Why Brother Roger died


In many messages we received in August 2005, people compared Brother Roger’s death to that of Martin Luther King, Archbishop Romero or Gandhi. And yet it cannot be denied that there was also a difference. Those men were engaged in a political and ideological struggle, and were assassinated by opponents who could not stand their viewpoint and their influence.

Some would say that it is useless to seek an explanation for Brother Roger’s murder. Evil always resists explanation. A righteous man in the Old Testament said that he was hated “for no reason.” And Saint John put those same words on the lips of Jesus: “They hated me without reason.”

In living alongside Brother Roger, however, an aspect of his personality always struck me, and I wonder whether it is not the reason why he was targeted. Brother Roger was an innocent. It was not that he had no flaws. But an innocent is someone for whom things are self-evident in a way in which they are not for others. For innocent people, the truth is obvious. It does not depend on reasoning. They “see” it, in a certain sense, and it is hard for them to realize that other people have a more painstaking approach. What they say is simple and clear for them, and they are surprised that others do not react to it in the same way. It is easy to understand why such people often feel at a loss, or vulnerable. And yet, in general their innocence is not naïve. For them, reality is simply not as opaque as it is for others. They “see through it.”

Let me take the example of Christian unity. For Brother Roger, it was evident that if Christ wanted this unity, it had to be lived out without delay. The arguments brought to bear against this position must have struck him as artificial. For him, Christian unity was above all a question of reconciliation. And in the end he was right, for the rest of us ask ourselves too seldom if we are ready to pay the price for that unity. Does a reconciliation which does not touch us in our flesh still deserve the name?

It was sometimes said of him that he had no theology. But wasn’t he much more clear-sighted than those who said that? For centuries, Christians had to justify their divisions. They magnified the points of opposition artificially. Without realizing it, they entered upon a process of rivalry and could not see this phenomenon going on before their eyes. They did not “see through it.” Unity seemed impossible to them.

Brother Roger was realistic. He took into account what remains unattainable, especially from an institutional viewpoint. But he was unable to stop there. His innocence gave him a force of conviction that was quite special, a kind of gentleness that never admitted defeat. Until the very end, he saw Christian unity as a question of reconciliation. Now reconciliation is a step that every Christian can take. If everyone were to do it, unity would be at hand.

There was another area in which Brother Roger’s approach was evident and where what was radical about his personality could perhaps be seen even more clearly: anything that could call God’s love into question was unbearable for him. Here, we touch upon that immediate comprehension of the realities of God. It was not that he refused to reflect, but he felt very strongly within himself that a certain way of speaking that wishes to be correct—for instance concerning God’s love—in reality obscures what uninformed people expect from that love.

If Brother Roger insisted so much on the profound goodness of human beings, this should be seen in the same light. He had no illusions about evil. By nature he tended to be vulnerable. But he was certain that if God loves and forgives our wrongs, then for him they are over and done with. All true forgiveness awakens the depths of the human heart, those depths that are made for goodness.

Paul Ricœur was struck by that emphasis on goodness. He said to us in Taizé one day that there he saw the meaning of religion. “To liberate the depths of goodness in people, to go looking for it where it is completely buried.” In the past, a certain style of Christian preaching constantly returned to the fundamental wickedness of human nature. It did this in order to guarantee that forgiveness would be seen as something utterly free and undeserved. But this alienated many people from the faith; even if they heard love being spoken about, they had the impression that part of that love was held back and that the forgiveness proclaimed was not total.

The most precious thing Brother Roger left us is perhaps found there: that sense of love and forgiveness, two realities that were self-evident for him and that he grasped with a directness that often escapes us. In that area he was truly innocent—always simple, unguarded, reading the hearts of other people, capable of deep trust. The extremely beautiful look in his eyes was an expression of that. If he felt so much at home with children, that is because they too live in such a direct way; they cannot protect themselves and they cannot believe what is complicated; their heart goes straight to what touches them.

Doubt was never absent from Brother Roger’s life. That is why he loved the words: “Do not let my darkness speak to me!” Darkness meant the insinuations of doubt. But this doubt did not shake the self-evidence with which he felt God’s love. Perhaps it was even this doubt that required a language with no room for ambiguity. The self-evidence I am speaking about was not found on an intellectual level, but more deeply, on the level of the heart. And like everything that cannot be protected by powerful reasoning or well-constructed certainties, that obviousness was necessarily fragile.

In the gospels, the simplicity of Jesus is disturbing. Some of those who listened to him felt themselves being called into question. It was as if the deepest thoughts of their heart were revealed. The clear language of Jesus and his ability to read hearts represented a threat to them. A person who does not let themselves be locked into conflicts appears dangerous to some. Such a person is fascinating, but fascination can easily turn into hostility.

Brother Roger certainly fascinated people by his innocence, his instant comprehension, his look. And I think he saw, in some people’s eyes, that fascination could be transformed into mistrust or aggression. For someone who carries irresolvable conflicts within themselves, that innocence must have become intolerable. And in that case it was not enough to insult that innocence. It had to be eliminated. Doctor Bernard de Senarclens wrote, “If the light is too bright, and I think that what emanated from Brother Roger could be dazzling, that is not always easy to bear. Then, the only solution is to extinguish the source of light by eliminating it.”

I wanted to write down these reflections because they help to bring out an aspect of the unity of Brother Roger’s life. His death set a mysterious seal on what he always was. He was not killed for a cause that he was defending. He was killed because of what he was.

Brother François of Taizé

Last updated: 12 August 2006