I speak of two fine men and martyrs. And I speak of us.
U.S. citizen James Foley was doing his job as a journalist and photographer, documenting in words and pictures the suffering of people in the Syrian Civil War, when he was abducted by a Syrian militia group November 22, 2012. Eventually, he was put into the hands of the self-proclaimed jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who slew him on August 19, saying his slaying was in retaliation for U.S. air strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq.
Foley was a Roman Catholic Christian, and at a mass for him following his slaying, Bishop Peter Libasci made it clear that Foley’s job was not merely an income-producing activity, but was also his vocation, his calling from God. The bishop said that Foley was living his faith by filing images and reports of people suffering from war and oppressive regimes.
Foley’s kidnapping in Syria was not his first detention for pursuing his work; he’d been captured in Libya in 2011 and held for 44 days. But, said the bishop, Foley “went back again that we might open our eyes.”
The slain journalist’s parents, John and Diane Foley, explained on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that their son’s experience while an undergrad at Marquette University, a Catholic and Jesuit school, helped him choose his life’s course.
“Jimmy was challenged when he first met poverty and disadvantage at Marquette University,” John Foley said. “Since that moment his soul and heart grew and grew and grew to encompass all those people who needed help, needed their stories told. He began to love all and that was his biggest gift to the people he met. His love and his help.”
When one of the “Morning Joe” hosts suggested that the younger Foley grew to feel a responsibility to help others, John Foley responded, “He ran with it. He grew stronger and more committed.”
“He was home in October 2012 for his birthday,” Diane Foley said. “He looked so good. I said, ‘Jim, can’t you stay home through Christmas?’ He said, ‘Oh, Ma, I have to go back, but I will be home for Christmas.’ He had made promises. He was so committed to the people whose suffering he was trying to humanize. He wanted the world to know, to know how people were suffering, particularly the children.”
U. S. and Israeli Citizen Steven Joel Sotloff was the son of Arthur and Shirley Sotloff of Pinecrest, Florida. He was a grandson of Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Pinecrest, Florida, graduated from Kimball Union Academy, a private boarding school in Meriden, New Hampshire, and later attended the University of Central Florida from 2002 to 2004, where he majored in journalism but didn’t graduate. He studied at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Sotloff was Jewish and previously worked for Temple Beth Am Day School in Florida.
Sotloff, became a freelance journalist, and was kidnapped in Syria in August 2013. Sotloff’s mother Shirley appealed on Aug. 27 in a videotaped message to Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for her son’s release. Addressing the leader of the Islamic State group by name, Shirley Sotloff said in a video her son was “an innocent journalist” who shouldn’t pay for U.S. government actions in the Middle East over which he has no control.
After his abduction in Syria about a year ago, his family had sought a news blackout, as has been done in the case of many other abducted journalists. The theory is that by putting the journalist in the international spotlight, the kidnappers will assume they’ve netted someone high-profile and can extort ever-higher sums for their captive’s release.
Before his capture, Sotloff at some point based himself in Yemen, having learned Arabic there, and traveled around the region with a Yemeni mobile number. His career took off during the Arab Spring, during which he published work in TIME, National Interest, Foreign Policy, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Long War Journal, to name a partial list from his Twitter account. He also freelanced for the Jerusalem Report and the Jerusalem Post.
“We refused to acknowledge any relationship with him in case it was dangerous for him,” said Avi Hoffman, editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine, which had published Sotloff’s pieces.
The 31-year-old had been drawn to reporting from the world’s conflict zones because he was unable to “turn his back on the suffering pervading the world,” a family spokesman said, after Sotloff’s father briefly appeared holding a photo of his son, declining to speak to media.
This is tough stuff but we cannot afford to ignore it. Tonight, however, I don’t want to speak about the American response. I want to speak about Jim and Steve. I want to ponder with you how two men – not soldiers – would put themselves in harms way. What were they thinking?
I believe they were doing their jobs in order for the world to open their eyes. I believe they were soldiers, sans uniforms. I believe they were heroes.
When has a news report or photos of some situation far from where you live “opened your eyes”? Did you hear any kind of calling in that? Once your eyes were “opened,” what form did your response take?
In other words, have we felt called, compelled to do our job, despite the risks? And like Jim and Steve, did we comply? Did we accept the burden?
I think of the prophet Amos (7:14-15) who said, I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Amos lived in the eighth century B.C., when the Hebrew people were divided into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom, Judah, had its capital at Jerusalem. The northern kingdom, Israel, had its capital at Bethel. Unfortunately, some unholy things were going on in Israel, and God needed someone to point out the people’s sins and call them to repentance.
Thus God called Amos, who lived in the southern kingdom. While devout, Amos was not a religious professional. He was a herdsman and farmer. But when God called him, Amos traveled to Bethel and delivered God’s message. There, Amaziah, the chief priest of Bethel, confronted Amos, pointing out that he was a foreigner and telling him to go home and prophesy there.
Amos responded with the words quoted above. To put it in a contemporary setting, Amos was saying, “Look, I’m not preaching here because I’ve got a yen to be a minister. I’m a layperson, a farmer, but God has called me to speak to this situation, and I have to obey him.”
To what degree does a sense of compulsion help us identify a call as being from God? In what way or ways might Jim’s and Steve’s compulsion be said to have been driven? In what ways might we discern that it was from God?
Did the fact that Amos considered his true vocation to be agricultural take away from or give more authenticity to his prophetic ministry? Amos seemed to be saying, “I’ve got a real life.”
How are spiritual gifts related to one’s vocation and calling?
From my favorite author, Scott Peck: “… vocation implies a relationship. For if someone is called, something must be doing the calling. I believe this something is God. God calls us human beings — whether skeptics or believers, whether…[religious] or not — to certain, often very specific activities. Furthermore, since God relates with us as individuals, this matter of calling is utterly individualized. What God calls me to do is not at all necessarily what God is calling you to do.” (From The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, p. 152.)
And this, from the diary of Dag Hammarskjold, a former secretary-general of the United Nations, who found his work for peace in troubled places often exhausting:
On the path of others
Are resting places,
Places in the sun
Where they can meet.
Is your path
And it is now,
Now that you must not fail.
If you can,
But do not complain.
The way chose you —
And you must be thankful. (from Markings, July 6, 1961)
Final question: what is our sacred calling and are we prepare to respond?
Jim and Steve died, doing their jobs.
What are our jobs? What is our calling?
And are we prepared to follow this work as far as we can?