation in that, through the redeeming work of Jesus on the cross, he cried ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23: 34).
If we do not embrace forgiveness towards those who have terrorised us, it will ultimately make us very angry and unwell. There are many things in life that we cannot fully understand but we can know, in a full measure, the justice, forgiveness and mercy of God Almighty.
The Father, Son and Holy Spirt will comfort us as we mourn and accept our losses and begin to move forward with fresh hope, faith and placement.
Police – dial 999 in an emergency where there is a real and immediate threat to life or property. Dial 101 in non-emergency situations where callers will be transferred to their local police force.
Report any terrorist-related suspicious activity or behaviour on 0800 789321 or use the secure online form at gov.uk/ACT (Action Counters Terrorism).
Advice from the National Police Chiefs’ Council if you suspect any act of terrorism -RUN, HIDE, TELL
Victim Support – Tel: 0808 1689111 or www.victimsupport.org.uk if you feel you, or someone you know, needs support.
Crimestoppers – Tel: 0800 555111 – www.crimestoppers.uk.org
CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development)