Are war crimes too grievous to be forgiven?

Joshua Milton Blahyi

Joshua Milton Blahyi

Many Christians believe that any sin they commit, no matter how great, will be forgiven if they repent. But, like the Second Amendment supposedly guaranteeing the right to bear arms, that may be one of those precepts that time has passed by. For example, if Hitler (his regime killed 11 million civilians), Stalin (six million), or Chiang Kai-Shek (30 million) were to repent before they died, in the face of hitherto unforeseen numbers (save for maybe Genghis Khan), the quality of God’s mercy would likely be strained to the breaking point.

A terrorist leader such as the late Osama bin Laden accounted for the deaths of many civilians. But it usually requires the leader of a state, with the security apparatus he controls, to kill ― or set in motion a series of events culminating in the deaths of ­― large numbers of civilians. Arguably George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, as well as Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, fall under that category.

During the Liberian Civil War ― which set new standards for brutality with child soldiers, cannibalism, torture, and mutilation ­― 250,000 lost their lives from 1989 to 2003. By attempting to adhere to the letter of God’s law regarding forgiveness, one of its warlords is testing its spirit.

In an astonishing article at Der Spiegel, Jonathan Stock writes about a former commander whose name stood out even among other such colorful monikers as General Rambo, General Bin Laden, and General Satan ­― General Butt Naked. Given to leading attacks, machete in hand, while wearing nothing but sport shoes, Joshua Milton Blahyi reckons he was responsible for 20,000 lives.

After the Civil War, a truth commission attempted to establish exactly who did what. But it wasn’t endowed with the power to prosecute like the International Criminal Court. As Stock writes:

In Liberia, stability was chosen over justice, because if everyone in the country who has killed someone were charged with murder, it would probably turn into another Somalia.

Thus Blahyi was never punished for his crimes ­― by the courts that is. During the war, though, a Liberian bishop named John Kun Kun appealed to him to change his murderous ways. Blahyi eventually not only became a pastor himself, but soon became obsessed with seeking forgiveness from survivors and family members of the violence he wreaked.

“Complete forgiveness,” [Blahyi] says, forgiveness that must come from the depths of their hearts. That, he says, is God’s wish, just as the Bible states in Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Nineteen of 76 victims have forgiven him, he says. But most of the victims want nothing to do with him. They lash out at him, berate him or simply walk away in silence.

Stock accompanied Blahyi on a visit to a woman whose brother was hacked to death and whose mother and sisters were raped and killed by his men. After he begs for her forgiveness, she replies:

“It’s something that doesn’t happen right away. It’s a process. Leave me alone with myself. After a while… I will think about it. I won’t wake up and say: Oh yeah, I forgive you. That’s impossible, you know.”

Due to the extent of his crimes, God may experience just as much difficulty forgiving Blahyi ­― for a while anyway. After his death, Blahyi might find himself in hell, but, since he repented, not for eternity, sentenced instead to continue his redemption for, say, 20,000 earth years for each live taken.

Note: The author himself is not a Christian, but is using the heaven-hell scenario to demonstrate the difficulties inherent in obtaining forgiveness and redeeming oneself for war crimes.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Categories: War/Security

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4 replies »

  1. Fascinating, Russ. I had a beloved grandmother who was one those epitomes of Southern lady -ness. She and I would talk about almost anything, something she encouraged as we were both voracious readers. At one point, when I about 11 years old, I was reading history after history – mostly military stuff, especially on WWII. We were sitting on her front porch one summer evening and talking about what being good and being evil meant in terms of access to heaven or relegation to hell (she was a devout Episcopalian, so, by Southern standards, quite moderate in her religious views). Because I’d been reading those histories mentioned above and wanted to get some idea about the limits on God’s tolerance (I suppose), I asked her, “Could Hitler ever get into heaven?”

    I saw much cross her face in only moments – her husband, my grandfather (whomeI never got to meet), had been killed in an accident while working as an engineer on an aircraft carrier at the Norfolk shipyards. Her only son, my uncle, had driven LST’s and landed boys at Omaha Beach – he’d had a machine gun bullet go through the rim of his helmet (he received only a minor scratch though he was stunned by the impact). After a pause she looked at me and said, “I think perhaps there are things a person can do that God simply cannot forgive.”

    I’ve gotta go with Grandmother on this one, Russ….

  2. Not to be seen as being one who likes to pick at statistics, but Joseph Stalin was responsible for far more than six million civilian deaths. For better or worse, there is no accurate statistic for how many death warrants he signed, how many people were sent to the gulags to die or just how many millions perished in his man made famines.

    There is the well known, possibly apocryphal statement he is said to have made: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”

  3. I think it’s a good think when terrible people reform and seek redemption. But the whole idea of divine forgiveness is one of those religious concepts that makes the world a worse place. For every one bad person who tries to set things right there are who knows how many hiding behind the idea that they’ll repent on their death beds. Give me a moral atheism that doesn’t corrupt its thinking with superstition.

  4. I’m with Jim’s grandmother.

    In this case, much of evangelical prosletyzing is actually aggression in disguise. “I demand you believe what I believe.” I’d suspect this asshole is continuing his aggression by confronting his victims again. He’s relieving the glory under the guise of forgiveness.

    His god can decide whether to forgive him. We should shoot his ass.