- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

Emerging from three very different worlds, a Palestinian suicide bomber, Galileo’s daughter and the old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin each strive for paradise. What is the price of their paradise?

The first world. In a Friday sermon broadcast on Palestinian television, Sheik Isma’il Aal Ghadwan calls for Jihad and Martyrdom:

“It is the duty of the Islamic nation to open the gates of Jihad, where its strength and honor lie. We are a nation that was given Islam and Jihad by Allah. … ” And of the enemies of Allah, he adds, “When the enemies of Allah, the Jews, may Allah curse them, mutilate [the bodies], chop off organs, these organs will serve as evidence for our sons and brothers for whom Paradise in the high heavens is a place of refuge.”

What awaits the martyr? “Oh believing brothers, we do not feel a loss. … The martyr, if he meets Allah, is forgiven with the first drop of blood; he is saved from the torments of the grave; he sees his place in Paradise; he is saved from the Great Horror [of the day of judgment]; he is given 72 black-eyed women; he vouches for 70 of his family to be accepted to Paradise; he is crowned with the Crown of glory, whose precious stone is better than all of this world and what is in it. … ”

The second world. In her beautifully written book “Galileo’s Daughter,” Dava Sobel, describes the life of Suor Maria Celeste, the illegitimate daughter of Galileo Galilei. Suor Maria Celeste and her illegitimate sister were placed in a convent while still in their early teens. One of the reasons for this action is that they had poor marriage prospects given their state of illegitimacy. Eventually they became nuns in the convent.

Life in the convent was hard. There was both deprivation and poverty relieved by periodic gifts solicited from outsiders including Galileo. For Suor Maria Celeste, a gentle and wholly devout individual, the hardships of life were to be endured. Her orientation was to the “reward that awaits us, after the brevity and darkness of the winter of the present life, when at last we enter the clarity and happiness of the eternal spring of Heaven.”

Deeply attached to her father, her life was devoted to being of help and comfort to him. But life could become very difficult and in a letter to her father in 1630 we find her saying, “for I am yearning to enter the other life, as every day I see more plainly the vanity and misery of this one: In death I would stop offending blessed God, and I would hope to be able to pray ever more effectively, Sire, for you.” In March 1634, Suor Maria Celeste became ill with dysentery, and in April she died. She was 34 years old and had never left the convent.

The third world. Nikolai I. Bukharin was an old Bolshevik, a member of the Politburo in the 1920s, chief editor of Izvestiia, a major Marxist theoretician, and onetime personal friend of Josef Stalin. When brought before a plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in February-March 1937, he vehemently denied charges of “treason,” “sabotage” and “terrorism.” Expelled from the Central Committee and the party, he was imprisoned, confessed to his crimes, and was tried in March 1938.

However, in a remarkable letter, written to Stalin in December 1937, he said, “I tell you on my word of honor, as I await my death, that I am innocent of those crimes I admitted to at the investigation.” But he assured Stalin he would not recant, and that he was not so “petty” as to “place the question of my person on a par with the universal-historical tasks” the leader faced.

Bukharin was a committed communist. If he was going to die, his death should have meaning: “There is nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepented.” In repenting and defining his crime as one of “extreme gravity,” he reaffirmed the value of the communist enterprise in the Soviet Union.

The Palestinian who accepts martyrdom is willing to sacrifice his own life as well as the lives of others. For the Muslim martyr, it is paradise with its important rewards. For Bukharin, it is the socialist utopia toward which the socialist state is inexorably moving. But in each case there is a price for paradise. It involves devaluing the present, devaluing the known world, and in the end devaluing life itself as it can be lived in the here and now.

Joseph Berger is emeritus professor of sociology at Stanford University.

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