Christianity is the wisdom of the Cross. It is not a wisdom the world understands – “if they did, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8) – but without it, the world cannot live, cannot find peace, cannot but crucify again. A life lived in faithfulness to Christ is thus a life of self-giving, of giving oneself into that strange, unsettling reconciliation. This is why for the earliest Christians, martyrdom was the crowning glory of the Christian life, the seal of a life offering itself in its entirety to God.
This is also one of the central ways in which the early Church understood the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a sacrifice, not demanded to appease an angry deity, but freely offered in thanksgiving (ευχαριστια, ‘eucharistia’, in Greek) as a participation in that very same self-giving that Jesus lived out in his crucifixion and resurrection. The bread and wine, the Eucharistic elements, are the ‘first fruits’ of a redeemed cosmos, of a material universe at one with God, and this union is effected in the offering of them in God to God.
I have been told that there is a passage in the Talmud that says that if you kill one man, you kill the whole world. How much more is this true of a priest at mass – for as the theologian, Alexander Schmemann, writes;
this offering to God of bread and wine, of the food that we must eat in order to live, is our offering to Him of ourselves, of our life and of the whole world. “To take in our hands the whole world as if it were an apple!” said a Russian poet.
When Fr Jacques Hamel was murdered on Tuesday morning, it wasn’t just his life that was stolen. He was killed offering up the universe refracted in a diamond made of bread and wine, and that cosmic act has now been interrupted with a resounding finality. Rest in peace, Fr Jacques, and pray for us, that we may give ourselves as you did in your 58 years of service to the priesthood.
But even as we mourn your death, it is already being weaponised. A martyr’s death is never an act of aggression, but of giving their life up to God in their death in imitation of Christ. And yet, we appear to be unable to avoid military language when discussing terrorism. President Francois Hollande has said, as he has said many times, that this is yet another act in a war, a war between Daesh and France. This has been, as it normally is, expanded into a war not merely on France but on ‘the West’, with Theresa May saying
They are trying to destroy our way of life. They are trying to destroy our values. We have shared values and those values will win through and the terrorists will not win.
When the rhetoric becomes one of a war on ‘our’ ‘way of life’, it becomes clear that the enemy in this scenario isn’t merely a hostile military presence. This is being presented as a cultural clash, in which, as we have so often seen, ‘Daesh’ and ‘Islam’ are easily interchangeable.
It is strange enough to hear a martyrdom being used as part of a militarised rhetoric, but it is stranger still to hear Francois Hollande say “To attack a church, kill a priest, is to profane the republic.” (see here) In a sense, the French Republic was established upon the widespread suppression of the Catholic Church in France, including the nationalisation of its property and the murder of over 200 priests in the September Massacres of 1792. The historic political framework of laïcité, a variant of the fairly ambiguous concept ‘secularism’, aims to exclude religion from public life, so it is curious to hear French public life being so explicitly identified with the Church. It might also be interesting to note that many commentators argue that it is laïcité that is partially responsible for the tensions in French society surrounding immigration, with the migrant communities from North Africa and the Middle East being seen as insufficiently integrated into French culture because of their more obviously public displays of religiosity. In 2011, for example, the burqa was outlawed in France on such grounds.
And so we find ourselves in a morbidly ironic situation in which the rhetoric of martyrdom is being mobilised for a war of the French Republic, or even for that great chimera, ‘the West’ – a language describing the peaceful defiance of faithfulness to God being mobilised for an act of violent aggression by a state predicated on the exclusion of such unenlightened understandings of the world. Christianity all too easily becomes another rhetorical strategy in service of violence after violence.
In his must-read blog post, ‘How to politicise a tragedy’, written the morning after the attacks on the Bataclan, Sam Kriss asks rhetorically, “Can’t you see that all these bodies only exist to prove that I was right about everything all along?” However, it is not possible not to politicise a tragedy. All events such as these are already in the political realm; any comment on them from here on in will be politically significant. And so, Kriss argues, we must comment on events as actors in “the common struggle of all who suffer, against suffering”, for to speak otherwise would be to make the bodies of the dead and suffering tools for aims of our own. Read the whole piece.
This obligation is all the greater when considering a Christian martyrdom, for martyrdom is the final conformity to the pattern of Christ’s love for all people, his solidarity with all who suffer in His death upon the Cross. Our recognition of Fr Jacques’ death as a martyrdom and a tragedy must become a recognition of all killing and all suffering as a tragedy and crime against the Lord God. And just as looking upon the Cross requires us to recognise our sins, the ways in which we play our parts each day in crucifying God, so we must also recognise our complicity in the oppression of migrants and the violence done in our name against them. We must offer up our lives to God in that common struggle for liberation that transgresses every border and boundary and division. Anything less would be an insult to the memory of a martyr, and of the Passion he partook of.
Rest in peace, Fr Jacques, and pray for us.
– ‘How to politicise a tragedy’, by Sam Kriss – This really is a must-read, I turn to it after every atrocity.
– ‘Father Jacques Hamel died as a priest, doing what priests do’, by Giles Fraser in the Guardian
– The Last Testament of Fr Christian de Chergé, martyred in Algeria in 1996, available in translation here