Renouncing the Privilege of Distance: Frans van der Lugt, SJ

What new is there to say about another dead priest? Another priest taken from his home, shot dead on the sacred altar of the streets consecrated by the suffering of the people for whom he stayed behind? What new is there in death? Behind him are the piles and piles of bodies and bodies I never noticed until he died, adding their girth to the pile of bodies under my feet. The losers of history, who push the grass up from the ground.

Homs. There is newness in the way the word reverberates in the cavity behind my lips. I will not learn Arabic because I would be too good at it, and then I would have to use it. I am afraid. I am not courageous.

Frans van der Lugt is dead, and I am sitting in a coffee shop.

– from a journal entry, April 7, 2014


Frans van der Lugt, S.J.
Frans van der Lugt, S.J.
Photo Tony Homsy, The Jesuit Post

Since I first learned of Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt’s murder last week, I have been trying to pen a response, to suck some meaning out of another senseless death. I find myself drawn to the parable of the rich young man. “Sell whatever you have,” Jesus exhorts, “and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And then come on, follow me!” (Mk. 10:21). And the rich young man went away sad. Put another way, in another context, Jesus’ exhortation might be worded something like this:

I want to say to our people, to the government officials, to the rich and powerful: If you don’t become poor, if you don’t become concerned for the poverty of our people, as you would for your own family, you will not be able to save our society. 1

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador

On the advent of his own death and in the initial stirrings of a civil war that would last twelve years, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero called upon the wealthy and powerful of the country to become poor themselves, to “become concerned for the poverty of our people, as you would for your own family” as a necessary step to “save our society.”

The connection Romero made between the act of becoming poor and becoming concerned for poor people is important. To save society – that is, to make fully visible the presence of the Kingdom of God – it is not enough to renounce material goods. We must also renounce the privilege of distance. It is not enough for us to feel sadness when news of bombings in Syria flash across the television screen. We must feel that sadness as we would for our own family. We must recognize that those suffering and dead are our own family.

Renouncing the privilege of distance is risky business. I trust that, as we see in Oscar Romero’s anticipation of his own assassination, Frans van der Lugt was well aware of the risk when he chose to stay behind in besieged Homs, Syria after its evacuation in February of 2014. A recent post on the blog Erasmus unpacked the significance of van der Lugt’s decision to stay behind:

By staying in the heart of besieged Homs, during a takeover by rebels who included militant Islamists and then during a government siege, he was offering succour to all victims of the conflict – and a kind of reproach to all the belligerents. He knowingly risked his life by remaining in a place where some Islamist rebels were active; but he also bore witness to the cruel consequences of the siege by refusing to leave when it would have been easy to do so, and nobody would have blamed him. From the perspective he offered, all civilian victims were worthy of compassion, and fighters on both sides bore a share of blame. That sounds like a truth worth dying for – and it goes a bit further than religious dialogue.

From this analysis emerge echoes of the life of Jesus, whose actions were simultaneously “succor” to the victims of history and “reproach to all the belligerents.” Importantly, for van der Lugt, “all civilian victims were worthy of compassion” and “fighters on both sides bore a share of blame.” Like Jesus, and the God of Jesus, the only side van der Lugt took was that of the suffering. That, perhaps, is why he is being called a martyr for religious dialogue. His renunciation of the privilege of distance led him into relationship with Christians and Muslims alike, and the bonds of relationship were so strong that not even a siege and evacuation could pry him from his people.

So, today, as I read the parable of the rich young man and reflect on the life of Frans van der Lugt, I feel the gravity of the demand Jesus makes of us. Solidarity is tricky and risky business, but it is worthwhile business because it is the business of “saving our society,” as Romero put it, or making present the Kingdom of God. I can point to many times in my own life when I have, like the rich young man, “walked away sad,” whether out of fear, desire for comfort, animosity, or, often, uncertainty. There are certainly times when I fear that my inaction will have me forever doing nothing more than “sitting in a coffee shop.”

My prayer for today is that we, by the example of Frans van der Lugt, have the courage and wisdom to chip away at the layers of emotional and spatial distance we build between ourselves and those suffering. I pray for the courage to follow rather than to walk away sad.

For more information on Fr. Frans van der Lugt, see recent articles in America Magazine and The Jesuit Post.

1. Romero, Oscar, qtd. in Marie Dennis, Renny Golden, and Scott Wright, Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings, Modern Spiritual Masters Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 86.

UPDATE 4/17/2014: A personal remembrance of Fr. van der Lugt from a Syrian producer for NPR. “Sharing requires presence, being close, to move from fear to peace, from sadness to joy, from death to life. . . . We love life, and we love to live. We don’t want to die in a sea of pain and death.”

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