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How the Bible reminds us that killers can, and do, change

Thought for the weekend

By Canon Walter Lewis

Events of recent days have opened up the matter of paramilitary violence and paramilitary peace in Northern Ireland. I refer to the funeral of Martin McGuinness and the controversy surrounding the first half of his life when, as an IRA leader, he openly espoused terrorist violence, and was ultimately responsible for the unwarranted deaths of many innocent people; and the second half of his life, when he rejected that violence and pioneered the path of peacemaking.

Looking back now, we can say that the paramilitary violence on both sides was morally and ethically wrong. By 1974, virtually all the civil rights reforms were in place, including the abolition of the property ownership requirement for membership of local councils, and the granting of the universal franchise of 'one man, one vote' at local level.

From the start of the Troubles in 1968, the leadership of all the Churches was clear: unanimously, they stated that the use of violence was wrong, and that the path of peace and reconciliation was the only way forward. Meantime, the bloody conflict between loyalist and republican continued in the streets, towns, housing estates, villages and farms of Northern Ireland.

In the early 1980s, and almost unexpectedly, a major change took place. An IRA hunger-striker in the Maze, Bobby Sands, stood for election in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and was elected. From that point onwards, Sinn Fein realised the power of the ballot box. Politics would steadily supersede and displace the paramilitary violence of the IRA.

Much has been said about Martin McGuinness in recent days. His life followed the pattern of the republican movement in his early days, believing that the way forward was through violence.

Eventually, he came to believe that violence was not the way, indeed that it was destructive and counter-productive. At that point, it seems, his new chosen path was working with others to build an inclusive and better society for everyone. That found its ultimate expression in his partnership with Ian Paisley in the Stormont Assembly.

Martin McGuinness made a decision to change. At one point, his life was headed in one direction. Then it was headed in the opposite direction. One could call to mind similar examples in scripture of such dramatic change. For example, Moses, a Hebrew, in a fit of rage killed a hated Egyptian. Yet, later, Moses was chosen by God to lead the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land!

In the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus, a fanatical Jewish Pharisee, pursued and arrested Jewish converts to Christianity, including Stephen - the first Christian martyr. Those stoning Stephen to death laid their garments at the feet of Saul.

Soon, however, Saul himself was to be converted from hatred and killing to Christianity. From being the arch-persecutor and killer of Christians, he became the great missionary of the early Christian Church. Moses and Saul were guilty of murder. But, they changed, and were greatly used by God.

Martin McGuinness changed. Like Moses and Saul of Tarsus, his life was turned around.

All people sin and fall short of the glory of God. You and I must constantly remind ourselves that we can stand only as we cast ourselves on the limitless mercy of God. We need also to remind ourselves that Jesus searches for us, out of love for us, and will do so until he finds us!

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