A local critic recently challenged me to summon up the courage to comment on Kansas politics and the upcoming gubernatorial/senatorial races. My responses will be brief. (1) Kansas politics in this election cycle is all about money and (2) I don’t have a donkey or an elephant in the race, so I honestly don’t care who wins.
I am, however, interested in the relationship between journalism, courage, faith, and the love of humanity. Those four inter-related elements constitute, to me, the essence of someone who is operating at the pinnacle of the journalist’s craft.
How much courage would it take, for example, to comment on Kansas politics? None. How much courage would a writer like me need to summon up in order to take an editorial position against Sam Brownback or Paul Davis? None. Would it be courageous to report on the doings of our city or county commissioners? No.
To be honest, I’ve heard too much chatter about courage lately. When it comes to courage, we all too often take the part for the whole and assume that courage automatically comes with the press credentials. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Courage is a very easy word to use; it’s very difficult to practice. It’s hard to define, but it’s much easier for us to understand what it is by seeing it practiced. With that said, I can define courage in two words – James Foley!
Nancy and I were privileged to have a journalist named Jonathan Katz as our guest a few nights ago. During the course of our conversation that evening I found out that he knew James Foley. I told him that I thought that Mr. Foley was an eminently decent man. He agreed and added that he was an even better man up close than he seemed to be at a distance.
Now, as I ask myself why James Foley was willing to crawl into the belly of the beast that is ISIS, I find myself coming to an inescapable conclusion. His mission in life was motivated by love of God, family, and humanity. It was under-girded by faith and buttressed by courage. He was, in a very real sense, a digital age prophet, showing us that the barbarians had stormed the gates of civilization.
We live at a time when the existence of evil in the world is too often denied. This is the 21st century. We’re told that evil has been tamed. James Foley’s reports from Syria and the pain being inflicted on the Syrian people showed us how wrong we were. Evil is as much a modern phenomenon as it is ancient. As Lance Morrow put it, “Each age and place has its own style of evil. Evil exploits available resources – turns them to parody and destruction. Evil is an industrial program among the industrious, and an apocalypse in the hands of religious fanatics who have abandoned the smaller moral human decencies for visions of righteous obliteration.”
ISIS is the 21st century embodiment of that evil.
About a year before he was kidnapped in Syria, Mr. Foley was taken captive by Muammar Gaddafi loyalists in Libya. When he was given a brief opportunity to speak with his family during the 44 day ordeal, he spoke of the importance of his Roman-Catholic faith – “I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed… And it helped to keep my mind focused.”
After he was released he spoke to an assembly at his alma-mater, Marquette University, about the impact his Jesuit education had on his life - “Later I volunteered in a Milwaukee junior high school up the street from the university and was inspired to become an inner-city teacher. But Marquette was perhaps never a bigger friend to me than when I was imprisoned as a journalist.”
The final chapters of James Foley’s life were spent as a captive of ISIS in Syria. According to fellow prisoner, French journalist Didier Francois, He was tortured, endured mock executions, and was once crucified to a wall. The torture got even more brutal when ISIS found out that he had two brothers serving in the U.S. military. Yet, he remained faithful to the end.
Foley’s final words to his family came in the form of a letter that was committed to memory by a fellow hostage who was being released. As it had been throughout his professional career, faith was central to him even in the face of death. These were his last words to his parents: “I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”
James Foley poured out his life faithfully and courageously. The so-called “courage” it takes to report on Kansas politics pales by comparison.