How to Forgive Evil-Doers, Even the Westminster Terrorist. The Times, Sat 25th March, 2017
Commuting into work felt different. People across the train carriage were soberly reading the news about the attack in Westminster on their smartphones. I can imagine they, like me, were messaging their loved ones a little more than normal. Then across the public address system the train guard made the usual announcement: “If you see anything suspicious, please report it.” You could have heard a pin drop. People stopped what they were doing, raised their heads and looked around the carriage, being careful not to look anyone in the eye.
There are others waking up, if they slept at all, who feel they are in the middle of a nightmare. Except there is nothing imaginary about the situation. It is real. Their loved one was killed or seriously injured in the Westminster attack. What lies ahead are days, months and years where the events of Wednesday, March 22 will constantly replay in their minds. The grief they feel is unimaginable and the hearts of their world go out to them.
Today the words of Jesus Christ have fresh meaning and relevance: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). I don’t believe that the love Jesus speaks of here is an uncontrollable emotion, but rather a choice of will. It’s easy to love those people you like, a little more difficult to love those you dislike, but a massive challenge to love those people who hate you and want to harm you.
This week marked the death of Martin McGuinness. Some people saw him as peacemaker, politician and as the deputy first Minister of Northern Ireland. Others saw him as a murderer, terrorist and as the former leader of the Irish Republican Army. Former Government Minister Lord Tebbit, whose wife, Margaret, was left paralysed after an IRA bombing, said of McGuinness that he hoped “he’ll be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of hell for the rest of eternity.”
It is understandable and justifiable to feel anger towards our enemies. However, there is a catch. People who hate their enemies live life with deep angst and unhappiness. Sadly, their hatred does more to damage them than it does their enemies. So forgiveness is a choice for long-term freedom that takes strength. Unimaginable strength.
If you’re like me, there are times in your life when you have felt profoundly hurt by something someone else has done. My instinct has always been to protect myself, to hold those people at arm’s length. That’s a perfectly human response. But it’s all too easy to go further and demonise people and make an enemy of them.
My experiences can’t equate to those of Wednesday’s victims and their families, but I can remember times when, racked with anger, I’ve struggled to forgive. It took me weeks to forgive a colleague at work who hurt me and years to find the strength and courage to forgive a member of my family.
Putting the words “love your enemy” into practice is tremendously hard, but not impossible. In 1987 Gordon Wilson’s daughter Marie lost her life as a result of the IRA’s attack on a Remembrance day parade in Enniskillen. He had every reason for bitter recrimination, and yet he demonstrated extra ordinary love when he told an interviewer, “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.” This is the strength of choice Jesus Christ not only commands but enables. It is transformative.
Acts of terror are indefensible, inexcusable and unjustified. We may never find the answers that we are searching for in the face of such tragedy, but as I process the events of this week, I take great inspiration from the words of Jesus Christ. I will continue to pray for the victims of Wednesday’s attack and their families, but I will also be praying for the assailant.