Charles de Foucauld: A patron for Muslim-Christian dialogue
By Glen Argan
Don’t recommend to others that they take a course of action you’re not willing to take yourself.
On that basis, I cannot recommend that anyone follow the lifestyle of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the dissolute French army officer turned desert hermit who was murdered/martyred by anti-colonial rebels in Algeria 100 years ago on Dec. 1.
However, in the midst of the current climate of fear, we might do well to follow his example of building bridges with Muslims.
Foucauld’s lifestyle was much too harsh, far too ascetic for a pampered North American like myself to follow. Yet, it is worth remembering that prior to his conversion, Foucauld was even more pampered, more self-indulgent than most of us. We need not dwell on Foucauld’s epicurean lifestyle prior to his conversion in 1886.
Rather, the decisive change in life he made upon his conversion should drive home the point that following Jesus is not a sometime thing. “As soon as I believed there was a God, I understood that I could not do anything other than live for him,” he later wrote.
That is the truth. Combined with the further truth – that following Christ means to give up one’s life and take up the cross – it led Foucauld to understand clearly that the fullness of the Christian “lifestyle” is martyrdom.
Yet Foucauld’s faith was not the militant, colonizing faith typical of his era. Rather, his respect for Islam led him to his mission of Christian presence – not proselytism – among Muslims.
In fact, exposure to the faith of Muslims sparked Foucauld to realize God is more important than earthly treasures. Their faith – as well as the Catholic faith of his relatives in France – led to his own devout Catholicism.
Today, in the midst of the politics of exclusion and culture wars, Foucauld offers a path of hope. Presence and encounter with those deemed to be our enemies is the Christian way. It can also be a personally dangerous one.
Although his only goal was to be present among Muslims, he ultimately took a bullet to his head because he was seen as an agent of the French colonizers.
For his part, Foucauld may have made it easy for the rebels to see him as a collaborator by feeding information to his buddies in the French army.
Tertullian, the third century Christian writer, wrote that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. But no great flow of Algerians to the Christian Church followed Foucauld’s martyrdom. In recent years, thousands more Christians have been martyred in Syria and Iraq.
We err in expecting Foucauld’s martyrdom to lead to the re-Christianization of North Africa. That was not something Foucauld sought. He might better be understood as the patron of Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Powerful forces have been behind the spread of a virulent Islamophobia in Western societies. Fear, distrust and hatred of Muslims have made a largely peace-loving people the excluded others – those who without reason are made the scapegoats for society’s problems.
This has happened too often in world history, and the results are often cataclysmic for those who are scapegoated.
Blessed Charles would likely have been appalled by the Islamophobia of Western societies today. So, if few of us can live in as an austere way as Foucauld, more of us should be able to follow him in being disciples of dialogue between Christian and Muslims. It is there that blood of Foucauld’s martyrdom might well bring peace and life.
A hundred years after his death, Foucauld’s witness might finally bear fruit if we but call out for his intercession and challenge the Islamophobia in our midst.
[Some information for this article was taken from Charles de Foucauld by Robert Ellsberg, Orbis Books, 1999.]