In response to my post on Obama, Pope Francis and the ‘War’ Against ISIS last week, a
smart annoyingly faithful friend asked me to ante up and articulate what a Christian holy war would like against ISIS.
My go-to, gut reaction was to point to Christian de Cherge, a French Trappist monk who ministered in Algeria up until the mid-1990’s. The award-winning film, Of Gods and Men, tells the story of de Cherge’s abbey.
Despite growing danger posed by radical Islamists in Algeria, de Cherge and his fellow monks refused to abandon their ‘parish’ and return to France. Having committed themselves to their neighbors (mostly Muslim), they insisted that their fate would be joined with their neighbors’ fate.
In May 1996, the GIA, a radical Muslim faction active in Algeria, kidnapped seven of James’s fellow Trappists in the Atlas Mountains and threatened to hold them hostage until France released several of their own imprisoned compatriots. Several weeks passed, and still the French government refused. In the end, the GIA killed the monks by beheading them.
Christian de Chergé, had had a strange premonition that he would soon die a violent death, and wrote a letter forgiving his future assassins, sealed it, and left it with his mother in France.
Opened only after his murder, it read:
If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism that now seems to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to Algeria; and that they accept that the sole Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a space of clearness that would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.
I could not desire such a death; it seems to me important to state this:
How could I rejoice if the Algerian people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder?
My death, obviously, will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But they should know that…for this life lost, I give thanks to God.
In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, my last-minute friend who will not have known what you are doing…
I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours.
And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
As de Cherge makes uncomfortably clear, our tendency to dismiss the commandment to love our enemies as ‘unrealistic’ can sometimes serve to mask our discomfort that Jesus’ command in fact entails a willingness to lose our life for love’s sake.
The belief, then, that the love of one’s enemy, which can only and necessarily be self-giving, is the only war for which there can be something rightly called ‘victory’ is, it turns out, more realistic than the fantasy that violence will not this time beget more violence.