Memory Eternal on the Nineveh Plain

By Chris Hadley, S.J. 

“Nineveh is destroyed! Who can pity her?
Where can one find any to console her?” (Nahum 3:7).

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

Church Bombing, Iraq (CathNewsUSA)

These two passages are from the Old Testament and Gospel readings from a recent weekday Eucharist, occurring during new heights of violence in the Islamic State’s campaign against Christians, Yazidis, and other Muslims who do not fit their brand of Islam. This “Islamic State” (or IS, formerly ISIS or ISIL) has committed some of their worst atrocities in Mosul and the Nineveh plain, but the tragic location of the events in Nahum’s prophecy was not noted in either the homily or the prayers of the mass I attended that day. Indeed, the reading from Nahum is from a different context: God is punishing Nineveh and Assyria for the brutality of the Assyrian Empire, and the prophet is exulting in the fall of the wicked city.

Yet the passage achieves its ironic poignancy in light of the Gospel, in the light of Jesus Christ carrying his Cross and beckoning us to come after him. Jesus chooses to stand among those who are punished by the world’s cruelty and to receive the full extent of the world’s brutality, to “testify against it that its works are evil” (John 7:7b). Christians are being exiled, plundered, and murdered for their faith. Yazidis are being slaughtered and starved. The Shi’ites have their mosques and shrines destroyed. And any Sunni Muslim who dares to lift a finger to help them is persecuted. It is a disaster. “Nineveh is destroyed! Who will console her?”

These modern-day Ninevites did not choose to be exiled and crucified. That is not a real choice. But many of them, when given the choice, did remain faithful to God and to their consciences. In the Gospel of John it is written: “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2b). And the war criminals of the Islamic State cry out “God is Great!” as they do their murders.

I almost never feel this way, but I cannot help but harbor a wish that when these Islamic State criminals go to meet the God whom they name as Merciful and Compassionate, they will feel God’s mercy and compassion for the poor as God’s burning wrath upon them. I am uncomfortable with those feelings, and I cannot honestly claim that they mirror the righteous anger of the prophet Nahum. Perhaps they do, perhaps they do not.

And yet, the US airstrikes against IS in Iraq are a relief. I find myself thinking that it is even a tragedy that they cannot be carried out in Syria, where IS’s damage has been even more devastating and death-dealing, even if it is only a part of a larger theater of chaos. The rest of the world has not discovered the political will or means to come to the defense of persecuted religious minorities, particularly of Christians, and especially in Syria. Syria and Iraq are by no means the only places where Christians and religious minorities are suffering. Muslims are in fact suffering grievously everywhere, particularly in India, in Burma, and even at the hands of Christians in the Central African Republic.

But on the global scene and in the world’s imagination, Western Christians are not a minority and Eastern Christians suffer in obscurity. Why they are suffering without help from the rest of the world is too much to try to explain here. But my heart cries out for somebody, for God’s sake, to save the people of Northern Iraq from their nightmare.

The Western airstrikes and humanitarian supply drops are only a way to bide some time and save a few. This may seem tragic, but in light of the Gospel and of God’s Reign, there is no tragedy. Hope must take a painful form under these conditions, but it strains beyond the borders of what can be seen from the standpoint of political and military interventions.

Western Christians who are like me, who admittedly lament from positions of privilege and great advantage in this world, nonetheless struggle with frustration, anger, and grief when we allow the plight of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East to enter our hearts. Knowing that the US’s policies in the past have contributed to this state of affairs stings my conscience. And so the airstrikes, as limited as they are, could at least be an acknowledgment of responsibility for the suffering of the innocent.

A doctoral candidate colleague of mine, Brianne Jacobs of Fordham University, has given words to what many of us feel as she laments the police’s violent killing of yet another unarmed young man, Michael Brown, on the streets of Ferguson, MO:

“I think a lot of friends don’t understand why I’m so religious, and specifically Christian. Mike Brown’s murder reminds why. Christianity means centering your life around the truth that Brown’s murder demands of us that his life be given eternal meaning. I’m not saying that everyone needs to convert because of this, just that I have to believe if you participate willingly in structures of hate, negation, and death, that it is YOU who die; and I have to believe that if you have been negated by such forces, God is with you, you live. And if you wanna get right with God, if you want to be alive, you have to feel that loss, and fight for their justice.”

The hearts of the men of the Islamic State are also a battleground, where the Enemy of our human nature, as St. Ignatius Loyola calls it, is having its hour. The men of the Islamic State are also dying, in their own darkness, in their own hatred, and in isolation from all that is good in this world. May God’s Spirit confound the Enemy in their hearts and confuse their plans, and lead these men from death to life, just as God leads the Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims of the Nineveh Plain and all of Iraq from death to life. As Paul says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Not only in the heavenly places, but also in our hearts:

Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire,
let the wicked perish before God.
But let the righteous be joyful;
let them exult before God;
let them be jubilant with joy.

Sing to God, sing praises to his name;
lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds—
his name is the Lord—
be exultant before him.

Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land. (Psalm 68: 1-6)

May the Memory of those who have died in Iraq be Eternal. May the Memory of those who die violently and unjustly on the streets of my own country be Eternal. May that Memory, which is God’s Memory, begin with me in my choices in this life that God has given.

Chris Hadley, S.J. is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Marquette University. He celebrates the liturgy in the Roman rite with the Marquette community and in the Byzantine rite of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church at St. George’s in Milwaukee.