Father Jacques Hamel (aged 84) was horrifically murdered recently in France. While it is difficult to think of a more heinous act than to slit the throat of any human being, the advanced years of their victim in this case makes the jihadists seem, if possible, even more reprehensible.
During those appalling events in the Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray Roman Catholic Church, there were two groups of people present, who seemed to inhabit entirely different ethical universes. One, a group of elderly people who appeared to want nothing more than to worship their own god in their own way, while preaching “love thy neighbour”. The other, a group who not only tortured and murdered defenceless people but also filmed their actions, in order to boast about their barbarity. If a poll asked people to imagine two groups who are the farthest apart on an ethical spectrum, we would not be surprised to see answers such as these two groups among the responses.
No sooner did we learn that the perpetrators claimed allegiance to Islamic State than we saw the inevitable jihadist commentary describing them as “martyrs” and their endeavours as a “martyrdom operation”. It was jarring to me therefore, to see Father Hamel also described as a “martyr”.
I have no doubt that devout and pious Roman Catholics could quickly provide scriptural justifications for describing Father Hamel as a “martyr”. Neither have I any doubt that Roman Catholics could also describe a detailed theology, which supports their confidence that their god looks favourably upon “martyrdom”. The problem is that exactly the same thing could be said about the Islamists praising the perpetrators of this abhorrent act. They too have scriptural justifications for describing jihadists as “martyrs” and they too have a detailed theology explaining why their god approves of “martyrdom”.
If I was a Roman Catholic, I would want to see a clear bright line dividing my ethical position from that of the jihadists. Using the language of “martyrdom” seems to limit that separation to something akin to “my god is the right one and theirs is not”. That is, this approach seems to accept that “martyrdom” in itself is inherently estimable and admirable, such that the only important criteria in this regard is becoming a “martyr” to the correct god (in whichever manner that god has ordained).
It seems to do an injustice to Father Hamel to award him with exactly the same appellation that the Islamists award to his wicked murderers. Would it not offer a more suitable contrast to the jihadists, if we stated that killing, bloodshed and death in the name of any god is always ignoble and never a worthwhile outcome?
National Committee, Atheist Ireland
Secretary, Atheist Alliance International