Who is Beyond Forgiveness? A Conversation with The Rev. Hassan John

Jun 28, 2019

Are there sins that are so awful that God won’t extend grace? How can we respond to those in our lives who have had irreparable evil perpetrated against them? Vince and Jo are joined this week by Hassan John, an Anglican minister serving in Jos, Nigeria. Jos has become a hotbed for Boko Haram terrorist activity, and Hassan’s ministry gives him a unique insight into the ways in which God is working even in the midst of evil circumstances.

You can read a firsthand account from Hassan in the Wall Street Journal here: “Boko Haram Put a Bounty on my Head”

Question Asked in This Episode:
“My friend is a rape and sexual assault survivor. While discussing grace she said her issue with it was that her rapist is given the same grace as her or me. I did think about where the line is and who should decide who does or does not receive grace if we say the rapist should not receive grace, but I was at a loss for how I should respond to her in the moment in a meaningful way. How should I respond to her?”

Have a question you want Ask Away to cover? Email us at askaway@rzim.org or use the hashtag #askrzim on Twitter. You can also talk about this episode with fellow podcast listeners and the RZIM team on our online community.

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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I'm your host, Michael Davis.

Many people take issue with the fact that the Christian God requires faith in order to forgive sins. They believe that it is truly awful, that He just refuses to forgive everyone if He has the ability to do so. Interestingly enough, there's another group of people who think that God is immoral because He forgives people who commit truly awful sins such as rape or murder. Are there sins that are just too much for God to forgive? And who gets to determine that line? If there aren't, how is it possible that God could forgive people who hurt others in such terrible ways? But before we get started, we are excited to be joined in the studio by Hassan John, an adjunct speaker for RZIM. Hassan, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your ministry?

Hassan John: I come from Jos that's in central Nigeria. Jos is where we usually say Boko Haram cut its teeth when it started its insurgency in 2008 with the Christmas Eve bombing in Jos and I'm sure that has gone worldwide. I am also a priest of the Anglican diocese of Jos and I run the media department of the diocese. With that I've had the opportunity of doing a lot of work around the issues of insurgency, Boko Haram attacks and so many other things that have happened in Nigeria since then.

Jo Vitale: And we are just really thrilled to have Hassan here with us today in the studio. Hopefully you're going to get a sense as episode goes on, we'll be asking him some of the stories of just the way that the Lord has been working through him and is genuinely inspiring. Often when you think about and people you admire within the Christian faith, you're looking back to missionaries in the past or people who've gone before and those are great people to admire, but it's also amazing to be able to look at people in the world today who are really living for Jesus in radical ways and surrendered ways and in the midst of real trials. And the Lord is just doing profound things in his life.

We are so honored to have you here today and look forward to hearing just some of these questions answered from, just from a different global perspective. I think sometimes, we can all be in our little silos around the world. We think well Christianity means this in my context, in my little political environment here and just to hear from other believers in a very different place, facing very different challenges. It is eye opening and it helps us to regain proper perspective on our faith. We're so happy to have you here with us today, Hassan. Thank you.

Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's right. And something that I've found Hassan is, as I've gotten to know you, every time you share something about your context, even when it's different from my context, there's always something relevant and it would be wrong for me to think, well, that's not what I'm dealing with. Every time you share what you're dealing with it impacts in some way what I'm walking through and challenges me in terms of my own faith. I've been really thankful for that. Incredibly excited to have you here for sure.

Hassan John: Thank God all the time for the honor to serve Him.

Vince Vitale: Amen.

Michael Davis: Okay. Our question today is from Dave Jones. My friend is a rape and sexual assault survivor. While discussing grace, she said her issue with it was that the rapist is given the same grace as her or me. I did think about where the line is and who should decide who does or does not receive grace if we say that the rapist should not receive grace, but I was at a loss for how I should respond to her in the moment in a meaningful way. How should I respond to her?

Jo Vitale: Dave, thank you so much for asking this question, which is so important and looking at the statistics today, even here in the United States they're genuinely shocking. It's every 90 seconds a woman as a victim of sexual assault. Every nine minutes it's a child here in this country and shockingly, the numbers of people who get away with it, only five out of a thousand people ever actually wind up in prison for sexual assault. It's quite terrifying. And then you look at things like sex trafficking and I think that the government over here estimates about 800,000 women and children are trafficked across international borders into the United States. That's not even counting what's going on locally. In the last year I've met three different women giving talks. They will come forward and share with me that they were victims of sexual assault here within this country.

It's just a global epidemic. It's quite frightening, the statistics around this. And then of course, it means that there are so many women, who, and then as well who've experienced this kind of suffering and pain who are then, encountering the message of Christianity and a message of grace and thinking, well that's great for me, but what does that mean for the person who has done this to me? This is such an important question and we are so glad to have Hassan here because he can actually really help us speak to this question because Hassan played a really crucial role in helping to bring to light what took place when the Chibok school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram several years ago now. And also has been doing a lot of work in helping rescue some of those victims and bringing them back into their families. Hassan, tell us a little bit about that experience first before we even moved to this question.

Hassan John: Yes. Like I just said earlier, Boko Haram, when it started its campaign in central Nigeria and of course exploded into so many other things that it has been doing, one of the key things that I'm sure people remember internationally is the abduction of the 276 Chibok school girls. They were abducted on the 14th of April, 2014 and at that moment my government denied actually that the girls were abducted, which was horrible. And we contacted the military security organization and forces around to find out what actually happened. But they were not really forthcoming with answers. Now I have worked as a stringer. I'm still working as a stringer for CNN and at that time CNN contacted me and said, "Look, can we get to the bottom of this story?" So we did. We got to Maiduguri and eventually were able to get into Chibok after so many huddles, inclusive of my government, trying to make sure that the story didn't get out because at that time they thought it was just a political thing, trying to just make the president look very bad.

But when we eventually got into Chibok, we actually did find out that more than 300 girls actually were abducted. The official figure says 276 but there were other girls in that school writing the final exams at that time that were not documented. But one of the girls that escaped that night now told us this is how many, she shared her experiences with us. Boko Haram came in late in the evening and they did a lot of shooting around the school area, burnt some, set some buildings ablaze and then came into the school and announced to the girls that they were the army and they had come in to rescue the girls. These girls thought they were being saved from Boko Haram, but Boko Haram had already come in with, I think that night they said more than a dozen trucks. Many of them were on motorbikes. They pushed and got the girls all into this trucks and drove into the night.

Now this girl now noticed that even though some of them had military uniforms, but some of them were actually wearing flip flops or some of them had masks over their heads. She thought that this was not good. She jumped out of one of the moving trucks, ended up with a broken ankle, but stayed in the bush for about 24 hours until when she was eventually found by a search party. She now told us everything that transpired that night. And from there on we're able to relate to the world through CNN that this is what was happening because Isha Sesay was reporting from Abuja when Nemile Borger from London Bureau was reporting right in from Chibok. Then it started “The Bring back our Girls” campaign.

Jo Vitale: And so obviously being in that context, you've also helped rescue a lot of girls from out of that. And then I would imagine that you're speaking with them and they must have so many questions around this, around what's happened. Around how, as a Christian, can I even begin to process this. How does grace relate to this situation? How could I possibly even forgive the person who did this to me? Can you talk us through a little bit about, some of the rescues and how do you even begin to speak about this?

Hassan John: Yeah, this is such an important question and it's so complex because it comes with a lot of evil that has been done to young girls and men as well. When it comes to issue of rape, as of 2014 when the Chibok school girls were abducted, there were more than 2,000 other women that had been abducted, some of them were used as sex slaves. Some of them of course have been raped multiple times. And many of them when we eventually found some of them were already pregnant with children from terrorists right there in the bushes in northeastern Nigeria. It is such a difficult thing to want to address because you have people that are hurting. You have in the context again of some of the girls that we've rescued from the Boko Haram insurgency, they have little children in their arms and they look at these children and you really, it's a difficult thing to think through, especially for the girls that are involved.

Now let me say that because of the fallen nature of our world and because of the ways in which things happen that we cannot or we do not, are unable to control, you have experiences in life that come and happen again and again and again. And we gladly ask the questions, why? Why me? Why didn't God stop this? And so many other things. But we also must remember that right from Genesis chapter 2 when man fell from God's plan and paupers, we live in a world that until Jesus comes and we believe He is coming, that we will go through challenges because by God's nature, we do not think that God will stop every evil that is happening. Because if He has to do that, then He has to stop our thought process as human beings and to stop our thought process means that right before you even think of an evil act, it has to be deleted from your mind.

Then we do not, we lose our humanity. But the issue here is, as much as we see the evil, let's not also forget that we see the grace. We see the love because ultimately what is in all this is the love that God has shown us by Jesus' death on the cross. I have met two girls who came back with babies from Boko Haram and these girls just so love these babies. Now this is the way that they interpreted what has happened to them. It is evil. It is something that you don't even want to think through because of the psychological impact it has had both physically and mentally on these girls. But indeed now also they see the love of the birth of a baby, a child that is innocent, that is full of life, that has a future, that has everything attached to what God has given. Even in the evil and the and how terrible the situation is.

You still see that there is love that has encompassed the entire life that has brought in. And this girl I spoke to just looked at that baby. She said, "I love this child irrespective of what has happened to me. This is the gift of a life, that and a responsibility that I'm happy to nurture and to grow and to just pour my love on this little baby." And I looked at her, I'm completely blown because it is not something I would have thought of. But this is the story here again and again and again. I think in the last four years I've met more than 15 girls who have been, who are pregnant from radical Islamic insurgents in northeastern Nigeria and the story, none of them at any point said they didn't want the child. All of them. And it's incredible. Now, this is a different context.

I know that in the Nigerian context, but I think you see that in that, whichever way science may want to interpret it, but what we know is that God has given us the capacity to overcome evil with love that is coming right from what Jesus Christ has demonstrated by His death on the cross. Otherwise, Jesus would have said, "Well, we're all evil and we need to be destroyed." No, but in the context of God's love, we see that while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. We didn't beg Him to die for us. But you see, the love that has come from the cross is what we carry as Christians all the time.

Vince Vitale: That's well said Hassan, and I really appreciate Dave, just the tone of your question. You mentioned earlier in your question that you did have some thoughts, but then your real question was, “how should I respond to her in that moment in a meaningful way?” We just really appreciate that you could have jumped to some philosophical ideas, but you wanted to know how can I respond meaningfully in this moment in a substantial way? And as part of what Hassan has shared, not only philosophizing about this, but showing practically and concretely how God can help us to overcome and even bring new life out of something which was genuinely evil and horrible and that idea of new life, it connects in a different way to something that I was thinking Hassan. Because I can completely affirm this perspective that if someone has violated you in a terrible way, the idea of God offering grace to them and them being in Heaven with you one day and actually having to interact with that person, that could sound more like Hell than like Heaven to someone.

And that brought me to this idea of new life in a different way to John 3 when Jesus was talking with Nicodemus and Nicodemus says to Him, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him." It's interesting, he's already affirming quite a bit about Jesus. He's religious, he's a member of the Jewish council, the ruling council, and yet Jesus doesn't say that that's good enough. If you just see that God is at work in me. It has to be the other way around as well, that the Holy Spirit is actually at work in a person and changing them. And then Jesus' response, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again."

And I think that's really significant. Yes, God offers grace even to people who have violated us or done horrible things to us, but He offers grace, which is so powerful and so extravagant, that is literally that that person will be born again. They literally have to die first and then be risen as a new person, a new creation. And so through that grace that God offers, yes we will be together at least have the offer of being together for all eternity. But it won't be as if you are there with the person who has violated you in that way. You will be there with a new person.

Hassan John: That's right.

Vince Vitale: Because that's how powerful God's grace is.

Michael Davis: Do you have any, like, I'm assuming you do, someone who maybe came out of Boko Haram that has experienced this type of new life?

Hassan John: Oh yes. There are countless, countless stories and encounters we've had with people who, let me just this quick example is I'm this Muslim young man who has been radicalized. We met him in this camp in Maiduguri and he comes out and you can see the regret as we spoke. It's just, he cannot just explain why he got in in the first place. So many things, promises of this promises of that, either it's God's will and it's the promise of paradise. And there's so much money, so many guns. And there's this adventurism about the whole thing that we experienced in northeastern Nigeria. But he sits down in a talk and he says, "You know what? I regret everything I've done. If that is a way I will pay back, I will happily do so."

Because from the moment of what we might call either ignorance or radicalization, whatever that was, eventually now this young man is just happy to just do anything including meeting some of the people he feels he has hurt to just beg for their forgiveness. And we're able to go around. But the amazing, and the beautiful thing about it is each time they met with people that he felt he had hurt and trying to bring reconciliation and peace in this area is both of them are just so excited. They're just happy. Both those that have been hurt and those that have done the hurting and you can see this embrace they weep together. They cry. And one example that I know, they still work together so well, trying to help one another, not just simply out of trying to do restitution for what they've done. No, it's goes beyond that. It's difficult to explain. It's just that there's just this bonding and the love that has come out of the evil that has happened.

Jo Vitale: And that's I think partly the reason we struggle with questions like this so much is because humanly it is just an impossible to work this one out in a way where we can't imagine an injustice being done or, we cannot comprehend that we could ever reach a point of forgiveness. And I love that taking place. But I think that's precisely, in a way, it's really an argument for God's existence because only the Holy Spirit could account for transformation so powerful that it could not just bring a relationship back to tolerating, but actually to love somebody. To be able to forgive them, to have that affection for them. It's so powerful to see something like that.

Hassan John: And again, you see the experience comes in such a way that there is actually this new understanding and a precision of what life is all about and who God is in the lives of these people that we've worked with.

Vince Vitale: And Dave, just to draw attention to one other aspect of your question before we finish, you started to think along those lines of where should we draw the line for those who receive grace? And it's such a good question to ask. And the problem is that we always want to draw that line just below ourselves. However good we think we are everybody else, we're happy to judge and to criticize and we think God should draw that line just below ourselves. But the problem is that sin looks a lot different through the eyes of a perfectly holy and just God. How our lustful thoughts look like adultery to Jesus. Our unjust anger looks like murder to Jesus. When we ask that question, where should the line be drawn? Boy, if it was drawn where it should be drawn, we wouldn't be in a good position either. None of us would be. And so as we think about God's extravagant grace to others, that should allow us to turn back towards ourselves and be thankful for His grace in our lives as well.

Hassan John: That's right.

Michael Davis: Hassan, thank you so much for joining us. Vince and Jo, thank you for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next time.

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