weistling-refuge-strength.jpgNorthern Ireland is full of the buggers: Born Again Paramilitaries, or “BAPS” as I prefer to call them. They swan around regenerated, forgiven, no longer the bad guys who terrorised people. They’ve found Jesus. And holy Hell do they know how to moralise. Often you can detect a rather horrible aura of self-righteousness, mixed with the faint stink emanating from beneath the surface that they’re still quite proud of their past. And often these guys find themselves thrust into an elevated status by a church that idolises them and gets them to preach at every available opportunity to us lesser mortals.

I’ve heard BAPS speaking more times than George Michael’s had sex in public toilets. Which is, well, a lot probably. And every time I hear them I have an insane urge to slap them purple at the end of it all.

Seemingly Northern Ireland isn’t the only place where previously terribly evil people find Jesus. I read this week a rather disturbing news report about Milton Blahyi, a former rebel commander in Liberia’s civil war, who was referred to colloquially as “General Butt Naked” on account of his practice of going into battle without a stitch of clothing so as to “scare the enemy.” You can just imagine the panic at the enemy lines: “Holy fuck he’s coming at us with the biggest lance I’ve ever seen! Run! Run for your life, for the love of God!”

Now, civil wars are ordinarily fairly nasty occasions at best. This one in particular involved actions which many people might label as “unforgivable.” Milton Blahyi, like any good rebel commander, wanted to win in battle. So, you train your hardest, get the best men by your side, obtain reliable weaponry and draw up winning battle plans. Oh, and you also sacrifice innocent children and eat their hearts just to make sure you’ll be successful. My mum often told me that porridge was a good way to start the day and keep hunger locked up until lunch. Until now I never really thought about the virtues of a 5 year old child’s heart to turn failure into success. But apparently it lead Mr Blahyi to victory and the killing of around 20,000 people.

It has been thought for a long time that such practices were widespread throughout the period of conflict – presumably by parents whose children never came home and were found later with a hole in their chest – but this is the first time anyone has confessed to the practice. Why would he confess to it? Well, Mr Blahyi, who now calls himself “Joshua”, has become an evangelist preacher man and made the confessions to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What are we to make of Milton Blahyi, sorry – Joshua? Is it another cynical conversion for practical purposes as so many in my own country are? Is it simply to appease his own sense of guilt? Is it possible to forgive a person who behaved this way? I must admit I struggle here. Libertarians believe that people are responsible for their actions, so I don’t want to make any excuses for him along the lines of “well, he was just sucked up into a conflict like so many are in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Israel etc.” You can’t choose everything about your life but you can choose not to blow someone’s head off or eat the heart of a sacrificed child. On the other hand, libertarianism also leads me to conclude that people can change: if people aren’t sucked into killing others but instead choose to do it, then presumably they are also able to change and choose otherwise.

So I have a dilemma. Perhaps the way out is to believe that change is possible, but that doesn’t mean we must believe anyone who claims it. They must be able to prove it or give us some reason to think they’re genuine. My mother-in-law once told me a story about a BAP who came to a local minister and confessed his sins (and crimes). He wanted forgiveness. The minister prayed with him and then told him that God would forgive him but that he also needed to go to the police, confess to them, and receive whatever punishment was due. Suddenly God’s forgiveness fell sharply on his list of life priorities and he made a hasty retreat from the church. Was this the shortest conversion in history? What it shows is that many people want what the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” They want to be forgiven for their crimes without making amends. They want to forget the past without facing up to the fact that because of what they did other people are forever bound by it.

I can’t decide about “Joshua.” He was 11 years old when he was ordained as a priest in his tribe. When war broke out against President Samuel Doe he went to the defence of the president, given that they were from the same ethnic group, and fought against the militia of Charles Taylor who is currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes. One of his functions as priest was to persuade politicians of the need to sacrifice children before battle.

So, one thing in his favour was that he was 11 when he started. But, surely even 11 year olds should have a bit of sense? And he never stayed 11 either, as he got older he continued to do what he did. In addition, he has not yet said where they found the children: were they kidnapped? Or orphans? He hasn’t seen fit to disclose such details.

“Joshua” told the Commission that he confessed to his actions and was asking for forgiveness so as to help heal the wounds in his country. I would have thought that he should be confessing because it was the right thing to do and he was sorry for what he did. Moreover, he only chose to confess to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than to the authorities years before the Commission was set up (there were several years between his conversion and his confession). This Commission is based on the South African model: in which guilty parties need to publicly make a “full disclosure” of what they did in return for a possible amnesty. Amnesties for terrorists are also being discussed for the Northern Irish situation, and if you’re a guilty party it might well be expedient to tell the truth so as to have all possible charges against you nullified. I think criminals and terrorists get a pretty good deal out of it. Did “Joshua” have that in mind, and did it motivate him to confess?

What brought around this supposed change of heart in “Joshua?” Well, it seems to have happened like this: he was geared up ready for battle, weapons in his hand and his bollocks swinging in the breeze between his legs, and as he charged at the enemy in his birthday suit God appeared to him and told him he was doing Satan’s work. And that was that. He dropped his weapons, picked up a bible, and covered his testicles. He is seen today on the streets of Monrovia preaching against murder and the making of human sacrifices and telling passers-by that he is ashamed of his past.

Many Liberians aren’t convinced by people like Mr Blahyi. They think their Truth and Reconciliation Commission has about as much teeth as an 80 year old retired boxer. Many would rather have a proper war crimes court, with one commentator stating that: “If you have an individual admitting that he and his group killed over 20,000 people, certainly there should be a mechanism put in place for such people to face justice.” However, the Commission does have some power, and Mr Blahyi could still face being hanged or electrocuted, although he feels that “forgiveness and reconciliation is the right way to go.” Funny that, eh? Forgiveness or hanging? Of course he wants forgiveness. And he wants other former fighters to fess up because, “wherever they go there is a stigma on them.” Stigma? Poor babies! I guess that tends to happen when you rip out the hearts of 6 year olds and eat them Mr Blahyi.

So, I for one am not yet persuaded by Joshua, sorry – Mr Blahyi. Of course, he might well be regenerate: and libertarianism dictates that it’s possible. But on the evidence thus far there are too many reasons to be sceptical. My wife always says that you’ll find your true attitude to a person by asking yourself whether or not you would let them mind your kids.

Would you let Mr Milton Blahyi mind yours?