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Heaven all the way to Heaven; Hell all the way to Hell

November 12, 2007

Lord when did we see you hooded and naked and terrified and nearly drowned and not say a thing?”

The Backseat Homilist

Readings for Nov. 11, 2007, the thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

“It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.” (2 Maccabees 7:14)

On the one hand, our congregation of Catholics sitting in its sunny Sunday sanctuary seems about as far as one can get from the torture scene of 2 Maccabees. At Mass Sunday I carefully watched my seven year old as the reader recounted the story of a woman and her seven sons being brutally tortured and killed for refusing to break the Jewish law. Normally pretty sensitive, my daughter seemed to be filtering out the gory details. Sometimes its a blessing when the made-for-Sunday modulation of the lector’s voice takes all the sting out of the story.

Yet on the other hand, turn on the radio and torture is the talk of the day. And so as I listened to Sunday’s first reading, more recent images haunted me, even as the Scriptural martyrs seized the opportunity to deliver a lesson about the resurrection of the just. I kept seeing hooded figures standing on platforms, with arms outstretched. I pictured the jaws of snarling dogs snapping near terrified faces, and soldiers laughing as the prisoner’s bowels let loose. I recalled reading how female interrogators would arrive scantily clad to shake the faith of men whose religious practice forbids them from looking at women’s naked bodies. I pondered the public debate going on right now over whether water boarding, near drowning as a means to secure a confession, is legal or not.

I found myself getting angry about the fact that our awareness of the details has not stopped torture. Our outcry has been tepid; it does not issue from our pulpits and it barely whimpers from our editorial pages. Might any of those tortured souls point a finger at quietly observant Christians such as us and declare “for you, there will be no resurrection to life”?

What did we do? we might well reply. We did not make the rules; it was our military and our presidential administration that did. It’s war time; we have to protect our freedoms. These are suspected terrorists, Muslims for Christ’s sake. They hate our way of life.

Lord when did we see you hooded and naked and terrified and nearly drowned and not say a thing?

When you enjoyed the rights of a representative democracy and didn’t embrace the corresponding responsibility to speak up for the least of my brothers and sisters, he might reply. If he could speak through the gag.

So I was stuck with these bitter and macabre images as the Gospel made a circuitous dance around whether there is resurrection from the dead. We left behind the lives and deaths of Jewish martyrs for a crazy debate over which of seven husbands gets the wife in the next life. (I suppose if I were Jesus I would have made an off-hand remark about whether the wife was ever a suspect.) But instead Jesus replies that those who are deemed worthy will have eternal life. He refutes his detractors’ argument with a bit of legal work that only a Sadducee could appreciate.

But legalese aside, in his earthly life, Jesus was pretty clear about what made people worthy of the Reign of God. It had to do with whether they loved the Lord God with their whole heart, soul and strength, and whether they loved their neighbor as themselves. Oh, and your neighbors include the people you hate.

Now I know that in every culture martyrs serve a particular narrative function. Their sacrifice reminds us that the cause is worth living for and dying for. Their stories are intended to make us squirm a bit – would you sacrifice so much? And they walk right into the next life with their faith and convictions intact. No soul-threatening doubt or stint in purgatory for them. The stories of martyrs are useful for advancing the faith.

And yet… Our country is in the midst of martyr making right now. We’re on the wrong end of it in fact. And if this doesn’t make us a little sick inside as Catholics – we who have a martyr for every day of the year and then some – then I’m worried for our collective soul.

St. Catherine of Sienna is quoted as saying something like, “all the way to heaven is heaven because Christ is the way.” That seems a good enough answer as any to questions regarding the nature of the afterlife. In Baptism we’ve already had our resurrection from the dead. Living out our end of the covenant is what the rest of life is about.

If it’s heaven all the way to heaven, then I imagine the corollary is true as well – all the way to hell is hell. At a time when injustices done in our name parade before us virtually unchallenged, as clear and undeniable as a Google search for images of Abu Ghraib, we Christians must not forget that we just can’t have it both ways.

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