If you’re wondering what horrendous crime I’ve committed, it’s simple. I requested prayer on Facebook for a newly incarcerated prisoner.

His name is Rolf Harris.

In the wake of the monstrous abuses committed by the sick, smug Jimmy Savile, the nation was understandably appalled at the Harris revelations. Perhaps our capacity for hatred increases when someone we love dearly betrays us, so news that the jaunty painter and presenter has been exposed as a serial predator was devastating. It was with a nervous heart that I wrote this post:

This is likely to create some reaction, but I feel compelled to write. My request is simple - pray for Rolf Harris today, as he is sentenced. Before picking up that stone or firing off an angry response, let me be clear: what he has done is utterly evil and reprehensible. Not only is he a child abuser, but he has allowed his victims to suffer more by not admitting his guilt and forcing them to relive their terror in court. 

Justice must and should be done. I offer not a single word of defence for these terrible crimes. Utmost in our minds must be prayers for his victims and those who perhaps have still not been heard. Our prayers are with countless others who are still in a situation of ongoing abuse, who long for liberation and justice.

But I return to the core questions. Does God love Harris? Did Jesus die for him? The answer to both is yes. And so, as he experiences utter hostility, loneliness and fear, we should pray for him that somehow he might discover Christ in the midst of this dark day.

I was stunned by the response. The posting hit more than 27,000 Facebook pages. There were hundreds of comments and more than 1,000 people pressed ‘like’. The post was republished by Christian radio stations and news websites. The vast majority were supportive, but I was not prepared for the angry eruption from the rankled few.

Some of the anger came from so-called trolls, who just like to pick a fight online, and others perhaps reacted out of their own bruising experiences of abuse. Some probably weren’t Christians and therefore might not have understood that
praying for someone is not about approving or excusing what they did. I was careful not to mention forgiveness.

But I repeat the call to pray for Harris, not least because his heart and mind need to change. How tragic it would be if he emerged from his cell chastened, but still captive to the dark compulsions that might lead him to offend again.

This is not just a prayer for change in him so that no more vulnerable people are exploited, but comes because the grace of God is so utterly stunning. Years ago in a sermon I described grace as outrageous. Worship leader and songwriter Godfrey Birtill was at that talk and wrote the now famous song, ‘Outrageous Grace’, which beautifully captures something of the wondrous love God has for each of us. If grace is not amazing, it’s not grace.

But grace is offensive at times, because it means that God likes people I want him to hate. Like Jonah, who stomped out of Nineveh because God was offering mercy to a hated people group infamous for skinning people alive. I’d like God to show mercy to nice people and nuke the Hitlers, Stalins and Yorkshire Rippers of the world. But the confusing, glorious truth is that Jesus made a habit of hanging out with the wrong people: like the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the diminutive tax fraudster, and the thief dying on the cross next to his.

Like you.

Like me.

And like Rolf Harris.