No doubt more horrific acts have been perpetrated in history in the name of a god but none that have been so public, visible, and instantly accessible to a watching world. As Christians we may not agree with what many think about ‘Jihadi John’ – he is not the devil incarnate, a beast, a demon or sub-human – albeit his acts could undoubtedly be described as sub-human. If ever Christian people could rejoice that the God of the Bible is a God of justice, who by no means clears the guilty (Ex 34:7) and stores up his people’s tears (Ps 56:8) it’s in the light of such crimes. He is known as the ISIS butcher and last week his own father allegedly disowned him, calling him a terrorist, and animal and a dog (which itself brought no small reaction from dog-lovers) and yet this week we read of an apology making its way to his parents for his identity being revealed and their subsequent shame.
What are we to make of this? A fundamental of the Christian faith is repentance and seeking forgiveness. Becoming a believer and growing as one involves saying sorry many times – to God and to others. Christians are well versed in saying sorry and so here are four reflections related to Jihadi John’s apology that will hopefully remind us of the nature of saying the hardest words in the English language, ‘I’m sorry’:
- Who we apologise to matters. Clearly the wronged party is the one who ought to be apologised to. ‘Jihadi John’ has apologised to his parents for their shame, but there is no apology to the families of his victims for his murderous activities. There is no apology for what he has done, only for his identity being revealed. In the Bible remorse and repentance are predominantly Godward. Before becoming a Christian I didn’t apologise to the one I had wronged the most. Part of becoming one is realizing who we have wronged and then being able to direct our apologies in the right direction.
- Apologies remind us there are consequences to our actions. Experts believe ‘JIHADI JOHN’’s apology may have been made for self interested reasons, as according to the independent, ‘Muslims who dishonour their parents are thought to be more likely to go to hell’. This apology reminds us that our actions have consequences that will affect us beyond this life. There is a higher authority we must answer to and it’s interesting this is felt to varying degrees by Christians, Muslims, athiests, agnostics and radicalized terrorists. It’s not just interesting, it’s encouraging – in a world where justice is not seen to be done; and personally challenging – as there are consequences to our own actions that follow us into eternity. Mercifully, as Christians there are also consequences to Jesus’ actions that follow us into eternity and weigh in heavier than our own.
- Apologies involve shame. Usually shame caused or shame felt. Sin and shame go hand in hand as our predecessor Adam knew all too well, feeling very naked crouching behind a bush when God walked past, in the cool of the day. God given conscience is disturbed. Awareness of doing something we wish we had not done. While the remorse at what ‘Jihadi John’ did regarding his parents obviously seems drastically misdirected to us, the presence of it at all surely shows something of an acknowledgement that things with him are not what they ought to be. It is no surprise shame is involved in the alleged apology, even if it’s a trickle where there ought to be a torrent.
- Apologising takes more than words. The Bible doesn’t talk of ‘saying sorry’ so much as repenting, and repenting means turning away. It involves looking back with remorse but also looking forward with resolve. Zacchaeus gave away his great riches that had been acquired illegitimately on the day he met Jesus. We aren’t even told he was sorry, but his actions make it very plain. Perhaps it’s fair to say the authenticity of any apology only shows in time.
It is easy to think this apology – even if it was actually expressed – means nothing. How can remorse be shown to his parents for the events but not to the parents of the victims? Akin to ‘sorry for bringing shame on you now that people know it was me (but I wasn’t sorry at all before then)’. However, embarrassingly, I can identify with that statement. Isn’t remorse often felt when the act is discovered by others and we are unmasked? (Consider the adulterer, the liar, the tax evader, and the gratefulness we all have that the thoughts we think are not visible to those around us). Mercifully the God of the Bible accepts us when we come to him after being unmasked, because he is a God who in Christ is gracious, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Ex 34:6,7). That grace is available to all, even to the ‘worst of sinners’.