Breaking the Cycle of Hate after the Murder of Father Jacques Hamel
I should have realised by now that Twitter is not the best place to vent a sophisticated or half-germinated idea. But I was struck, in the hours after the sickening murder of Father Jacques Hamel, by the contrast between the reaction of so many of my co-religionists and that of Pope Francis.
Their tweets were, unsurprisingly, those of outrage and exasperation. They pointed to the supposedly sacrificial nature of Father Hamel’s death – the way his throat was slit by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar”; the grotesque pseudo-service conducted in Arabic around the altar – and immediately there was talk of his martyrdom, of the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the Church.
Some tweets spoke of struggle and suffering; many others angrily spoke of betrayal, of the enemy within, of time to get tough, of immigration needing to be curbed – and many said “it’s time to stop pandering to Islam, and get real” (or tough, or wise).
Then came Pope Francis’s reaction, expressed through his outgoing spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. The Pope, he said, shared the pain and horror of this “absurd violence” and condemned “all forms of hatred.”
Absurd violence? The words seemed almost trite. There was no mention of martyrdom, or even of Father Hamel. The Pope’s attention was neither on the victim nor the perpetrator, but on the nature of the act; and rather than ascribing to it any religious or ideological motive, the Pope reduced it merely to an outpouring of hate. For Francis, it was not an attack, assault or a slaying – or any of the other terms we journalists love to use to dramatise – but a meaningless, pointless act; mere hatred; an absurdity.
Struck by this, I tweeted it out, drawing attention to the contrast between the odium fidei that everyone else seemed to be talking about and Francis’s focus on the absurdity of the act. There was a big difference, I said.
The river of tweets turned into a fast-flowing current. How dare I – and, some included, the Pope – downplay the heroic martyrdom of this great priest? Why, of course he had died as result of specific hatred directed against Christianity! What greater symbolism could there be but that he was slain, like Thomas a Becket and Oscar Romero, at the altar? I was called “disgusting,” a disgrace to my faith, and hounded with questions: what would it take for me to accept he was a martyr? Surely this was an expression of Islam’s loathing of Christianity, the war “they” have declared on “us”?
One woman was so appalled she told me she regretted giving, as presents, copies of my book How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice. I suggested she might ask for them back, destroy them, and I could arrange a refund, but she preferred to remain betrayed and deceived.
I was drawing attention, I said, to the Pope’s focus on the act rather than the motives of the killers, which are at this stage – I was writing just hours after the event – frankly obscure. But based on previous ISIS-inspired acts, not least in Nice, the attackers were likely to be vulnerable, depressive losers lured into violence by radicals on the internet; to call them religious, I warned, was to buy into the Da’esh narrative, that this was a war of Islam on the West and Christianity.
Of course Father Hamel was a martyr, I quickly added (but not soon enough – the tweets are still coming): he was selected for death because of his faith and because of the Church which, as a priest, he represented; by any obvious definition, a martyr is what he is.
And yet even as I wrote this, I had a feeling that Father Jacques, if he could speak from beyond the grave, would say: but so, too, are the 235 French people killed in ISIS-inspired attacks in the past two years, some of them Jews, some of them Christians, most of them secular French people. All were targeted, in Da’esh‘s dark mind, because they were other, the enemy, the ungodly, the unrighteous – as are all Shi’ite Muslims, for example, who make up most of ISIS’s targets in the Middle East.
When he spoke of Father Hamel on the papal plane to Krakow on Wednesday, that is also how Pope Francis framed his death – as one of many. “This holy priest who died in the moment of offering the prayer for the whole Church is one,” he told journalists, “but how many Christians, how many innocents, how many children?”
Francis understands the dynamics involved, how violence breeds violence through imitation. Given the scandal that the slaying of Father Hamel was provoking – complete with the calls for, in effect, a counter-jihad (Close the borders! Interrogate all Muslims living in Europe! Get tough! Get real!) – I began to see why Francis preferred to speak of it as “absurd violence.”
They are the words he has used of Nice and other atrocities: “act of hatred,” “senseless” and so on. In other words, the slaying of a priest – for all the B-movie horror of it, the pseudo-sacrificial ritualism of it – by an ISIS militant is no more meaningful an act than the one that destroyed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or the nicois children on the Promenade des Anglais. It is the same act, an act of pointless hatred – banal, as evil is always banal.
But there was another reason Pope Francis did not speak of Father Hamel’s martyrdom. To focus on the suffering of Father Hamel is to unite around a symbol, an icon, to celebrate a shared victimhood, to become outraged. It was what Israelis do when Hamas bombs Jerusalem; it is what Hamas does when Israelis pound Gaza. The outrage unites a community, steels them for an act of retaliation (“Justice!”), makes them one against the other, and makes the other seem one.
In the fevered atmosphere that follows a devastating act of terror, martyrs (remember the IRA parading their coffins?) become touchstones of tribal indignation, a weapon, a rallying cry. You could see it happening on Twitter following Father Hamel’s terrible death.
I have learned to spot this from Rene Girard, the great Catholic thinker and the prophet of our time, who more than anyone else understood violence, what it was, where it came from, why it is so contagious – and how closely it is bound into religion and culture. He taught me to spot a sacrificial impulse. It begins with moral outrage, a mixture of fear and anxiety, and the sense, suddenly that you are at one with everyone else in your victimhood and pain, and the other – all of them – suddenly looks like the enemy.
Everyone loves to join in a scandalized, scapegoating crowd – especially politicians. Francois Hollande, who manages after each atrocity to fill precisely the role the ISIS script has allocated for him, immediately declared (for the umpteenth time) that France is “at war” with ISIS, whatever that can mean. But Father Hamel’s death led him also to announce, with Gallic grandeur, that an attack on the French Church is “an attack on France itself.” To which one was tempted to respond: Is this not the nation of laicite, where religion is banished to the private sphere? Did not your socialists declare, time and again, that Church and state, faith and nation, were irrevocably separate?
But that’s the effect of what Girard called a “scandal,” when old antagonisms vanish in the illusion of oneness (recall the chilling statement in the Gospel of John: “Herod and Pilate were reconciled that day”). A scandal creates a thrilling but aggressive feeling; the sense of oneness with others is accompanied by a search for “the contaminating element,” the one who lets the side down, the one who doesn’t quite march in step. In the hours after Father Hamel fell, when that contaminating element was me, it confirmed that what we had here was ascandale, and that the Pope had spotted that.
The Pope spots it because the Gospels do. It’s the story they tell: a story of sacrificial violence. But the story is told in such a way as to destroy it, so that we can live by another story. There is a scapegoat, but it is God, and God is innocent, free of all violence – pure love. Jesus is killed; but his Resurrection reveals the mechanism, the illusion of it all. After the Cross, sacrificial violence no longer holds sway; we have no longer need of revenge, of sacrifice, of conquest, of domination. But, of course, the lure of sacrificial violence – as Christian pogroms show – has never gone away.
The French bishops understood this. Theirs are some of the most beautiful Gospel responses to violence I have seen. None of them spoke of martyrdom, or Christians as victims; they spoke instead of a challenge now facing us all: to build a civilization of peace and love and acceptance. They said we must respond by opening our doors, not closing them; of continuing to welcome refugees; of continuing to work with Muslims and to create new spaces of dialogue and understanding. Georges Pontier, the Archbishop of Marseille, even said that the death of Father Hamel would give “real content” to this week’s massive gathering of Catholic youth in Krakow, Poland, by offering a clear choice. “We are no longer in the realm of ideas,” he said – no small thing for a Frenchman to declare – but confronted with a very new kind of war, unknown until now, one that will test our commitment to the Gospel.
We may fail. To succeed requires grasping, as result of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, that violence has no part in God’s plan; it is no-thing; it is absurd. Sacrificial violence – what ISIS believes in – is not the revival of primitive religion, but an eerily modern, ersatz, pastiche version of it. It dresses in Islam, but it could be dressed in anything. To call it “Muslim” is like calling Nazism a Greek philosophy.
ISIS seeks a caliphate, plunders the Qu’ran for justification, declares war on infidels, and wears long beards. But it is a wholly modernistic creation, a vehicle of power, the “technocratic paradigm” of domination and exploitation, applied to an ancient faith. ISIS militants are engineers, IT experts, lawyers and literalists; they are utterly Western, utterly modern, utterly unreligious. They treat Islamic history and scripture like a mining corporation treats a forest.
The very modernity of ISIS is why entering it is rapid and seamless; their militants might be mosque-going or (like the Nice killer) completely secular before making the journey, but in either case, say their friends, they overnight become automatons, spouting platitudes, like they’ve joined some sect – which of course it is. ISIS no more reflects Islam than do fundamentalists in America who kill gays or abortion doctors in the name ofLeviticus reflect Christianity.
That’s why it’s so important not to fall into the trap ISIS has set us. So many have. When I suggest that ISIS isn’t Muslim, I get told that no, Islamism is what Islam is really about – just look at life of Mohammed and his conquests; those verses in the Hadith; the caliphate, and so on. In other words, Islam is what (phrased rather differently) ISIS believes it to be.
There is a terrible irony here. When Christians claim – on the basis of a few websites (which is where ISIS gets its Islam from) – that Islam is intrinsically violent, they are following the path of ISIS militants, a path rejected by Muslim leaders across the world. And their solutions – which all involve sharply differentiating between the non-violent “us” and the intrinsically violent “them” – end up aping those of ISIS. What is Trump, if not a Western mirror of ISIS jihad? Get tough; shock and awe; protect us, destroy them.
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t huge challenges within Islam – starting with the question of how Islam has proven so vulnerable to internal colonization. Muslims face deep theological challenges in coming to terms with reason and pluralism, as Pope Benedict XVI’s prophetic Regensburg speech dared to point out. But those who wish to explain our current drama in terms of the violent “them” and the non-violent “us” are part of the mechanism that drives ISIS and which can only escalate this crisis. The real division is between those who make peace and those caught up in the mechanism; and the line runs through both religions.
When I praised, on BBC Radio 4, the response of the French bishops – who have talked about a new civilization of love and fraternity being born of this moment – the hounding on Twitter returned. What do you propose, one of them sneered: hug a suicide bomber?
Actually, yes. We have an example in Najih Shaker Al-Baldawi, an Iraqi whose response to the arrival of a suicide bomber earlier this month at his mosque was to hug him to prevent him entering, knowing that he would die in the blast. Or last December, when a Kenyan Muslim rushed to shield a group of Christians from an attack by al-Shabab militants, dying in the process, but saving their lives. Christians can understand these acts of loving self-sacrifice in response to violence; Jesus is our example. But in these cases, Muslims are our model. How many Christians would respond in this way to an attack – throwing down their life, that others may live?
We will surely find out in the coming years. The horror of the violent anarchy in Iraq and Syria is coming to our shores. That is why the response of Pope Francis and the French bishops to the murder of Father Hamel has been so extraordinary – so Gospel-rooted. They have seen the choice that lies before the nations of the West, now faced with a new kind of war on our very doorstep. They know that it is the same choice that the Gospel faces us with; but now, as Archbishop Pontier says, we are no longer in the realm of ideas. ISIS will goad and goad us until they are proven right – that religions and cultures really are at war, and destined to a showdown. We can only prove them wrong if we are capable, in the face of epic temptation, to renounce our violence, to open our doors to refugees, to build bridges with our Muslim neighbours and reject the lure of the “my-people-first” narratives of a Trump or Le Pen.
That’s what Father Jacques Hamel, who served others in the cause of the Gospel, would have wanted. And if we learn from this moment, the blood of his martyrdom will be not so much the rallying-point of our outrage as the seed of a new humanity – and we will learn what God really meant when he asked us for mercy, not sacrifice.
Austen Ivereigh is a British writer, journalist, commentator and co-founder of Catholic Voices. He is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope.