It has come out in the wake of the mass shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College that the murderer specifically targeted Christians in his rampage. According to several different eyewitnesses, he began lining people up and asking them what their religion was. Avowed Christians were shot in the head, while non-Christians or people who didn’t answer were shot in the legs. (Of course, had he done the same thing for Muslims or homosexuals, there would be a national outrage even as we speak, while as it is, the media is collectively ignoring or shrugging off this small detail.)
On Facebook, I saw a woman who had an interesting response when one of her friends expressed admiration for the martyrs who answered “Yes” and wished for herself that she would be able to give the same answer. This woman said that although she was a Christian, she would have refused to answer because an arbitrary test by a gun-wielding lunatic is meaningless, and God knows what’s in her heart. She argued that it was far more important for her to stay alive for the sake of her children, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome.
It’s an interesting question: Is there only one right answer in this sort of situation, or did those martyrs die for nothing? If a test set by a madman would be meaningless for her, was it meaningless for them also? Her implication seemed to be that any one of those people could have refused to answer with a clear conscience.
To be fair, the situation isn’t strictly analogous to the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, when the only options were pour out a libation or become kindling for Nero’s garden party. It seems as though this murderer was letting people off the hook if they wouldn’t answer definitely, which is technically not an act of idolatry. That’s where this woman saw her loophole—not proclaiming Christ before men, but not exactly denying him either. Her conscience is satisfied, the gunman passes her over, and her children still have their mother alive. Surely this would be the best choice, the wise choice?
Maybe… but maybe not.
I sense a defensiveness in this woman’s response, and in the fact that she gave it unsolicited. I think she feels, as all of us do, an unspoken challenge in the deaths of these Christians in Oregon, and it makes her uncomfortable. So she begins to rationalize. “I’m a wife and mother. It’s only an arbitrary test. God would know what’s in my heart anyway.” And so forth. I wonder if she would have tried to talk Saint Felicity out of going to the lions, because she had a newborn child. I wonder if she would even have told her “God knows you don’t really mean it when you pour out that libation, so just give them what they want and go back to breast-feeding your baby.”
I’m not saying I would condemn this woman for making her choice. But I wonder. I wonder if this is not a failure to recognize a moment of truth. When the hypothetical becomes reality, when the far-fetched scenario is no longer far-fetched, but a physical gun to your head and a question asked with everything at stake, what should our answer be? I wonder.
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
— T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding