A Living Imitation Of Christ
by Brian Zahnd
On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish Muslim, approached Pope John Paul II as he traveled in an open motorcade through St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Standing only a few feet away, Ali Agca fired a gun several times, critically wounding the pope as four bullets struck his torso, right arm, and left hand. Ali Agca was immediately apprehended, and the gravely injured pope was rushed to the hospital. John Paul II would spend twenty-two days in the hospital recovering from Ali Agca’s attack. In his first statement following the attempted assassination, John Paul requested that people “pray for my brother [Ali Agca], whom I have sincerely forgiven.” And if you are inclined to casually dismiss this as just “what popes are supposed to do,” may I suggest that until quite recently this is not how a pope would be expected to respond to an attempted murder.
When we choose to forgive those who intentionally and maliciously harm us instead of perpetuating the cycle of revenge, we become a living imitation of Jesus Christ. And as we do this, we help flood a world hell-bent on paybacks with a forgiveness that washes away sin.
The world is all too full of the lust for vengeance. This lust is ultimately demonic in nature and is what fuels all our wars—from petty personal conflicts to deadly world wars. Christians are called to opt out of the game of getting even. The saying is that “vengeance is sweet,” but vengeance is sweet only to the sick soul. To those who have tasted the grace of God in Christ, vengeance is bitter as gall.
Bob Dylan talks about the perversity of calling revenge “sweet” in his underappreciated song “Dark Eyes.”
They tell me to be discreet for all intended purposes,
They tell me revenge is sweet, and from where they stand, I’m sure it is.
But I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized,
All I feel is heat and flame and all I see are dark eyes.
Revenge is not sweet. It’s the heat and flame of hell and leads to the dark eyes of a lost soul. Those who would aspire to imitate Christ must feel nothing for the game of paybacks. The saying “paybacks are hell” is true in more than one sense. Paybacks are not only hell for the recipient of revenge; paybacks are also hell for the executioner of revenge. It’s the lust for revenge that destroys our souls and keeps us chained in a devil’s hell of exponential hatred and endless retribution. The only way out is the imitation of Christ.
For many people—Catholics and Protestants alike—Pope John Paul II was a living imitation of Christ. John Paul II imitated Christ in his humility, in his embrace of the poor and oppressed, and in his patient enduring of suffering. But he most fully imitated Christ when he forgave the man who had attempted to murder him.
Two years after the attempted murder, John Paul II visited Ali Agca in prison. In a private room the two men sat knee-to-knee, face-to-face, the pope holding the hand of his would-be-assassin… and forgiving him. Like the attempted assassination, this act of forgiveness was an event reported around the world.
There are two iconic photographic images that emerged from these two dramatic encounters of Pope John Paul II and Mehmet Ali Agca. The first is a photograph of the shocked face of Pope John Paul II, his papal robe splattered with blood, just after being shot. The second is a photograph of the shocked face of Mehmet Ali Agca as the pope met with him in prison and forgave him. In both pictures a shocked face seems to be asking the same question—”Why?”
Two iconic images. Two questioning faces. The first registering the shock of being the victim of unexpected and undeserved violence. The second registering the shock of being the recipient of unexpected and undeserved forgiveness. The second picture—the one of John Paul II forgiving a visibly shaken Ali Agca—was on the cover of the January 9, 1984 issue of TIME magazine, with the caption “Why Forgive?” Why indeed? The pope’s whispered words of pardon to his would-be assassin were a clarion shout to the world: This is what Jesus looks like! This is what Christianity is! This is what Christians do!
Over the next twenty years the pope not only befriended Ali Agca but Agca’s family as well. When Ali Agca was released from prison in 2006, he held aloft a copy of the famous TIME magazine and called the man he had tried to murder his friend. I cannot think of a better contemporary example of a Christian imitating Christ than the pope’s forgiveness of Ali Agca.
Christian recording artist Steve Taylor wrote a song about Pope John Paul II and Mehmet Ali Agca, which addresses the question posed on the cover of TIME magazine—”Why Forgive?”
I saw a man
He was holding the hand
That had fired a gun at his heart…
I saw the eyes
And the look of surprise
As he left an indelible mark…
Follow his lead
Let the madness recede
When we shatter the cycle of pain…
Come find release
Go make your peace
I saw a man
With a hole in his hand
Who could offer the miracle cure…
Oh, will we live
Oh, will we live to forgive? That may be the most challenging question faced by followers of Christ. Jesus prayed for his tormentors to be forgiven when he could have called upon angels of vengeance. Stephen prayed for his executioners to be forgiven instead of calling out for revenge and payback as Matthathias had done. Pope John Paul II offered pardon as he held the hand of the man who had fired a gun at his heart. These are Christ and his imitators—ancient and modern. To follow their lead and let the madness recede and shatter the cycle of pain are what it means to bring Christian forgiveness into a world obsessed with revenge.