by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
Within the octave of the horrific events in Paris and on the very Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – a feast established by Pope Pius XI in 1925, even as most monarchs in the world were vanishing or had already vanished, in a particular way, I find myself reflecting on the closing words of the Preface for that feast. In one of the loveliest and most powerful prefaces in the entire Roman Missal, the Kingdom of Christ is described as “a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” Seven characteristics, embodying the fullness of reality. I hope they can serve as spiritual food for thought in the light of these events.
Pilate sarcastically asked Truth Incarnate, “What is truth?”
Catholicism, unlike Judaism and Islam, has a true and proper Magisterium. If a Catholic is not in hierarchical and theological communion with the Magisterium, that person is a heretic or schismatic. Islam, since its inception in the seventh century A.D., is itself fractured. Shia and Sunni Muslims do not agree among themselves and hate each other, so how can we non-Muslims know who represents true Islam and who doesn't?
An instrumental version John Lennon's famous song, "Imagine," was played on a piano on the streets of Paris following the terrorist attacks of November 13; it contains blasphemous lyrics offensive to all religions, which should make us recall that Lennon was at best an agnostic and at worst an atheist, believing that religion is, in and of itself, the cause of the world's problems. He did not know (or care to know) how to distinguish between true religion and perverted forms of religion.
Truth be told, without a Supreme Being, Whom we call God, we would have no supreme laws or commandments to obey – like those that prohibit theft and the murder of innocent people.
Getting rid of God, religion, Heaven and Hell – as John Lennon “imagined” – does not bring peace on earth but rather a hellish chaos and confusion, becoming mankind's worse possible nightmare, as demonstrated by all the godless revolutions of modernity.
We also have to take into consideration the hypocrisy that exists in the West (including the USA) when political leaders say they are firmly against terrorism and yet make heavy investments in countries like Saudi Arabia, which then provide oil and arms to extremists. ISIS without oil and money could not function.
Why do leaders like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton refuse to refer to Islamic Fundamentalism, to Islamic Terrorism, to Jihad which is a so-called "holy war" against the infidel, non-Muslims? On the contrary, Obama insists on protecting Islam and the so-called "moderate Muslims," perhaps because he grew up in Indonesia. Of course, it is true that we cannot blame all Muslims for the sins and evils of extremists. Nevertheless, the teachings of the Qu'ran (Koran) and the history of Islam from the time of the prophet Muhammad forward have been associated with religious intolerance; conquering people for Islam by wielding the sword (and now often with different weapons); and trying to impose Sharia law whenever and wherever possible.
That said, in the interests of fairness, one must note Arabs and Muslims made great contributions to global culture and to the West for which Westerners need to be more grateful. For example, the beauty of their art and architecture beginning with some of the world's oldest Christian churches in cradles of civilization like Syria and Iraq and exquisite mosques in cities like Casa Blanca, Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus and Istanbul; the Arabic numerals that we use on a daily basis; the preservation and translation into Arabic from the original Greek of the classic works of Plato and Aristotle that would have been lost if not for Arab scholars who knew Greek while Christians in the West had forgotten it during the so-called "Dark Ages."
Jesus asserted: “I came that they may life and have it more abundantly.” Hence, Christianity has held as a cardinal dogma the sacredness of all human life. Worth considering is this mediation of Blessed Mother Teresa, the “apostle” of life, par excellence:
Life is beauty, admire it,
Life is bliss, taste it,
Life is a dream, realize it,
Life is a challenge, meet it,
Life is a duty, complete it,
Life is a game, play it,
Life is precious, care for it,
Life is wealth, keep it,
Life is love, enjoy it,
Life is mystery, know it,
Life is a promise, fulfill it,
Life is sorrow, overcome it,
Life is a song, sing it,
Life is a struggle, accept it,
Life is tragedy, confront it,
Life is an adventure, dare it,
Life is happiness, deserve it,
Life is life, defend it.
This is the message Christians bring to the table.
Christian holiness is a response to the invitation of Our Lord to become “perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Such perfection necessarily involves “conversion.” What do we mean when we express outrage at terrorism but really have no intention of changing our way of thinking, our way of life that contributes to societal problems, sin and evil? Can we remain locked in sinful modes of behavior and simultaneously condemn the sinful behavior of others with any credibility? Yet again, do we not see that the sinful exportations of much of the West (what was formerly Christendom) – abortion, artificial contraception, same-sex "marriage", pornography – are genuine scandals (that is, stumbling blocks) to devout Muslims?
Christian martyrs go a step farther by bearing witness that they would prefer to die rather than deny the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Tertullian of Carthage noted a fact that still holds true today around the world wherever Christians are being martyred: "Sanguis martyrum, semen Christianorum" ("the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians"). In fact, we are learning that there is an increase in conversions of Muslims, precisely due to the noble witness of our martyred brothers and sisters in the Faith.
While extremist Muslims define martyrdom as a sort of kamikaze mission to bring themselves and wayward souls to God, normal Jews and Christians believe that one becomes a martyr by laying down one's life for love of God and neighbor, for as Jesus Himself taught the disciples: "Greater love than this no man has that one lay down one's life for one’s friend." The true martyr, therefore, is not a person who utilizes violence as a weapon to terrify or bring about physical harm and even death to other human beings, but a person who freely submits to violence perpetrated against him for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Christian martyrs do not kill others; they submit to being killed by others.
Grace is the God’s very life and power within us, enabling us to will and to do what we could never do with our own resources.
One of Christ’s most difficult teachings to assimilate is His way of love and forgiveness. He said that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. While Christians are not pacifists, we do need to ask how can we live out Christ's teachings on love, forgiveness and mercy (hence, the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy), while at the same time fighting enemies like terrorists? And, yes, Jesus did say that we would have enemies! Ultimately, isn't it love and forgiveness that allowed the persecuted Christians of the early Church triumph over the pagan Romans and their cruel and sometimes crazed emperors?
Indeed, an essential aspect of Christianity is forgiveness. In the Lord's Prayer, we pray that God will forgive us our trespasses, precisely as we forgive those who trespass against us. Does this "forgiveness" extend to terrorists? In what does this forgiveness consist? Christ instructed us to pray for our persecutors, that is, for their conversion and thus for their eternal salvation. Even more radically, He Himself gave us a profound example of forgiveness as He hung from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Christians, unlike Muslims and Jews, do not follow the “lex talionis,” which demands “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Rather, Christian wisdom sees the wisdom of the Hindi leader Mahatma Gandhi, who famously asserted: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind!”
This love does not mean that we approve of their warped mentality or harmful actions. Nor does this love mean that we do nothing in response to evil or that we merely pray for peace without also pursuing liberty and justice. Only divine grace can provide us with that delicate balance.
Pope Francis has made clear that the Jubilee will not be "suspended." The Jubilee will serve as the symbol of opposition to the barbarism of ISIS. We need God's merciful grace to combat all evils, including those perpetrated by ISIS.
A heavenly patron the French need to invoke is St. Louis IX, King of Francis, asking him to intercede for them, for their families, and for their political leaders to make just decisions for the common good. He participated in the seventh and eighth Crusades, dying in the latter. Of course, the Crusades are a controversial subject for those who buy into the "Black Legend." The original purpose of the Crusades was noble, and this is often forgotten. The Crusaders were not attempting to kill Muslims just because they were Muslims (as ISIS is doing by murdering Christians just because they are Christians). Rather, the original purpose of the Crusades was to defend the Christian pilgrims en route to the sacred places of the Holy Land.
St. Louis, in his Last Will and Testament, likewise exhorts his son and heir to be a godly prince, whose rule should be grace-filled, peaceful, merciful and just. If such holy and sage counsel were followed by world leaders today, we would be inhabiting a very different world.
Justice, as Aristotle defined it, is giving to each person his due, and religious liberty is a fundamental human right due every human being. No one should be forced to follow any religion, which is why forced baptisms have always been considered invalid by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Imposing a worldwide Caliphate and Sharia law is contrary to the dignity of the human person who should be free to follow the dictates of his God-given conscience, especially in matters than pertain to his individual soul. Compulsory adherence is no adherence.
The 1970 maudlin film “Love Story” proclaimed that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” While that is patently false, it is surely true that love demands that allow the past to be the past. The sins and/or excesses of our ancestors in the faith cannot come to bear on each generation of believers. It is grossly unfair and immature for Muslims to blame contemporary Christians for any real or perceived excesses of the Crusaders and Grand Inquisitors, just as it is for Christians to blame today's Muslims for their ancestors who conquered by brute force Jerusalem and Constantinople (now Istanbul). Holding onto such historical rancor only foments discord and hatred, leading to acts of senseless violence like acts of terrorism. Pope Benedict XVI was correct when he admonished us not to judge past centuries by the lights of our own.
In a global society, we must learn to tolerate one another's differences, religious and otherwise. The intolerance of religious extremism is a cancer that must be excised from our society.
Without the perspective of eternity, what is the purpose of life on earth? Can there be love? Either God exists or nothing exists, as the title of Cardinal Sarah's most recent book declares. God is love!
If that is true, what about Syrian migrants? Don't we have to distinguish between terrorists and those truly fleeing persecution? Doesn’t every nation have a primary obligation to protect its own citizens? To be sure, this is not an easy task to fulfill, but love isn’t always easy. In this regard, a prayerful reading of St.. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 would be worthwhile endeavor.
As the Fathers of Vatican II taught us, “peace is not the mere absence of war.” But even that minimal understanding is not verified today. As Pope Francis noted recently, it looks like we are in the midst of World War III.
Indeed, the biblical concept of peace (in Hebrew: "shalom") transcends the notion of peace as the mere absence of war as it signifies total harmony, first and foremost, with God (vertical dimension), and consequently with one's neighbor, all of creation and within the heart and soul of each person (horizontal dimension). As Christians we see this perfect harmony achieved in the God-Man, Christ-Jesus, Who is our Passover and Lasting Peace, for it is only through His Most Precious Blood shed on the Cross that we sinners have all been made one with God (atonement, reconciliation). The vertical love of God (vertical arms of the Cross) and the horizontal love of man (horizontal arms of the Cross) meet to achieve perfect harmony in the person of Jesus Christ Crucified.
We need a clarification for those who say that by definition Islam is a religion of peace. The word "Islam" derives from the Arabic word for "submission"; those who follow the teachings of Muhammad are called Muslims because they are "the submissive ones." According to the Koran, those who do not submit to Islam are "infidels," although Jews and Christians are also mentioned as "People of the Book." How do we reconcile in concrete, practical and civilized terms this apparent contradiction in the Koran of considering Jews and Christians as both "infidels" and yet "People of the Book"?
That said, it is a matter of historical fact that Jews, Christians and Muslims peacefully coexisted in various parts of the world and did so for centuries on end. One of the most notable examples of this peaceful coexistence was Córdoba in the Middle Ages, a marvelous city whose unique blend of the cultures and religions of the three great monotheistic religions produces the likes of Moses Maimonides (Jewish philosopher) and Averroes (Muslim philosopher).
While war should be avoided at all costs, sometimes as a last resort it is necessary as a means of legitimate defense such as against the Nazis in World War II. Can the serious threat of ISIS be dealt with diplomatically, or are we facing an evil force the likes of which we have not seen since the Nazis? If ISIS is the 21st century’s equivalent to Nazism, then do not the leaders of the free world have a moral obligation to do everything in their power to eliminate them? Is it wishful thinking to suppose that reasonable dialog and diplomacy could prevail? Is ISIS a reasonable entity?
That having been said, it is not unreasonable for Western nations to encourage, perhaps even demand that the Muslim world, the majority of whom claim to love peace and who do not engage in terrorism (so-called "moderates") to:
– denounce outrightly and in the most formidable way possible ISIS or other extremist organizations;
– place the heaviest of sanctions on those countries that help finance ISIS through oil reserves, selling of arms, and cash exchanges;
– bring together the leaders of moderate, peace-loving Muslim majorities in places like Jordan, Egypt and Morocco;
– find solutions to terrorism and other forms of extremism that tend to give a black eye to Muslims everywhere;
– educate young Muslim children ?to have respect for other religions while remaining faithful to their own beliefs;
– help Muslim youth to deal with unemployment and the temptation to waste their best years in drug abuse;
– teach young people not to conflate the unjust political policies and actions of governments with individual citizens (e.g., tourists) who may in fact be opposed to those policies;
Clearly, true human development is at the heart of the matter. Was it not Pope Paul VI who urged, “If you want peace, work for development”? When young people feel marginalized, when they are indoctrinated in an ideology of hatred, when they have no jobs and nothing to do, they tend to get in trouble and may even be tempted to act out in evil ways that disrupt society and threaten civilization. If we look carefully at ISIS, we find that they are not a bunch of old men, but mostly young men and some young women who are profoundly misguided, psychologically and spiritually; they are generally young people recruited through the use of social media and forms of propaganda whom their recruiters perceive to be disfranchised and therefore susceptible to indoctrination.
Although Christ told Pilate that His Kingdom does not belong to this world, we also know that Christians are commissioned through Baptism and Confirmation to cultivate the seeds of that Kingdom here on earth. That task has never been easy and at times requires walking a tightrope. It has often brought misunderstanding, but our resolve must be firm – to bring the whole universe under the gentle sway of the gentlest King of kings and Lord of lords.
Christ is the King who rides triumphantly into the holy city of Jerusalem astride a donkey, a beast of burden, a veritable symbol of humility. The palm and olive branches used to greet Him symbolize victory achieved through peace – not through war, unjust aggression and domination such as the Roman Empire of the time represented and as ISIS presently embodies. In his famous (infamous!) discourse to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Yasser Arafat, then President of Palestinian Liberation Organization and a known terrorist, warned that he carried in one hand an olive branch and in the other a gun. To which he added the chilling admonition: "Don't make me drop my olive branch!"
At no time did Jesus make violent threats with the scope of terrorizing people in order to establish His kingdom. The Christian understanding of peace must be understood in an eschatological light. On the Last Day (eschaton), in the new and eternal Jerusalem – the celestial City of God – all creatures and all men will be recapitulated in Christ's everlasting reign. In the divine paradox (not contradiction!) of Christianity, it is the mighty and fierce "Lion of Judah" who is also the meek and mild, innocent "Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world," Who returns (Parousia) at the end of time and is enthroned by His heavenly Father as King of kings, Lord of lords and Prince of everlasting peace with all creatures, celestial and earthly, being made definitively subject to Him.
In the Prayer over the Offerings for the Solemnity of Christ the King, the priest pleads: “As we offer you, O Lord, the sacrifice by which the human race is reconciled to you, we humbly pray that your Son himself may bestow on all nations the gifts of unity and peace.” Especially worthy of note is that this noble goal was achieved by the “sacrifice” of Christ, to which we brothers and sisters of His unite our own sacrifice. If we do so, we can honestly and proudly echo the cry of Mexican “cristeros”: “Viva Cristo Rey!” (Long live Christ the King).
The Solemnity of Christ the King leads seamlessly into the Season of Advent, during which we continue our meditation on the nature of this Messiah of ours and the nature of His Kingdom, as we make our own the closing words of the Book of Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus!”