N. T. Wright, the esteemed theologian and former Anglican bishop, recently offered brief reflections on the case of Shamima Begum—the British teen now seeking to return home after joining ISIS in 2015—in a letter to the editor of The Times of London.
He wrote that “as a tax payer” he couldn’t fault a previous writer who warned against letting Begum come back, but “as a Christian I cannot help reflecting that if Jesus had thought like that he would never have told the parable of the Prodigal Son, which neatly marks out his teaching both from Islam and from the cold logic of secularism.”
Like Begum, American Hoda Muthana also left her home in Alabama to become an ISIS bride. Both face major government resistance as they seek to leave Syria, with the UK revoking Begum’s citizenship and the US refusing to admit Muthana, saying she never was entitled to citizenship in the first place.
CT asked scholars from the UK, US, and the Middle East: Does Jesus’ memorable parable of forgiveness inform how we treat prodigal daughters who once signed up for a jihadist group? Their answers appear below, arranged from yes to no.
Gary M. Burge, visiting professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary:
There is no doubt that two reflexes are in order when a country considers repatriating a young woman such as Begum who joined ISIS in Syria. A citizenry needs to be aware of the character of Begum’s involvement and consider if she presents a danger. But certainly, a quick-reflex rejection of her return is impulsive and reactive. We also have to wonder if there is an anti-Islamic attitude here. One might wonder if an Irish-American had once joined the IRA in the 1980s, would we have the same debate?
But there is a second reflex that deserves consideration, and here Wright is on target. If we do not believe in fundamental values of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration, then we have lost something essential in the gospel. What is striking about the parable of the Prodigal Son is that he has gone “to the far country.” By every measure in first-century Jewish society, this indicates that he has violated a boundary and crossed into the Gentile world (note the reference to pigs). He has done that which is reprehensible to those who protected boundaries and worked for the preservation of purity. The boy is an offense.
And this is the drama of the story: His father risks everything to do the unexpected and “repatriates” him to his family and village. The principle here is the same. The incoming prodigal needs to meet a community that is courageous, unexpected, and gracious. These would be Christian values at work in public policy and it would be as controversial and unconventional as Jesus was in Luke 15.
Jonathan Chaplin, political theologian and member of the divinity faculty at the University of Cambridge:
Perhaps the most basic principle of Christian political thought is the “rule of law.” Lawyers have reminded us that, according to UK law, Shamima Begum is a UK citizen by birth and entitled to reside in the UK. She is not a citizen of Bangladesh, so to revoke her citizenship, as the UK Home Secretary has done, breaches international law by rendering her “stateless.”
The rule of law equally means that any citizen suspected of breaking UK law must face the consequences. Upon her return, therefore, Begum must be questioned and, evidence permitting, prosecuted, and possibly imprisoned. Whether or not she is jailed, she should also be monitored by the security services pursuant to the government’s duty to protect other UK citizens.
All of that flows from “the rule of law.” This is not merely a procedural rule but one laden with normative meaning. Christians should champion it because they are committed to upholding the necessary requirements of a just, stable, and secure political order. That is already one way of loving one’s neighbor—of expressing the gospel in public life. Politics and government are not immune from the law of love or the practice of mercy.
The same loving justice should also allow for rehabilitation, even repentance. We don’t yet know whether Begum is open to that—so it’s perhaps premature to apply the parable of the Prodigal Son, who was evidently repentant. But like anyone who has fallen foul of the law, she must also be offered a route to reform—yes, at “taxpayers’” expense. Such reform is much more likely to happen if she is restored to her family; allowing her one surviving baby, also a UK citizen, to return to care of her family would be another expression of the same merciful justice.
Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos Think Tank in London:
Forgiveness and reconciliation are deep themes of the Bible, thrumming in the DNA of the narrative. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a moving picture of God’s mercy, and though the story seems descriptive of God’s character, rather than prescriptive for us, elsewhere the ethic of interpersonal mercy is clear. Our instincts should always be forgiveness, mercy, and even non-retaliation or violence. Do not seek vengeance, it is mine to avenge, says the Lord, after all.
Should Begum or Muthana be a friend or family member of ours, the commandment would be clear. The state however, is another matter. Mercy and forgiveness are key themes, but so is justice. And when Scripture talks about the responsibility of a good state, justice is central. Scholars of all political persuasions agree that if you can extract one directly applicable political lesson from the Bible, it’s the need for access to justice.
The myriad victims of ISIS’ brutality, to which these two contributed, will likely never see most of their tormentors face justice. With these two women they can. Not as vengeance, cast out into the stateless darkness, but repatriated and tried. Though we can forgive, the victims if they wish can forgive, the state can and should not. That’s not its job. But nor does prison need to be the end. There, visitors, chaplains, and restorative justice programs (many heavily rooted in Christian thought) can still bring some measure of healing and rehabilitation. These two young women, made in the image of God and tragically misled, have a life left to live and should be allowed to rebuild it, once justice is done. Only God gets to decide the end of their story.
Wissam al-Saliby, World Evangelical Alliance advocacy officer working with the United Nations:
The Prodigal Son is not about the son but about the father’s endless love. As such, governments and nations do not have the same relationship with their citizens as the Father does with human beings. The latter is characterized by endless love. Also, in one media account, Begum said that she doesn’t regret going to Syria to join ISIS whereas Muthana said that she deeply regrets doing so.
However, the Western world still considers that its values are Judeo-Christian. Such values include forgiveness and reconciliation—not vengeful rejection, which is the message transpiring when the UK rejected the return of a teenager who lost two children and just delivered a third, and the US refused to allow the one-time college student back.
In Lebanon, I heard stories of conversion from jihadist ideology as a result of the churches that served Syrian refugees and demonstrated God’s incarnate love. Among Arab governments, that hasn’t been the case. Jordan executed a pair of al-Qaeda prisoners (albeit on death row) as a direct response to ISIS executing a Jordanian pilot. This is vengeance. Which raises the question: What values do Western nations and their ruling elite embody?
Martin Accad, chief academic officer at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon:
I am not sure I agree to compare Begum to the prodigal son. It is clear in the parable that the prodigal son was “repentant” and came to his father for forgiveness, believing he did not even deserve it. In Begum’s case, according to reports in The Guardian, she is not repentant and only wants to return to give birth to her child and receive government support. This is quite an abusive position, very different from the parable of Jesus.
On the other hand, I find the UK government position quite repulsive for a number of reasons. First of all, if stripping Begum of her citizenship renders her stateless, then this is against international law and would not be acceptable. Though there is reason to believe that she could claim Bengali citizenship because of her family descent, she was born in the UK and has no personal direct network of family to make a new life in Bangladesh.
This brings me back to my initial intuition, which is that given that Begum was born in the UK, she is really a UK problem. Her radicalization did not take place in Bangladesh or Syria or Iraq but in the UK. How absurd that the UK authorities now want to make her someone else’s problem! I believe she should be allowed back in the UK and subjected to British prosecution according to the laws of the country where she was born and grew up. I understand that this might be a legal nightmare and that the British government has so many similar cases that it does not know what to do with them. But this is their problem, and they must bear responsibility for homegrown extremism and draw the necessary lessons from it.