Do you know the story of the scribe Eleazar, from the Second Book of Maccabees?
Treated like a prisoner in his own country, Judea, ruled by foreign occupiers, Eleazar was put to death by the state because he refused to eat ritually unclean meat. His ultimate sacrifice for the sake of his faith helped spark a movement that eventually reclaimed Judea for the people of God.
Until this morning, when I read the account of his martyrdom at church, I did not know about Eleazar or his sacrifice. I knew only the broad outlines of the Maccabean revolt, led by pious, orthodox Jews of Judea nearly 200 years before Jesus Christ. Against great odds, they threw off the imperial powers of the Greek-influenced Seleucid Empire of Syria and rebuffed the intrigues of privileged Judeans who wanted to relax traditional Jewish religious practice and adopt the customs of their pagan occupiers. During a period of intense persecution, the Jewish religion was outlawed, and dissenters were killed who refused to adopt Greek customs, like eating meat sacrificed on altars dedicated to the Greek gods. When the Seleucids and their Jewish allies were finally driven from Judea, the Temple in Jerusalem was liberated and rededicated. The eight-day festival of Hanukkah commemorates these events.
The radical witness Eleazar gave to his faith gave me pause today. He did not equivocate; he did not compromise. Rather than swallow the food of unrighteousness, he spit out the pork. He could have saved his life by pretending to eat the sacrifical meat, but Eleazar refused all pretense of accommodation to his oppressors.
I think of the heroic integrity of Eleazar and the Maccabees, and I am drawn unavoidably to an examination of my own conscience, as well as a scrutiny of the Church.
Do I accept the unlawful food when I preach social justice but continue to leverage all of my unmerited privilege in a racist and sexist society? Or when I agitate for economic democracy while obeying every law of consumer capitalism?
Do Franciscans eat the sacrificial meat when they make vows to poverty but resist corporate austerity? Were they led astray in the 14th century when they accepted a relaxation of the restriction on property?
Did the Church swallow the pork after Constantine's dubious conversion, when it accepted the patronage of his Roman Empire? Does it swallow the pork today whenever it trades off Gospel imperatives for institutional prerogatives?
I have been thinking about the occupation movement, which has taken a hit this week with police raids breaking up the encampments in New York City, Oakland, and St. Louis. The protesters are being told to pack it in, to fold up their tents, to rejoin the conventional dialogues of our so-called democracy and work within the system that has reproved them. But they are spitting out the meat. They are sick of being defiled by a world whose rules pain the many and profit the mighty few. Rather than submit to a suffering not of their own choosing, they elect to live and die according to principles and values that lead to true life for all.
The faith of the martyrs endows them with a disturbing presence. It is also a quickening presence. As the Spirit of God filled Moses and the prophets, the scribe Eleazar and the Maccabees, and Jesus, so let it fill us. When it fills us completely and perfectly, then nothing defiling can enter us, and we can offer and receive nothing profane.
Postscript: Neighbors Together is considering a return to Occupy Wall Street on Thursday to join its two-month anniversary demonstration. Our soup kitchen has the zeal of the Maccabees, but I do not know if I will join our group. Must one spit out the sacrificial meat in public to keep faith? The protesters have been evaluated harshly of late because of their seeming ineffectuality. This analysis ignores their invincible faith. I will say this: The 1 percent do not want to be disturbed, but they will be disturbed, because 99 percent are not going away. "Who among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?" (Luke 15:4) Well, now. The 99 percenters have the spirit of a shepherd -- no, a hound of heaven -- dwelling in their souls, and they are going after the lost one percenters themselves.