On Palm Sunday an ISIS attack on two Coptic Churches in Egypt, killed 45 worshippers. Two weeks later, the Egyptian television aired an interview with the widow of a guard of St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria who was murdered in the suicide bombing.

She left the celebrity TV host speechless by expressing and extending forgiveness towards the suicide bomber. Christianity Today wrote a great article about it. (CT Article and Video). It gives some excellent insights in how forgiveness plays out in a society where Honor/Shame is the primary worldview driver and Power/Fear is a significant contributor to people’s worldview.

The first thing it notes is that the Coptic Church is rediscovering its heritage as a church of martyrs and how it helps Copts to look inward and upward, taking their beliefs a lot more seriously. It is a good example for us the follow. Do I have the same kind of courage as this widow? Jesus said that suffering is a normal part of Christian life. Am I ready to forgive?

Next the article notes how other Egyptians marvel at this message of forgiveness, as it is so countercultural to them. The interviewees say:

“Middle Eastern Culture is based on honor and shame, demanding revenge.” 

“Cynics (in Egypt) might say that Copts are not in the position to forgive, as they have no Power, but I find it a brave act, and we need more on every level.”

It looks like you can only forgive someone if you’re in the position to punish them, or take revenge. If you don’t have the power to punish or take revenge, you can’t forgive either. Unfortunately, the result of this thinking is that feelings of hatred can linger and come up when the opportunity for retribution/revenge arises. Sometimes generations later.

For those in power, forgiveness is an act of compassion and kindness that in return brings honor, gratitude and loyalty. For those with no power forgiveness seems a useless act as it doesn’t change the situation anyways.

ISIS knows this very well. By attacking the Christians, they hope to instill fear and provoke the Christians to vent their anger and take revenge on their Muslim neighbors. That would start a cycle of violence that keeps itself going. It is similar to racial and ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world, where extremists on both sides keep widespread hatred and mistrust going by committing strategic acts of violence.

Does the fact that those “without power” forgive their enemies make a difference? Absolutely!

First of all, it caused many Copts to look inward, take their faith more serious and put their lives in perspective of being part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Secondly, it avoided adding another cycle of violence to a society that needs peace. Revenge is usually disproportionate and brings more revenge from the other side.

Thirdly, their Muslim neighbors noticed the act of forgiveness and started looking more favorably on their Christian neighbors.

Does it bring justice or reconciliation?

No, forgiveness is about giving up on pursuing justice and leaving that in God’s hands (Rom 12:17-21). Giving up on justice and retribution is the “Scandal of Forgiveness”. Reconciliation happens when both parties are willing and decide to deal with the past (and present) and restore relationships from the perspective of building a shared future. Some parts of the past would be dealt with through bringing justice and retribution and other parts would be dealt with by forgoing justice and retribution through extending forgiveness. Both parts will contribute to restoration, but it needs a willingness and commitment from both sides.

The powerful acts of forgiveness of the Copts are one-sided, yet softening the hearts of many and hopefully bring reconciliation one step closer.

How does forgiveness work out in your worldview and culture? Join us at our Facebook page for a discussion.

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Published May 11, 2017

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