Today’s readings at Catholic Mass, from which the title of this post comes, are apocalyptic — literally. The Old Testament Book of Daniel tells of “a time of unsurpassed distress,” with the dead arising, some to salvation and some to “everlasting horror and disgrace.” In the Gospel (from Mark), Jesus describes the darkening of the sun and moon and the stars falling from the sky.
Given current events, it’s a given that priests across the country looked for some way to interweave the readings with the Islamofascist terror attack in Paris. Maybe some of them preached the need for a Christian resurgence in response to the world’s threats, but that’s not a direction Catholic priests tend to take their homilies, especially here in the Northeast. Instead, the dominant theme, one can be sure, was a warning against religious extremism in general. Somewhere, a priest told his flock the attacks were perpetrated “in the name of religion” — not a particular religion, just religion in general — so we should worry about the power of religion in our own hands.
In this context, I’ve heard a priest warn against prophets, only he didn’t mean the Prophet Mohammad. He meant those among his fellow Westerners who might presume to advise a course of action to respond to aggressive strains of Islam. That’s a confounding (if very common) perspective, so it’s worth writing out: Within a Christian belief system that explicitly promises a conflict so cosmic that it shakes the stars from the sky, we must be on guard against false prophets, but we can’t question the prophet of a major religion, and in fact, we are most likely to find the dangerous prophets among those who draw broader conclusions from the violence perpetrated in the name of that religion’s prophet.
The most appropriate metaphor for this type of thinking is an autoimmune disorder. Our own traditions begin to set in motion arguments for protection of our culture, our civilization, and our very lives, and this liberal/progressive strain of thought acts to shut them down. Not to draw boundaries for them, but to close them out before they’re active.
The most prominent headline in today’s Providence Journal concerns the Paris attacks, and it’s absolutely mind-blowing: “Belgian Extremists Suspected.” In the seventh paragraph, we learn that “the attackers mentioned Syria and Iraq as they fired.” But then, on the matter of “find[ing] out who were the attackers,” we read about two “Frenchmen” under suspicion for participation in the atrocity. One must turn the page and read all the way to the twentieth paragraph to learn that “officials confirmed that one of the terrorists appeared to be a Syrian, based on his fingerprints and a Syrian passport found near his body.” (Note that: The extremists are Belgian, and the suspects are Frenchmen, but the guy with fingerprints and a passport appears to be Syrian.)
But the attackers didn’t just “mention Syria and Iraq” as if in casual conversation, or like a movie villain offering a speech about grievances. They shouted “Allahu Akbar” along with “this is for Syria.”
Toward the end of Mass at my church, today, the youth choir did a medley of the Christian rock hit “How Great Is Our God” and the more-traditional “How Great Thou Art.” Both songs are supremely Christian expressions of the majesty of God. “Allahu Akbar” is more like a war cry meaning “Allah is greater” or “greatest.”
The Christian awe of God should not, itself, be turned into a war cry. Rather, it should remain an assertion of victory, no matter who wins an Earthly fight. For that message to be of consolation and guidance to Christians, however, it has to be articulated. We have to be aware that those who attack and kill us are the ones following false prophets, not those among our neighbors who wish to defend us. Our prejudices bring evil into the world, no doubt, but they aren’t the only prejudices, and it distorts reality beyond recognition to pretend Belgian prejudices and one side of modern policy debates in the West are the most threatening to our lives or to God’s purposes.
The prophet Daniel promised that “the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever.” It isn’t wisdom to distort reality because we fear how our own people will react, and it isn’t justice to open doors for the victimization of innocents.