About us



Vol 39 No 3


Richard Lennan
STILL RELEVANT? Vatican II Forty Years On

Tony Paganoni CS
ETHNIC MINISTRY IN AUSTRALIA: History, Present Realities and Future Options

Frank Fletcher MSC
THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE HEART: The EJ Cuskelly Memorial Lecture 2005

Brian San

Rev Dr Lawrence Cross, Australian Catholic University

John Falzon
STATS AND STONES: Vinnies’ report from the trenches on the poverty wars

Danny Kinnane
MERTON: A Modern Perspective

Janiene Wilson
REVIEW: Jane Anderson, Priests in Love: Australian Catholic Clergy and Their Intimate Friendships

Kevin Mark


Topical comment - Terrorists, martyrs and suicides: Consulting the Early Church


PAINFUL AS IT may be, twenty-first century terrorism forces us to ask questions about the existence of resentments, dissonant thinking and religious cultural alienations that are active deep within the fabric of our post-modern, western democratic society. The murderous, cowardly random violence witnessed in London from 7 July compels us to lift the stone to confront whatever has been living and breeding beneath it. It is not a comfortable experience even to admit to their existence, let alone confront the ideological demons behind the smile and apparent affability of the lad next door. The phenomenon of the ideologically motivated, covert activist, and his alienation, is not exclusively modern. The Christian past has something to say about how we name and treat such a thing.

In the religious and cultural world of Imperial Rome, Christians had every reason to feel like outsiders. They were demonised and persecuted by the state as alien subversives, enemies even of the human race. Roman society emptied its own psychological garbage on them, in much the same way that threatened power structures need moral scapegoats when their own certainties seem to be tottering or challenged. No wonder some young Christians from time to time vandalised the shrines of the Roman gods by way of protest. However, these zealous religious vandals were never considered heroes. The early Christians' most- admired figure was the martyr, not the zealot. The genuine martyr never sought martyrdom. The early Christian world, like the Jewish tradition before it, saw the martyr as one who surrendered their life, even for the conversion of their enemies, once they had been apprehended for their faith. The Judeo-Christian martyr is not violent. Like Christ himself, the martyr of martyrs, they are God' witnesses precisely because they are victims.

This view of the martyr suffered aberrations in western Christianity in the Middle Ages at the time of the Crusades. Western Christianity's crusade ideology was almost identical to Jihad. The warrior, killed fighting for the faith, was admitted to a guaranteed heaven. The passing of time has shown that this was an aberration in western Christianity (for the Christian East war was always an evil, even if necessary). Jihad, crusade's twin brother, has also had its critics and interpreters in Islam. For the Sufis it was to be understood as signifying the interior, moral warfare to be undertaken by all believers, not as 'holy war', which to modern ears is the oxymoron that 'beats them all'. The suicide bomber and the Islamic fundamentalist are a world away from the Sufi sages, with a mentality to be located, to be precise, in the central Middle Ages.

Finally, in these times when Muslim extremists target Christians, Jews and 'Westerners', and the suicide bomber is called a martyr, it might be helpful to recall the decisions of the Council of Elvira (c.305) which dealt with those young Christian hotheads who were engaged in vandalistic acts against pagan shrines and idols, although they were rather more like the modern street graffitist than the suicide bomber. Canon 60 of that ancient Church Council declared that:

If anyone breaking idols is killed in the process, since this [kind of act] is not written in the Gospel and would never be found occurring in the time of the Apostles, he is not to be called or received into the ranks of the martyrs.

Maybe world Islam needs something like Canon 60 of the Council of Elvira, or something a good deal stronger?.

Pope Benedict XVI believes that presently we are not witnessing a clash of civilizations. However, while there may be no clash of civilizations, the social and cultural worlds involved are very different. One suspects that both are also co-dependant in a paradoxical way. The young suicide bomber, however much we believe him to be wrong, has a deep problem provoked by his post-modern, secularist, western, and to his mind, godless environment. Mixed with the personal angst which at some point is experienced by so many youth, we have an explosive personal mixture in the making. Both Islam and the post-modern West have serious questions to ask themselves. Islam finally needs to ask itself about the meaning of this fundamentalism occurring within its spiritual world, while post-modern society needs to ask itself about its effect upon the moral life and development of the citizen. Neither will be easy. Honesty never is.

Rev Dr Lawrence Cross teaches at the Australian Catholic University