Monday, August 25, 2014

Witnesses in the Face of Intolerance

"Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers,
and if he does listen to teachers, it's because they are witnesses."
+Pope Paul VI
The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer
In light of journalist Jim Foley's gruesome execution, did you find yourself wondering how you would face such a death?  I couldn't help but ponder what my final thoughts and gestures would be.  Would I pray for my enemies?  Would I be able to forgive the man who was about to kill me?  
Based on an essay he wrote following an earlier abduction in 2011, entitled Phone Call Home, I'm guessing that Jim Foley met his death like countless Christian martyrs down through the centuries--that is, filled with God's grace, carried by the Holy Spirit, and sustained by the love of Christ present in his heart.  Perhaps it's more than a coincidence that his murder fell so close to the Church's commemoration of the passion of St. John the Baptist (August 29th).
And what about the Christian witness provided by his family?!  The secular press seemed almost shocked to find a Catholic family which was palpably sustained by its faith.  Again, I couldn't help but wonder what my response would be if one of my loved ones was so brutally murdered.  Would I turn to prayer or thirst for vengeance?   Would I be the Christian witness which (post)modern people so desperately long to see, or would my response be just as worldly as that of any non-believer?
Ultimately, there is one question whose answer points to whether or not we would be witnesses under such extreme circumstances:  For Jesus asks each of us each day, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15). 
If I really believe that Jesus is who he says he is--and that God has definitively spoken to us in his Son, then there is no power on earth that I should fear.  Death itself should be not a matter of darkness or an end to the story of my life, but should point to the mysterious light of Christ's cross and so mark the beginning of a much greater chapter of my life.
Yet each of us has many opportunities to show our commitment to Christ each day.  The circumstances may seem less dramatic, and there may be no immanent threat of bloodshed, but we can be "white" witnesses--bloodless martyrs--each time that we:
  • Speak of Jesus' revelation of self-giving love, in the face of a sneering secularism bent on making godlessness the cultural norm.
  • Defend the defenseless--whether they be unborn or elderly, migrants or sweat-shop laborers--, in the face of a society which values only productivity and profit.
  • Stand against the use of violent force, in the face of an always ready-to-rationalize national self-interest.
  • Live simply and counter-culturally, in the face of an ever more excessive consumerism.
  • Take a principled stand against blind allegiance to political parties, in the face of extreme polarization which favors ideologies over individuals.

Radical Jihadists want to impose their will and their anarchical worldview through sheer brutality, and the civilized nations of the world have an obligation to protect the innocent lives at risk (without simply waging war).  Other forms of modern-day intolerance might be more subtle, but they are no less scary, of course.  Christians around the world should heed the obligation to stand up against these as well.  After all, authentic Christian witnesses must continue to confront these challenges by dying to self for the sake of Christ's kingdom.
As Tertullian wrote in the face of the lions of his day, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church."  This is no religious fanaticism which thinks that martyrdom involves the killing of innocent people.  Rather, this is the authentic religious sense which is willing to lay down its life for Jesus.  Such witnesses know--along with Peter--that he is "the Christ, the Son of the living God."