How many times have we heard: “Never again”? (Or taken selfies at a concentration camp or Holocaust museum with those words?) How often have we quoted: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”? And yet: Do we do nothing? What do we actually say in the face of evil?
“I don’t want to have on my conscience that I was complicit in something as horrendous as this simply by being quiet,” is how Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., reflected on the persecution being conducted against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria — which are far enough away from the U.S. that we mostly go on with our lives, perhaps without even a thought or a prayer.
In domestic politics in recent years there has been some talk of conscience, as the White House has insisted on treading on the consciences of Americans, upending our historic understanding of religious liberty as an inherent, God-given right that our laws must protect. The Second Vatican Council reflected on conscience in a way that has ecumenical resonance. Here is what The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths.”
In his Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton remembered waking up on the morning of September 1, 1939, to learn that Hitler had invaded Poland. Merton wondered what a difference he could have made had he been less self-centered in his youth, asking himself “what the effect was of all the hangovers I had at that time on what was going on in the world.”
Reflecting on the world today — and specifically on the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities that has been happening throughout the world in numbers higher than ever before in the history of Christianity — a friend recently remarked: “I’ve already had too many hangovers, literally and figuratively speaking, and would like for my life to offer something more for the history of the world than them.”
As we applaud Miley Cyrus for not twerking on MTV’s Video Music Awards and Beyoncé for her supposed ode to feminism in all its paradox and irony, and as we argue over whether the Emmys are sexist or not, a moment of silent reflection is in order, to recollect our consciences and consider our choices and priorities.
The execution of American journalist James Foley at the hands of the terrorist Islamic State both obligates us and gives the media an opportunity to take notice. In a letter a fellow prisoner memorized to pass on to Foley’s family, the journalist said: “I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all, especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”
In an interview in 2011, Foley talked about his time in a Libyan prison. A few days into his captivity, he heard a knock on the wall of his cell. He then heard the muffled voice of an American contractor, also detained there, who read to him from the Gospel according to Matthew, and they prayed together. “In a very calm voice, he’d read me Scripture once or twice a day,” Foley told the interviewer. “Then I’d pray to stay strong. I’d pray to soften the hearts of our captors. I’d pray to God to lift the burdens we couldn’t handle. And I’d pray that our Moms would know we were OK.”
Foley is not alone in having faith in the power of prayer and our obligations to truth. Just this past week, Pope Francis met with Paul Bhatti, the brother of the slain Pakistani Shahbaz Bhatti, who was minister for minorities in his country’s government. Before Shahbaz Bhatti was killed, he talked with peace and courage about the threats he received for his work against blasphemy laws: “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of cross, and I am following the cross, and I am ready to die for a cause.”
That’s real faith.
“The spectacle of tragedy has always filled men, not with despair, but with a sense of hope and exaltation,” wrote Whittaker Chambers, whom National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. described as “the most important American defector from Communism.” Chambers explained: “Crime, violence, infamy, are not tragedy. Tragedy occurs when a human soul awakes and seeks, in suffering and pain, to free itself from crime, violence, infamy, even at the cost of life. The struggle is the tragedy — not defeat or death.”
Is this a time of awakening?
At one point in his Witness, Chambers recounts how the daughter of a German Communist explained her father’s defection: He had been an unquestioning Communist, and then “one night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That’s all. Simply one night he heard screams.”
Do we hear the screams? Do we join with the persecuted in the prayers they have led us in? Will we join their witness to the truth about the dignity of every man and woman, of whatever faith or no faith? Will we never again be silent as evil is happening? Or will we be complicit by our silence, distracted rather than living the truth men and women of our day have died and are dying and will die for? Will we sinners strive to be saints and heralds of truth by the very way we live, by what we choose to do and say?
— 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. She is a contributor to the Heritage Foundation’s 2014 Index of Culture and Opportunity: The Social and Economic Trends that Shape America.