August 20th, 2014
08:31 PM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog editor
(CNN) – We don’t know if James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by Islamic extremists, prayed in the hours and days before his death. We probably never will.
But Foley said faith sustained him during another ordeal in 2011, when he was held captive for 44 days by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
In a gut-wrenching article he wrote for Marquette University’s alumni magazine, Foley said he prayed while imprisoned that his family, many miles away, would somehow know that he was safe.
“Haven’t you felt my prayers?” Foley asked his mother, Diane, when he was finally allowed to call home.
Diane Foley told her son that his friends and family had been praying, too, holding vigils filled with former professors, priests and Marquette students. She echoed his question back: Have you felt ours?
He had, the journalist said. “Maybe it was others’ prayers strengthening me, keeping me afloat,” Foley wrote.
The 40-year-old Catholic, who reported for the GlobalPost among other publications, was abducted again in 2012, captured this time by the extremist group ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State.
On Tuesday, ISIS released a video showing a Muslim militant clad in black beheading Foley, who was wearing an orange jumpsuit and kneeling in the sand.
The ISIS militant, a man with an apparent British accent, said that Foley’s murder was payback for U.S. airstrikes against the group in Iraq. On Monday, President Barack Obama said the American operation has helped drive ISIS from strategic cities and infrastructure in northern Iraq, which apparently angered the Muslim militants.
“Any attempt by you, Obama, to deny Muslims liberty and safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people,” the ISIS militant said in the video.
The man in orange, kneeling. The man in black, wielding a knife. One asked God to cross the “cosmic reach of the universe” and soothe his family. The other claimed to kill in the "name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful."
Admittedly, we know relatively little about Foley's faith and even less about the ISIS militant in black. But the contrast between the two religious paths - one led a journalist to cover conflicts, the other a jihadist to create them - is jarring.
"It's story versus story," said Martin Marty, an emeritus professor of religious history at the University of Chicago, "and the more you are threatened, the more dramatic and deep the story is going to be."
It should be said, and repeated often, that the contrast is not between Christianity and Islam.
“ISIL speaks for no religion,” Obama said on Monday, using an alternate name for ISIS. “Their victims are overwhelmingly Muslim, and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday, and for what they do every single day.”
Muslims were among the first to lament Foley’s killing and have repeatedly condemned ISIS’ reign of terror in Iraq and Syria. They are victims, too, of the crimes committed in the name of Islam. Many have worked tirelessly to combat them.
But even as most Muslims reject ISIS, it cannot be denied that the extremists use faith to justify their brutal acts of war.
“Do jihad in the cause of God, incite the believers and be patient in the face of this hardship,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, said in a video released in June.
“If you knew about the reward and dignity in this world and the hereafter through jihad, then none of you would delay in doing it.”
Under that call to arms, ISIS militants have rampaged through Iraq, forcing Muslims, Christians and Yazidis to convert to their brand of Islam, pay a protection tax or be killed.
ISIS has bombed revered religious sites, murdered hundreds and tortured and enslaved many others - all in the name of building an Islamic state.
Foley's friends and family say his faith inspired a very different moral course.
He organized fundraisers for slain journalists, taught convicts in Chicago to read, and risked his life to tell the stories of people living under the brutal rule of dictators.
He was the kind of guy who always offered half his sandwich or cigarette, one friend recalled. He was mensch, if such can be said of a Catholic from New Hampshire.
The source of his unselfishness was clear, said Foley’s friends.
"Jim's faith was something we all agreed not to discuss publicly while he was held in Syria,” said Max Fisher, a journalist at Vox.com, “but it was the wellspring of his generosity."
It’s a paradox of modern life - most of human history, actually – that saints and sinners alike draw from the same religious waters. Christian crusaders, Sufi pacifists. Sharp knives, soft prayers.
Religion isn’t ever quite so black and white. Most of us live in the vast gray space between. But at moments like this, it's hard to miss the contrast.
"It's story versus story," as Marty put it, "and you get rid of the bad ones by telling good ones."
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.