In the early 1990s, Islamic extremists were terrorizing much of Algeria. Among other things, they’d warned all foreigners to leave the country. One group that didn’t heed their warning was a group of Trappists who been founded there in 1934 to be a Christian presence in the Muslim world. They’d been warned explicitly by a terrorist group to leave, but refused.
They were aware of the danger and their Abbott, Father Christian, wrote out a “last testament”, to be opened if they were murdered. Two years later they were, Father Christian and six of his monks. What he shared in that letter is worth reflecting upon, as the tension between the Islamic and the Western worlds continues to heighten. Here, in part, is what he wrote:
“If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism, which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, and my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. … I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of lucidity, which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love [Islam] were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. … I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam, which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way [Islam] with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. … My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive, or idealistic: `Let him tell us now what he thinks of Islam.’ But … this is what I shall be able to do, if God wills – to immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them. For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God.”
As I watch the news each day, read the newspapers, hear political and religious commentators, and listen to friends share about the situation in the world, I find few words that challenge me as deeply as these.
What this extraordinarily courageous Abbott calls us to is what’s deepest inside Christianity and all authentic religion, namely, a solidarity with others, all others, that’s based upon a common God and a common humanity, a fact that relativizes every other difference. We are brothers and sisters, all of us, Muslims and Christians, and everyone else, under one gaze of love from God.
But that’s not easy to see, nor accept, when daily we are hating, imprisoning, torturing, and killing each other in the name of God and our respective values. What Father Christian invites us to is to live out of the Gospel, not out of our feelings. What, in essence, does that mean?
The Gospels recount an incident where, one day, Jesus was “walking along the borders of Samaria, when he met a woman.” Scripture scholars assure us that what is being described here is more than mere geography and more than a simple conversation between Jesus and a Syro-Phoenician woman. A border is a boundary, the edges of something foreign, and Samaria and this woman were what was particularly foreign at that moment.
Samaria was a different ethnicity and a different religion, and the woman a different gender. In essence, the Gospels are saying: “One day Jesus was walking along the edges of ethnicity, religion, and gender, as these there then known and accepted.” I doubt that we will find anywhere, in scripture or elsewhere, a more succinct and accurate description of where the Christian churches today, all of them, are standing: We are standing on the borders of ethnicity, religiosity, and gender, as we once knew these, particularly as these pertain to Islam.
And to what do does this call us?
Precisely to what Abbott Christian both incarnated and articulated: to stay in the relationship, to not caricaturize, to not misunderstand, to not let what’s worst in each other eclipse what’s best in each other, to continue to trust in our common God, to die in love if necessary, and especially to not forget, ever, that we are brothers and sisters, given equal life by a common Father.
And this is not a dangerous flight into idealism, biblical but impractical, a child’s naivete. It’s also astutely political, a brutal realism. Until we and Islam embrace as brothers and sisters, there can be no peace, and no military power in the world, as we are painfully learning, can provide us with security.
But for that to happen we have to, like Fr. Christian, immerse our gaze with that of the Father and contemplate the children of Islam as he sees them.