Faith, Firmness, and Freedom: What a Pope Can Teach Us

November 6, 2019

It was a July night in 2003. We, the college-aged men and women lodging in two Georgetown townhouses, were sitting in our cozy circle in a small living room. My friends and I were all interning that summer, we were a formal group of Muslim interns in Washington D.C. Living in a swanky neighborhood was the upside. The downside was that we were woken up each day at dawn to pray, and that we had to discuss topics, or listen to lectures, centered around Islam on weeknights. Some of these young Muslims were avid in their faith.Others were fairly moderate.On the whole, we had lots of fun and shared a ton of laughs. I was glad to call them my friends.

This particular night would leave a lasting impression upon me. One of our facilitators, a medical student (at John Hopkins if I remember correctly), stood before us. He explained that there would not be a guest lecturer that night. Instead, we were going to engage in a discussion: should apostates be executed, as was prescribed by Sharia law?  

Prior to that night, I had never even heard the term “apostate.” Execution for apostasy seemed more fitting for a cult than for a respectable religion. Why would a “true faith” resort to forceful measures? Wouldn’t “faith” cease to be faith if its followers were coerced? Shouldn’t being true be enough?

What followed disgusted me. The young men and women, all of whom were living in the United States, all of whom were attending prestigious colleges, began earnestly discussing it. I would have assumed that by living in a free country, and that by being well-educated (my fellow interns were attending such institutions as the University of Texas, UCLA, and Yale), that we would have been refined, that we would consider such a discussion to be beneath us. But I assumed wrong. 

I went on to vocalize my indignation for engaging in this discussion, in the manner that a twenty-year-old who assumed he knew everything does. Perhaps some of my peers shared this disgust. If so, they kept silent. Some went on to explain that such a harsh penalty could leave a bad reputation for Islam in our day, or that non-lethal consequences could be resorted to instead. Others explained that an apostate could still come around and return to the true faith later in life, so it would be better not to kill him, and presumably send him to hell, prematurely. If any of my peers did support execution, they too kept their mouths shut. But I could not keep from wondering: why was this considered debatable?

I was accustomed to hearing fellow Muslims claim, time and time again, that the predatory foreign policies of the Western nations and Israel were the catalyst for violence done in the name of Islam. Iraq had been invaded earlier that year. But Western governments never wrote Sharia (which is taken from the Quran and hadiths, recordedsayings of Muhammad). I had occasionally heard fellow American Muslims boast that we were more moral than our non-Muslim neighbors, and the many vices flaunted in Western culture could be cited as proof. But we were not discussing the prevalence of vice; we were earnestly discussing whether systematic repression of an inalienable right ought to be implemented. Apostasy (and whatever passes for blasphemy) remains criminalized in much of the Muslim world today, and is even a capital offense in several countries. Did terrorism really misrepresent the religion of peace, as I was so often told? Was the turmoil throughout the Muslim world really the result of external forces, or could it have roots in Islam itself? 

Little did I know that some years later, I myself would become an apostate, that I would willingly agree to be baptized. Our discussion on that warm July night would take on a much more personal meaning: my friends had held a forum on whether should be killed in a few years.

Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.

St. Pope John Paul II

There are many Muslims who are skeptical about Islam, and yet remain Muslim by name. I know several such “Muslims.” Even when apostasy is not outright illegal in the lands in which they dwell, there remains much ostracism for outspoken abandonment of Islam, even in free countries. And, to be very frank, many skeptical Muslims would find it difficult to find Christian communities which would fully appreciate their plight. Fear keeps people in control. 

That summer night was a slap in the face for me. I had grown up Muslim in a free country. Before that night it never occurred to me that the freedoms I had benefitted from all my life, freedoms which when evoked would fill my American heart with pride, freedoms defended by the men and women in uniform whom we will honor on this Veteran’s Day, were in fact the implications of another religion, one that appeared nonsensical to me at the time. Had I been borrowing something all my life? I was still an insider, not quite ready to look upon the faith I was raised with from an outsider’s perspective. I would have figured that any correlation between a Christian foundation and liberty was mere happenstance, as I still believed in “coincidences” at the time. But our worldviews result in worlds of difference. 

That summer night was catalyst for me, to later ponder questions very much worth our pondering:

What are the fruits of a faith? Can its fruits endure when the tree is cut down? Does it encourage its followers to blame others, or to take personal accountability? Does it encourage the individual to thrive, or to follow along? Does it fear the individual? Does it employ fear? What do I, an individual, perpetuate by going along without giving a second thought, or via silence? Does a faith seek to make us slaves, or sons of God?

Liberty, political freedoms which we Americans take great pride in, is in fact the fruit of the Christian freeing of the soul: after all, what right does a man-made state have to silence the individual man or woman whom the Spirit of God has made His dwelling in? If God, who is love, doesn’t coerce any of us, who are we to coerce one another? How can self-evident truths, or rights we would call “inalienable,” ever be so if they are not from the Creator? 

Yes, the freedom to do what’s right is likewise paired with much freedom to behave irresponsibly, and plenty of us do, and the vices flaunted throughout Western culture may well be cited as proof. Like a sacrament, freedom can be abused. But the freedom to do right is precious enough to endure our wrongs. This freedom to do what is right is fragile, in need of our care, perpetually vulnerable to being lost as liberty’s torch gets passed from one generation to the next. There are countless alternative religions, whether theistic or atheistic, to the Faith, all of which could erode our freedoms. The preservation, and advance, of liberty for tomorrow depends upon the faithful’s firmness in the Truth, the foundation upon which liberty is built, today.

Be not afraid.

St. Pope John Paul II

Faith can overcome fear. Such has happened in recent memory.

This November 9 will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. It was a glorious moment for the advance of freedom. Prior to 1989, few among the intelligentsia foresaw the collapse of Communism any time in the near future. In fact, plenty of academics had once viewed Communism, despite its operational failure, as the religion of the future. It was necessary for our own nation to maintain a massive military-industrial complex to counter its advance. And then it collapsed. The Soviets didn’t even bother to invade the nations of Eastern Europe this time around, as they had before. What had happened?

Spiritual realities give life to the material realities we observe with our eyes. All people have a religious instinct, even in the absence of theism. An ideology is a religion devoid of the need for spirituality, which uses the force of the state (a “Caesar”) as a surrogate savior. A person can become possessed by a false religion, and gullible enough to proselytize just about anything, when convinced that doing so would make him or her “sophisticated” or “on the right side of history.” The Church teaches and preserves the Truth. To admit to being wrong is rather embarrassing. Silencing and undermining the Church (“we have no king but Caesar”) becomes a high priority for those possessed by a false religion. A worldview based upon false premises is unsustainable by nature (and it’s worth noting that our Catholic Church has been sustained for 2,000 years).

People respond to fear, so employing fear is an effective tactic to sustain a religion that is unsustainable by its own merit, to prevent the possessed from admitting wrong, and to win over many “believers.” Such “control” is always an illusion, dependent upon the consent (whether freely given or through coercion) of those controlled. The Truth is true and therefore remains a threat to falsehood, even when it has a dearth of believers. A false religion is always vulnerable to men and women who have the courage to speak truthfully about it, most especially when armed with spiritual truth (it’s worth noting that Christian-majority nations are the only ones secure enough to allow for open mockery of their foundational religion). Men and women can likewise be inspired even in the face of fear, and when enough people are so inspired, a ruling regime can find that making examples of dissidents becomes rather futile. Power is greater than force.

One individual, with a large enough audience, who can speak truth with the backing of spiritual authority, who is well-placed by Providence, can be especially dangerous to a false religion, that he can aid in rushing its collapse. There was one such man who in the days of the Cold War spoke the Truth firmly: Pope John Paul II.

He was the first non-Italian Pope since 1523. In retrospect, there is plenty of reason to suspect that the Spirit urged the papal conclave of October 1978 to elect this man from a Communist state, someone with intimate contact with the intimidation imposed upon his people, to the office of St. Peter. He was a prayerful man who loved Our Lady, who allowed the Holy Spirit to guide his voice, and it had a trickling effect. He became one of the previous century’s great advocates of freedom, not by being particularly political, but by firmly speaking in the faith from which freedom sprang. Like President Reagan, another firm voice (albeit a political one willing to go to war) who helped rush the non-violent collapse of Communism, he survived an assassination attempt in 1981. With his encouragement, the Solidarity movement in Poland, founded in 1980 by Lech Walesa, had swelled to millions: millions of men and women who refused to be intimidated any longer by their rulers. Images of him were frequently held up during rallies in Poland. This particular movement, unlike previous secular attempts in Eastern Europe, had grown much too large, that the Communist regime had lost its grip on the Polish people. His native land held its first free election in several decades on August of 1989, a little over a decade after his elevation. By the end of that year, the rest of the satellite nations of Eastern Europe followed, one by one, that on November 9, the world watched on as common men and women in Berlin defyingly smashed the great icon of their oppression with sledgehammers. 

One firm voice, founded upon the Truth, has the power to change the world.

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

John 8:32

The Truth is that the Word became flesh, that Our Lord unwaveringly spoke the truth even when the world deemed it disruptive, that He endured a brutal Death, and that He Rose from the grave, that in so one firm man saved our world. The world can never be saved by cowards, and we Christians follow the only faith on earth which insists that God Himself demonstrated His courage. This Truth is more powerful, and more real, than death itself.

The Truth remains true, even if another faith, which itself may teach plenty of truths, outright denies it. Truth remains true, no matter how many people may refuse to believe in it and would opt instead to conform to the world’s fashions, just as our world remains a globe even if everybody would believe it to be flat. The Truth affirms itself by being true, without some desperate need for rhetorical acrobats, and we can know it by its fruits. And because this foundational Truth is true, the fragile freedoms built upon it can always be revived, even if they are lost for a time.  

Although the vast, vast, majority of us will never be elected pope, any one of us can follow the example of Pope John Paul II. We are even called to. Had it not been for individual voices responding to his individual voice, individuals encouraging one another by raising up their own voices, Pope John Paul II would have merely been speaking to brother wind. The chorus is incomplete without your voice in its ranks.

Our very concept of the individual would never have been developed apart from the Christian faith. Each individual is, or potentially is, a temple for the Holy Spirit, and must therefore never be considered a cog in some machine. To embrace Christ is the opposite of conforming to the world. Faith was the opposite of conformity to many of those who successfully protested Communism in their yearning for freedom. It is today the opposite of conformity (and quite counter-cultural) in the face of the new ideology which possesses millions of our countrymen, political correctness, a Marxist sleight-of-hand (from economic to social theory) which casts blame for all the world’s problems upon anyone who is in any way deemed “privileged” by those possessed. There are millions who today insist that a straight man can only be a gentleman by making himself pathetic. There are millions who seek to dictate the bounds of our freedom of speech. 

We are bombarded each and every day by news reports about political correctness and the political backlash raging against it. I myself am among those pleased to see that the articulate voice of Jordan Peterson has risen to prominence. But to view political problems and solutions as a be-all and end-all is much too petty. The flesh is weak and the Spirit is strong. The world of flesh cannot be transcended by fleshly counter-visions, but by the vision of that which is beyond it: it is when we allow our own souls to be stirred by the Beatific Vision that the world’s follies are overcome. Pope John Paul II was a stellar example of this.

So let us remain firm, as Pope John Paul II was. Let us remain firm, so that future generations shall have the privilege of laughing at us for passing around theories about dozens upon dozens of genders, and for our fondness of pornography. Let us remain firm, so that future generations may shake their heads at us over the dehumanization that is abortion, just as we do over slavery today. Let us remain firm, so that future generations may on Veteran’s Day honor the men and women in uniform who defend the freedoms which were preserved in our day. And let us remain firm, until the end of time, when all fear shall be cast aside, and the world will have finally comprehended that there are no alternatives to Christ. 

Let freedom ring! 

Zubair Simonson, O.F.S., is a convert who currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order. His written works include The Rose: A Meditation, a narrative guide through the rosary now available on Kindle. The story of his conversion, and admiration for G.K. Chesterton, can be read in the book My Name is Lazarus, published by the American Chesterton Society. Follow Zubair on Twitter: @ZubairSimonson

Zubair Simonson

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