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The power of God can change the heart of a terrorist

One year after the Paris attacks, David Cook says the biblical story of Saul reminds us that even fanatics can be converted

In the early hours, French police killed two people and arrested eight others. The siege in Paris lasted an hour with over 5000 rounds fired. One female suicide bomber blew herself up. Fanatics are willing to die, rather than be captured. In their self-inflicted death, they want the maximum damage. The pattern is the same, whether in Mumbai, Paris, the UK mainland or Northern Ireland.

Fanaticism can drive people to killing themselves and others. Samson was an early example of a suicide bomber. His pulling down the pillars of the Philistine Temple was revenge for his eyes being gouged out. He died and killed more in his death than in life. But he was no fanatic.

Saul of Tarsus, later Paul, was a genuine fanatic. He was an Hebrew of the Hebrews. He was blameless in fulfilling the Law of Israel. He zealously and enthusiastically persecuted the Church. He looked after the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death. He graduated to ravaging the Church. Saul beat, arrested and sentenced to death the followers of the Way of Jesus. All this he did under the authority of the Jewish religious leaders.

Saul met the living Christ on the way to Damascus. He was transformed. It took time and study but Paul became the main missionary bringing the Gospel to Europe and the Gentiles. Fanatics can be converted.

To change people, we need to understand what makes them into fanatics. We must understand how terrorists are grown, and how people of any faith can be radicalized and driven to act against the heart of their religious teachings. We need ourselves to be educated. In Universities all over the world, I have challenged Christian students to know as much about the Bible and their faith, as they do about their academic and professional studies. Christians need to be fully informed and learn how to reach people, who are desperately seeking fulfilment and a cause worth dying for.

The difference between suicide bombers and Christian Martyrs, like Stephen or the six Jesuits slaughtered in El Salvador, 23 years ago is that these Christian Martyrs did not seek death. They didn’t want to bring destruction, but transformation of individuals, society, universities and the social and working conditions of the poor. They wanted to build up people not destroy them.

There is no way to convert those you have killed. It takes the power of God to change the heart and minds of the zealous terrorist or the neighbour next door. Meeting the risen Christ can change people, even if they seem, like Saul of Tarsus, hell-bent on destroying those around them. Terrorists win if we give up on them and give up our freedom. The sight of French and English fans at Wembley, together observing a minute of silence for those who died is only matched by the moving placing of flowers and lighting of candles. Freedom and Goodness must not be overcome.

David Cook is an expert in ethics and philosophy

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