The common response to Islamic State’s atrocities or recent jihadist attacks in Europe has been to be afraid, to fight back, or simply to flee to a safer place. Some people, however, have sought an alternative response, one that displaces the very hate that lies behind such attacks.
Last Saturday, for example, hundreds of Muslims held hands in a “ring of peace” around a Jewish synagogue in Norway that has been attacked in the past. They wanted to display symbolic unity with all Jews in light of recent attacks on Jews in Paris and elsewhere in Europe.
The Muslims also wanted to show that Islam is a religion of love. “We must kill the prejudices we have and move on from hate,” one organizer told The Wall Street Journal.
The synagogue’s rabbi, Michael Melchior, told the encircling crowd in Oslo: “God is where rings are formed and bridges are built between people. That’s where God wants to be. That’s where the future of humanity is secured. Thank you all for coming here tonight.”
Such events or words are rarely top of the news. Their effects take place in thought and are not as visible as bombs, beheadings, or battles in Iraq or Syria. They may seem mushy or useless to many. Yet they still startle by their core message, such as the fact that religion can never justify terror.
An even more startling message has been one of forgiveness. After Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, for example, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom said he forgave the killers. He called on others to pray for them “that the value of God’s creation and human life may become more evident to them.”
“We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world,” he told CNN.
He said he takes no comfort in Egypt’s bombing of the militants in Libya. The sanctity of the lives of those killed by IS is the same as those of the killers, he says.
A similar spirit of forgiveness has been expressed by a Christian leader near the front lines of the war in Iraq.
Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest who helps run a camp in Erbil, Iraq, for Iraqis fleeing IS, explained in a Web video that he felt a duty to forgive the militants, especially after they shot and held him for a while. He seeks to instill the idea of grace among the refugees by acts of charity.
“It is not just a time for forgiveness. It is not a time for words. It is a time for work,” he told the group Samaritan’s Purse. Young people in the camp must be shown how to forgive, he said, or else “the pain and the hate will close the way to the grace of God.”
Loving those who persecute you may still seem as radical today as when Jesus preached and practiced the idea two millenniums ago. Yet when Muslims, Jews, or Christians rise up and act on the idea in the face of today’s bigoted violence, it should not be ignored. Over time, the world has become much less violent, not least because of those who create hope for a shared humanity through acts of love and forgiveness.