James Foley, Martyrdom and the Subversive Freedom of Prayer UPDATED

A great deal has been written about the late James Foley, his beheading at the hands of a barbarous Islamic State: the moving response from this band of Syrians, the Jesuit education which, along with the example of his family kept him grounded in his faith; his own words on the power of prayer, written in previous captivity.

The story is tragic and infuriating — every bit as nation-stirring as the similar murder of Daniel Pearl, all those years ago, when bloody “war on terror” was still in its official infancy, though in truth, we have been trailing these tears and stains for many decades, now.

But I keep coming back to Foley’s own words on prayer, and how it sustained him:

It showed tremendous heart and was just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth. If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.

It’s something we’ve talked about a lot on this blog, but it bears repeating: prayer is a subversive means of freedom, at once consoling, engaging and efficacious throughout time and space. It has power, and that power holds, when everything else falls apart.

Two recent posts have annoyed some people who wonder what exactly it is I am calling for, when I write “do not look away”, yet offer no solid solution, or when I write that the west lacks an essential weapon of language that draws on faith. They charge me, dishonestly, with calling for the creation of a theocracy, or, mistakenly, for seeking a holy war.

I wish for neither; I wish for no faith-based governance, nor war. The first we will manage to do without, but I fear the second may be unavoidable. What I have been arguing for in these past months is what James Foley himself advocated: the acquisition of what used to be considered a rather conventional religiosity, one in which prayer was not something foreign, but something natural, practiced to varying degrees and understood widely as a real and positive force for good. Good for the self; good for the neighbor; good for the world.

I’m calling for a determined response to the menace, one that is quietly, but strongly faith-infused, and that last undertaken not through compulsion, but through humility and generosity of spirit. Faith that will pray not for the justice, the vengeance, or the victory that belongs only to Christ, but for the salvation of people whose minds and souls have become diseased — infected through a bad, distorted theology, and a twisted sociology.

Speaking specifically to Christians, how do we even begin, in a post-faith, post-Christian era, to incorporate a mode of prayer into our lives? Where do we start? No matter how practiced one is in prayer, we are forever beginners in this language, infants in understanding.

Reading Foley’s story, I realize that we must begin at the beginning, with a clear statement of faith; we must become reacquainted with the essentials, so that we might apply within our own lives, and toward the world, what someone has called “the antiseptic of the creed”:

Grateful for what I saw as an angelic prompting, I made a conscious decision to encounter the Apostles’ Creed anew. I began to pray it mindfully, every day. . .For the first time in my life, I was really thinking about what I was saying, and actually consenting wholeheartedly to every bit of it: Yes, I believe in God the Father; yes, I believe in Jesus Christ His Son. Yes, I believe He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

Yes, I believe. I believe this.

A remarkable thing happened. I could feel my connection to Christ Jesus and His church strengthening. With my every assent I realized I was connecting with, and conforming to, God’s giant and ongoing “YES,” which formed and sustains all of creation. I went from speeding through. . .to lingering on it, meditating upon its mysteries, finding consolation within its every idea and, eventually, discovering an utterly new confidence in my faith.

The Apostles’ Creed became my go-to prayer in times of stress, whether that meant the dentist’s chair or an emergency room — the foundational support to all of life’s “little martyrdoms” that condition us for what is ahead: I believe in the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. In those words are weapons to sustain us through any desolation and fear. Loving the Apostles’ Creed meant going further; it meant becoming present to that other Creed that taxed my patience, the Nicene Creed we declare each Sunday. It meant foregoing the absent-minded mouthing along in order to swim within its unknowable depths — “born of the Father before all ages” — and then own them as best I could.

Earlier today, I saw some discussion as to whether James Foley is a martyr for the faith. Good points were made on all sides, particularly, I thought, by those arguing that ISIS seems to routinely demand conversion or death. Only God may ever know if Foley was offered such options, but if so, his slaughter is witness to his choice.

What I have been saying, in many different posts, is that this intentional evil that has once more reared its head, as it has in the past, is going to require more than rhetoric and airstrikes, or grenades or tanks. Intentional evil must be fought by intentional disciples. And all I’ve been saying for these months is: begin to practice prayer. Begin to form your intentional discipleship within your families and your communities.

Begin, first, where the earliest church did, with a mindful commitment, or re-commitment, to the Apostles Creed.

Begin as you mean to continue: “Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer…” (Romans 12:12)

“Martyrdom creates saints, but the conviction that supports heroic witness must be founded upon something.” That’s true. Whether any of us are called to be martyrs is God’s own business, but in this era it is as possible as at any other time these past 2,000 years.

Called to it or not, I am convinced that we will be better able to resist the menace, and in a stronger position to be spiritually generous — for the sake of perhaps millions of souls — if we begin today to refocus on our credo.

Kathryn Lopez picks up on a story,
and words of Pope Francis, that seem to be on the same wavelength:

Mansour said Ghazala told her that on Aug. 16, the terrorists assembled the group “and told them either to convert or to be killed by sword.”

“Ghazala [an 80 year old Iraqi Christian suffering from breast cancer] told me that all the people told the terrorists that ‘we prefer to be killed rather than convert,’ ” Mansour said. She said Ghazala added that members of the group scolded the terrorists for ignoring Islamic sacred texts that forbade forced conversions of non-Muslims.

Mansour said the elderly told the militants that the Islamic State had nothing to gain from the conversion of a group of sick, disabled and elderly people.

“When ISIS heard that they told the people to leave Karamless immediately, without taking anything, to leave with only with the clothes they were wearing,” she said.

“What would you die for?” Pope Francis asked during his homily at the beautification of the Korean martyrs. People are being asked that question today. We’d benefit by not looking away. We can’t afford to keep looking away.

Read the whole thing.

Greg Erlandson:
We can’t say we haven’t been warned

Mollie Hemingway
with a Must-Read as she notes: “some serious problems with this administration’s understanding of man’s nature and propensity for evil.” Too right.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Maria

    I agree that we need to become more faithful intentional disciples. The war against evil is a spiritual one. James Foley has had a tragic end but one which will not in the real end of things defeat him but honour him. God Bless him.
    I do take one issue. It seems to me that there is so much confusion on what the enemy is. ISIS of course is an enemy. But I agree with Netanyahu who said that Hamas is ISIS along with all the rest.
    We need to acknowledge if there is to be any improvement on the global situation that Islam is the enemy of human dignity and freedom…it is I say an anti-Christ doctrine on its own terms. The only reason that the religious representative of the House of Saud denounces ISIS as an enemy is because ISIS will never recognise the House of Saud. For the same reason that authentic Islam is never about nations but about the Umma…the Caliphate.
    For everytime someone says ‘that’s not the real Islam’ there is no real answer given as to why it isn’t. Saudia Arabia is no better than ISIS…ISIS is just a street version and Saudia the state organised version…effectively they punish and treat people the same…raging beyond borders gives ISIS simply more opportunity as it is at the borders of groups like Christians and Yazidis. These can’t even exist in Saudi.
    Will someone please, like Christendom of old, fairly and squarely name the problem…Islam. That doesn’t mean Muslims…but Islam. The religion needs to be outlawed in the West or like the article written by James Schall re the Chaldean Catholic prelates advice…that the enemy is within the west, we invited it in and it will become a real threat.
    For some absurd reason, Cameron in the UK, in response to James Foley’s death wants to prevent Muslims in Britain flocking to ISIS. Let them go…just don’t let them back in. Only a crazy Prime Minister would insist these should stay home.
    God help us all. Get rid of the spread of the religion….want an example turn to Singapore. It took this radical step when separating from Malaysia. It seems to keep it under control.

  • Allison Grace

    Elizabeth, thank you (I was going to write “big squeezy hugs” but, but… nah). We are so frightened, saddened, and infuriated. I will take these words of yours to heart, and send them over to my teenaged sons. Love, A

  • Lynn Perrizo

    You are so right. ISIS is a terror that now sits in the shadowy areas of my daily thoughts. What if they come here? Are they here already? What would I do if I was forced to choose a continuation of my life here by denying my Savior or experience a nasty, horrifying death? What if those monsters hurt my granddaughter? What ifs. They can be tormenting. Instead pray. Keeping my faith in good times and bad. It is always worth it and is made possible by prayer. Thank you Elizabeth. I appreciate how you put words together. You truly are a words smith. Blessings.

  • Sr. Margaret J. Obrovac, FSP

    Theocracy? Holy war? We think according to our personal and cultural categories and speak with the words we know. That people can frame your comments only in those terms is proof positive that the spirit of faith as our default position is sorely needed. Thanks for a terrific article.

  • Allen

    Wonderfully insightful article. Yes, the best prayer is for the transforming of minds and hearts – salvation – in order to bring lasting change for the world – that they may be of one mind and one heart – and that – all souls will know the truth – there is only One – and we are all a part.

  • JohnnyCuredents

    Thank you, Maria, for daring to write the truth boldly here. The article itself is excellent, but your comment completes it. It can never be said enough: The problem is not some aberration of Islam; the problem, the evil, is Islam itself, and it has been since the early 7th century. As you note here, the Israelis know this; it’s past time we learned this lesson from our ‘elder brothers’!

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I commented critically on one or two of the posts on prayer. I totally agree here that prayer is a “subversive means of freedom.” If I didn’t say it well enough in the other posts, what I was trying to say was that prayer changes the individual and in mass changes a community. But I reject the notion that prayer has a cause and effect outcome. There’s no evidence for it.

  • AquinasMan

    Great post. I’ve been turning it over in my head — this situation with ISIS — and I’ve come to the conclusion that, as God is — by our difference in nature — largely inscrutable to our human intellect, so are the agents of evil, to some extent. They have become like the Father of Lies — with motives that escape our rationale, and an appetite for depravity that overwhelmingly eclipses any hint of love or compassion in their souls. I ponder what the various outcomes can be, from a humanistic perspective, and they all end in an orgy of injustice, quickly spreading violence, and the death of many many innocents. We can’t fathom a human answer to this level of evil, because there isn’t one. Only grace can provide a solution where none seems to exist. Rosaries, rosaries, rosaries. Our Lady, the dispenser of all graces, will set this right through the triumph of her Immaculate Heart.

    Perhaps there is no little significance in Our Lady appearing at a place named for the daughter of Muhammad. Perhaps Our Lady’s entreaty that Portugal would never lose the faith points toward a re-birth of Christian persecution by Islamist forces. Perhaps this is the mountain the man in white would climb, past murdered clergy and laity, and struck down by “soldiers”. There could be a million interpretations, but only one thing we know for sure that Our Lady tells us — PRAY the ROSARY. We need a spiritual solution to this human calamity…

  • Roughcoat

    A thought experiment. You are standing 20 feet from Foley and his captor and you are armed with an M16. Foley’s captor raises his knife preparatory to beheading Foley. Do you pray? Or do you cut down the knife-wielding man with a burst of automatic fire?

    Whatever your answer, apply it to the broader situation.

  • mollysdad

    Holy war means a war commanded by God.

    Why should Christ Himself not command it against certain enemies, such as the exterminationist enemy Amalek (Exodus 17)?

    We should not be disconcerted by the suggestion that Jesus kills. He is the Sovereign Giver of Life, and what He gives He can take away.

    In marriage, the spouses participate in God’s ministry of giving life to others, and their human act is Christ’s if the marriage is sacramental.

    In war, the civil authorities participate in God’s ministry of dealing death to evildoers, and their human acts of war are Christ’s if the enemy is Amalek, for He is Lord of Hosts.

  • MeanLizzie

    I’d pray. If you read the link from Kathryn Lopez you’d see that standing up in faith might get you killed…or it might not. Your mileage may vary.

  • MeanLizzie

    Manny, you were not in my mind at all when I wrote this.

  • Gordis85

    Yes, it is also very sad. I have been emotional today about it all and praying…but this made me cry at just how good the Holy Father truly is…he is a Saint with a capital S.

    Lord Jesus, thank you so much for gifting your Church with the witness and the love of Papa Francis. Protect him always as he lives to give you all the glory.


  • RufusChoate

    You would be under a moral obligation to pray and spray (my preference would be for a drum fed SAW M249 because I don’t want to avoid the camera man and his friends in addition to using bacon fat coated rounds for a deeper celebration of diversity) .
    I don’t know why this is difficult to understand and why people don’t believe in multi-tasking any more.

  • Mike Blackadder

    If your question infers that killing the knife-wielding man could save Foley then my answer is yes – I’d shoot him down or use other possible means to prevent them killing him. You must do so. How do I know that Foley isn’t there in a state of mortal sin and about to be killed in this unjust manner?

    How could I claim to love my brother while neglecting to defend him from such conspicuous evil?

  • Roughcoat

    Fair enough. I work in the military realm, so I think you know what I’d do. I identify strongly with the Roman soldier who came to Christ on behalf of his servant. My favorite Bible passage. I am a bound man, and willingly. I’ll protect you while you pray. MaybeI’ll be dolng God’s work. I pray that it would be so.

  • Maria

    I would love it that James Foley was declared a martyr by Pope Francis. Why? Because he was a Baptised Catholic who has given evidence of being sustained by his faith. I have to say I have not watched nor will seek out the video of his murder but the still shots that have accompanied the media reports tell of a man ready, strong and I believe sustained by his Faith.
    Please declare him a martyr….why? not only for his own fidelity but because it will be a shot across the bow to his murderers….who believe THEY will go to paradise for killing him. Let the Pope declare that anyone murdered by ISIS in this way is a priori absolved of their sins and given the blessing of the Church to go to the arms of God. The Church has the power to grant this general absolution and leave the rest to God. Also for everyone they murder the Church can proclaim another victory for Christ. Also on behalf of the victims forgive the murderers publicly.
    Take the victory out of their demonic ways.
    Fight this war with spiritual weapons.
    Please Pope Francis….this is the spiritual nouse that can save souls.