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A history of how Christians understand tragedy

Horrific death: a picture of the late Father Jacques Hamel is placed on flowers at the makeshift memorial in front of the city hall close to the church where an IS militant slit the priest’s throat (Photograph by Francois Mori/AP)

It was a liturgy he had performed hundreds of times over the course of his priesthood.

The Reverend Jacques Hamel, a beloved 86-year-old priest from a parish church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, was administering morning Mass at the time he was slain by an Islamic State militant. His last priestly act was not to genuflect before the Holy Eucharist, honouring the slain Lamb of God, but to bow on his knees to have his throat slit, bleeding to death on the sanctuary floor.

The story is ominously reminiscent of the murder of another priest, Oscar Romero, shot dead by a political assassin in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador, his spilt blood soaking the small, scattered pieces of Eucharistic bread. Romero was recently beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.

This act, like so many others committed by terrorists, has been described as a “tragedy”, a word the Vatican’s bulletin also used about the slaughter of 19 disabled people in a Japanese care facility. “Tragedy” has long been our go-to word for horrors that leave us speechless, at a total loss to explain the randomness and gratuity of evil in the world. From the perspective of the Christian faith, however, Hamel’s death is really not a tragedy at all.

Aristotle, Greek tragedy’s classical theorist, indicated centuries ago that effective tragedy has less to do with explaining reality than mimicking it. It is an art form that moves audiences and grants them a psychological cleansing, especially of fear and pity. Watching tragedy, Aristotle thought, could give spectators practice in exercising pity towards others who suffer in actual life. And it could train us to suppress fear when disaster strikes too close.

But one of the ancient pioneers of Christian thought, Augustine of Hippo, made a different argument. In his famous Confessions, he wrote about going to the theatre as an adolescent and weeping over theatrical tragedies. As an adult, he came to regret this waste of emotional energy on a purely staged “reality”. He scorned himself for succumbing to emotional voyeurism, enjoying his feeling of pity for the characters experiencing misfortune as well as the satisfaction that it was not happening to him.

I similarly questioned myself in 2008 at the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, when I admitted that I was taking strange “pleasure” in viewing sketches and paintings produced by individuals living through the Holocaust. Augustine advised Christians to expend their emotional energy rather more wisely — and benevolently — on those suffering in real life, cultivating authentic forms of Christian mercy that left artificial pity in the dust.

For Christians, then, “tragedy” cannot truly capture the meaning of the mutilation of Father Jacques Hamel or millions of other international victims of terror. Tragedy, at least in the classical sense, constrains us to an art form that moves us emotionally, even intellectually, but not necessarily practically and transformatively. It hardly delivers any final reason that moral atrocities and horrific suffering infect our existence.

Instead, Augustine and numerous other Christian thinkers would call on us to consider the revelation of God across the Bible’s narratives. For serious Christians, the Bible has no simple platitude, no standardised “answer” to be downloaded and quoted every time a priest is murdered or a Syrian child is buried under rubble. Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the most prolific Catholic thinkers of the 20th century and a modern counterpart of Augustine, suggested that the Christian gospel’s answer to the tragic dimension of human existence can be grasped only by contemplating God’s own “abandonment” of his Son to that tragic reality, with the Crucifixion as the ultimate epitome of God’s solidarity with suffering humanity. In the shadow of the cross, the death of Father Jacques Hamel, for Christians, is not tragedy, but it is indeed tragic.

Our Christian faith calls us to practise something deeper than sympathy or pity. We need to bring a sense of authentic mercy and reach out to the victims of tragic suffering, keeping alive the memory of those whose tragic deaths appear utterly senseless. But Christians are also called to exercise that faith which is aligned with resolute hope and unrelenting love, enacting an alternative vision of the reconciliation of all humanity to the God who gave up his own Son as a “soft target”.

•Paul M. Blowers is the Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College