Even in Death, Coptic Christians Forgive

With mid-morning temperatures approaching 86° on Palm Sunday in April 2017, the security guard at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the seaside Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Egypt, approached and redirected a young man rushing for the church’s main entrance. Seconds later, the bomb strapped to the man’s body detonated, killing both him and the guard while dozens inside the church were spared harm by the guard’s quick actions.

Just days later, after the bomber had been identified as an ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) terrorist, the widow of that security guard was interviewed by an Egyptian television station. As she pulled her young children close to her side she announced:

“I’m not angry at the one who did this. I’m telling him, ‘May God forgive you, and we also forgive you. Believe me, we forgive you.’

“You put my husband in a place I couldn’t have dreamed of.”

While millions of Egyptians across the country marveled at what the grieving woman said, it was far from the first time in recent history that Coptic Christians have expressed forgiveness rather than revenge.

This 2015 photo is from a video released by the Islamic State showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. A  scrolling caption in the video mocked the hostages as “People of the cross, followers of the hostile Egyptian Church.

A 2011 New Year’s Eve attack in Alexandria’s Church of Two Saints killed 23 Coptics, for example. In February 2015, the Islamic State in Libya kidnapped and beheaded 21 mostly Coptic Christians on the shores of Tripoli.

A December 2016 attack at a chapel of the flagship St. Mark’s cathedral in Cairo killed 29 mostly women and children–the deadliest terrorism attack against Egyptian Christians until attacks at two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt’s Nile Delta killed more than 45 people and injured more than 100 others during Palm Sunday services in 2017. 

Men mourn over the Egyptian Coptic Christians who were captured in Libya and killed by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, at the Virgin Mary church in the village of el-Aour, near Minya, south of Cairo, Egypt. Photo by Hassan Ammar

But even in death, the Copts forgive. While Egypt’s president pledged retaliation following those tragedies, Coptic Christians continued to spread their message of forgiveness and love.
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On the night of the Palm Sunday bombings, for example, Coptic priest Fr. Boules George said he thanks and loves those who did this crime. Speaking to a congregation in Cairo’s Cleopatra neighborhood, he first addressed the terrorists and said:

“I long to talk to you about our Christ, and tell you how wonderful he is.” But then he asked those in the church, “How about we make a commitment today to pray for them? If they know that God is love and they experience his love, they could not do these things—never, never, never.”

(Watch Fr. George’s entire sermon including his explanation of why he thanks the terrorists, at this video link with subtitles.)

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient churches in the world, founded in the first century in Egypt by Saint Mark the Apostle during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. A conservative Church that shares many beliefs and practices with both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form. Today the Church has 18-22 million members worldwide with more than 75% of them in Egypt–the country’s largest Christian denomination.

Learn more at:
    •  Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
    •  Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: “With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt”
    •  ISIS Church Bombings Kill Dozens at Palm Sunday Services in Egypt 


This article was inspired by a blog post titled “The Scandal of Forgiveness in a Time of Terror” by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger on his website More Enigma Than Dogma. In his post, Foerger asks if forgiveness is ever wasted. He answers his own question with this: “On the surface I suppose forgiveness is a losing game; so is terrorism and retaliation. But go deeper and you will find forgiveness comes from a endless well – available for an ocean of need.”


 

I have heard the term “false forgiveness,” but I am not sure what it is and how can I make a clear distinction between the false variety and the real thing?

False forgiveness in essence is not about a moral response to someone who has hurt you. It is more about power than leveling the moral playing field (seeing the other and the self as precious, unique, special, and irreplaceable). There are two kinds of power-plays that someone practicing false forgiveness might show: 1) dominating the other person by constantly reminding him or her that, indeed, you have forgiven….and plan to do so tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that. You keep the other under your thumb by reminding them of how noble you are and how ignoble they are; 2) being dominated by the other person by giving in to unreasonable demands, hastily reconciling, letting the other have power over you. True forgiveness is gentle and kind, honoring the humanity of the other person and the self. It does not dominate or allow others to dominate in a relationship.

For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?

I have done a lot of forgiving in my time. There is one person whom I just can’t seem to forgive. I am very hard on her. The problem is that this person is me. How can I forgive myself? Any hints on this would be greatly appreciated.

You are not alone when you say it is hardest to forgive yourself. Most of us are harder on ourselves than on others. So, welcome to a large and not-so-exclusive club. The pathway to forgiving oneself is actually not that different from forgiving other people. That pathway, of forgiving others, is discussed in detail in the book, Forgiveness Is a Choice (available for purchase from this website). I recommend that book because the forgiveness pathway described there has the most scientific support of any forgiveness model out there.

OK, now to self-forgiveness. When you forgive yourself, the complication is that you are both an offended person and an offender. At the very least, you have offended yourself, you have broken your own standard in what you did or said. And, I might add, we rarely offend ourselves in isolation. So, a first step may be to go to those whom you have offended and say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness. Please realize that those whom you approach may or may not be ready to give the gift of forgiveness. Thus, please be patient and understanding. A second step then is to offer to yourself in forgiveness what you offer to others when you forgive them—compassion, gentleness, understanding, and love. Yes, even love. Give yourself permission, as an imperfect person, to love yourself despite what you did to offend yourself. You are larger than your actions and words. You are more important than only your unjust words and actions, as is every person in the world. Allow this perspective toward yourself to gently wash over you until you believe it. This is the essence of self-forgiveness.

Learn more at Self-Forgiveness.

I was deeply hurt by some words my best friend said to me. She kind of shocked me, actually, by what she said. I immediately said that I forgave her for that. Now I am wondering if I acted too quickly. Can a person forgive too soon?

A person can forgive falsely too soon, but there is no such thing as forgiving in a genuine way too soon. By “falsely forgive” I mean a kind of “forgiveness” that is insincere, done more out of pride or expediency rather than out of a heart-felt sense of compassion for the one who was unfair. We can “forgive” a boss who asks us, if this means keeping our job, while all the time we are fuming inside. This is not genuine and will likely not be helpful for either the forgiver or the forgiven.

On the other hand, there are actually documented cases of quick forgiveness of people who have perpetrated horrendous injustices. Here is one example: Corrie Ten Boom survived a concentration camp during World War II. She wrote a book, The Hiding Place, about her experiences. Following the war, she was in a German church talking about the virtues of forgiveness. After the talk, people came up to greet her. Much to her horror, the SS officer who abused her years ago extended his hand to her, asking for forgiveness. She did not want to grant it. She then said a quick prayer and, as she reports, she felt something like an electrical surge go through her right arm and so she was able both to shake his hand and at the same time to offer a love for this man that surprised even her. Without debating the issue of prayer here, she did experience something that day that was genuine forgiveness and was both sudden and complete.

The more you practice forgiveness, the more easily you will be able to practice it in a genuine way, at least at times and for certain circumstances.

For additional information, see The Forgiving Life.

The forgiveness path is just one more obstacle to overcome along life’s tough road. A family member of mine was murdered. I cannot see forgiving this person. Even if I did, that process seems just as outrageously hard as sitting here with no recourse toward the murderer. Am I stuck either way, as a forgiver or as someone who cries out for justice but finds none (the murderer has not been caught)?

First of all, my sincere sympathy for the pain you are being asked to endure. No one should have to go through this. The fact that you are even asking about forgiveness is showing a heroism that I want you, yourself, to see.

An important insight that you have is this: No matter what you choose, you will have pain. I would like to gently challenge one of your words: “stuck.” I can understand how you might feel stuck as someone who cries out for justice which is not forthcoming. You are not stuck, however, if you decide to forgive. I think you might be “stuck” right now because of indecision—Should you forgive or not? If you decide to go ahead, then you are no longer “stuck.” Yes, you will have pain because growth in forgiveness is painful. Yet, the pain of working through forgiveness is temporary. The pain of crying out for justice and not finding it may go on indefinitely. When you are ready to get un-stuck, please consider reading the book, The Forgiving Life. It helps you to grow in forgiving and to grow as a person of virtue—strong and even thriving in the face of great pain. I wish you the very best in your journey toward healing.

Learn more at What is Forgiveness?

Despite your response to a question on April 30 in this column, I can cite a variety of cases where the one extending mercy was indeed “higher” than the one receiving that mercy. Can you further explain your contention?

Yes, there are many examples of one person as “higher” than another in mercy, such as a judge reducing a deserved sentence of a person who is convicted of a crime.  Yet, mercy in general is going beyond what is deserved to aid someone who is suffering.  Such aid need not imply, in every case, that the one who is exercising mercy is somehow higher than the other. 

Here is an example: Let us suppose that a judge just got into an auto accident.  The judge is hurt and needs help.  Now, here comes a driver, who is a convicted person on probation.  The convicted person is late for work, under pressure, but nonetheless stops his car to aid the judge.  This is costing the convicted person who now is going beyond fairness (after all, he could simply call 911 and move on) to help the judge, who is supposedly the “higher” person. 

So, mercy is not always a moral virtue in which the “higher” person aids a lower person.  If you think about it, by our use of the word “higher” in these examples, it always involves not some kind of spiritually higher situation, but instead only a social role situation.  If we look beyond social roles, no one is higher than anyone else.  Thus, mercy is the attempt to alleviate the suffering of another, regardless of social role.

Learn more at What is Forgiveness?

It seems to me that mercy and forgiveness are different. In mercy, one person is higher than another and has pity on the one who is hurting. In forgiveness, you level the moral playing field and each are equal in their humanity. Would you please clarify for me?

Actually, forgiveness is a moral virtue that flows from mercy and mercy flows from the moral virtue of love. Yes, you are correct that when a person is showing mercy toward another, the one who is merciful is helping someone in distress. This, however, does not at all make the one who extends mercy somehow higher in humanity than the one who is in pain. They are equal as **persons** even though their **circumstances** differ.

So, to summarize, love in the Greek sense of agape, is to serve others for the others’ sake. In the serving, one may have to endure pain and persevere and actually suffer in such serving. This, in other words, does not put the one who is serving in a higher position. Mercy is a particular form of love in which the one showing mercy tries to alleviate the pain of another, which can cause the mercy-worker to feel pain and experience humility in the serving, thus leveling the moral playing field in that this is one person helping another person. Forgiveness is a special case of mercy in that the forgiver tries to serve the offending person by alleviating his or her pain, misunderstanding, and even moral weakness by helping the one who caused pain and who may be in pain because of the unjust action. In each case of love, mercy, and forgiveness, the moral virtue is one **person** serving another **person or persons** and each is equal in their personhood.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.