New Zealand is a country saturated in God’s common grace. I sometimes feel these islands are about as close to heaven on earth as you’ll find. Christchurch, my home, is as friendly and tranquil as any other small city on earth, and New Zealanders are a people of quiet strength—not brash and self-seeking, but resolute and generous.
Maybe above all, we’re a peaceful nation. Aotearoa has been a place of almost unparalleled safety. We are, by any human measure, uncommonly blessed.
But heaven on earth is an illusion, as we were reminded in a shocking and horrendous way on March 15. In a moment, we experienced a flash of unrestrained evil when a white nationalist entered two mosques and killed 50 people.
It has left us shell-shocked, angry, confused, exhausted, and fearful. But most of all, it’s left us grief-stricken. We are a nation in mourning—for the dead, but also for our shattered sense of peace and tranquility. In a place of such abundant blessings, it’s rare to be confronted with such unfettered evil.
In our grief and anger, New Zealanders have now spent more than a week searching for an appropriate answer. Christians in New Zealand have responded in many ways, yet we know we’re only scratching the surface. We know this attack has left a deep wound in our national psyche that will be with us for years, and will require many multi-layered responses.
Through the fog of our emotions, we know the distinctive Christian reaction must be gospel-centred and Christ-glorifying. That’s easier said than done. At such a time, it could be easy for Christians to go with the flow and be swept along with the tide of public response.
Will we as a nation find not just the relief that we want, but the hope that we need?
In many ways, that wouldn’t be a disaster, because the collective responses so far have been everything you’d hope for. But as disciples of Jesus Christ in Aotearoa, we must go further; we must respond in ways only we can.
That should begin, of course, with fervent prayer. We’ve prayed for the victims’ family members and loved ones, for first responders, for our prime minister, for our government, and for each other. We’ve prayed God would ease the fears of our Muslim friends, and that there would be no desire for “revenge attacks” of any sort, either here or abroad. We’ve prayed, more earnestly and genuinely than usual, “Come, Lord Jesus.” And yes, we’ve prayed for the terrorist.
I’ll admit I’ve found this last prayer almost impossibly hard. At a prayer meeting I attended last week, someone bravely volunteered, “We should pray for the shooter.” Of course we all knew it was right. But it still felt counterintuitive.
I’ve never felt the weight of Jesus’s words—“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—more than I have since the attack (even though it was Muslims, not Christians, who were targeted). The late atheist Christopher Hitchens felt the weight of these words and utterly rejected them. “That I will not do,” he vowed, calling it “perhaps the most immoral [injunction] of all.”
I know who my enemies are . . . I’m not going to love them. You go love them if you want; don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them and destroying them, erasing them, and you can love them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all. It’s a wicked idea and I hope it doesn’t take hold . . . What a disgusting order.
Of course, Hitchens was right . . . if there isn’t a loving God at the heart of the universe. But if God saved a rebel like me, and if God saved a committed persecutor like the apostle Paul, who am I to decide who’s beyond the bounds of his mercy?
How Do You Love a Terrorist?
It’s time for Christians in New Zealand to ask whether we’re willing to take Jesus at his word and love our enemy. How could we love this individual? How could we love a person who’s so filled with hate, who sought to inspire hatred in others, who has committed such evil and caused so much pain? Only by remembering that while we were still sinners—while we were God’s enemies—Christ died for us. Will we let this evil man be to us as the Ninevites were to Jonah? Or will we take the chance to reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, allowing it to drive us to prayer even for this man and his salvation? The hardness of his heart must be unimaginable—but we believe in a God who brings life from death and can break even the hardest hearts (Jer. 23:29).
And if this man’s heart remains hard, we can be thankful for a God of perfect justice, a God who is far angrier at this man than I will ever be. Be thankful that the Bible says, “Be angry and do not sin”—not “Never get angry.”
As we reflect deeply on the gospel of God’s grace, our thoughts also turn to our Muslim friends. And make no mistake—they are our friends. They have been targeted in a truly horrific way, and Christians should be the first to stand up against any form of hatred that would target a person or a group because of their religious beliefs. The victims weren’t just Muslims; they were also fellow human beings, made in the image of God and precious to him. We long for freedom of religion and safety for all people. We long for friendship with Muslims.
Of course, Christians and Muslims disagree about ultimate truth, and we long for opportunities to discuss those differences and proclaim the truth about Jesus and the grace he offers. We pray that God would use even tragic events to draw people from all walks of life—including the Muslim community—to a saving knowledge of his Son. But none of this means that we hate each other, that we want to hurt each other, or that we need to fear each other.
Now is a time for Christians to revere Christ as Lord, to honor him as holy (1 Pet. 3:15a). As we fix our eyes on Jesus, we’ll be equipped to make a meaningful defense of our faith and share the unique reason for our hope (1 Pet. 3:15b). As we revere Christ as Lord, we’ll be grief-stricken but not crushed as we confront the suffering of this life—remembering the hope kept in heaven for us and experiencing God’s sustaining grace. As we remember the grace and truth found in Jesus, we’ll be moved to step forth in his name, perhaps acting as modern-day Good Samaritans toward those around us, in hopes that others might see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:11–12).
Will we as a nation soften our hearts toward our Creator? Will we find not just the relief that we want, but the hope that we need? Will we, as the people of God, add to the physical outpourings of love with the most loving acts possible—our prayers to a mighty God and our words of gospel hope for our lost neighbors?