Some months ago in among the flurry of events surrounding the birth of my son, I remember seeing the news that (then-Prime Minister) David Cameron had accused (leader of the opposition) Jeremy Corbyn of being a “terrorist sympathiser” because Corbyn had commented negatively on the illegal raid that lead to the murder of Osama Bin Ladin. I remember wondering at the time how a leader of the “free world” could get away with labelling his rival with such an inflammatory title simply because that rival preferred due process of international law above covert operations targeting and killing in another country’s sovereign territory without so much as a by-your-leave.
Recently an American tourist was tragically killed in a knife attack on the streets of London. In a radio interview for a national Christian radio station, a local Baptist minister was asked for his thoughts on the event. One of the questions asked by the woman doing the interview was along the lines of asking how Christians can love or forgive people who carry out such horrible attacks.
I confess to being baffled by this question.
As an aside, I can understand victims of horrible attacks struggling with anger and the inability to forgive – if they or their loved ones have been badly injured or killed in such an attack. The trauma of such an experience can well take a lifetime to recover from. Christianity has too often been culpable for guilting people who do not “forgive and forget.” We all deal with trauma and grief differently and forced “forgiveness” should not interrupt the process.
For the rest of us, who hear news almost daily of another death by violence, tragedy or terrorism, surely we should have the objective distance to understand that all the people involved in violent crimes are human beings, including the perpetrators. Acknowledging the humanity of perpetrators should not be insulting to victims. Of course, criminals should be held to account for their crimes, but that is the business of the justice system, not of every man or woman on the street.
Some years ago I happened to be attending a lecture given by a tutor in biblical studies to two dozen or so prospective candidates for Baptist ministry. He was talking about life balance and accountability in ministry. In the course of the lecture he touched on issues of misconduct including financial misconduct and affairs with members of the congregation. One phrase I remember quite clearly: never think it could never be you; that’s when you open the door to it being you.
Others have used the phrase “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” a phrase that some object to as condescending, but both these phrases can point to a single truth. As human beings, we are all capable of both great good and great evil. The things that drive us to act as we do are learned behaviours, what we have been taught, how we have understood the world, what we believe is true, etc. In another world, a different family, a different economic background, I could easily have become alcoholic, homeless, perhaps even violent. I understand anger and feelings of helplessness. I understand disorientation. In a small way, I can understand what would drive a person to violence, even terror.
Does this mean I condone such actions? Certainly not. It means that I seek to understand the brokenness behind the destructive actions of humanity, however it expresses itself. It means that I understand that I have my own brokenness and destructive behaviours. It means that when I hear the story of a person who has been killed, I am sad for the victim and his or her family, but I am also sad for the perpetrator. I wonder what drove him (or her) to such a desperate and terrible act, I wonder if s/he was mentally ill, alone, paranoid, deluded. I wonder what lies, threats or desperation drove him (or her) into extreme/fundamentalist religion.
This is how we see others as human, by knowing the darkness in ourselves, by understanding that so many things contribute to the building of a murderer, by mourning the brokenness of our world that leads to such things happening. Those who commit crimes live in the same society and world as we who do not. They did not wake up one morning and decide they would rather be “bad” than “good.” We ought not to distance ourselves from their crimes as if the dark sides of our society and our world have nothing to do with us.
We are all in this together, and until we can learn to sympathise with the terrorists, the violence will only get worse.