Yesterday one hundred and thirty-two schoolchildren were murdered by terrorists at their school in Peshawar. The funerals are already taking place, as is normal in Islamic countries. One hundred and thirty-two coffins, heartbreakingly small; one hundred and thirty-two sets of grieving parents; one hundred and thirty-two families whose future has been snatched away in a heartbeat. It is too much to bear.
Jesus, whom Christians like me believe to be the son of God, had much to say about suffering. On numerous occasions he predicted that suffering would come, that his followers would be handed over to the authorities, that they would be killed. In the Gospel of Matthew he stated that he was sending his followers out “like sheep among wolves”. Yet he also instructed us how to respond to suffering. We should not retaliate, but instead should “turn the other cheek”, we should “bless those who persecute us”. Paul, a leader of the early church, agreed: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”.
I cannot do it. When I see the pain carved into the faces of the people crowding around Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, the inchoate grief of those uttering funeral prayers over coffins that are far too small, forgiveness is far from my mind. The only thoughts in my mind are dark and murderous. May the perpetrators of this deed know nothing but pain and anguish. May their houses be destroyed, may their crops be ruined, may they weep and grieve and die far from their loved ones. I want to offer them not forgiveness, but bombs, and bullets, and violence. I – even I, a committed pacifist! – want them to look into the eyes of the weeping mothers, the anguished fathers, and know just a fraction of the unspeakable pain that is tearing their souls into pieces. The impossibility of forgiving the kind of people who would shoot schoolchildren cowering under their desks – this impossibility stares me in the face and mocks my futile rage. I am failing as a follower of Jesus
But this rage will not help. Fighting violence with more violence will only beget yet further violence. This attack was carried out in response to the army offensive against terrorists in Waziristan, an offensive that was launched in response to terrorist attacks in Pakistan, which were carried out in response to a previous offensive against terrorists in the Swat Valley….and so the cycle goes, an eye for an eye, a bomb for a bomb, a massacre in return for a massacre. The same cycle spins in Israel and Palestine, and it spins in Syria and Iraq, and it spins wearily on its bloodslicked axis wherever men with cruel faces lift rifles to their shoulders or pull pins from grenades. Nothing will change, if we carry on like this.
This is why Jesus said what he did. Because he knew that the only way out of this deepening torrent of murder and darkness was to choose a different course of action, a decision so illogical, so difficult, that it makes us want to laugh. To forgive. To refuse to bear a grudge. To offer love in the place of anger. This is why he chose to give his life in our place, uttering the words “Father, forgive them” even as men committed barbarities against him. Because this offers us a way out.
I can’t do it. But I know that I have to do it. The words of forgiveness stick in my throat, as if even my larynx cannot bring itself to utter something so contrary to human nature. It is a choice between darkness and light, and yet darkness is so much easier.
It is still too raw.