Today is the Feast of St. James the Greater, who among other things is one of the patron saints of Spain. His role in the creation of that country occurred well before the age of social media. Yet a debate which took place in Britain’s House of Lords yesterday, regarding the nexus between social media and increasing violence in the name of religion, should give us some food for thought as we reflect on the message of Christ which St. James himself witnessed.
It is believed by some that after the Resurrection, St. James (or Santiago, as he is known in NW Spain) preached in Spain in the first century before returning to Judea, where he was arrested and later executed by King Herod. It is also believed that much later, in the 9th century, he appeared in a vision to Christians fighting against the armies of the resident Moors, helping the outnumbered Christians to win the day. As a result, Santiago subsequently gained the sobriquet, “Matamoros”, or “The Moor-Slayer.” This is not, obviously, a term which finds much support today, but during this period known as the Reconquista (“Reconquering”), it had a tremendous impact.
Today its territorial empire is mostly gone, but the linguistic and cultural empire which Spain established still remains. Ironically, while the Christian faith which Spain spread across the planet continues to grow elsewhere, in Spain herself the state of the Church is at present uncertain. What is needed in Spain, and indeed throughout Western Europe, is an entirely new form of Reconquista: not one of violence, but rather of witness, winning souls in the way Christians live their lives and how they treat others. To that end, social media can and should be a significant component.
Yet all of us, not just Christians in Spain, need to take to heart what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in Parliament yesterday. Noting current examples of religious violence such as the attacks by ISIS on Christians in Iraq, mob rage against Jews in France, and sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Africa, he cautioned that fiery hatreds are increasingly being stoked via digital means. “[W]e recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one,” he noted, later going on to state that it is “the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.”
Lord Sacks is absolutely right, of course, in that the online world can be a vicious place. He who screams the most obscenities or makes the most outlandish statements about annihilating entire groups of people ends up getting the most attention. What’s more, the media prefers to cover the rantings of fanatics, both religious and anti-religious, rather than the ordinary people suffering because of their faith. I find it embarrassing, for example, to note how often secular news reporters trim their fingernails disinterestedly, or play political favorites, rather than report on persecutions of Catholics. And while we may all point to Pope Francis as someone who not only has the will, but the popular reach to bring words of reason and charity to millions of people through online media, more of us need to be doing our part to peaceably aid in this effort, rather than stirring the pot.
On his Feast Day then, we have a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened when St. James became a bit too hot-headed in his own faith. In St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus realizes it is time to end His public ministry, He and His disciples begin to make their way down from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing through the region of Samaria along the way. Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him, so that any village He may pause in will be ready for His arrival.
Word comes back that one of the villages has refused to welcome Jesus, because His destination was Jerusalem; given the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time, this was perhaps not surprising. St. James, however, is absolutely livid at this news. Along with his brother St. John, St. James asks Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to consume them?” In doing so, the Sons of Zebedee are echoing the call of the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings, in his battle against the priests of Ba’al, and indeed the earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.
However instead of giving His approval, as St. James might have expected, Jesus rebukes the brothers for their suggestion. We are not told how He did so, or what He said, or how the “Sons of Thunder”, as they were later nicknamed as a result, reacted themselves. Perhaps the two of them were still fired up with zeal from what they had seen at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor a few days earlier when, along with St. Peter, they witnessed a glorified Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, two prophets who were quite capable of calling down fire and brimstone when warranted, even upon their own people. In this case, that kind of holy retribution was not to be.
Whatever St. James himself learned from this exchange with Christ, and he must have learned something to die a martyr’s death a few years later, the first of the Apostles to do so, we can learn from his experience ourselves. Taking Lord Sacks’ cautions about social media to heart, if I am honest about it, I, too, have been guilty of calling down fire online, a temptation which I suspect many of my readers who use social media have also succumbed to from time to time. So without dampening our enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel then, or defending our faith, perhaps my fellow Christians may want to take a lesson here, from the life of St. James, the man whose memory we honor today in the Church.
Detail of “St. James the Greater” by Alonso Cano (c. 1635)
The Louvre, Paris