Can terrorists be forgiven? Do they have stories that ought to be heard? Is there more of importance about them than just their acts of evil? Is asking questions such as these part of contending with terrorism in our time?
It could be that answers to these questions are suggested in the biblical accounts of the execution of Jesus. Tradition tells us that there were two men crucified alongside Jesus and that they were "thieves" or "robbers." It is more likely that they were terrorists and that they were killed at the side of the dissident rabbi from Nazareth because in Roman eyes he too was a terrorist, an insurgent against the authority of the empire.
Most translations of the Bible indicate that the men crucified with Jesus were common criminals, outlaw lowlifes of the type known in all ages. In the original language of the New Testament, these men were lestai, "bandits." Yet this word does not mean merely "thief" or "one who steals." It describes one who steals and agitates with a political motive. This is why the Roman historian Josephus always used this word when referring to "revolutionaries." It is also why the New International Version of the Bible renders the word as "rebels" and the Living Bible suggests "revolutionaries" as its meaning.
The men executed with Jesus did commit robbery but they did so mainly to strike at their rulers, as a tactic for destabilizing a political order they thought was unjust and oppressive.
This meaning is confirmed even by those Bible translations that describe the two men crucified with Jesus as "thieves." Most routinely use very different language to describe the man named Barabbas, the criminal whom Pontius Pilate freed in order to appease a demanding crowd and condemn Jesus to death. Barabbas is described as an "insurrectionist," a man guilty of "sedition," and the leader of a riot. Yet the same word, lestai, is used of Barabbas as was used for the two men crucified with Jesus.
As one historian explains, the men who died at Jesus side were "political insurgents as well as robbers, people who targeted the rich and the powerful and, especially, supporters or members of the pro-Roman governments of Galilee and Judaea." Two other scholars contend, "The Greek word translated 'bandits' is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either 'terrorists' or 'freedom fighters,' depending upon one's point of view. Their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority."
This changes our understanding of the death of Jesus and those crucified beside him. Though Christians must always understand the killing of Jesus as a divinely ordained sacrifice, this does not diminish the human story around that killing. Jesus and the two men -- bandits, terrorists, freedom fighters -- with him were killed because they challenged Rome, proclaimed truth other than the authorized version of truth, and attacked the established order through "criminal acts."
In other words, they had a purpose and that purpose contained a story, a complaint and a conspiracy intent upon change.
The inclusion of terrorists in the story of Jesus' death forces us to consider several important truths. First, it affirms the maxim that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
Despite the anti-Semitic lie that Jews crucified Jesus and bear a centuries-long curse as a result, Jesus was actually popular with most Jews of his day. In fact, the small group of corrupt leaders who engineered his death feared this popularity. It is why they tried Jesus overnight and out of public view. They worried that if Rome learned how popular Jesus was it would move against Israel to prevent insurrection. To the masses, Jesus spoke of liberation from both religious and political tyranny. To Rome, Jesus was a terrorist who challenged the legitimacy of the empire. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. It is a truth we should remember.
Second, the story of Jesus and the terrorists crucified at his side reminds us that all terrorists can be forgiven. As Jesus hung upon a Roman cross, he forgave one of those with him and promised him a place in paradise. This challenges our tendency to think of terrorists as pure evil, unrepentant and undeserving of good will.
It is a difficult thought for us. We picture Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, or Muhammad Atta, ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001. We despise their evil. Our rage is justified. We cannot imagine them absolved of the horrors they have committed.
Still, there is Jesus -- himself accused of terrorism -- forgiving a dying terrorist. We must consider that in the final analysis, forgiveness may be the only lasting path out of a culture plagued by terrorism. It certainly was the path toward healing for Nelson Mandela's South Africa. It was, also, for Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.
Finally, there is the truth that each terrorist has his story. Some of these stories are genuine accounts of mistreatment and abuse that deserve to be heard. Others are delusional rants, religious fantasies or tales woven from self-justification and misplaced blame. Whatever the case, it is in the better angels of our nature to listen to these stories so long as they commend themselves to truth. Perhaps this, too, is a form of Christ-likeness. Perhaps it is also part of what distinguishes us from the terrorists.