By Benedict Augustine
“By the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.”
The people of Israel were a defeated people, living in exile. They lost their homes, their pride, and (almost) their God. They lived at the mercy of their conqueror, making their lives in the strange land of Babylon. Even though their tradition boasted of a great religion, one that was actually true and made sense compared to everything around them, and of great leaders like David and son Solomon, and great miracles like the crossing of the Red Sea, the reality around them continually reminded them that none of this existed anymore.
No one cared about the Israelites and their great history or their great destiny. At most, it could serve as a nice bit of entertainment for complacent pagan aristocrats. After hearing so many stories about divine bulls and promiscuous epic heroes, they wanted something new. Culturally speaking, the novelty of Jewish religion probably represented the only thing worthwhile to a people that surpassed them in everything else.
In the face of this oppression, the Israelites could do nothing more than remember. They desperately needed to remember, or else they would lose themselves. Many of them did indeed lose themselves. It was hard not to join the winners of that time, especially when their society promised so much pleasure for so little in return.
Then history happened. As Jesus warned St. Peter, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword” (Mt 25:52). Babylon fell to the Persians. The Persians fell to the Greek/Macedonians. The Greeks split into the three Hellenistic kingdoms, which lasted until the Romans conquered them. When Rome finally became Christian, the region then fell under dominion of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Rome), and then fell to the Arabs soon after the rise of Islam. After passing through various dynasties (theUmmayad, the Abbasids, the Turks), it eventually became the place of the Ottoman Empire. After WWI, France and England took possession of the area before relinquishing it to the nations that exist there today. Even today, those nations are now falling under the onslaught of the Islamic State and Iran’s proxies.
The few Christians and Jews who remain in the area know this violent cycle all too well, and yet they continue to remember. Even as their churches burn, their people suffer crucifixions and torture, and their brethren abroad continue to shrug and panic about the rush of refugees and migrants—it didn’t occur to anyone that they might not want to die or become rape victims or slaves by staying—they refuse to leave their home and sing a different song.
Although one cannot predict the future of Christians in these war-torn, Islamist-ridden areas, one thing is certain: God’s justice will prevail. The savage brutality endured by these few martyrs who dare not “sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land,” will certainly earn them a place in Heaven. The calm passiveness of those who watch them die without doing anything, or turn away in revulsion, will certainly warrant some time in purgatory, if not hell.
This thought alone, the thought of God’s judgment, galvanized action of a whole host of men in the Crusades, who gave up everything to save their fellow Christians. They did not have drone planes, precision bombs, or satellite surveillance; they had ricketyships run by greedy Italians, uncomfortable chainmail and heavy lances, and unreliable maps sketched from the details of legends and hearsay. Most of them went to their deaths, and the few who returned often came back maimed, diseased, or both.
History will continue to happen, and as such, it will not vindicate these victims of the past. The Ancient Jews in Babylonian exile, the Crusaders of the Middle Ages, or the Christians living in the Middle East right now will never be remembered as anything but helpless props of an inferior culture—that is, if anyone cares to think of them at all. Those in comfort may think of them when they are bored and need something to prod them into caring about life again.
In the end, however, these people are the wise ones. They chose to remember the two most important things, God Almighty and their neighbor in need. In turn, God will remember them, as will the people who will know them in Paradise. They weep in misery and suffer ignominy now, but they will laugh with joy and experience eternal goodness later.