A few weeks ago I shared this true story at a Development and Peace Youth Retreat in Salmon Arm, B.C. It focused on the choices a young man had before him. The person I spoke of had a background shared with countless others in our world today. He had grown up in a small hardscrabble agricultural community in a country going through tough economic and political times.
Nothing new under the sun where he came from — the rich were getting richer and the poor barely hanging on. Many families fell into the debt trap just to keep food on the table. Can’t pay the moneylender? You lose the small scrap of farmland supporting your household and maybe even your shirt.
What made things worse for him was the fact that foreign troops occupied his land. They were there, of course, to bring peace and stability to a troubled region, or so they said, and by the way, to help out a friendly dictator. Everybody knew, though, who pulled the strings. Real power and authority rested in a distant capital thousands of kilometers away.
Their culture’s millennia-deep indigenous roots had bred into the bones of everyone the religious traditions anchoring it. The current overlords, needless to say, saw their own culture as superior and, at best, only warily tolerated a subservient position for others’ beliefs. The empire’s dominant economy pulled every aspect of its culture along in its train. From art to authors to architecture, they claimed supremacy.
Like colonizers across the centuries, they brooked no opposition. Everybody knew that to raise a rebellion against them was suicidal. Barely seven kilometers from the young man’s home village citizens of the regional centre once tried to break free. The full force of the occupiers came down upon them. He was just a young boy when it happened. Everyone could have smelled the smoke from the city when it was put to the torch. All male adult residents of military age who survived the initial onslaught suffered a tortuous death. The rest of the population simply were “disappeared.”
Well aware of the reality confronting his land, what options were there for our young man? Some fellow citizens chose to willingly accommodate the new overlords. They figured that “just getting along” would at least grab a few crumbs falling from their table. Maybe they could reach a deal with the foreigner masters to preserve some of their institutions and traditions.
Others decided to “get outta Dodge,” just find a place off the grid and as far away from the interlopers as possible. They must have known deep down, though, that no place eventually would be far enough away.
Another small group chose a path what would be best described as urban terrorism. Stage hit and run attacks and suicide missions to weaken the invaders’ morale. Sometimes this would flare into open rebellion, like it had when the young man was a boy.
What path would you advise the young man take? This was my question for the youth retreat participants. Ezekiel in the first reading offers clear advice. If you turn away from all transgressions, “they shall surely live,” says the prophet. This seems to rule out our first group, the accommodators. They would bend or break their own community rules and sacred beliefs if it gained them personal safety, financial security and have, of course, a few privileges thrown in.
Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel offers us the example of the two sons whose father needs them to work in his vineyard. The one son tells the father to his face that he will go and doesn’t. Did those who fled the mounting tyranny surrounding our young man mirror this behaviour? How could they be true to their beliefs by ignoring the mounting injustices of their society?
The path to stay and fight oppression by taking up arms and shedding blood chosen by some couldn’t have been further from Paul’s mind in his letter to the Philippians when he uses words like compassion, sympathy, and love to serve as guides for our action. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .” Another way had to be found.
What should our young man do — accommodate the oppressors, flee them, or fight? Or was there another way to a better world?
As you likely have already guessed, the young man whose dilemma I described was Jesus. Palestine in the first century was living through tough times. Sepphoris was thriving city of as many as 40,000 people northwest of Nazareth. Joseph as a landless day labourer likely helped rebuild the city after it was destroyed by the Roman legions under Varus, Governor of Syria. Maybe Jesus at his side carried his toolbox to work.
Jesus couldn’t abide the accommodation of the Pharisees and Sadducees or the flight to the desert by the Essenes. He certainly did not support the tit-for-tat terrorism of the zealots. He charted a new radical way of love, a non-violent path for us toward our New Jerusalem.
Our words must match our deeds. Our deeds must strive to achieve the principles Jesus sets before us. We all must continue to pray as the psalmist did. “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.”
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.