Martyrdom revolved

As gentle reader may know from the news, twenty-one kidnapped Coptic Christians were martyred by beheading on the weekend, in Libya. Their blood was mixed in the Mediterranean, and the Jihadi executioners, including one with an American accent, vowed that Rome across the sea would next fall to slaughter, at the command of Allah.

I believe these Copts, like many hundreds before them in the last few years mostly in Egypt itself, were genuine martyrs. They were slain in the knowledge that they could escape their fate by publicly converting to Islam. Of twenty-one captives, it appears twenty-one refused. It is the more remarkable that even little Christian boys captured by the Jihadis in Iraq refused to deny Christ, directly in sight of the butchery that awaited them. Take that in, O we of little faith, in our fey and emasculated culture. This is an aspect of the case that Western journalists overlook — often do not even bother to report — because they find anything but cowardice incomprehensible.

On Shrove Tuesday, eve to Ash Wednesday, it behooves Catholics and other Christians to remember not the happyface of singsong, feelgood religion, but the Cross on which Christ was nailed. In light of what our brother Christians are enduring, in other lands, we must also prepare ourselves body and soul: for we are not going to be defended.

This is a point of principle with, for instance, Barack Obama. In his pro-forma statement opposing the latest act of terrorism, he refused quite intentionally to mention that the perpetrators were believing Muslims, the victims believing Christians, and that the event was staged in its location to show how close the Jihadis now are to their ultimate destination: Rome. In all his public statements, formally on behalf of the United States of America, when Christians and Muslims are mentioned at all, he insults the former and exculpates the latter; having made the preposterous claim to be Christian himself.

Indeed, even the Pope, after an admirably emotional show of declaring, “Their blood confesses Christ!” wandered off on some extempore ramble about Christian ecumenism, as if Catholics had to be goaded into acknowledging that Copts are Christians. This is not the sin to which we are currently tempted.

But there was no matching the fatuity of Obama’s recent remarks at a Washington prayer breakfast. As so many old, anti-Catholic slurs, the remarks he echoed are now applied to Christians generally: “The Crusades! The Inquisition! Galileo!” The president omitted Galileo, perhaps from a lapse of memory but possibly because a White House checker consulted Wikipedia and discovered that Galileo hadn’t actually been beheaded, but instead parked in a luxurious villa and told to keep his theological speculations to himself.

That the Crusades began as an action in defence of Christian pilgrims, persecuted and slaughtered in the Middle East; that the Inquisition provided a legal remedy to persons falsely accused of heresy by conniving secular authorities (which is why so many submitted their own cases to it) — are things anyone with a high school diploma really ought to know. One might start from there to a much broader discussion of these historical phenomena, spread over centuries and like all human affairs, replete with sin. But to repeat the vapid, anti-Christian clichés in the way Obama did is to make a definitive display of one’s low intelligence and poor education.

When applied to current circumstances in the Middle East, the big lie becomes more malicious. The Christians now being persecuted and slaughtered are descended from those we tried to rescue, nearly a thousand years ago. They are the same whose ancestors were already there, and Christian, long before the Islamic conquest.

Here, Obama has picked up a talking point from the Jihadis themselves, who in the course of their video beheadings refer to their Christian captives as “Crusaders.” A native Egyptian Copt, an Iraqi Assyrian, cannot be a Crusader. He has no European past. The lands were taken from his ancestors by violent force, and the Christian ancestors of his own Muslim neighhbours converted through the centuries by various forms of intimidation, from swordpoint to the Jizya. It was a ratcheting in which no one could safely convert or revert to Christianity, because the death sentence for apostasy has been universal in Islam through the centuries.

In the strange, perverted world of Obama, “multiculturalism” specifies that there are no differences between creeds, that one is always as good as another, or as bad as another should the rhetorical moment demand. This vicious doctrine is at the root of all “political correctness,” and liberals who have wormed into positions of power in the modern State are constantly looking for ways to enforce it. Christians and Muslims are not interchangeable; indeed, no two men are interchangeable, no two groups of anything are the same.

The truth must also have rights, and to establish the truth requires the free inquiry that arose and was promoted throughout Christendom; that arose and was, alas, repeatedly suppressed in the Dar al-Islam.


At the University of Regensburg, nearly a decade ago, Pope Benedict XVI touched on this issue in its theological dimension. He cited a fourteenth-century dialogue, between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian, conducted in a series of twenty-six parts. (He had been reading it in a recent scholarly edition, in the original Greek.) The quote, of Manuel II Palaiologos, shorn from context and falsely attributed to Benedict himself, was the occasion of much controversy. Here it is, with its more immediate context:

“In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Surah 2, verse 256 reads: ‘There shall be no compulsion in religion.’ According to the experts, this is one of the surahs of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the ‘Book’ and the ‘infidels’, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness — a brusqueness that we find unacceptable today — on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence, saying: ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only bad and inhumane, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’ The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. ‘God,’ he says, ‘is not pleased by blood; and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.”

Two generations after this dialogue was written, Constantinople itself — the last bastion of Eastern Christendom — fell under the Islamic sword. Note also that the response to the rational argument of a fourteenth-century Christian, was violent demonstrations in many twenty-first century Muslim cities. Note also, however, that the Pope’s address led to many interesting and reasonable responses from learned imams and other intellectuals, from across the contemporary Islamic world: who noted that the Pope had called for a dialogue between religions, based on reason not intimidation. (Unfortunately this little-reported, rather promising dialogue expired with his papacy.)

Which side are we on? The side of reason or the side of violent intimidation?

Don’t answer too quickly. The Christian reasoning, as the Hebrew on which it is founded, and the Aristotelian and Platonic reasoning before Christ, is that we must hold with the side of reason. As Socrates said, it is better for a man to be the victim of evil, than the perpetrator of it. Throughout the Western philosophical heritage, we have been taught to identify, in justice, with the innocent victim. We have also been taught to eschew vengeance, whether on his behalf or our own: for as the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition affirms, vengeance belongs to God, only.

Self-defence is another matter. We are entirely within the right to defeat the unjustly violent, even to hunt down the Jihadis to the last man, if that is what victory requires. But nothing in this allows us to “get even,” or even to wish it, under Heaven’s law. Justice itself requires chaste reason; and chastity is precisely what we seek in being shriven today, for the Lenten fast ahead.

Curiously, this is just what several of the learned imams wrote, reasonably, in reply to Pope Benedict’s remarks at Regensburg. It is that sometimes reason may actually propose and justify a violent action. They believed that in this respect, learned and reasonable Christians would support them: that reason does not dictate the pacifism or radical complacency towards evil with which Christianity has been associated, by some of its own heretical fanatics.

Were he Christian, Obama might have said: “There are real perpetrators and real victims in this world; there is real good and real evil, and we were endowed by our Maker with the brains to distinguish evil from good. And so it is that when our choice is finally reduced, by the failure of our defences, to being victims or being perpetrators of irredeemably evil acts, we must accept our victimhood. For so Christ taught us.”