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.