Allah Mahabba: God Is Love (August 2016)

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Pierre Claverie, O.P.

I left the silence of my annual eight-day retreat yesterday to learn of last week’s murder of French priest Jacques Hamel by two teenagers claiming allegiance to ISIS. As many have grieved Father Hamel’s death, we ought not forget that an unnamed and often unmentioned parishioner was also critically wounded, someone who like the murdered priest had offered his or her day to God in that sparsely attended, indeed nearly invisible, centering ritual in Catholic spirituality that is daily Mass.

No less importantly, I do not want to overlook the tragic loss of life of the two attackers, who were incomprehensibly young and can never have deserved to fall under the sway of just one of the contemporary ideologies sowing violence, hatred, and paranoia in the world today.

Yesterday, Muslims across Europe attended Sunday Mass in solidarity with the Catholic faithful. This moved yet did not surprise me, for already, when violent attacks have occurred in recent years against Christians in Egypt and Pakistan, Muslims in those countries have responded by forming human chains at Sunday services for the protection of Christian churchgoers. It moved yet did not surprise me because some of the most loving, tolerant, and peaceful people I know are my Muslim friends, to whom I would say — in the face of xenophobic rhetoric in the current news cycle that it is insulting even to have to mention — that I am glad you came to my difficult and violent country and gave me a chance to meet you and to learn from your friendship and from your fidelity to God.

Everything that happens in our world, from the streets of Baton Rouge to the ruins of Aleppo, forces us to reflect on violence. Violence is wild by nature, spreading in all directions and turning the violent in on themselves. I think my Muslim friends are even more wounded by last week’s events than my Catholic friends are; whatever its intentions, the decapitation of that good French priest was not, in the end, primarily a blow against Christianity or against the West. Likewise, “targeted” American bombings in Muslim countries have utterly destroyed as many innocent lives as lives affiliated with terrorism, and the result of all this violence can only be further retaliation. Essayist Heather King recounted a true story that is ultimately a parable: a friend of hers built a fence out of razor-sharp wire to protect her home from robbers, and its first victim, a week later, was her new kitten, whose bloody, ragged body she discovered one morning impaled on the spikes. Violence can never really be “targeted.” It ultimately doesn’t know how to discriminate.

As we rightly debate and critique contemporary ideologies — when all of our erudite and (to their own extent and on their own terms) perhaps accurate historical and socio-cultural analyses are through — is there a peace that does not discriminate, either? A vision that recognizes that whenever we think we are criticizing the absolutely Other, we are actually criticizing just one tendency in the complex historical reality that is human existence, a category that always includes all of us, as well?

All of this is just a critical preamble, made necessary by recent events, to a story I’ve actually wanted to share for several months now, since I read it back in March: Today happens to be the twentieth anniversary of the death of Pierre Claverie, a Catholic bishop of Oran, Algeria. The point of this story is not the fact that it concerns a Catholic bishop and a Muslim assailant. Far from it; the roles could easily have been reversed, and in many historical instances probably have been. The point of this story — which is, in no small part, a story of the friendship between two men named Pierre and Mohammed — is that all human lives are intertwined.

In the drama of the soul it looks as though Conrad was right that we live as we dream: alone. Yet from the perspective of the drama of history, we all live together and we all die together. The violent heart sees difference and a hierarchy of value everywhere, but the actual violence that holds sway over hearts has already accepted, in its silent logic and critical intelligence, that the cost of doing its business is the failure to discriminate between classes of people. In order to be adequate to the task of overcoming evil with good, we who desire peace and restorative justice need to recognize and make explicit the fact that the fundamental interconnected-ness of all life is also the source and summit of the mystical practice of love. Anyway, I think this comes through in the story I wanted to share, as told by Timothy Radcliffe:

“Pierre Claverie believed that his mission, as Bishop of Oran, was to cultivate friendship with Muslims. It was in the name of that friendship that he publicly opposed the Islamicists who terrorized the country. He began to receive death threats. His priests told him that he must stop speaking out, and his Muslim friends tried to protect him. But on August 1, 1996, he met his death. Having spent a day with the French Foreign Minister, he returned to his home with a young Muslim friend, Mohammed Bouchikki, who had acted as a driver just for that day. He was awaited. As he entered his home a bomb exploded which utterly pulverized both of them, leaving their Christian and Muslim blood mingled on the wall.” [Seven people were later sentenced to death for this attack; the Catholic Church in Algeria successfully petitioned to spare their lives.]

“At the funeral, packed with Muslims, various of his friends gave their testimony to Pierre. The last was a young Muslim woman who recounted how he had brought her back to her own faith and that ‘Pierre was the bishop of the Muslims too.’ He was buried in his favorite stole, bearing the Arabic words ALLAH MAHABBA — ‘God is love.’ Muslim and Christian friends make sure that his tomb is covered by flowers. Love endures.”

We might adapt the form of the traditional litany of the saints to say:

“Pierre Claverie, pray for us, and teach us to pray to the God of peace.
Mohammed Bouchikki, pray for us, and teach us to pray to the God of love.
Jacques Hamel, pray for us, and teach us to pray to the God of forgiveness.
All you holy ones who have gone before us into the light, pray for us, and teach us to pray to the God of unity.
Victims of history, pray for us, and teach us to pray to the God of life.”