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Discipleship 101 (Mark 1:16-28)
By Ray McGovern
August 31, 2008
(A Talk before Masses at St. Joan of Arc, St. Paul, MN)
“A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed, what kind of gospel is that?”
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)
There is an embarrassment of riches in the Scripture readings today—from Jeremiah 20:7-9, Romans 12:1-2, and Matthew 16:21-27. Let’s pay close attention to them at Mass, and perhaps even earmark some quality time this coming week to reflect on how each of them confronts us—challenges us.
I’d like to throw a similar passage into the mix. It’s from the first chapter of the first gospel written—the gospel according to Mark.
It holds a certain immediacy for me, since I had the opportunity last summer to walk the shore of Lake Galilee and pass through Capernaum. And so the two scenes are fresh in my mind. I had never thought of them as part of one story, though, until I heard Sister Joan Chittister explain what they really mean.
So let me ask you to relax; to put yourselves in the shoes, I guess I mean the sandals, of the first disciples. Close your eyes, if you wish. It may be easier for you, then, to feel the lake water…and, later, the hard stone of the synagogue floor.
As Jesus walked along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw two fishermen, Simon and his brother Andrew, catching fish with a net.
Jesus said to them, “Come with me and I will teach you to catch men and women.” At once they left their nets and went with him.
He went a little farther on and saw two older brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boat getting their nets ready. As soon as Jesus saw them, he called to them; they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and went with Jesus.
Jesus and his disciples came to the town named Capernaum, and on the next Sabbath Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach. The people who heard him were amazed at the way he taught, for he wasn’t like the teachers of the Law; instead, he taught with authority.
Just then a man with an evil spirit came into the synagogue and screamed, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are—you are God’s holy messenger!”
Jesus ordered the spirit, “Be quiet, and come out of the man!”
The evil spirit shook the man hard, gave a loud scream, and came out of him. The people were all so amazed that they started saying to one another, “What is this? Is it some kind of new teaching? This man has the authority to give orders to the evil spirits and they obey him!”
Two scenes, but one important lesson—one VERY important lesson for us who say we are disciples—followers of Jesus of Nazareth. For the following insights we, here today at St. Joan of Arc, are indebted to St. Joan of Chittister, a great theologian.
What was Jesus doing on the lakeshore? Think of him as a college recruiter; he was on his own fishing expedition, fishing for followers.
And he successfully enrolled several freshmen for Discipleship 101.
When the Sabbath comes and Jesus begins to teach in the synagogue, you can see these brand new disciples basking in the glow of an unusual mentor, teaching with authenticity and authority.
In fact, Jesus is, as we would say today, definitely on a roll, when SUDDENLY (the Scripture writer says “just then”), wouldn’t you know it, just then evil intrudes.
I have to admit that until recently I’ve not been all that comfortable talking about EVIL—and, still less, demons.
The demons inhabiting Scripture were always a stretch for me—frankly, hard to believe. But now...well let me put it this way:
At a recent conference of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, one of its Board members, a minister, confessed that she, too, used to be put off by the thought of demons. No more, says she. What she has encountered in her work against torture has given her an immediate sense of the demonic—and of how very real it is.
And me too.
But back to the synagogue in Capernaum: How does Jesus react toward the evil that is possessing the intruder?
“Ushers, would you please escort this gentleman out the door?”
“Sir, I have office hours for counseling from 3:00 to 5:00 Tuesdays and Thursdays; could you come back then?”
NO. JESUS CONFRONTS THE EVIL ON THE SPOT. HE DRIVES THE EVIL OUT.
What we have here is the first lesson of Discipleship 101.
Sister Joan’s point was new to me, a cradle Catholic, blessed with a Jesuit education.
You see, back at Fordham 50 or so years ago, I can recall what we were taught as the basics of moral theology. It was, quite simply, that one should DO GOOD AND AVOID EVIL. Now I believe this was only half right. And I think it is misleading in a dangerous way. For, all too often we are tempted to AVOID evil, even though, as followers of Jesus we are instructed not to AVOID evil but to CONFRONT evil.
This is what Jesus was demonstrating, in the dramatic sort of way that leaves an impression, for his newly recruited freshmen:
NO CONFRONTATION OF EVIL; NO GENUINE DISCIPLESHIP
It was at a Call to Action conference that Sister Joan shared this exegesis. For me it really struck home…and prepared me for things to come.
You see, I got to see the demonic up close and personal as I watched our country’s leaders react to the attacks of 9/11. You did not have to be a veteran intelligence analyst to figure out what was going on. It was clear enough that our leaders had concocted a bunch of lies to “justify” an unnecessary war—a war actually motivated by the opportunity they saw to gain control over a large portion of Middle East oil and (they thought) to make that part of the world safer for Israel (don’t laugh; they really did think that!).
In the process they corrupted the ethos of objective intelligence analysis, to which I had devoted 29 years of my life (counting my service as an Army infantry/intelligence officer).
That was bad enough. But it was also clear that the immediate purpose of that corruption was to deceive our elected representatives in Congress out of their Constitutional prerogative to declare or otherwise authorize war.
It doesn’t get any worse than that.
And so, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) prepared a formal Memorandum for the President (as we once did when we were on “active duty).” That first memorandum was a same-day critique of Colin Powell’s dubious speech at the UN on February 5, 2003. We warned the president that, even if some—or even all—of what Powell said was true, his speech offered NO convincing case for an attack on Iraq.
We closed by suggesting that the president widen the circle of his advisers beyond those clearly bent on a war for which we could see no compelling reason, and from which the unintended consequences were likely to be catastrophic.
We were trying, in our own way, to confront evil on the spot.
The Fourth Estate
This was the first time an “alumni association” of intelligence officers spoke out in this manner. And the media went wild! The European, Middle East, Australian, and other foreign media, that is. Our Memorandum for the President received no real play in what I have come to call the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM). And we issued it a full seven weeks before the attack on Iraq.
The war came. It was an illegal war, fitting the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal’s definition of a “war of aggression.” Nuremberg called it “the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Accumulated evil of the whole? Think kidnapping, torture, indefinite imprisonment—to mention just a couple of those accumulated evils. The attack on Iraq was not essentially different from Hitler’s own shock and awe against Poland, as he ordered his tanks eastward 69 years ago tomorrow—starting the carnage of World War II.
Our leaders were not misled by bad intelligence. They embellished, exaggerated, invented “intelligence.” It took Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, five years. But on June 5 he exposed the deception, stressing that the war was launched “under false pretenses.”
And now, thanks to writer Ron Suskind and some former intelligence officers with a conscience, we know…now get this…we know that Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, who had been recruited by enterprising intelligence officers, told us in the summer of 2002 that there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. And Saddam’s intelligence chief told us the same thing a month before the war. (Saddam thought these senior officials were working for him, but they had been “turned,” as we say.)
War under false pretenses. Is it enough to make you angry?
Anger is Getting a Bum Rap
Where I grew up, in the Bronx, anger was generally frowned upon. It was okay, sort of, to be angry for maybe a day. If you were Irish, you were allowed a week.
But five years ago, I found myself angry, livid—outraged is perhaps a better word—for week after week after week.
And then, thank God, I remembered something I had learned from the Jesuits at Fordham. There we studied so much Scholastic philosophy and memorized so much of Thomas Aquinas, that friends at other Catholic colleges in New York took to calling us “peeping tomists.”
As luck, or grace, would have it, I remembered what Thomas said about the VIRTUE OF ANGER. Yes, you heard that right; the virtue of anger.
While commenting on various virtues, Aquinas complained bitterly that the virtue of anger “manet innominata,” remains unnamed. There was no word for it in Latin.
He cited John Chrysostom, a 4th Century Church Father, who wrote:
“He or she who is not angry, when there is just cause for anger, sins.”
Why? Because anger “respicit bonum justitiae;” anger looks to the good of justice, and if you can live among injustice without anger, you are unjust.
Thomas added his own corollary. He strongly criticized what he called “unreasoned patience.” He wrote:
“Unreasoned patience sows the seeds of vice, nourishes negligence, and leads not only evil people but also good people to do evil.”
Unreasoned patience? Think about the majority of German citizens during the 1930s; think about the institutional churches in Germany, Catholic and Lutheran. They COULD NOT FIND THEIR VOICE, but rather allowed themselves to be co-opted by Hitler.
Think about the institutional church in America, and how much trouble it is having trying to find its voice today.
Think about a pope who came here in April:
It was barely a week after ABC disclosed that the president proudly admitted that he approved of his top advisers meeting in the White House situation room dozens of times to approve the appropriate mix of torture techniques to be applied to this or that detainee.
The pope came the same week the Catholic-dominated Supreme Court deliberated openly over whether one gram or two—or perhaps three—of this or that chemical would be the preferable way to execute people. And C-SPAN showed prominent Catholic Justice Antonin Scalia loudly complaining, “Where does it say in the Constitution that executions have to be painless?”
While the pope was here, he said nothing about these things.
Nor did he mention the attack on and occupation of—the carnage in—Iraq.
It Happened Before—During the Thirties
I am reminded of what the agnostic French philosopher Albert Camus said after WWII, when a group of Dominicans invited him to their monastery to tell them what he thought of Christians in the light of their behavior during the Thirties. He commented:
“For a long time during those frightful years, I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome…What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest person; that Christians should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.”
That was 60 years ago! Can the current pope be oblivious to what happened when he was a young man in Nazi Germany?
How much unreasoned patience can today’s world endure?
Lesson: After five years, do not expect the leaders of the institutional churches in the United States to act any differently than the German churches did during the Thirties in Germany.
We can no longer expect that kind of leadership, and use that feckless expectation as an excuse to do nothing ourselves. As Annie Dillard puts it, “There is only us; there never has been any other.”
Ten nights ago 90 civilians, including 60 children, in the village of Azizabad in western Afghanistan were killed by American forces, according to the UN Special Representative in Afghanistan.
Why? The American commanding general bragged that the target had been successfully killed. He was Mullah Sadiq, a person the general said had “connections to the Taliban, and was suspected of being behind roadside bombings.” (sic) (and sick!)
Should you and I care about the 90 civilians? Are we out brother’s, our sister’s, keeper?
I am often asked, Okay, what can we do about all this?
I don’t know. But I do know some ways you can find out:
--Get well informed through alternative media. The BIGGEST SEA CHANGE I HAVE WITNESSED IN MY 45 YEARS IN WASHINGTON IS THE FACT THAT WE NO LONGER HAVE, IN ANY REAL SENSE, A FREE MEDIA. This is really BIG. The truth is usually available. It is up to us to seek it out, even thought this is sometimes difficult.
--Adopt a patron saint or two—as models for courage and action. Mine happen to be mostly women: Shiphrah and Puah, Egyptian midwives, a poignant Biblical story of civil disobedience (Exodus 1). Rachel Corrie, whose father Craig gifted me with this green bracelet. On it is stamped, simply, “Rachel Corrie, April 10, 1979-March 16, 2003.” I wear it always, to give me courage to step up to the equivalent of the Israeli bulldozers made in Peoria. Their drivers followed orders to drive over Rachel, as she stood between the bulldozer and the demolition of a Palestinian home where she had been staying.
--And then there are the women of The World Can’t Wait, whose ingenuity got me into the lecture in Atlanta, at which then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and I had a four-minute debate on live TV. Rumsfeld was repeating lie after lie; it was hard to sit still, and I knew I had him cold. Still, I was hesitating to go up to the microphone for the Q and A. And then it hit me: Cindy Sheehan, Medea Benjamin…they would not be having this conversation within themselves. What kind of a wuss are you, McGovern? And I was able then to rise to the occasion, so to speak—a providential occasion…a chance to confront the evil of deceit on the spot.
--Form a small group—four or five—maybe six, but no more. Get together once a week; share thoughts on Scripture; pray together; let yourselves be open to what the Spirit might want you to do…however big or small it may seem to you; hold one another accountable. JUST MAKE SURE THERE IS AT LEAST ONE WOMAN IN EACH GROUP. For, in my experience, it is the women who have the insight and intuition—AND the guts. Think of the Raging Grannies. Where, tell me, are the Raging Grandpas?
--Consider forming a local expression of the Confessing Church patterned after the few courageous souls in Germany who, unlike those in the established churches, confronted the evil of Nazism on the spot. We in the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington have just taken that step. Your Sunday Speaker Coordinator, Tom Smith-Myott, has our “Confessing Christ” statement, if you have interest in what that is all about.
--Be careful to keep from becoming like what you are confronting.
--Settle down in the quiet of your own being, as Thomas Merton tells us, and learn to be detached from the results of your own activity. Let it be enough to know that your work is an expression of your inner life.
--And last, but not least, keep your sense of humor.
I thought of that as I read this morning’s first reading from Jeremiah, which we are about to hear. Jeremiah complains bitterly about being ridiculed and scorned all the time, but the fire within him prevents him from being silent.
If you read one verse beyond the chosen reading, you will be reminded of God’s wonderful sense of humor.
Many, many centuries ago spoke Jeremiah:
“I hear everyone whispering, ‘Terror is everywhere. So let us report him to the authorities!’”
Let me express the hope that no one in this parish will report me, or those who invited me, to the “authorities.”
Okay, so that is not completely funny.
But it is essential to remember that JOY is the infallible sign of the presence of God. Despite the evil, despite the demonic, we Christians are called to joy.
In closing, let me draw from my Irish heritage a short poem by William Butler Yeats, called “The Fiddler of Dooney:”
When I play my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea.
My brother is priest in Kilvarnet,
My cousin in Bouchnabui.
I passed my brother and cousin;
They read from their book of prayer.
I read from my book of songs
That I bought at the Sligo Fair.
When we reach the end of time,
With Peter sitting in state,
He’ll call us three old souls,
But he’ll ask me first through the gate.
For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance;
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance.
And when the folks there see me,
They’ll all come up to me,
Shouting, “Here’s the fiddler of Dooney,”
And they’ll dance like a wave of the sea.
And so let me wish you:
Justice, in the Spirit of Yahweh and Jesus of Nazareth;
Courage, in the spirit of Shiphrah, Puah, Rachel Corrie, Cindy Sheehan, and Coleen Rowley; and
Joy, in the spirit of the Fiddler of Dooney.