Are 50% of Us Cowards in the Face of Terrorism? (Sunday Homily)


Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Zec. 12:10-11; 13:1; Ps. 63: 2=6, 8-9; Gal. 3: 26-29; Lk. 9:18-24.

Recently Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson called you and me cowards. He said at least 50% of us fall into that category. We’re scared out of our wits, he says.

Wilkerson is the former chief of staff to Colin Powell when Powell served as U.S. Secretary of State. (The Colonel campaigned for Barack Obama in 2007.)

Wilkerson was talking about our compliance with the “War on Terror” in general and our acceptance of most anything our government and its “spineless leaders” decide to do – always justified by ”9/11.” Everything is permitted, we’re told, because our overseers are keeping us safe. We should trust them.

That’s nonsense, Wilkerson charged.

The Colonel was referring to support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as drone operations, torture and detainee abuse. He was talking about widespread invasions of privacy like those exposed last week by Edward Snowden – the whistleblower who revealed that the government is eavesdropping on our phone calls and e-mails on a daily basis.

Most of us are persuaded that all of those measures are necessary to “save” us from terrorists who are supposedly lurking behind every crime, threatened plot and alleged conspiracy.

Here are Wilkerson’s actual words. Consider them in the light of today’s liturgical readings:

Did you hear that? Wilkerson is pointing out that relatively few people have lost their lives to terrorists in our “homeland.” In fact, far more have been killed in auto accidents. (And, I might add, infinitely more find themselves threatened by global warming.) We do virtually nothing about climate change. We don’t outlaw automobiles or super highways. Yet we spend billions each day to defeat an essentially invincible “enemy” responsible for a comparatively few casualties.

Terrorism cannot be defeated, Wilkerson reminds us. The best we can do is minimize its occurrence. In fact, it is preferable to have active terrorists on the loose and plotting against the United States than to violate international law by keeping the innocent in prison.

Nonetheless, efforts to defeat terrorists are not only depleting our national treasury; they are turning the U.S. into a Third World country. We’re pouring money down the rat hole of weapons and war while our infrastructure and social programs decay and vanish. In a word, counter-terror initiatives are fundamentally changing the traditions the U.S. claims to stand for. In effect, by trying to save our lives, we are losing what makes life meaningful.

Today’s liturgy of the word addresses such folly. It helps us face the question: are we cowards like half of our compatriots or courageous like Jesus and Zachariah? Are we prepared to face the extremely remote possibility of death at the hands of terrorists rather than resort to the unending violence of an eternal unwinnable war against a relatively insignificant threat?

Consider that question in the light of this morning’s gospel.

Luke tells us that Jesus has just emerged from a period of solitary prayer. That experience has evidently brought the Master face-to-face with his fundamental God-identity – an identity Paul tells us in the second reading, is shared by all of us who are, the apostle reminds us, “children of God” just like Jesus. Since we exist “in Christ,” Paul implies, we can learn something from the experience of Jesus and from the attitudes he expressed in his words and actions. We should be able to see ourselves “in Christ.”

In any case, our Lord has just encountered the God within. According to the responsorial from Psalm 63, that God is not only powerful and glorious, but our ultimate source of help, support, and joy in life’s greatest difficulties. For that God each of us should be thirsting, the Psalmist says, like parched ground for water. In fact, God’s kindness is more valuable than life itself. Or as the psalmist puts it, God’s kindness is “a greater good than life.” This seems to mean that it’s more important for believers to be kind (i.e. non-violent) than to survive.

With those insights in mind, Jesus decides to share them with his disciples. So he asks a leading question about identity: “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Jesus really wants his friends to face who they are!) The disciples have a ready response. Everyone is talking about Jesus. “Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead,” they say. “Others say you are Elijah or one of the prophets come back to life.”

“But who do you say I am?” Jesus insists.

Peter speaks for the others. “You are God’s anointed,” he says – “the Messiah.”

Jesus knows what Peter has in mind. For a Jew living under the Roman jackboot, “Messiah” could mean only one thing – the leader of The War against Rome.

So Jesus says, “Don’t call me that! I am not the Christ you imagine! No, I’m a human being like the rest of you.

“Yes, I’m as much against the Roman enemy as you are.” Like the ‘Son of Man’ in the Book of Daniel, I reject all the enemies of our people in the name of Yahweh our God. I am a patriot just like you – and the prophet Daniel. But rather than use violence to conquer our enemies, I am willing to lose my life even if it means crucifixion at the hands of Rome. They cannot kill my real Self; I will rise again and again despite the way they terrorize us all. In the final analysis the God within all of us cannot be defeated.

“And there’s more. All of you must all be prepared to follow my example – even if it means rejection by the religious establishment and a cross imposed by our foreign enemies. In fact, I tell you all, anyone who tries to save his or her life will lose it.

“Don’t you realize that by killing others, you are killing your Self? You are murdering the God within. But those who follow my example of non-violent resistance will actually save their Selves. They will preserve their in-born unity with the divine core shared by all of God’s children. Don’t be afraid to follow my example of non-violent resistance. You will emerge victorious in the end.”

That, I think, is what Jesus means in this morning’s gospel with his talk about losing life and saving it, with his words about denying self and carrying one’s cross. Suffering, terrorism, and even national enslavement are not the end of the world.

Yes, even national enslavement! The prophet Zachariah makes that point in today’s first reading. Writing at the end of the 6th century BCE, he addresses an Israel defeated and enslaved in Babylon for more than 50 years. They survived, he reminds them. And somehow they’re better off than before. They’ve been purified as if by a gushing fountain.

Of course, Colonel Wilkerson’s point about terrorism is that nothing like national defeat is threatened by “terrorists.” Once again, terrorists’ threats to our homeland are remote and relatively insignificant.

Instead, it is our country’s response to terrorism – our efforts to “save ourselves” – that threatens us with defeat. According to Jesus and Zachariah, accepting life’s lessons administered by a foreign enemy might even lead to national purification.

Paradoxically, however, doomed efforts to save our lives through violence will bring about the end we so fearfully seek to avoid.

As Jesus himself put it: “. . . those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake (that is, as a result of living ‘in Christ’) will save it.”

That sort of insight and the courage to follow Jesus can only come from the kind of deep prayer which Jesus exemplified in Luke this morning. They come as well from the meaningful sharing of bread and wine at the heart of today’s liturgy.

Please pray with me that our cowardice might be overcome by Jesus’ courage, by prayer and the Eucharist we share.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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