“Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.”
Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”
It’s been duly noted that there was much fear and loathing in Cleveland last week at the Republican National Convention. And it’s been widely observed that at their gathering this week in Philadelphia, the Democrats sought to counter the dread and despair with sunny optimism and heart-felt sing-alongs. Fear one week, no fear the next.
(Full disclosure: my upbringing and my instincts put me squarely in the camp of the Democrats. These people are familiar to me. I may not like all of them but I understand them. Republicans–for all the nice ones I know—can seem like exotic creatures: you know they exist but you can’t really explain them to yourself).
For all the carefully scripted idealism on display in Philadelphia, fear lurked in the corners, and sometimes showed itself outright on the prime time stage. The DNC leadership seemed fearful that Americans might take the Democrats for weaklings on national defense, wimps when it comes to taking on ISIS. They seemed fearful that they might lose women if they dared to nuance the abortion debate. They seemed to fear that disaffected Bernie supporters might expose that we live in, um, a democracy. Can’t have them shouting “no more war” when former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is touting Secretary Clinton’s military savvy.
Fear gets you a lot of things in politics, and in these contentious times it’s going to be exploited, as it always has been, by Republicans and Democrats alike.
And then there was the news of Fr. Jacques Hamel in Normandy, France, whose throat was slashed by a teenager claiming allegiance to the Islamic State while he said mass on an ordinary Tuesday morning. Corporate media outlets seemed to fear that if they gave the story any serious, sustained attention during convention coverage they would lose audience share and thus advertising revenue. It was an instructive moment in how “news” is always more manufactured than reported.
Even if CNN or CBS or any other cable or broadcast network had taken up the story of Hamel’s death, they too, I suspect, would have made fear their default hermeneutic. If elderly priests in quiet country towns aren’t safe, none of us is. And the whole “bring your concealed weapon to church” argument would have been given air time. All heat. No light.
The New York Times did run an opinion piece by a visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester in England. I’m not sure what “public ethics” is exactly but the professor, Paul Vallely, argues—with fear running through every line of his prose—that we must not call Fr. Jacques Hamel a martyr since that will only result in more deaths at the hands of terrorists—a kind of tit-for-tat jihadism: “our martyr for yours.”
Nor can we compare Fr. Jacques, says Vallely, to other priests like Thomas Becket or Oscar Romero, also murdered at the altar, since the latter two “knew the dangers they were facing, taking a stand against the civil powers of their day.”
Maybe Vallely thinks such things because he’s a “public ethicist.” But it’s astonishing and utterly wrong-headed to assume that because Fr. Jacques was simply “going about his lifelong business . . . as an everyday exemplar of quiet holiness, kindness, and love,” he didn’t or couldn’t have known the dangers he was facing.
To preside at the altar, to offer the sacrifice of the cross in the mass is to enact the non-violent absorption of human violence. It is, at its heart, a stand against the civil powers of the day.
Fr. Jacques, in these fear-filled times, whom I feel sure did not live in fear, pray for us.