This past Saturday on Facebook, a friend of mine posted an e-mail forwarded her from a friend of hers who was working in a relatively safe part of the Middle East. The author of the original message – a man unknown both to my friend and her friend – claimed to be a Catholic aid worker stationed in an Iraqi city about to be overrun by the Islamic State. Among other things, the purported author claimed that IS terrorists were “beheading children systematically.”
On its face, nothing about the story was implausible; many people, including me, believed it. Only one reader, clearer-headed than the others, thought to check Snopes. He discovered that variations of the same e-mail, warning of the same city’s imminent capture, had been making the rounds for almost a year. No systematic beheadings of children are known to have taken place.
A few years ago, just before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, John Allen, Jr. wondered in National Catholic Reporter why American Christians lacked a firm sense of solidarity with persecuted Christians overseas. With help from Cardinal Dolan, who coined the term “Global War on Christians,” Allen has been taking the stump to raise awareness ever since. But in his NCR piece, he writes that unifying Christians requires something more, namely, “a holocaust literature…a budding genre of Christian analogs to Night by Elie Wiesel, or Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’.”
The episode with the e-mail illustrates how the rise of IS has helped create a market for this type of story. The shortage of anything weightier than a news bulletin is, I think, partly cultural. The hagiography, which provides Christianity with its template for stories about persecution and resistance, aims at offering an example of personal holiness. It is not – primarily, anyway – a call to mass action, which is what Allen seems to want. For example, beatifying martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero could end up mobilizing voters against ARENA, the political party founded by his killers, but that would be an unintended side effect.
In trotting out the examples of Spielberg and Wiesel, Allen may be expecting too much, too quickly. Schindler’s List opened some 50 years after the events it depicts. Night’s English edition didn’t hit shelves until 1960, 15 years after the Nazis’ defeat. Its initial sales figures were poor; the first print edition of 3,000 copies took three years to sell out. Readers found it forbiddingly grim.
This raises another point Allen misses. America’s fuzzy-blanket effect has claimed other casualties than Christians. When Hitler was in power, American Jews didn’t feel nearly so strong a sense of solidarity with European Jews as Allen imagines. After the war ended and the enormity of Hitler’s crimes became common knowledge, many reproached themselves for what they perceived as their failure to act in concert against the Nazi terror. When books and films on the subject began appearing, American Jews generally preferred those that tended – if slyly – to minimize the sheer savagery of life and death under Hitler, or to propose pat formulas for guaranteeing the safety of world Jewry forever.
Anne Frank’s diary is an example of a book of the first type. Though its author died in a concentration camp, the action itself is set in an annex to an office building, far from guards, gas, kapos and other horrors that might overwhelm reader and cause them to stop reading. A book of the second type is Leon Uris’ novel, Exodus, which offers a Jewish state and an overpowering Jewish army as antidotes for millennia of anti-Jewish persecution. Both books were commercial blockbusters.
Anne Frank was a phenomenon. A big part of her diary’s appeal is that she actually existed and set down her experiences with no thought to how they might sound to tens of millions of readers. Adolescents who write so well and so un-selfconsciously don’t grow on trees. If we could find someone like her, that might be many of our PR problems solved, but inventing one would almost surely miss the point.
Without question, Exodus united American Jewish readers – along with millions of gentile readers – to the cause of Israeli statehood. But it did so by being crude, even jingoistic. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion said of the book, “but as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” Uris’ adoration for Haganah – the underground Jewish paramilitary group formed during the days of Mandatory Palestine – is so complete as to make Kipling’s attitude toward the British army look hostile by comparison. (Kipling’s Indians and Afghans are also much more endearing than Uris’ Palestinians.) Considering the flutter of interest in Crusades apologetics kicked off by the Charlie Hebdo massacre, this is a road we could go down if we wanted to, but probably shouldn’t.
Hollywood has, recently, released some movies whose heroes were Christians facing odium fidei. Quality ranged from tip-top (Of Gods and Men) to meh (For the Greater Glory). I haven’t seen them all, but I have never read that any was bold enough to sell a new view of history. One trick Uris managed outstandingly well was presenting the Holocaust as just one more – if especially horrific – campaign in an ancient Global War on Jews. (After introducing his heroes, he retreats 60 years to review the pogroms that scorched the Russian Pale.) To achieve a like transformation in the worldview of Christians of all stripes – including the lukewarm and cultural kind – a writer will have to join all the anti-clerical and anti-Christian movements of the past two centuries into a coherent narrative not driven by Satan. I wish him (or her) lots of luck.