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Meeting Hate with Love

Meeting Hate with Love

In light of recent terrorist attacks in Sydney, Simon Smart reflects on the extraordinary acts of forgiveness and love amidst communal tension seen in the aftermath. 23/04/2024

A little over a week ago, the peace of a gloriously sunny autumn Saturday afternoon here in Sydney was shattered when a mentally disturbed man wandered into a Bondi shopping centre, pulled out a 30cm knife, and began attacking random people. He clearly targeted women. Six people died, five of them female. A nine–month–old baby girl was stabbed in the abdomen. She underwent emergency surgery and eventually pulled through. Her 38–year–old mum didn’t make it.  

A lone policewoman, who happened to be in the area, raced into the centre, confronted the knife–wielding man and shot him dead. In the end, along with the six people killed, 12 others were injured, eight of whom were women.   

For a country that tends to view world events from a detached, safe distance, it was all shockingly close to home. The impact on the community has been profound and Sunday night’s candlelight vigil, attended by around 4000 people, including the Prime Minister, spoke to a community struggling to come to come to terms with what had just occurred. 

It was only two days after the horror of Bondi that Sydneysiders woke to the news of another stabbing: this time of a bishop and a priest while they were conducting a service at ‘Christ the Good Shepherd’ Assyrian Church in southwest Sydney. The service was being live streamed. Unlike the Bondi stabbings, police are calling this a terrorist attack. While the events at Bondi left nobody with an enemy to pursue or a group to target, the church attack provided all the ingredients of a religious bonfire waiting to be lit.  

A riot ensued in response to the attack, as hundreds of supporters rushed to the church and then, incomprehensibly, attacked police with bricks and other projectiles. Paramedics were holed up inside the church for hours while police and rioters engaged in a tense stand–off. All this had politicians and community leaders on high alert. Fears of tit–for–tat violence are real. It is, after all, a completely natural human instinct to weaponise our anger and to seek revenge for wrongs committed. 

But witnesses reported that Bishop Mar Mari Emmanuel, despite being seriously injured, immediately began praying for his attacker and offering forgiveness. Once he was well enough to make an official statement from his hospital bed, he called for calm, saying he forgave “whoever has done this act”. He added, “…I will always pray for you. And whoever sent you to do this, I forgive them as well in Jesus’s mighty name”. 

It was an extraordinary reaction and one that was certainly needed to settle tensions in his community. Many of the Christians who had fled persecution in the Middle East were aghast that the violence they thought they’d escaped had been imported to their new home in Australia.   

But Bishop Emmanuel’s response was one we had seen before. Leila Abdallah, a Maronite Catholic and an associate of that same bishop, is a famous advocate of forgiveness. In February 2020 three of Leila’s children aged 13, 12 and 8, along with their 11–year–old cousin, were killed by a drunk and drug–affected driver as they walked along a footpath to buy an ice–cream.  

Leila’s very public offering of forgiveness to the driver the next day received national attention and had many people scratching their heads at such a radical act. A grieving mother reflexively offering forgiveness to the man who had so recklessly caused her loss made us all lean forward in our chairs. Guardian columnist Paul Daley wrote: “Wherever that love and forgiveness came from, millions of people … are pondering the beautiful, provocative mystery of it all.”  

Leila and her husband Danny established i4Give day, a national day of forgiveness where we are all encouraged to find someone to offer forgiveness to, or ask for forgiveness. The Abdallahs truly believe that enacting forgiveness, even for something as momentous as they experienced, is a life–giving act. “Forgiveness has allowed us to heal and grow together as a family,” says Leila. “[It] has given us the freedom from anger and resentment and bitterness.”  

Bishop Emmanuel’s response to his attackers during a week of high tension in his community echoes that of Martin Luther King Jnr’s in 1956 after his home in Montgomery was firebombed with his wife and child inside.  That night a mob of King’s angry supporters gathered on his front lawn intent on finding the culprits and administering rough justice. King addressed the gathering, urging them to go home; insisting they love their white brothers no matter what, and calling on them to follow the example of Jesus by meeting hate with love.  

In so many ways the world is feeling more unhinged. The kind of rare and radical love we’ve witnessed this week might be the only thing that will, as Robert Kennedy said on hearing of MLK’s death, “tame the savageness of man” and “make gentle the life of this world.” 


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 Photo by wal_ 172619 on Pexels

Simon Smart

Simon Smart

Simon is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, in Sydney, Australia.

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Posted 23 April 2024

Forgiveness, Religion, Terrorism


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