The Courage to Live Charity

A recent article by James Martin, S.J. in America Magazine retold the story of the Trappist Monks of Notre-Dame de l’Atlas, martyred in Algeria in 1996. The movie Of Gods and Of Men tells their story: how they lived a community of prayer and service to their neighbors, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, in peace for many years until a civil war threatened their lives. They chose to stay because they felt the Gospel called them to serve in spite of the danger. Dom Christian de Cherge made an astounding testament included in the column that explains his decision to stay in powerful terms.

Please read Dom Christian’s words before going on if you haven’t already.

The issue of refugees has taken a sickening turn since the attacks in Paris. One Internet meme challenges liberals to take a handful of M and M’s from a bowl of 10,000 knowing 10 are poisoned. Many governors have told the President they do not want Syrian refugees in their states. It’s not surprising to me: we’re also indifferent to refugees of poverty and gang violence coming from Central America, and built a fence against them. We’re willing to keep the Central Americans out on the possibility a terrorist may sneak in with them.

By the way, how have terrorists generally entered the country? They aren’t poor, if they were, they wouldn’t have struck here already. They’ve come on tourist visas and student visas, nice and legal. They can forge documents as well as the old KGB could. They’re willing to burn cash for any purpose. They haven’t snuck into the country through the mud because they haven’t had to. Don’t think any of the corrupt people smugglers would let anyone come with a Kalashnikov on his back: they don’t want resistance from their clients.

Fear has joined Greed in the idolatry of our times. It’s become the ready answer, a show stopper, to any Charity we could offer that might pose any risk to us. We’re even ready to inflate risks with bad metaphors to justify turning away, ready to act as if we weren’t living in one of the wealthiest countries of the world (if not the wealthiest) and must squirrel away what we have so we don’t run out (which we won’t). We even parade the poorest of our own people, the veterans we’ve shunned, the children we’ve abandoned, as an excuse to withhold our help. We justify our cowardice with the people we throw away, consigning any newly arriving group to the same self-righteous scrap heap.

This is not what Christianity is like. Would Jesus approve of us? Would the one who laid down His life willingly, and called on His followers to do the same, justify giving up on Charity because we are afraid? Would He want us to be ruled by Fear, especially our own fear? I know this isn’t easy: I give into Fear more often than I want, and don’t have as much Charity as I should.

President Hollande announced France will still take 30,000 refugees in spite of the Paris attacks. The Daesh (ISIS) have told us they intend us to reject the Muslims living among us, make us so afraid we will drive them out into their ruthless embrace. We push the refugees back to the people who drove them out. We help those who hate us in untold ways through fear. We fail to be the people we’re called to be.

Be safe if you want to be, good luck with it. As J.R.R. Tolkein said, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.” The best we can do is not take stupid chances, and the stupid chances we take most regularly involve greed and self-comfort. Vote for safety at the polls, knowing that the harshest autocrats in history, the most repressive regimes in history, justified rolling back civil rights in the name of safety, and won their only free elections that way. Remember safety provides cover for Fear, makes Fear acceptable and even gives it a moral imperative.

Charity is costly, let no one deny that. It takes wisdom, street smarts, courage, determination, ingenuity, and compassion. It means being willing to lay down one’s life for another, not counting costs. It means taking risks with our eyes wide open. It means taking an active part in healing the wounds of the world. It means looking Fear in the face and not blinking. It means making room for those cast out, the muddled masses spoken of on the Statue of Liberty. It means following Christ.

More lives will be lost refusing Charity than any number of other innocents saved by caving in to Fear. I don’t think it would take a lot of sophisticated math to figure this out. The number of people lost through refusing to give refuge now could easily surpass the number lost in 9/11 and the soldiers who’ve died since.

There a lot of false dichotomies invoked these days, but I don’t think this is one of them. We can be Servants of Fear or Servants of Charity. The examples of Luke 6:27-36 should be ample illustration of how we are to treat one another and deal with our enemies. If we want to be servants of Fear, fine: can we call ourselves Christians, then? Did Jesus ever tells us to give in to Fear? To withhold Charity out of Fear?

The Trappist Martyrs of Algeria knew the importance of Charity, who they were in the world, and the value of the people around them in time of trial. We’re not called to the same risk they took; they knew they would almost certainly die, and our cost won’t be nearly as much under any circumstances. No real martyr ever wanted to die, but they refused to let Fear dictate what they believed or what they did.

What are we: Servants of Fear or Servants of Charity? Who does the Gospel call us to be? Who does Christ want us to be?


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