The Prodigal Runaway: On Shamima Begum

(Credit: THOR, CC BY 2.0)

by Hannah Eves, Thursday 14th March 2019

On Monday, Irish PM Leo Varadkar said that it is not right to remove citizenship from Lisa Smith, a suspected ISIS recruit, because, ‘ultimately, this is an Irish citizen, and we don’t believe that [it] would be either the right or compassionate thing to do’. In contrast, Sajid Javid has been accused of moral cowardice following the death of Shamima Begum’s three-week-old son Jarrah. Begum was denied her requests to return to the UK after leaving to join ISIS in 2015 and was stripped of her UK citizenship. Lord Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions, has said, ‘no dignified self-governing state should abandon responsibility for its own citizens in this way… Mr Javid’s behaviour is a recipe for refugee chaos and moral cowardice of the worst sort.’ It will be telling to see how Varadkar’s decision plays out in contrast to Javid’s. Begum’s case prompts the question: what is our vision for inclusive citizenship when a community member rejects the values of their country and then seeks reacceptance? Can and should a state forgive on behalf of the people when a prodigal citizen returns to the fold?

Radical openness to understand and forgive

Many have been exploring  Begum’s case through the lens of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. NT Wright commented that ‘as a Christian I cannot help reflecting that if Jesus had thought like that [against Begum returning] he would have never told the parable of the Prodigal Son, which neatly marks out his teaching both from Islam and from the cold logic of secularism.’ This is the radical openness that Jesus exhibited and called believers to.

Just last week, Fatima Bhutto (of the Bhutto Pakistani political dynasty) published a book, The Runaways, that tells three fictional stories of individuals radicalised in the West who travel east to join terrorist movements; she argues, ‘radicalism isn’t really about religion, it’s about pain, it’s about isolation, it’s about humiliation. If we don’t try to understand these things, if we don’t have a more expansive and compassionate view then I worry about the future.’ Bhutto provides insight, from her own experience of violence and exile, into the isolation that drives individuals like Begum from their home to a war zone. Shamima Begum was born in the UK, she was educated here, and she was radicalised here. We must have courage to have a more ambitious vision for understanding and forgiveness.  

Justice and proper judgement

But this is not to say that we should forgive blindly, since the bible is clear that we have been given wisdom and discernment with which to practice justice. There are precedents for punishment, but Shamima hasn’t been convicted of any crimes. She had a vulnerable baby who was also technically a British citizen. She was herself a child aged 15 when she left the United Kingdom. As Gary M. Burge, writes: ‘if we do not believe in fundamental values of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration we have lost something essential in the gospel’. How can we ‘therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’ (Romans 15:7)? By upholding and affirming structures of a just, stable and secure political order we love our neighbour – ‘the same loving justice should also allow for rehabilitation, even repentance’ as Jonathan Chaplin has put it. Whether Shamima is repentant or not is not for us to decide, she deserves a trial by justice rather than a trial of public opinion. As Caitlin Moran has pointed out, that Shamima comes across as sulky and unrepentant is not a valid basis for judgement: ‘she gave an interview in which she [was] mardy, truculent, complacent about her own actions and obtuse about how it would play out. In the subsequent furore and for no other reason, the home secretary has made her stateless.’ As Christians, we can extend the grace to believe the best and defend the institutions of justice in our country. Citizenship is not about character, it’s about rights and security in your identity as a citizen, a place you will be heard and a place you will be held accountable and can hold others to account. Bring her back, question her, exercise justice and mercy in equal measure.

If we have a vision for citizenship that transcends the secular constructions of the state and human authority, we have to be more creative than this in our extension of grace. Elizabeth Oldfield argues: ‘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’. The role of the state is less clear in the case of forgiveness. We can affirm the proper process of justice: ‘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.’ Justice is the role of the state. Under such conditions, Shamima could be restored as a citizen (with all of the responsibilities and civic duty a citizen owes to their state) while we are responsible (as citizens of another Kingdom under God) to ‘be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Eph. 4:32). We are citizens under God and so we cannot cast a member out, citizenship begets responsibility, a call to be in the world and engage thoughtfully with cases like Shamima’s.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, then, asks us to reflect on the character of God (the Father) in contrast to the character of mankind (the older son). It forces us to ask, whose heart do we most reflect in our beliefs and actions? Ultimately, we must bear in mind to ‘never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honourable. Do all that you can in live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the scriptures say, ‘I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord.’ Instead, we are tasked with something else: ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.’ (Romans 12:17-20).

Hannah Eves is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. She graduated from the University of Nottingham with an MA in Governance and Political Development.

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Category: Blogs

March, 2019

Comments (3)

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  1. Nigel Argall says:

    I’m sorry but I can’t see how the parable of the prodigal son ‘works’ here. Without taking it too literally (it is a metaphor after all), the son ‘comes to his senses’ and repents – surely that is a key part of the story? Had Shamima tried to return a year ago saying ‘I’ve made a mistake’ it would be a completely different story but she simply seems to have found herself on the losing side and now regrets that. That is not a reason to be spiteful but is a reason to abandon the prodigal son parallel.
    Hannah’s article uses a lot of emotive language – was she really a ‘child’ at 15? Surely she is a young adult or at least a young person with the growing responsibilities that involved. Was she really radicalised? What is the evidence for that? Was George Orwell ‘radicalised’ before he went to fight in the Spanish Civil War or just doing something he believed in? Why do we need to find reasons and explanations for the poor decisions people make?
    Much of the popular criticism of human rights legislation is around its divorcing of rights and responsibilities – i.e. ‘I can destroy your ability to enjoy your rights but mine remain inviolable’. I think there is a parallel here with citizenship and I think a lot of support for the Home Secretaries’ action is based on a sense of relief that someone is recognising the link between rights and responsibilities (itself a reasonably biblical concept).
    Shamima has had the benefit of residency in the UK, she has had the benefit of citizenship and a free education – all privileges that millions of Africans would love to have – indeed, many risk their lives every day in an endeavour to get them. ‘Restoration’ would be wonderful but I fear the article has a lot more to do with a secular humanist vision that if we are incessantly nice to people, they will be nice back. I’m not sure this actually works.

    • Peter Holland says:

      I think that the article by Nigel Argall makes sense. We dare not argue that if we are always nice to people they will be nice back. People have to take responsibility for their poor decisions, and live with the consequences. We all make mistakes as we are imperfect.

  2. Stephen de Garis says:

    I endorse the two comments already made in response to the article by Hannah Eves entirely. It devolves on the parable of the Prodigal Son and if it is parallel to the case of Shamima Begum. I personally think not, in spite of the considered opinions of distinguished commentators. As pointed out, repentance is the key word and surely is the whole point of the parable. How could the Father welcome back his wayward son, had the son first not truly repented? The parable says: “he finally came to his senses” and he said “Father, I have sinned” (NLT). From what has been reported by Ms Begum, she has not given evidence of that. As already pointed out: she just happened to be on the losing side. That is crucial. The Father would not be surely just to forgive His son without that first occurring. That is fundamental to belief in the nature of God. We deserve no mercy as a right, just as we do not deserve grace. Forgiveness costs – it is enormous and can never be earned. That is the message of the Cross. Today I read that a recent survey in the UK showed a minority only believe that Jesus died on the cross to forgive sins!! If that be correct, then it seems contemporary Christians have a fundamental problem in their belief. The bible cannot be clearer.
    Rights have no meaning (they are a gift) if unaccompanied by responsibilities – this point was made by one response. That is the question – as Shakespeare would have put it: no forgiveness without repentance. It is not a matter of deserving because of citizenship.

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