Given the inability of our governments to stop people who want to blow themselves up from blowing themselves up, it is no surprise that much of the rhetoric surrounding the Sri Lankan attacks has victim-blamed the dead. It’s been a subtle operation, achieved by discussing the events, not in terms of Muslims who believe in the violent establishment of a new caliphate attacking Catholics and associated “Westerners,” but in terms of a general “religious violence” (as in the headline “Fears of religious violence after Sri Lanka bombings”; as in the many attempts to situate this attack within a general history of “religious violence” in Sri Lanka). Because “religion” includes the murdered Christians as much as the Muslim murderers, the murdered become the cause of the bombings as much as the bombers.
The Guardian summed up the predictable sentiment that follows from this kind of rhetoric: “We need to rise above the narrow nationalistic and extremist positions held by all ethnic and religious groups, and build a peace premised on justice and equality for all.” If religious violence is the chief cause of these disturbing events that have interrupted our news cycle, then all ethnic and religious groups that need to do penance.
Let’s forgive them: It is not the intent of our media outlets to reprimand the Christian martyrs for “religious violence.” They simply do not want to fall into the jaws of Islamophobia by singling out practitioners of Islam as the murderers of the practitioners of Christianity. The general term “religious violence” provides a convenient rhetorical category to do so. But it is sad to see how easily these events become a reason to hold “religion” in suspicion, further contributing our will to ignore the category of religion as a virtue that every human being must develop in some way or another, preferring to think of it as an inexplicable, anti-social, and highly flammable set of beliefs held by the unenlightened — who need to be carefully managed by the secular state.
There has been a similar effort to downplay the connection between the attacks in Sri Lanka and the global persecution of Christians; an effort to curtail the possibility that Western Christians will use the rhetorical power of Sri Lankan victims to further the growing complaint against the marginalization of Christianity in Western countries: “It’s an impulse to make a global assessment…that doesn’t help,” the Washington Post quipped. This curse against Christian globalism is a little odd, as most other “causes” are blamed precisely for not considering the global plight of the oppressed as part of their total cause. White, American feminists are called all sorts of Very Cutting Names for speaking about women without taking into account the experience of non-Western women of color. LGBT+ activists are lambasted for not considering the uniqueness of transgenderism as it is expressed in South America. But Christians who include the persecution of Sri Lankan Christians as part of a global Christian struggle are doing something quite untoward — stoking the idea of a war between Christians and Muslims.
Let’s forgive them: Insofar as the media embarrasses Christians who would compare being exploded on Easter Sunday to, say, being publicly ridiculed for opposing abortion, they have played a good role in staying our habit of cloaking our meager miseries in the dramatic robe of Persecution: “A lot of this can be exploited to fuel…ideologies of grievance,” one particularly deep thinker told the Washington Post, in what I would otherwise assume was a general comment about everyone, from every cause, for all time. Specifying, he says, “Both evangelical Christians and Catholics feel society is unwelcoming to them…It’s unfortunate if Christians rely on a superficial understanding of victimhood.”
But what places like the Post can’t understand is that, by banning any sort of talk that would unite Americans and Sri Lankans in a global Church, and thus a global persecution, they effectively guarantee that Christians will be reduced to “superficial understandings of victimhood.”
The Catholic Church teaches that Catholics are all members of One Body. If we are all members of one body, then an attack on one member is an attack on the whole, and it is simply part and parcel of the Christian faith to take the persecution of Sri Lankans as a persecution of the whole Church — and that includes the wealthy, powerful, gloriously untroubled Western Church. But the Body into which we are all united is also the Body of Christ — we are one, not by virtue of an abstract identity group that makes Christians into an “us” over and against a “them,” but because we have all been redeemed by God in the person of Jesus Christ.
If this is theological hogwash, it is vital hogwash, because this idea, that we are all members of Christ, effectively cancels out the superficial understanding of victimhood that makes me want to retaliate, feud, and seek vengeance. We are an “us” unified in love for the one who told us to “love our enemies, and do good to those who harm you.” This, and this alone, allows Catholics to be a unity that is not constituted by its negation of others, but by a love for them. This, and this alone, will check that rage of the flesh for vengeance and will give peace to the dear, grieving Sri Lankan business man who admitted, “I feel like going and killing those Muslims in a suicide attack” — countering human feeling with divine doctrine.
The media has been concerned that there will be a violent backlash of Christians attacking Muslims in Sri Lanka. But their effort to deny the global unity of the entire Christian Church in Christ, forbidding any “global assessment” of persecution, is an incitement to precisely this kind of violence. Forgive them for it: they are inept. Their reduction of the Church into incommunicable spots of local persecution makes Christianity into an “us” which has no transcendent unity in Christ who makes all believers, from all time, and throughout all space, into his one mystical body. Rather, this unity between God’s children is re-described as a worldly unity — a kind of global franchise in which adherents of a common faith tradition are thoroughly separated out by the contingencies of time and space. But if there is no unity in Christ, then all that is left is the unity of an “us” established over and against a “them.”
Politicians seem to think that, by stepping back from the identity of “Christian,” by referring to the dead as “Easter-worshippers,” and calling their death an attack on “humanity” they can diffuse that will to vengeance that characterizes groups who perceive that their members have been attacked. Actually, all this language leaves is a group whose members have been attacked, a situation which, if we are honest, constitutes the form of almost all violence in the world today. Here, the specific identity as the Body of Christ fades from view, and with it, the same Christ who told us to “turn the other cheek.” To put this as simply as I can, if I am a worshipper, or the general member of a religious group, and if my group is attacked by another religious group who want to attack “humanity,” I don’t see a particular reason not to strike back. But if I am Christian, I can see at least one reason to put away my sword — Christ. To refuse to acknowledge the Christianity, and — as a consequence, the global Christianity — of those who were attacked is not bad because it represents a goofy attempt a multiculturalism. It is bad because it strips Christianity of the very theological content which stops us from seeking vengeance in the first place.
Thus these two efforts — to curtail global Christian solidarity on the one hand, and to prevent and preemptively castigate a Christian backlash against Muslims on the other — are mutually destructive. The redescription of Christianity without its global solidarity in Christ is the description of a contentless, political “in-group” defined by its negation of other groups, from which violence flows like blood from a cut. Forgive the press, they literally have no clue what they’re doing.