Bismarck, N.D. – While a prisoner of Islamist terrorists, Steven Sotloff faked illness so that he could observe the Yom Kippur fast. It is said that he would also covertly pray facing Jerusalem.
As with James Foley, another American journalist beheaded by members of the Islamic State, Sotloff’s religious faith was reportedly important to him.
“He was no hero,” his family emphasized in a statement. “He was a man who tried to find good in a world full of darkness.”
Foley and Sotloff made headlines because of the brutal way they were executed, but they stand out more enduringly because there were evidently elements to their lives that can tend to be foreign to us: a vein of authenticity and real, trusting religious faith — not a safe harbor in a storm or mere nostalgia, but a connection to eternity and to history. We have a sense that these men lived in solidarity with other people, even ones who may be too far distant to touch or fully understand and who are impossible to phone.
Very far away from where national headlines tend to be made, about 250 Catholic scholars and graduates of Catholic-studies programs gathered in Bismarck, N.D., over Labor Day weekend. The University of Mary there was celebrating the existence of Catholic-studies programs, the first one having been established by Don Briel 20 years ago in Minnesota. The idea behind these programs is something like what Pope Francis was trying to get across nearly a year ago when he issued The Joy of the Gospel: Real religious faith is a joyful challenge. It means sacrifice and self-giving, where suffering can be redemptive and have a meaning that draws us into ever deeper generosity.
“We want God! We want God!” In a talk on Saturday morning, Father Paul Murray, O.P., an Irish Dominican, reminded the gathering in Bismarck of 14 minutes that changed the history of Poland and the world in June of 1979. During John Paul II’s homily at his first Mass in his triumphal return to his native land that chant broke out, liberating the Polish people in more ways than one, giving them a new confidence.
That insistence in the public square that religious faith is a human right to be protected and cherished is something that we Americans — and Westerners in general — can tend to lack confidence in for so many reasons today, even though our democracy was built with religious freedom as a necessary bedrock. Our cultural institutions today have a secular edge to them that at best assumes the sophisticated don’t do piety, and at worst is increasingly hostile to — and even intolerant of — robust religious faith. And, certainly, believers who don’t pray that we might practice what we preach don’t help matters.
In a lecture hall at the University of Mary, Father Murray talked, among other things, about the dangers of relativism, even suggesting that it is more pernicious than the Soviet atheism of the last century. Since it appears “apparently sane and humane,” “identified in the popular mind with such fine and necessary things as tolerance and affirmation, openness and freedom,” relativism, Father Murray said, “never seems to behave — at least not on the surface — like a prowling lion.”
“Its opinions, unlike those of Communism, never roar, its convictions never snarl, never bite,” he said. “In fact, it never seems to frighten us at all. More like an atmosphere than an ideology, with a strangely quiet, almost imperceptible movement, it slides up close to us wherever we are, settles down on our intellectual lap, and begins to purr.”
“But are we not finding ourselves disarmed just at the moment when we should be armed, and standing up to this disguised but grave threat strong in faith?” he asked.
“Surely now is the time for us to hold fast to our Catholic faith and joyfully proclaim it,” he said, adding that that is exactly what Catholic-studies programs exist to help people do. They assist in the formation of the whole person.
Steven Sotloff, who had dual U.S.–Israeli citizenship, working in the part of the world he did, prudently concealed his faith. And yet it seems to have animated and rooted him, motivating him, inspiring him. He seems to have had a deep respect for Arabic and Muslim people and culture. He wanted to help in a land where religious roots run so deep they are part of the DNA, and yet where evil in the air stagnates and strangles.
Speaking to an American audience, Father Murray cautioned against complacency in these matters. Faith, he said, is not to be merely “accommodated” in “a private spiritual realm.” The Gospel commands Christians to be a “leaven” for all of society. “It would be a travesty,” he said, if believers “gave up all serious attempts at transforming the world around them.”
As men give their lives to truth-telling, sustained by a humble, substantive faith in God, we might consider who we are and what we want people to see as important about our lives. What do we pray for? What would we die for?
These questions are not simply for those who live under the shadow of the Islamic State. But those who do have certainly given some courageous witness to living in humble service to a life-giving Creator. Even in the midst of brutality, they are leaven. They prod the rest of us to live lives committed to truth and justice, faith, hope, and love, wherever we are, whatever we do.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.