Christus Paradox: Reflections on “Of Gods and Men”

You shouldn’t read this blog post.  At least not until you see the film, “Of Gods and Men.”

Really, stop now if you intend to watch it and don’t want me to spoil it for you.

Click here to watch the trailer.

Click here to watch the trailer.

The movie tells the true story of French monks living in the hills of Algeria during the civil war in the 1990s. These Catholic men worked simply alongside their Muslim neighbors, responding to medical needs and providing other basic services. Wanting to push foreigners out, both the government forces and rebel groups threatened the monastic community, but the priests chose to stay—and ultimately lost their lives because of it.

The film is at once hopeful and tragic, peaceful and terrifying.  The moments of beauty and solidarity are just as heartbreaking as those of brutality and fear.  Some of my favorite scenes in “Of Gods and Men” take place on Christmas, and that’s why it seems appropriate for me to write about this film now, as the holiday is upon us.

“Of Gods and Men,” which might just be my favorite movie, has helped me rediscover—or even recognize for the first time—some important lessons about the Incarnation (God becoming human in the person of Jesus) that many of us may often miss.

“A happy night in Palestine”

In the slanted afternoon light of Christmas Eve, an old monk named Celestin hobbles around the chapel of the Tibhirine monastery, organizing candles for the evening Mass.  He cheerily sings this hymn under his breath:

God has prepared the earth
like a cradle
for His coming from above.
This is the night,
the happy night in Palestine.
And nothing exists except the child,
except the child of life Divine.
By taking flesh of our flesh,
God our desert did refresh
and made a land of boundless spring.

Celestin’s joyous anticipation of the birth of Jesus reflects the Christian attitude we expect during the season. It is only natural for us to be happy as we welcome our Salvation, the God who took on flesh to dwell among us—as a little baby.

This point (that God came to us not through military strength or kingship, as was expected, but instead through poverty and childhood) is not missed by the monks.  Processing into the dark chapel to begin the Christmas service, the monks sing this hymn, and the youngest monk, Christophe, gently places a figurine of the newborn Jesus into the manger scene.

To listen to the hymn and watch the clip, click here.

To listen to the hymn and watch the clip, click here.

This gesture, and the hymn that the monks sing together in unison, is a reminder of the humility and vulnerability that characterize Christmas.  Often, we become so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ birth that we hardly recognize the very powerful lesson it tells us about the way God works: not through massive displays of power, but through the simplicity and poverty of His creation.

The holiday of Christmas, the monks help us realize, is an acknowledgement that God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and love will be achieved in very unexpected ways, by and through people about whom we usually don’t give a second thought. Born to a stigmatized mother in a forgotten town, his life threatened by a power-hungry king, Jesus was the definition of “marginalized.”  Most people didn’t care about him, and those that did wanted him dead. Yet, it was he who became the most important bearer of God’s transformative love. No wonder the monks exude an aura of awe as they sing quietly in dim candlelight.

“Take new lodgings in my heart”

The monks understand quite well, however, that the Incarnation is not simply a one-time event that happened two thousand years ago. It is also a cosmic mystery (a faith-filled assertion that God imbues all of creation and can be known in this world) that must be embodied and internalized by humanity.

Sitting around their meeting table a few weeks after Christmas, the monks discuss whether or not to flee Algeria, to escape the violence engulfing the country.  The abbot of the monastery, Christian, reflects on the events that occurred directly before their Christmas Mass, when armed terrorists stormed the compound, looking for medicine to heal their wounded comrades.  The encounter had shaken the priests, and woke them up to their own vulnerability and defenselessness. Christian explains to his fellow monks that the way to respond to the violence they face is by participating in the Incarnation:

I’ve often thought of that time … that time when Ali Fayattia and his men left.  Once they were gone, all we had left to do was to live.  And the first thing we did was … two hours later … we celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass.  It’s what we had to do.  It’s what we did.
 
And we sang the Mass.  We welcomed that child who was born for us … absolutely helpless and … and already so threatened.
 
Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks.  The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells.  Day after day. We had to resist the violence.  And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. 
 
It’s to be born.  Our identities as men go from one birth to another.  And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.  The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.
 
The mystery of the Incarnation remains what we are going to live.  In this way, what we’ve already lived here takes root … as well as what we’re going to live in the future.

Christian reminds us that the Incarnation is not fully achieved if we don’t allow the mystery to unfold in our own ordinary activities.  By recognizing that God is born within us and in all creation, we naturally begin to live differently.  We more consciously try to embody the traits exhibited by the child, Jesus: his trust and humility.

Christian among the townspeople.

Christian among the townspeople.

Christian’s speech reflects the sentiment of one of my new favorite Advent songs, “The Dream Isaiah Saw.”  I can imagine the monks of Tibhirine praying these words, as I have done during the last few weeks:

Little child whose bed is straw,
Take new lodgings in my heart.
Bring the dream Isaiah saw:
Life redeemed from fang and claw.

“We do not see your face”

When we celebrate Christmas, we tend to feel joyful as Celestin did, ignoring the heavy stuff and leaving it for the solemn, rainy months of Lent. Jesus’ suffering and death seem far from our minds. Even if we do acknowledge the “fang and claw” that characterized Jesus’ time on earth and still plague our world, we perceive Jesus’ Incarnation as an event that somehow makes all that misery and pain go away.

But the monks help us understand that Jesus’ suffering—and our own—is inextricably linked with Christmas, a fact that we are no doubt more aware of this year, as we still contemplate the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre and violence against children.

As they finish the Christmas Eve hymn in the fading candlelight, the monks’ chant takes on a somber tone:

Listen to the hymn and watch the scene here.

Listen to the hymn and watch the scene here.

This is the night,
the long night in which we grope,
and nothing exists except this place,
except this place of ruined hope.
By stopping in our adobe,
God, as with the bush, did forebode
the world on which fire would fall.

Jesus’ eventual suffering always lingers in the background of his birth.  As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat expresses so beautifully in a piece about the school shooting and Christmas, “the rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.”

The Incarnation is not about ridding the world of suffering. Instead, it’s about solidarity, about staying.

God became human to share in our pain, to struggle alongside us. God embraced our vulnerability and weakness in order to be intimately close to us. To me, that’s a much more powerful, loving action than if God, from a high seat in Heaven, simply improved our humanly affairs without actually engaging in them.

The monks knew that living the Incarnation was most importantly about solidarity, even if it meant their eventual death.  They, like Jesus in the desert, were tempted to save themselves and leave behind the poor and marginalized they’d come to love. But ultimately they made the hard choice to stay.

By deciding to remain in Algeria, the monks didn’t choose “dying” over “living.” They simply decided to finish the work God had called them to do, with the understanding that either their living or their dying would be done in the service of God.

They, like Jesus, didn’t seek out death. Jesus didn’t say, “Ok, it’s time to die! Now someone find me a cross!” Rather, he remained with the people, loving them in a radically simple way, for as long as he could.  As we see in the Gospels, Jesus did the will of the Father, whether that led him to walk down with Mary Magdalene in the valleys of Galilee or up the rocky mountain to Calvary.  His living and dying were offered up equally to God.

Christophe in prayer.

Christophe in prayer.

Jesus’ example of self-sacrificing solidarity, and his call for us to emulate it, can be a hard thing for us to swallow. We, like Christophe, whisper to the darkness, “I’m afraid! Help me…”  We wonder if God is truly good, if He allows us to face such uncertainty and struggle.

Douthat again offers some wisdom that we, and Christophe, may be comforted by: The New Testament… seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.”

Douthat, and our whole Christian faith for that matter, argues that the experience of suffering does not imply God’s absence, and it is not an indication that God is not “good.”

Instead, we know that God is good because God is Emmanuel. Because God is with us, just as He is with Christian, who walks along the water and is brought to tears by the recollection of this hymn:

We do not know your mystery,
Infinite Love,
but You do have a heart,
for You seek the Prodigal son
and hold against Your breast
the troublesome child,
which is the world of mortals.
 
We do not see your face,
Infinite Love,
but You do have eyes,
for You see through the oppressed,
and look upon us
with a shining gaze…

Merry Christmas.

*Special thanks to a good friend and numerous Jesuits who helped me to reflect on the wisdom of this film.

T

The title of this post comes from another of my favorite songs, Christus Paradox, which also inspired points I made in this post.

At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.

Trends we can’t ignore: 4) The threat of white supremacist hate groups

The recent terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara was committed by Wade Page, a white supremacist and member of the hate group, Hammerskin Nation.

The attack highlights the threat of white supremacist hate groups, a threat that has been consciously sidelined by the federal government, whose leaders are cowing to political pressure.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups and hate crime in America,

Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.

Currently, there are 1,018 known hate groups operating across the country.

They also highlight the “resurgence of the antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement,” which was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing and the other domestic terror plots in the 1990s.  “The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011.”

In the past few years, groups that are specifically “anti-Muslim” have also emerged.

These are frightening statistics, and one might wonder why we haven’t heard more about them.

On a recent episode of the Diane Rehm Show, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law explains why.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report which said the greatest threat, in terms of domestic terrorism, was the growth of these white supremacist groups that is the greatest threat to stability within the United States. And it was an analytical framework of how the department and other law enforcement agencies should focus on these white supremacist groups, militia groups and hate groups. When it was issued, there was an uproar from the conservative community.

… And House Majority leader John Boehner, House minority leader at the time, now speaker, said the Department of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why they have abandoned the term terrorist to describe those such as al-Qaida, who are plotting overseas to kill Americans, while our own department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking. In fact, faced with the siege of criticism, the secretary [Janet Napolitano] withdrew the report—it actually had been published—and she apologized.

… And so there is a debate right now about the analytical force of the Department of Homeland Security. There’s a lot of information that they dropped from six analysts who were looking at this problem there to one analyst. Now, I saw yesterday at the department challenges that fact, but, nevertheless, it’s in the year that this has not been a priority.”

Because of political pressure, the federal government is intentionally ignoring issues of real security. This is unacceptable and puts all Americans—and especially minorities like Muslims and Sikhs—in danger.  The federal government must not cow to pressures from right-wing extremists, whose anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric protects and legitimizes white supremacist hate.

I’ll end this post and this series on “trends we can’t ignore” with the following quote from a Huffington Post article written by Riddhi Shah in response to the terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara: 

Today, if we don’t ask why a small religious community in the Midwest was targeted by a 40-year-old white man, if we don’t make this discussion as loud and robust as the one that followed the attack on Gabby Giffords or on those young people in Aurora, we’re in danger of undermining what America stands for.

This series is a call to attention and awareness, a plea for a national dialogue about issues that have been ignored for far too long.

 

Note: The Norwegian terrorist who went on a politically-motivated and Islamophobic killing spree in Oslo last summer recently received his sentence–at least 22 years in prison (it should be much longer, and likely will be.)  Read Nathan Lean’s important commentary on the portrayal of the attack and the threat of white supremacist hate: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-lean-breivik-hate-groups-u.s.-20120826,0,7942204.story

Trends we can’t ignore: 1) Americans’ religious illiteracy

In recent years, numerous polls and reports have illustrated Americans’ ignorance about the basics of minority religions.  But the media’s coverage of the terrorist attack at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. showed us just how religiously illiterate Americans are.

During their breaking news coverage of the attack, CNN anchors, clueless about the Sikh faith and lacking sufficient sources, were relegated to fumbling through the Wikipedia page in describing the religion’s basic tenets.  According to a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary on the attack,

One Fox anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of “anti-Semitism.” A Fox local report claimed Sikhs are “based in northern Italy.” And the host of CNN Newsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the “murky detail” of whether Sikhs are Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer “could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs.”

Heck, I don’t know details about the Sikh faith either—something I’m not proud of.  Before the attack, I knew the religion originated in India and I could identify turban-wearing men as Sikh believers, but I couldn’t confidently claim to know anything more about it.  I remember seeing a portrait of the founder on the mantle of the Sikh family in the movie, Bend It Like Beckham, but I couldn’t tell you his name, when he lived, or how many Sikhs currently practice the faith throughout the world.  I remember being uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Sikh family in the film (it was your stereotypical, Orientalist depiction of overly-strict South Asian parents with thick accents) and yet I was just as ignorant (if not more) than the moviemakers.

Most Americans don’t know Sikhs either.  They make up only .16% of the American population.  I only know one personally—a prominent interfaith leader in Indianapolis.

In order to fill the massive gap in Americans’ illiteracy about the Sikh faith, many news outlets, like The Huffington Post, have attempted to provide resources about the religion to educate American citizens.  Organizations like the NPR-affiliated Story Corp used the attack as an opportunity to share the stories of Sikhs, so other Americans can, in some way, get to know them.

But the media is in even greater need of resources about religion. Both major networks like CNN and small, local papers should have had materials about the Sikh faith—and all religions for that matter—at the ready.  That preparedness should be common sense in an era when everything from Chick-Fil-A to terrorism seems tied to religion.  Reporters and news anchors, who shape our understanding of faith-related issues subtly and over a period of time through their coverage, critically need a better understanding of religion.

When the media—and major politicians like Mitt Romney, who referred to Sikhs as “sheiks”* in his comments about the attack—demonstrate their own ignorance about religion, it legitimizes the American public’s religious illiteracy.

The assertion made in the following comment, which was shared by an anonymous commenter on the CNN website, was recycled throughout the media’s coverage of the attack:

“Sikh people… can be easily mistaken for Muslim or Taliban.”

The key phrase is “can be easily mistaken for.” It’s saying, “it’s ok to confuse Sikhs with Muslims and with the Taliban, because we don’t really know the difference either.  A turban is a turban, right?” Note: Many (maybe, most) Muslim men don’t wear turbans, and the Taliban wear ones distinct from Sikhs.  But do most Americans recognize this? No.  And do many Americans conflate Muslims and the Taliban?  Sadly, yes.

Click here to see different styles of Sikh turban wrapping.

The media coverage of the attack also implicitly argued that Muslims and their religion are more prone to violence.  The common way anchors distinguished between Muslims and Sikhs was by saying something to the effect of, “Sikhs are not Muslims.  The Sikh faith is one of peace.”  This “distinction” implied that Islam is a religion of violence.

The attack and its coverage showed us that ignorance about religion leads us to buy into untruths, and also reaffirms our misguided beliefs about minority religions like Islam.

Religious literacy is lacking in American society, and it is critical that we as a country make an effort to improve it among the young and old, if we hope to end the violence and mistreatment experienced by all people of faith. 

Tomorrow’s post will discuss hate crimes again Sikhs in America.

*Romney used the world “sheik” when referring to the Sikh people. The word “sheik” (pronounced “shake”) does not exist, but it sounds like the English pronunciation of an Arabic word, “sheikh,” which means a learned person and is often used to describe Islamic scholars. Though the Arabic word ends in a hard “h” sound, as denoted by the “kh,” it is commonly pronounced with a “k” sound (“shake.”) Romney’s slip, therefore, points to his ignorance about religion, and also conflates Muslims (whose religious scholars are called “sheikhs”) with Sikhs.

Trends we can’t ignore (Series introduction)

The shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc.—and the nationwide string of hate crimes against Muslims that went virtually unreported by the media—reveals a number of disturbing, yet ignored, trends about extremism and ignorance in America.

Sikh worshippers outside their gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. after the shooting on August 5, 2012.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting about issues that are not new, but that have been re-illuminated by these recent hate crimes. They include religious illiteracy in America, post-9/11 attacks against Sikhs, the recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the (intentionally covered-up) threat of white supremacist domestic terrorism.

For those who heard little about the shooting at the Sikh place of worship a few weeks ago, here’s a brief recap:

Wade Page, a prominent member of a white supremacist organization, opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisc. during a Sunday worship service. He entered the temple and he killed three, and then murdered three others outside, where he was shot in the stomach by police.  He then shot himself in the head. Four others, including a police officer, were wounded.

The hate crime is rightly being treated as a case of domestic terrorism by the FBI, given that Page appeared to have political motives.  He was an active member of the racist skinhead group, Hammerskin Nation, and was a musician in white supremacist bands.

The FBI defines terrorism in the following way: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

But according to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “that designation seemed to baffle some media outlets. NBC News reported that ‘it was not immediately clear why local police were classifying the shooting with domestic terrorism.’ A Fox News analyst claimed the shooting was not terrorism because Page was a ‘nut job’ who mistook Sikhs for Muslims.”

Like NBC and FOX, most media outlets have been hesitant to refer to the attack as terrorism, however.  Is this surprising?  No, because since 9/11, the American media—and thus the American public—have only considered attacks committed by Muslims terrorism.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin posting about specific trends, starting with an essay about religious illiteracy in the U.S.  I’ll provide background on the string of attacks against Islamic places of worship in one of my later posts.