Beacons in the Dark

Posted: Sep 06, 2014 12:01 AM

While a prisoner of Islamic terrorists, Steven Sotloff faked illness so that he could observe Yom Kippur. It is said that he would also covertly pray facing Jerusalem.

As with James Foley, another American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Sotloff's religious faith was reportedly important to him.

"He was no hero," his family emphasized in a statement. "He was a man who tried to find good in a world full of darkness."

Very far away from where national headlines tend to be made, about 250 Catholic scholars gathered in Bismarck, North Dakota, over Labor Day weekend. The University of Mary there was celebrating the existence of Catholic studies programs, the first one having been established by Don Briel 20 years ago in Minnesota.

In a Saturday morning talk, Fr. Paul Murray, an Irish Dominican, reminded the gathering of a chant that changed the history of Poland in the early summer of 1979. During John Paul II's visit to his home country, then under the control of the Soviet Union, the people began chanting, "We want God."

That deep desire for the Lord, and that public insistence that religious faith is a human right to be protected and welcomed, is one that we Americans -- and Westerners -- often lack confidence in today, for so many reasons. Our modern cultural institutions have a secular edge to them that, at best, assumes that sophisticated people don't do piety, and is also increasingly hostile to robust religious faith.

Fr. Murray talked, among other things, about the dangers of relativism. While it appears "apparently sane and humane," and "identified in the popular mind with such fine and necessary things as tolerance and affirmation, openness and freedom," Fr. Murray said, relativism, despite its quiet air of inevitable reason, leaves us "disarmed just at the moment when we should be armed," unable to successfully respond to challenges to faith.

"Surely, now is the time for us to hold fast to our Catholic faith and joyfully proclaim it," he said, adding that that is exactly what Catholic studies programs exist to help people do.

Sotloff, who had dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, prudently concealed his faith when reporting in the Arab world. And yet it seems to have animated and rooted him, motivating and inspiring him. He seemed to have a deep respect for Arabic and Islamic people and culture. He wanted to help in a land where religious roots run so deep as to be in the blood and ground.

Speaking to an American audience, Fr. Murray cautioned against complacency on these shores. Faith, he said, is not to be merely "accommodated" in a "private spiritual realm." "It would be a travesty," he said, if believers "gave up all serious attempts at transforming the world around them."

As men give their lives for truth, while being sustained by a humble, substantive faith in God, we might consider our own lives and behaviors. What would we die for? What do we pray for?

These things are not simply for people under the thumb of ISIL. But those who are have certainly given some courageous witness to the power and practice of faith. Even in the midst of such brutality, they prod the rest of us to live lives committed to truth and justice, faith, hope and love, wherever we are, whatever we do.