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Ask A Franciscan: How Can We Forgive Terrorists?

The Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Another prayer asks, “Lord, help us to forgive perfectly so that we may intercede fervently to you for them without returning evil for evil to anyone.”

Terrorists have openly proclaimed that their God has demanded death to infidels and nonbelievers. They have committed atrocious crimes against innocent humanity. We are involved in a kill-or-be-killed war. How is perfect forgiveness possible?

question. Although forgiveness is one-sided (I decide to forgive) and reconciliation must be mutual (the other person wishes to establish a better relationship), these two concepts are frequently, but mistakenly, identified as the same thing.

I can forgive someone and yet file a domestic violence complaint about that person or seek a restraining order. Forgiving a person is compatible with pursuing legal action for nonpayment of a debt. I can forgive and yet install a car alarm or home security system.

We can be confused about what genuine forgiveness looks like. I have forgiven a person when I wish for her or him whatever God wishes for that person (living as someone made in God’s image and intended to enjoy their God-given freedom). If that’s what I hope for someone, then I have already forgiven that person— though I may be far from reconciling with that individual.

People often withhold forgiveness in the hope that their decision will bring the guilty party to his or her senses—and knees. If, however, I follow that strategy and the guilty party apparently dies clueless (as happens very often), what have I gained?

You did not use the terms Muslims or Islam in your question, but currently only extremists who claim to be devout Muslims demand death for infidels—a slogan that Christians have also used in the past.

Truly devout Muslims deny that their religion can be forced on anyone or can justify the taking of innocent human life. Extremists of whatever variety live in a progressively smaller world, psychologically, with an ever-growing list of enemies.

Forgiveness breaks the injury/ retaliation cycle. In doing so, forgiveness is often regarded by other people as foolish, naïve, or simply blind to the facts. St. Paul urged the Romans, “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (12:21).

Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor, may have said it best: “I forgive the Nazis, not because they deserve it but because I deserve it.” You can forgive someone and yet have no desire to invite them to share Easter dinner with you. That or a similar gesture would represent reconciliation.

A refusal to forgive may or may not prompt the guilty party to seek forgiveness, but that refusal will certainly impose a high cost on the innocent party, who may resemble a special faucet that dispenses only boiling water.

Jesus was not foolish, naïve, or out of touch with reality when he chose to forgive those responsible for his crucifixion. Neither was St. Stephen, who forgave in advance the people ready to stone him. Many modern-day martyrs have done the same.

My decisions must remain my decisions; I cannot act like a human jukebox—originally pressing B 11 to play the record of a favored song, but now automatically initiating some negative behavior.