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Syria, hope and forgiveness

What does the plight of British children in Syria tell us about hope and forgiveness?

According to several reports, the Government has decided that the children of those who travelled to join ISIS will not be brought back to the UK.

The Independent reports that at least 30 British children are living with their mothers in refugee camps in northern Syria, often in poor conditions. The Government’s decision follows controversy around Shamima Begum, which I wrote about here This fresh decision has reopened the debate.

No one wants to see children left in such conditions. However, for some the refusal to take back these families will seem wise. It is difficult and dangerous to rescue people from a warzone, and arguably we should focus such efforts on the victims of Daesh’s crimes rather than its members or supporters. In addition, there are concerns that repatriating the children will mean bringing the parents back too, endangering British citizens if these returnees plot acts of terror. 

All the same, it could be argued that this decision will not eliminate the security risks involved. According to the Kurdish authorities: If these children are not returned to their country, rehabilitated and reintegrated into their communities, they will all become future terrorists.” These concerns from those on the ground must be heard, as how we act in this case will be taken as a sign of how committed we are to the region and its reconstruction. It does not bode well for our willingness to take on our share of this reconstruction if we will not take back our own citizens. 

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These arguments about the most prudent response will continue. But when I first heard this story, I instead thought of a passage in Ezekiel. In 18:2 – 4 we read God’s rebuke to His people’s conventional wisdom: ‘“What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child — both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.”

So, God is not unjust in dealing with His people. His justice is not a matter of collateral damage or of ignoring evil, but of holding His people responsible for their own sins. God’s justice here shapes Christian views of justice, and should shape what our hopes are for those now in Syria, including children who cannot be held responsible for the actions of their parents. 

But there’s more. As shown in Ezekiel 18, God is not merely waiting to punish sin justly, but is standing ready to forgive the wicked. Our God is one of redemption, who delights to see people turn from their own sin, as well as that of their parents. As the passage goes on in verse 23: Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

It is this God whom Jesus calls us to imitate in Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Redeemed and forgiven ourselves, we hope for the redemption and forgiveness of others – even of our enemies in war. So, our hope for those in Syria does not stop with the children. Counter to all conventional wisdom, it embraces the hope that even perpetrators of horrific evil may repent.

Some people talk as if forgiveness is the easy, less controversial part of Christianity. But in war we see that this is simply not the case. This teaching was unpopular when C.S. Lewis was writing Mere Christianity around World War II. But in response, he wrote: Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger… half of you already want to ask me, I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’ So do I. I wonder very much… [But] I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do — I can do precious little — I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it.”

So, as Christians reflecting on these issues, we should expect our hope to be difficult, even controversial. We should expect to offer something very different from the wisdom, proverbs and headlines of our day. But as followers of a crucified Saviour who rose from the dead, perhaps we should expect nothing less. 

The September-October edition of idea magazine, which will be landing on members’ doorsteps next week, explores how the church can share the Father’s heart for justice. Members will hear from David Smyth, public policy lead at the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, who, reflecting on the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland in April, says, though difficult, by the grace of God we can learn to love our enemies’. For this and much more, do look out for it. 

About the author

John began working at the Evangelical Alliance in 2016, focusing on issues of debate in parliament that are relevant to evangelical Christians in the UK. Before this he worked as a research assistant for the Church of England Bishop of Coventry, supporting his work in the House of Lords and his focus on freedom of religion or belief and global reconciliation. He holds a BA in Theology and an MPhil in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world, and he remains very interested in biblical studies and inter-religious dialogue. He also teaches English to speakers of other languages at a class run by his church.

See more from John Coleby

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