Musings about Elijah, a centurion, Daniel Berrigan, and Memorial Day
In the ninth century BC, the northern kingdom of Israel, unlike the southern kingdom of Judah, lacked Mediterranean frontage. Israel's king, Omri, recognized the economic, military, and political benefits that Israel could obtain if it had easy access to the Mediterranean. So he arranged for his son, Ahab, to marry Jezebel, the daughter of a king who did control a section of Mediterranean coast.
Ahab's father apparently failed to see the marriage's potential and probably unintended religious consequences. Jezebel, a non-Jew, understandably wanted to continue practicing her own religion. Thus, Ahab had an altar to Jezebel's god, Baal, constructed. Furthermore, many worshippers of Baal dwelled among the Israelites, giving this new altar rather broad popular appeal. If the biblical portraits of Ahab and Jezebel are credible, both of them relished their power as king and queen, using their positions to enrich themselves at the expense of their people. In very many respects, the portraits of Ahab and Jezebel seem strikingly similar to twenty-first century dictators and corrupt politicians.
Elijah was a relative nobody. Israelites who had heard of him probably viewed him as a religious fanatic, a dynamic preacher, and someone who occasionally worked miracles. Outraged and offended by Jezebel's idolatry and greed as well as Ahab's temporizing policies, Elijah resolves to end what he perceives as an unacceptable situation by challenging the priests of Baal to a contest. Whoever could prove their God's power by successfully beseeching their God to consume an offering with fire would vanquish the opposition literally and figuratively. Israel is caught in the grips of a terrible drought; Ahab probably regarded this contest as a convenient distraction if not a potential solution to the water shortage.
Elijah allows the priests of Baal to go first. They build an altar, sacrifice a bull, and then for several hours beseech Baal to send fire to consume the offering. When no fire erupts, Baal's priests, as was their custom, show their piety by cutting themselves with knives and lances, spilling their blood on the altar. Baal remains silent.
With the passing hours and lack of fire, the crowd's enthusiasm wanes. Elijah now takes charge. He superintends construction of a new altar of twelve stones, piles wood on it, slaughters a bull, orders a trench dug around the altar, and then has everything soaked in water until the trench overflows. Only then does he lift his voice in prayer, asking God to act that people may know who is truly God. Fire, like a bolt of lightning, consumes the bull, the wood, the stones, and the water in the trench leaving only dust. Elijah's victory over the priests of Baal restores the worship of God to the center of Israeli life and ends a drought.
Hollywood could not devise a better script for a blockbuster movie. Regardless of its historical accuracy, this story along with the other biblical accounts of Elijah's dealings with Ahab and Jezebel has a clear message for us: social justice, in all of its expressions, is central to God's plan for the cosmos.
The second story in today's readings, Jesus' healing of the centurion's slave, is equally dramatic but often misunderstood. A Roman centurion commanded 100 soldiers, a position comparable to that of an Army or Marine Corps company commander. A centurion, however, exercised much greater authority over his troops. The centurion featured the reading from Luke had funded construction of the Capernaum synagogue, the ruins of which archaeological excavations have exposed. So the centurion was probably a God-fearer, that is, a monotheist sympathetic to Judaism. Serving in the Roman army required a loyalty oath that presumed the emperor's divinity, an oath incompatible with his converting to Judaism as long as the centurion remained in the army.
Slaves were chattel, property. The centurion had no legal obligation to provide medical care for his slave. The text offers no hint about the centurion's motive for asking Jesus to heal his slave. That motive may have been pecuniary, friendship, or something else. Nor does the text explain the nature of the centurion's faith. He may have turned to Jesus out of desperation, having exhausted all the other options. Perhaps he regarded Jesus as a Jewish prophet, someone like Elijah and or Elisha, through whom God's power flowed in mysterious and yet powerful ways. Almost certainly, the centurion would not have interpreted Jesus as fully human and fully God. The uncertain nature of the centurion's faith underscores God's love for everyone. All are welcome because God loves all.
Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus, as is Pope Francis, died at age 94 earlier this month. Fr. Berrigan attained prominence protesting the Vietnam War, the draft, and nuclear weapons. As a senior naval officer who has taught and published in the field of military ethics, I have profound agreements and disagreements with Fr. Berrigan's views. From a Christian perspective, Fr. Berrigan, the Roman Catholic bishops, the Methodist bishops, and many others are correct: nuclear war, with its inherent disregard for the distinction between combatants and non-combatants is unjust. However, I think he was wrong to advocate the US unilaterally scrapping its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Doing so would have destabilized the world and increased the odds of another global war. Fr. Berrigan rightly described the injustice of both the Vietnam War and a draft system biased against the poor and minorities. Instead of abolishing the draft, as Fr. Berrigan recommended, I think that we should require two years of mandatory national service for all.
In sum, I admire Fr. Berrigan not because I always agreed with him, but because God's light shined so brightly and powerfully in him. He was truly a contemporary Elijah figure, a person God used to make the world a more just place. Similarly, Holy Nativity has room for a wide diversity of views as we individually and collectively try to discern how to incarnate God's love and justice in this place, in Aina Haina, in Hawaii, and throughout the cosmos.
Fr. Berrigan also had an exceptionally deep personal relationship with God. He was a man of great integrity, a theologian and professor, a poet who enjoyed life with an exuberant sense of humor, and who cherished his friends and family. Following Jesus' example, he lived a simple life, owning a single set of clothes and so few possessions that his belongings fit into a small backpack. When I look at Fr. Berrigan's life, I see a life shaped by a lifetime of walking the Jesus' path, a cruciform-shaped life that for many people was a rich channel of God's grace and love.
Incidentally, Memorial Day is not about the justness of particular wars. Memorial Day is about honoring veterans. When I listen to a veteran talk about his or her life, I almost invariably hear a story similar to the centurion's, a warrior who knew a higher power, a person who sought to serve his or her neighbors, and a person who sometimes went into harm's way trying to defend freedom and justice.