Do you remember that old journalism parable, the one about the cynical poster that is supposedly hanging in a wire-service newsroom somewhere?
The poster, supposedly, explains how the U.S. press covers disasters, in terms of the number of deaths. To be blunt: 1,000 people dead in Afghanistan equals 500 dead in Egypt, which equals 250 dead in Mexico, which equals 100 dead in Japan, which equals 50 dead in France, which equals 25 dead in Canada, which equals 10 dead in Texas, which equals one celebrity/politician dead in Hollywood or Washington, D.C. Or words to that effect.
So why is the death of one Catholic priest at an altar in rural France so symbolic? Why were we still talking about Father Jacques Hamel on this week's Crossroads podcast? (Click here to tune that in.)
I thought of that when I read this summary material in an interesting report at FoxNews.com:
In 2015, more than 2,000 Christian churches in Africa were attacked by terrorists, and more than 7,000 Christians were killed, according to the advocacy group Open Doors USA. Those figures show terrorist groups like ISIS, which claimed credit for Tuesday's attack, as well as Al Shabaab and Boko Haram, will not hesitate to kill inside a house of worship.
"News of the murdered priest in Normandy has shaken many to the core,” David Curry, president and CEO of Christian Watchdog group Open Doors USA told FoxNews.com. “While in Nigeria, an average of five churches are attacked every Sunday, this is the first documented case of Western Christians being attacked by ISIS during a worship service."
Five churches attacked every Sunday. In Africa, that would include Catholics, but also Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostal believers and others. The story notes that, in 2015 alone, 2,400-plus Christian churches were struck by terrorists in Africa. Yes, many of those attacks were by forces aligned with Boko Haram and, thus, the wider Islamic State.
That's a lot of desecrated churches. There must be thousands of victims and eyewitnesses to these scenes of hellish violence. Are we hearing those voices in our newspapers and on our 24/7 digital screens? Are we seeing those images?
Not very often. Yet the death of Father Hamel is part of that ongoing story around the world. That's story No. 2. for those with the eyes to see.
But the attack in France is also important, in part because its a piece -- along with Brexit and immigration debates in Germany -- of the cultural, political and religious drama that is Europe. Right now, that's story No. 1 for the mainstream press, and I understand that.
Thus, I have been writing about this death in the parish of St. Stephen all week. Those GetReligion headlines were: "Priest murdered by terrorists during Mass: Yes, hellish details matter in this story;" "The martyrdom of Father Jacques Hamel: At what point were attackers' motives clear?"; and "What. It. All. Means. Symbolic details in a priest's death in parish named for St. Stephen."
Part of the poignancy of this story has been the struggle of French leaders to grasp why -- in their legally secular and largely post-Christian land -- this news story has resonated with so many people.
After all, most of France's churches are full of empty pews, not Catholic worshipers. What's the birth rate in France, these days, among the people who are nominally Catholic?
This brings me to an interesting Lapido Media (a UK religion-and-journalism think tank) analysis piece that ran with this headline: "The French state has no category for the killing of Fr Jacques." The lede is blunt, methinks, and also points to why so many mainstream journalists are struggling to cover the religious details in this very religious story:
The French Catholic priest Fr Jacques Hamel was murdered yesterday by two men claiming to act on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS). It was a religious crime in a secular state.
They forced the 86-year-old priest to his knees while he was saying Mass in the Église St.-Étienne (Church of St Stephen) in the Rouen suburb of St.Étienne-du-Rouvray, and cut his throat -- some reports indicate they beheaded him.
Yet here is the problem: The leaders of ISIS, with their twisted take on Islamic life and faith, are totally comfortable describing what they do in religious terms. They keep claiming that Islam is why they do what they do. Millions and millions of other Muslims reject these acts and the ISIS take on their faith.
But how do you debate these matters in the context of postmodern France? What language do you use? After all, the leaders of the French Revolution slaughtered priests, as well.
For ISIS ... such acts of violence are religious acts, undertaken to further the establishment of their projected ‘caliphate’ or pan-Islamic state.
Yet the French public realm is secular, based on an ideology and legal system of laïcité or secularity -- non-participation in religion -- with its roots in the anti-clericalism of Voltaire. It was most strongly symbolized at the time of the French Revolution by the replacing of the statue of the Virgin Mary with one of the Goddess Reason in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
With the passing of a law establishing laïcité in 1905, strict separation of church and state became France’s official policy, making it all but impossible for the state to get to grips with religiously-inspired issues, or encourage interfaith outreach.
And also this. What does it mean to execute a priest, during a Mass? How do you talk about this act in secular terms?
Yet, framing this news event in secular terms, the essay notes that President François Hollande simply called it a "desecration of French democracy."
That doesn't quite capture the drama, does it? This was a Mass. Back to the Lapido Media essay:
It is, for Catholics, ‘the source and summit of the Christian life.’
And if this is so for the parishioner in the pew, how much more so for the priest, who stands in Christ’s place, his hands making the gestures Christ’s hands made, breaking bread and sharing it. ...
That is, in part, why Pope Francis in his official comment on the event said he was ‘particularly troubled to learn that this act of violence took place in a church, during Mass, a liturgical act that implores of God His peace on earth.’
The eyewitnesses knew that this was a story about faith and the truth claims of religious believers. There was no way around it.
At what point will news consumers be allowed to hear -- assuming their video of this execution rite is still out there somewhere, perhaps in the cloud -- the words if the anti-sermon preached at the altar by the attackers? What were the final words of Father Hamel?
There's more to this than politics. Listen to cloud of witnesses.