James Foley Prayed, But He Was Not a Martyr

Missing American-Syria

One of many of the unbecoming habits of career non-believers is the mockery of prayer. From citing research studies about the inefficacy of prayer to accusing those who pray of narcissism to believe that a god of any significance would care to listen to them, prayer is one of the primary targets of those who dismiss the religious.

And while I’ve admittedly rolled my eyes at proclamations of, “Prayer works!” when people experience what looks like arbitrary good luck, a letter from slain photojournalist James Foley to his alma mater, Marquette University, on the power of prayer made me reconsider my silent dismissal of the practice.

Written during his 2011 captivity in Libya, the letter sheds light on how prayer functioned as an instrument of hope in an uncertain time. Of his mother, he writes, “I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her. I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed.”

What’s evident is that Foley prays primarily for the benefit of others rather than for himself, a much overlooked aspect of both personal and corporate prayer. When he speaks to his mother by phone from Libya, she asks if he has felt the prayers coming from his home as well. He tells her that he has felt them and reports, “Maybe it was others’ prayers strengthening me, keeping me afloat.”

This is precisely the kind of hope that prayer can inspire that should become central to the understanding of it for those of us who do not engage in prayer. Though the old aphorism that “There are no atheists in foxholes” isn’t just untrue but is also offensive to non-believers, there’s still something to be said for the idea people in need might be more inclined to prayer than others if they have some existing belief.

The prayers that were going back and forth between Libya in 2011 and Foley’s family and community were a silent but deeply felt exchange of love. Whether it’s supernatural or not is immaterial. And while Foley’s captivity in Syria was decidedly more grim, we can hope that the “cosmic reach of the universe” penetrated the fortifications of the impossibly cruel ISIS.

It would be vulgar to indulge in speculative fiction that claims James Foley was praying during what are now his famous last moments on Earth. Despite good intentions, it was somewhat off-putting when Frank Weathers at Patheos described Foley as a Christian martyr in his death. Not only because he was killed explicitly for his nationality and not for his religion, but also because the prospect of the hellscape that is the battleground on which ISIS fights becoming a destination for competitive martyrdom can do no one any good.

In the absence of any evidence, we cannot know whether James Foley maintained his religious faith throughout the nightmarish ordeal. But one can hope that whatever sense he had that he was prayed for, that he was loved from afar, and that his spirit was present with them in absentia did stay with him—and that it remains with his loved ones today.

In describing how he and a colleague prayed together, he writes “It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.” If prayer can break through the despair of silence and solitude for those in need or trouble, then prayer works indeed.

alanakmassey@gmail.com'

Alana Massey is a graduate of New York University and Yale Divinity School, where she studied the increasing political legitimacy of religious political parties and the potential implications for trade, energy, and economic policy. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. 

  • DKeane123

    IMO, to re-purpose his death to advance a political or religious agenda is border line blasphemous..

    As a geologist and atheist, I do question the both the efficacy and process by which prayer is supposed to work. That being said, the placebo effect is very much real, and if in their minds, prayer was helping in any way – there really can’t be any room for criticism.

  • phatkhat

    I think prayer is a form of meditation for many people. That’s a good thing, I suppose. And I think that the knowledge that people are praying for you DOES have a placebo effect. We still do not understand fully the mind/body connection. And that is not said in a new-agey way, but a scientific one.

  • DKeane123

    Agreed.

  • Righteousness

    New Martyr

    The title of New Martyr or Neomartyr (Greek: νεο-, neo, the prefix for “new”; and μάρτυς, martys, “witness”) of the Eastern Orthodox Church was originally given to martyrs who died under heretical rulers[citation needed] (the original martyrs being under pagans). Later the Church added to the list those martyred under Islam and various modern regimes, especially Communist ones, which espoused atheism.

  • cranefly

    He is a martyr. Just not for Christianity. And not even for America. It isn’t what they killed him for, it’s what he chose to face death for: Journalism.

  • cgosling

    It is true that prayer may have been comforting for Mr. Foley, but prayer did not free or prevent his death. Here was an oportune moment for God to step in, strike done the evil ones and save Foley. It turns out that the outcome of millions of prayers was the same as if there was no God to hear the prayers. Where was this powerful and loving God in Foley’s time of need? His death is spite of the millions of prayers is evidence that God does not exist, or God does not care, or God doesn’t have the power to intercede. Have your choice.

  • cken

    What an uneducated fool the author of this article is. If he had read the Koran he would know Foley was killed because he wouldn’t convert to Islam. Yes Foley is both a martyr and a hero. He died for his Lord and his country. The concept of prayer is both cliched and widely misunderstood. I am living proof that prayer works and miracles happen. Without prayer and a miracle I would be dead.

  • cken

    It always amazes me how atheists can believe a fairy tale like life evolved from some primordial soup by sheer chance, but find it difficult to believe in the interconnectedness of the universe sometimes referred to as God. Nobody knows what the thing we call God actually is, anymore than science knows where it all began and where we came from. Regardless, the religious, the nonreligious, and the atheists all hold fast onto their beliefs. Thousands of years ago it was said “God” is above all through all and within you. Quantum physics seems to be scratching the surface that he might have been right.

  • DKeane123

    The author is a she.

  • Bodysurf

    “Despite good intentions, it was somewhat off-putting when Frank Weathers at Patheos described Foley as a Christian martyr in his death. Not only because he
    was killed explicitly for his nationality and not for his religion . . . . ”

    Nope. If Foley had been an American Muslim, he would still be alive today, like the UK Muslim who sawed off his head.

    Apologies if that blows up your narrative. But ISIS is sparing the lives of those who convert to Islam, and are killing everyone else, irrespective of nationality. Ask an Iraqi Christian or Yazidi, if you have further doubt on this point.

  • Julie Murray

    This point of view is pure ignorance. The work James was doing was courageous reporting on the ground in very dangerous situations at the service of Truth! He had been captured and me prisoner and tortured in Libyia….and when he survived that trial, he did not give up And he was killed because he would not betray Truth, he would not betray his Country, he would not betray his Christian faith. This is all it takes to qualify for the definition of “martyr”!! He was used by the extremists as an example of their hatred for his. Country, his Faith, his refusal to stop reporting the Truth.
    The author may need to look at the depth of her own unconscious material that moved her in the days following this tragedy to write such an ignorant piece of opinion!

  • Jim Reed

    Do you believe in the power of prayer? Is it possible you don’t like this author because of her rolling her eyes at “Prayer works”?

  • apotropoxy

    Martyrs are generally thought of as individuals who choose to die rather than stray from their religious belief. Atheists will die for selfless reasons but those noble acts don’t deserve to be degraded by a religious gloss.
    This article’s premise rests on semantics.

  • cken

    So he she it. Who cares stupid is as stupid does. What is your point

  • DKeane123

    My point was that the author is a woman and not a man (as you assumed). Seems clear the point I was trying to make.

  • Jim Reed

    And we wouldn’t have to hear your anger.

  • Husband of the Moonlight

    “Belief” is a powerful concept that serves only the “believers”. One of many examples is simply this; every Dec 24th there are millions of children all over the world who “believe” that “Santa Clause” will be delivering toys and treats to them on Christmas Eve. Their “belief” is from the concepts that were taught to them by their parents; who do NOT BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUSE…………….
    James Foley died because he was indulging in what he believed was his mission; based and motivated upon self serving purposes. His executioners were doing the same thing for the same reasons.
    The only REAL HOPE FOR THE OHTER LIFE FORMS ON THE PLANET EARTH—IS FOR THE HUMAN RECE TO KILL ITSELF OFF AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

  • Jim Reed

    If we do, the other life forms will just continue eating each other.

  • Andre M

    I guess we’ll just have to take your word on that.

  • Andre M

    Everything written rests on semantics, if it’s going to mean anything.

  • Andre M

    Actually, the vast majority of the killings Muslim extremists commit are against other Muslims. I’m sure being American wouldn’t help matters much either though.

  • Andre M

    Fairy tales aren’t built on demonstrable evidence. I’m not saying God or gods or whatever don’t exist, but you erode the productivity of the conversation when you talk such nonsense.

  • cgosling

    Both atheists and non-creationist Christians sincerely believe the universe and life evolved from “primordial soup”. Whether a God(s) set this fantastic event in motion, atheists don’t yet know and patiently await for evidence. If God exists, he could easily convert all atheists by making himself known with a few Old Testament miracles. Science continues to make discoveries about beginings, but there will always be those who rather believe in bronze age legends.

  • Adoration Servants

    Regarding God making Himself known to atheists “… they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Abraham to the rich man in hell via Jesus Luke 16:19-31

  • http://www.devonnollforpresident2012.org Devon J. Noll

    Thank you, Ms. Massey, for a clear-headed commentary on prayer, whether you are a believer or an atheist. For anyone to claim that he was a religious martyr for some political or religious agenda is wrong. He was a man who got hope from a belief that he was not alone in his trials or in his death at the hands of cold-blooded fanatics. An atheist can gain hope from the belief that the life they have led was worthy, and comfort from that may be enough in the worst of circumstances, but for many people, even professed atheists, when facing torture or death over a long period of time, having something outside of themselves to believe in helps them move forward each day, and provides comfort for family and friends as well.

    About the only comment on martyrdom that I have read was that posted here by cranefly: that Foley was a martyr for journalism. Far too many of our so-called journalists today do not leave the studio, and if they do, it is not to face capture, torture, or death, but rather to cover things like bad weather or some social event. Mr. Foley put himself in harm’s way more than once to get the truth out to the world, and he has now paid for it with his life. This is the definition of courage, selflessness, and honor, and we should all respect that, whether we believe in a God or not. And more “journalists” today could learn about such things from Mr. Foley and actually provide truth for the public, whether from a war-zone or from our own nation’s capitol.

    Perhaps the greatest thing that prayer can offer anyone, believer or not, is hope. It is a hope that comes from deep within us and reaches out to others by just saying the words. You do not have to believe in God to pray, you can pray quietly to anything you like, but never dismiss the power of hope in life. It brings not only comfort, but also sustains us in times of great difficulty, encourages us to try a little longer against great odds, and it makes us feel like we are part of a universe that is often perverse in its whims. Prayer can be as simple as two words “Thank Heaven!” when a child who was missing is found safe and unharmed, or as complex as a full mass. Prayer does not make martyrs out of those who die like Mr. Foley, it makes them human and helps them face great difficulties. It should not be diminished by religious people with agendas, politicos with campaigns, or atheists who do not understand why he prayed. Prayer is more than just believing in God, it is believing in hope and life and the innate goodness of the universe and mankind. And anyone can embrace those things, whether you believe or not.

    Rev. Devon J. Noll
    New Word Universal Fellowship Church
    http://www.newworduniversalfellowship.org

  • cgosling

    Foley wrote “Prayer works if it breaks through the despair of silence and solitude for those in need or trouble…” But, if one is praying for rescue or healing, sadly, prayer falls short.

  • KeithCrosby

    Martyrs usually mention their god (God). They do not decry the place of their birth. Foley was in a tough spot. Based on what he said there is no evidence pro or con for his faith. He mentioned his family… he mentioned his nationality… He did not mention his faith. While I dismiss much of what the author says… I do agree Foley is not a martyr. He was a journalist murdered according to the ritual prescriptions of the Quran, (I’ve read it; have you?). So, rather than pool our collective ignorance, let’s let his family grieve.

  • weehawken

    not a martyr
    just a murder victim and a symbol for the difference between society and savagery

  • apotropoxy

    I didn’t know any sophists survived into modern world.

  • JamesMMartin

    It is very simple. If you pray and the prayer is answered, you cannot attribute it to “God.” It is like turning on a light and having faith it will actually go on. It may, it may not, but it has nothing to do with a supernatural being. You may have some familiarity with post hoc reasoning. Answered prayers are the worst.

  • cgosling

    Adoration Servants – “They will not be convinced…” is BS. Whoever wrote that is totally ignorant. Atheists continue to wait for a good proof of God’s existence, like raising the dead from their graves. I am still waiting. Why doesn’t it happen friend? Certainly a few Old Testament miracles will accomplish this. Don’t you wonder why this has never happened? Don’t you have doubts about a God that can’t do miracles? Believe what you will by faith, but don’t expect a miracle.

  • Andre M

    If you want to play the intellectual atheist, choose your words more carefully.

  • cranefly

    It says in the Koran that Foley wouldn’t convert to Islam? We must have read different Korans.

  • EqualTime

    Seriously?

  • Jim Reed

    If the ancients had those lights, they might have considered it to be from a supernatural power grid. They could have started a tradition where each evening the family would sit around the living room and give thanks to God for the daily electricity before the switch was turned on.

  • Jeffrey Rickman

    This article has disturbed me for a couple of days now. Why would someone write it in the first place? I suspect the author’s concern is rooted in this passage: ” the prospect of the hellscape that is the battleground on which ISIS fights becoming a destination for competitive martyrdom can do no one any good.” I think I would receive an article on that topic better than one questioning the standing of a man recently killed. I don’t think people outside of church leadership have the right to speak to the qualifications of a martyr. Rather, what matters is what the individual being killed believes and where that stands in relation to an orthodox understanding of his/her faith. Foley does seem to have had an active and vital Roman Catholic faith, which was fed consistently through prayer to the Christian Triune God. Moreover, the separation of nationality and religion, profession and religious identity, doesn’t seem to be a concern of the parties involved over there. We can dissect and deconstruct so as to disallow a witness, but I don’t think it will help us to understand the situation any more clearly.

    So do we want to understand the situation, or would we rather recontextualize it in terms we are more comfortable with? Looking over these comments, it largely looks like a bunch of new-agers trying to spin his Christian prayer into some sort of universalist prayer. But I think the author would do well to take her own advice here. If it is disrespectful for believers to bandy the saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” then surely it is equally disrespectful to denigrate the nature of a dying man’s prayers so as to deprive him of a holy status in heaven. Why it is that Ms. Massey felt equipped to write this article in the first place is baffling to me. Everyone has an opinion. This one just confuses the issue and insults the faith and religious standing of a man who happened to be an American and a journalist.

  • cranefly

    Thankfully, no one has the power to deprive anyone of holy status in heaven. God reserves judgment for himself. Our opinion of his holy status is just a way of serving ourselves, with a role-model (best case scenario), political ammunition, or vengeful propaganda (worst case scenario).

    The question is whether being Catholic and getting killed is enough to make someone a martyr for the Catholic faith, and, in the absence of proof that he was given a chance to “convert or die” (as many people are insisting without evidence), why we desire to claim him as a martyr. Do martyrs give our faith credibility (and are we insecure about its credibility), even when there are martyrs on all sides? Do they help us hate our enemies and kill with fewer regrets?

    I’m not sure what prayer has to do with it at all, except insofar as his writing on prayer serves as evidence that he was a committed Catholic. I agree that the discussion of prayer seems to confuse the issue.

  • Jim Reed

    “I don’t think people outside of church leadership have the right to speak to the qualifications of a martyr”

    Actually now that the church is so active in politics people outside of church leadership, or even outside the church, have the right, if not the duty, to question everything church leadership says.

  • Jeffrey Rickman

    Everyone has a right to an opinion, whether it’s a good one or not. And sure, plenty of folks feel entitled to an opinion, whether they actually know what they’re talking about. I was questioning whether this author or the folks on this page know what they’re talking about, or should feel okay talking about this man’s personal faith or status in heaven. I’m sure someone on this stream appreciated your entitled comment right here, though, Jim.

  • Jim Reed

    I was questioning what church leadership knows about theology. Now that we can see their opinions about politics, I think it would be a big mistake to listen to them on something as important as theology.

  • BeeSmart

    “Not only because he was killed explicitly for his nationality and not for his religion,”

    Just a simple question. If Mr. Foley were a devote American Muslim who followed to the letter the religious tenants of ISIS do you thing he would have been murdered? The combination of NOT being Muslim and being American sealed his fate.

    BTW praying can be a means of gathering strength to face the ordeals of the day or what is to come. The particular reason for praying does not make it “better” if it is directed toward others. Just engaging in the rituals of his grandmother and mother might have helped him get through the day.

  • BeeSmart

    Science has confirmed the connection between mind and body by expermentation and scientific analysis. So using prayer to “make the connection” might be a means to an end that is in fact NOT a placebo but an actual bridge. Religion just discovered the bridge long before science and identified it as being related to God. Whether “true” or not is for the theologians to argue.

  • phatkhat

    Your OWN prayer may be a bridge. But knowing others are praying for you can only be a placebo effect. There is NO scientific evidence that prayers heal by any divine intervention, only that people’s positive thoughts may have positive physical effects.

  • phatkhat

    Or maybe he’s on the side of the Muslims?

    I agree with you, though, that prayer is not going to change the outcome of external events.

  • phatkhat

    You can go on the internet and claim anything. Hey, I’m a brain surgeon! ;o) Without documented proof, don’t expect anyone to believe you. Too many people believe they are alive because of prayer and miracles – but they are really alive because of medical science.

  • phatkhat

    Good questions, logically asked. I think you are onto something: “Do they help us hate our enemies and kill with fewer regrets?” Perhaps this is the crux of the whole matter.

  • phatkhat

    Entitled comment? Pot, meet kettle!

  • Rmj

    Well, if prayer is some ability to invoke God to exert God’s self on behalf of the prayer request, then perhaps prayer doesn’t “work.”

    But that’s only a valid assertion is prayer is indeed akin to magic, an imposition of the will of the individual on the world (or God) that is supposed to be efficacious by affection the object of the will to act as the will directs.

    The prayer discussed in the article is more akin to communication. That communication, as the article says, “worked,” at least for the persons involved.

    If prayer were simply magic, the practice of it would have ended in failure centuries ago. So it’s not really much of a critique to say prayer is ineffective because people are still mortal. All you are doing is insisting on one very narrow definition of the concept of “prayer.”

  • cgosling

    Rmj – You write, “If prayer were simply magic, the practice would have ended in failure centuries ago.” is not true for most people who pray. In my experience people pray for things, miracles, advantage, peace, etc. not communication. They also pray that “God’s will be done, whatever it turns out to be.” That kind of prayer is always answered and accepted blindly. Whatever happens after prayer, is God’s will, and is the best way to get good results from prayer.

  • cranefly

    It’s why I’m uncomfortable with claiming him as a martyr for faith, even as a Catholic. The desire seems be born out of tribal gloating, which I think is a disrespectful treatment of his death. It’s all the more disrespectful to other journalists who died similarly, but didn’t happen to be Catholic (e.g. Daniel Pearl).

  • Martha Murphy

    Knowing that others are praying for you is part of knowing one is loved. The best kind of praying is acknowledging one’s own motives and wishes, prioritizing one’s wants and needs as well as (and in relation to) those of other people, remembering the people one loves, and finally acceding what one hasn’t the power to change. I would think this process would be healthy for unbelievers as well as for believers.

  • Martha Murphy

    It’s everyone’s duty to question authority all the time. That’s part of being a thinking person.

  • Martha Murphy

    Agreed! Journalism, the public’s right to know the truth.

  • cranefly

    If I find it inconceivable that a Muslim would have been killed in a similar fashion, maybe that says more about me and my prejudicial worldview than it does about reality.

    There have been over sixty journalists killed in Syria over the past
    few years, most of them Syrian. I can’t tell what religion they are,
    unless having a name like “Mohammed” is any indication. At least one person named Mohammed was among those tortured and murdered, as opposed to dying in crossfire.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_journalists_killed_during_the_Syrian_Civil_War

    We had another American journalist beheaded by terrorists on film. He was not Christian. He was Jewish. Is it not insulting to Daniel Pearl’s memory to make James Foley’s death more special, because unlike Pearl, Foley was a martyr for our faith?

  • BeeSmart

    Spoken like a true environmentalist. Plants and animals are more compelling then humans. Maybe all people who believe as you do should kill themselves IF they actually think humanity is nothing but walking talking destructive bags of animated meat. No reason to go on screwing up the planet since we are meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

    What! No real conviction in your stated beliefs?

  • Stephen Uhl

    Why not just call any prayer that works to bring peace to the one praying self-hypnosis or even meditation. Self-hypnosis certainly can work good things for the meditating or “praying” individual. The resulting peace based on wishful thinking (placebo effect) is subjectively very real. But that is the FULL extent of it—there is no superstition or supernatural to go further!!!