Readings for 13th Sunday in ordinary time: I Kg. 19:16B, 19-21; Ps. 16: 1-2, 5, 7-11; Gal. 5:1, 13-19; Lk. 9: 51-62. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/063013.cfm
The film clip you have just seen has been dubbed “Collateral Murder.” It chronicles a series of attacks by the U.S. Army in Baghdad on July 12, 2007. The attacks directed 30 mm cannon fire at a group of nine to eleven mostly unarmed men – apart from one who carried an AK-47 and another who was holding a grenade launcher. Two in the group were war correspondents for Reuters News Service. Their cameras were mistaken for weapons. After the attack took place, Iraqi civilians arrived on the scene and attempted to aid the wounded. They too were killed. Children in the van which their father stopped to help were also shot. The film was taken by a camera mounted on the gun sights of two AH-64 Apache helicopters.
In 2007, Reuters requested the footage of the airstrikes under the Freedom of Information Act. Their request was denied. Instead the military reported that the shooters in the film had come under attack and were following strict Rules of Engagement.
However in April of 2010, U.S. Army Private, Bradley Manning, released the footage (along with other revealing documents) to the internet whistle-blower website, WikiLeaks. Manning said he wanted to expose crimes whose details routinely crossed his desk as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer. His intention was to bring those specifics to the attention of the American people, and stimulate debate about U.S. military policy and tactics. He judged that policy and its implementation to be largely immoral and contrary to international law. This was true, he said, especially in the criminal war in Iraq which the U.S. entered on false pretenses against a nation that represented no threat to its well-being. Manning found especially shocking the cavalier chatter of those he saw as murderers. Manning’s action also implied that Iraqi citizens had the right to arm themselves against such aggressors brutally invading their sovereign country without provocation.
For his trouble, Private Manning was arrested in July 2010 and held in solitary confinement for more than a year in the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. His treatment there was described as “torture” by more than one international human rights agency. In February of 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him. He is currently being tried for alleged crimes that could bring a sentence of life imprisonment and even the death penalty.
I bring those details up this morning because inflicting death from the skies seems particularly relevant to our readings about Elijah and Jesus. There the concept of “fire from heaven” is associated with Elijah, invoked by James and John, and rejected by the non-violent Jesus. The readings raise questions about Christians’ routine support for wars – especially illegal ones – and about our attitudes towards prophetic disturbers of our peace such as Bradley Manning and (most recently) Edward Snowden. Snowden, of course, is the CIA employee who recently leaked details of mass surveillance programs directed against ordinary citizens like you and me. The programs appear to violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
You see, all of them – Elijah, Jesus, Manning, and Snowden have been judged by the State to be trouble-makers. In fact, Elijah was specifically called “the troubler of Israel” by King Ahab (I Kg. 18:17). In retort Elijah replied as perhaps Pvt. Manning would to President Obama. The prophet said in effect, “Now there’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black. You, dear King (or Mr. President), are the real trouble-maker. I am merely pointing that out.”
It was later on, when Ahab’s successor, his son Ahaziah, sent soldiers to arrest Elijah, that the prophet called down fire from heaven to kill the fifty arresting officers. Elijah was a fierce man.
That’s the way James and John wanted Jesus to be. It was the way they imagined God to be – fierce, vengeful, and blood-thirsty. It’s the way unquestioning supporters of “our troops” appear to picture God today. But Jesus refused to reprise Elijah’s vengeance. He rejected the prophet’s violent conception of God.
Instead, the divine as embodied in and described by Jesus is more reminiscent of the Yahweh who appears in today’s responsorial Psalm 16. There God is described as the protective refuge of the afflicted, the one who holds human destiny in his loving hands, the God who shows the way to fullness of life and lasting joy. Jesus’ God was not a war God. Instead, the divine for Jesus evoked self-sacrifice in the face of attack.
All of this means that the cost of discipleship for the followers of Jesus is high – especially when speaking truth to political power as both Elijah and Jesus made a habit of doing.
Jesus says as much in this morning’s gospel. Discipleship, he insists, requires adopting Jesus’ own posture of non-violent resistance which rejected the “fire from heaven” approach of Elijah, James and John. It entails being decisive, leaving home and family, crossing borders, and in the end not having anywhere to rest one’s head. Once we put our hands to that plow, Jesus says, there must be no turning back.
Regardless of their spiritual motivation, that in fact is the price being paid today by Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden as they oppose tyranny in the spirit of Elijah, but especially of the non-violent Jesus.
To put it in terms of Paul’s Letter to Galatia, both Manning and Snowden are living “according to the Spirit.” They are engaged in non-violent resistance to acts of deceit and murder. They are serving Truth and opposing “the father of lies.”
God is truth. Or as Gandhi put it, “Truth is God.” Living according to God’s truth means resisting “flesh,” which was Paul’s term for the way of the world that Jesus found so offensive. To repeat, that is what Pvt. Manning and Edward Snowden are doing. And they are paying the price Jesus said was inevitable in this morning’s gospel. They are homeless and hunted by the same kind of arrogant powers that were mobilized against Elijah and Jesus.
Few of us have the courage of a Manning or Snowden. At the very least, however, they deserve our support against those who would turn our world into the Surveillance State so presciently described in George Orwell’s 1984. Manning and Snowden have put their hand to the plow, and for them there is no turning back.
Recently in my travels I saw a sign in the airport reading, “If you see something, say something.” I thought, “Yeah, unless the one you’re reporting is your boss, the President or the head of the CIA, or other officials engaged in mayhem like that portrayed in ‘Collateral Murder’.” Then if you “say something” you’ll be called a terrorist, traitor and thief.
Tellers of truth like Elijah, Jesus, Bradley Manning and Ed Snowden saw what is true, reported it, and suffered the consequences which are always the lot of prophets. They opposed fire from the sky. They all live(d) according to the Spirit and rejected business as usual (“flesh”).
Thank God for all of them! My God give us the courage to support them and follow their examples!