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Faith of their fathers: The question of forgiveness in Foley, Pearl murders

August 22, 2014

I’m thinking a lot these days about James Foley. He felt a calling, they say, to tell the stories of people who might not otherwise be heard. That is what makes a great journalist. It’s part of it anyway. He also clearly had courage, the kind I cannot imagine having. The kind that draws you into danger and mayhem and uncertainty. The kind that makes you vulnerable to kidnapping and — even when you are kidnapped and eventually released —allows you to return. To keep doing your job. Your calling.

I’ve never been THAT kind of journalist. No story was so important that I would put myself at such risk. The way Foley did. The way Danny Pearl did. 

Both admirable journalists. Both murdered by vicious thugs and in a manner you can’t even bring yourself to imagine.

So I’m thinking about both Foley and Pearl. And specifically about faith and religious identity. Foley, by all accounts, a believing Catholic. Pearl, a non-religious Jew who was forced to declare his Jewishness before the execution.

I imagine that prayer and belief brought Foley some measure of comfort during his captivity. In a 2011 letter to his alma mater, he wrote about faith sustained him during a previous imprisonment in Libya. And it was interesting to read what his parents have said in the days following his death. How he was a gift from God, that he drew his strength from God. The family even received a phone call from Pope Francis during which the pontiff praised Foley’s mother for her faith. And then there’s the question of forgiveness. It seems crass for a reporter to ask this so soon after their son’s death and on the very day the Foleys watched the video of the beheading, but a reporter did ask if they could forgive the killers, according to this story in the Daily News

John Foley’s response: 

“Not today,” he choked out as his voice trailed off. “As a Christian, we have to …”

I wonder how the family will grapple with the Christian concept of forgiveness in the years to come. And again, I’m brought back to Danny Pearl and his heartbroken father, Judea Pearl. I was the reporter who asked the forgiveness question, albeit seven years after Danny’s death. I looked up the column to remind myself exactly how Judea answered. 

A few minutes into our conversation about how efforts to make peace between Jews and Muslims help honor his slain son, Judea Pearl stopped me in my tracks by announcing that he believed God owed him a personal apology. Let me back up. I had called Pearl, father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, to discuss Sunday’s Abraham Walk at the Dell Jewish Community Campus. Pearl will speak at the annual interfaith event that brings together Jews, Christians and Muslims to retrace the journey made by their common ancestor, Abraham.

Our phone interview came hours before the sunset ushered in Yom Kippur, when Jews around the world gathered in synagogues to stand before God and atone for their sins. A local Jewish scholar had suggested I raise the question of how Pearl deals with his son’s murder by a militant Muslim group in Pakistan almost seven years ago when Daniel Pearl was on assignment there. What better time than Yom Kippur to talk about forgiveness?

Pearl’s answer was swift and raw.”I am Jewish. I don’t buy the Christian notion of forgiveness. I don’t think there’s any inherent mystical power in the act of forgiving. You forgive when the person who did a certain crime acknowledges regret and change of behavior. Until that happens, in the Jewish tradition, forgiveness doesn’t catch.”

Then Pearl said evenly, “God owes me a personal apology, not only to me but to all decent people in the world for betraying their expectation of what good and evil is in this world.”

This sentiment will always stay with me. How can you forgive someone who has not atoned? And why would you? And this idea of a loving God who supposedly gives you strength in your final hours? Judea Pearl had a bone to pick with that God for letting everyone down. I am glad he was so honest, so unflinching. But as someone who grew up Catholic, I also understand why the Foleys might find relief in forgiveness … one day.

I’ll be thinking about these good men — Foley and Pearl — for a long time. I am not thinking of the murderers and their vile interpretation of religion. As John Foley said so succinctly, “Not today.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack Wirtz permalink
    August 22, 2014 6:34 pm

    Forgiveness is the great abyss that separates, not just Judea Pearl, but the world and the worldly from Christ. The disciple of Christ has great respect for life, yet without a personal fear of death. Life is precious, it is a gift of GOD that may end in a moment, yet not to wasted, but with all the purpose to which we have been called_ to the glory of GOD.

    1 Peter 2:17-24
    Shew honour to all, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king. 18 Servants, [be] subject with all fear to your masters, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the ill-tempered. For this [is] acceptable, if one, for conscience sake towards GOD, endure griefs, suffering unjustly. For what glory [is it], if sinning and being buffeted ye shall bear [it]? but if, doing good and suffering, ye shall bear [it], this is acceptable with GOD. For to this have ye been called; for Christ also has suffered for you, leaving you a model that ye should follow in His steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth; who, [when] reviled, reviled not again; [when] suffering, threatened not; but gave [Himself] over into the hands of HIM who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, in order that, being dead to sins, we may live to righteousness: by whose stripes ye have been healed.

    The religion of Christ has made possible by the love of GOD in His death and resurrection.
    The Faith once delivered (Jude 3) has been made ever more indelible by the blood of the martyrs.

    Luke 12:4-6
    But I [Jesus] say to you, My friends, Fear not those who kill the body and after this have no more that they can do. But I will shew you whom ye shall fear: Fear HIM who after HE has killed has authority to cast into hell; yea, I say to you, Fear *HIM*. Are not five sparrows sold for two assaria? and one of them is not forgotten before GOD.

  2. September 17, 2014 11:20 am

    Not today, indeed. There’s a limit.

  3. October 30, 2014 5:50 pm

    Eileen, email me at and I’ll send you Debra’s email address. She would love to hear from you.

  4. Jack Wirtz permalink
    November 1, 2014 9:19 am

    Many have considered that the Saviour’s teachings as to forgiveness as impracticable; that to forgive seven times a day, to forgive seventy times seven, to forgive those who trespass against us, or else we cannot hope that our Heavenly Father will forgive our trespasses against him, belongs to some lofty ideal that we may admire like the stars, but to which ordinary humanity can never climb up.

    But there is an important distinction here in Christ’s teaching between forgiveness and the love of enemies ? We may illustrate by the example of GOD himself. He does not forgive his enemies until they repent and change into friends; yet he his agape love for all, even enemies who have not repented, and sends rain and sunshine upon them just like the just- the common blessings of his Providence.

    So we ought to want what is best for those who have wronged us, and do them any kindness which would not promote their evil designs against us; but we are under no obligation, in fact we have no right to forgive them in the strict sense of the term, to restore them to our confidence and affection, until they repent, until we have good reason to believe that they will henceforth act righteously and humanely to all.

  5. January 24, 2015 2:30 pm

    This good post could use some updating, after the Paris slayings. Hope all is well and you are getting in lots of other writing in your copious spare time. 😉

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