WASHINGTON (RNS) — A group of armed fighters surround the convent, demanding the nuns leave the premises and renounce their faith. When the sisters refuse, they are publicly beheaded, saying prayers and singing hymns with their last breaths.
Although it sounds like the latest atrocity from the Islamic State group, it’s actually a scene playing out nightly here in Dialogues of the Carmelites, a 1957 opera by Francis Poulenc now featured at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The opera is based on the martyrdom of 16 members of the Carmel of Compiegne convent killed in 1794, during the French Revolution.
The stirring and brutal portrayal contrasts with the romanticized revolution of Les Miserables, and reminds us that as many as 40,000 French citizens were killed — many beheaded — in just one year during the Reign of Terror. A disproportionate number were priests and nuns, killed by their fellow citizens in what was officially a Christian nation.
Viewed as complicit with the monarchy and part of the power structure, the Roman Catholic Church was targeted by the revolutionaries and a campaign ensued to de-Christianize France. Public worship was banned, Christian holidays were no longer observed, and streets named for saints were changed. Even the humble and faith-filled Carmelite nuns were seen as enemies of the revolution.
Interestingly, the opera opened here just after a three-day White House summit on countering terrorism ended. There, experts concluded that what has lead to the latest rise in terror sounds frighteningly like what happened centuries ago in France.
Young people, especially, are disillusioned with autocratic governments that crack down on dissent and offer them no voice. Frustrated and without hope, they are willing to give up their lives for revolutionary ideologies.
Even more prescient, a study released recently by Mercy Corps concludes that much of the western aid efforts aimed at counteracting the allure of terrorism by creating jobs is worthless; it’s the modern equivalent of “let them eat cake.” The study concludes that there is no relationship between joblessness and a young person’s willingness to engage in terrorist activities.
As Nasir, one of the subjects of the study put it: “I did not join the Taliban because I was poor. I joined because I was angry.” One can almost imagine him singing the Les Miserables anthem, The Song of Angry Men.
But why are young people angry enough to join these groups? The Mercy Corps study and other research show a variety of reasons for the discontent that can be summarized under the umbrella of “injustice.”
This is a difficult finding, especially for those who hoped some combination of foreign aid and entrepreneurial spirit could inoculate young people from terrorist recruiting. Alas, combating injustice is far more complex and nuanced than job training.
Are there lessons we can learn from history that could help counteract modern-day terrorism? The White House summit included debates about show of force versus engagement in civil society. But the summit was criticized for including representatives from countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both American allies with little appetite for opposition voices.
The challenge of combating modern terrorism is enormous and goes beyond typical military, political and foreign aid solutions. It requires difficult decisions and uncommon wisdom.
Perhaps one of the most important discussions taking place in Washington these days is the Dialogues of the Carmelites. It mostly poses questions about God, faith and the meaning of martyrdom. But it also shows the price that is paid when truth is not spoken to power and a sense of injustice makes unholy acts seem somehow noble.
Dale Hanson Bourke is a contributing editor to Religion News Service and the author of 11 books. Her latest is Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers.