GOD IN OUR MIDST
Being a Pest—for Good
By Alice Camille

"Here comes trouble!" If you think for a moment, you can probably dredge up the face of a friend or family member who earns this exclamation whenever he or she walks into the room. Sometimes we use this greeting aloud in fun, an acknowledgment of a pal's rowdy nature. But sometimes we employ these words as a mental note of desperation because the trouble is for real.

When Jesus tells the story of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), who do you think is likely to be the troublemaker? The title we give to the parable suggests that the source of the trouble is the mean old judge.

But traditionally, the name was given to the woman—are we surprised?—because her insistence on justice makes her a pest in the eyes of her society. She is called "the importunate widow," the troublesome widow, the one who won't go away until she gets what she wants. Never mind that what she wants is for right to be done. She's the one who's considered the source of the problem!

We all know this woman, of course. Some of us may even be this person in the eyes of those who know us. The troublemaker is the one who clamors for peace in a time of war, or the one who speaks on behalf of the poor in an affluent society. Try "speaking for the trees" like the Lorax in Dr. Seuss, especially in logging territory, and find out what it means to be seen as a vexation that needs to be solved—or silenced! Or do a "Michael Moore," and attempt to represent the humble worker to the corporate systems that employ and sometimes exploit their workers.

These little experiments in announcing the unpopular truth help us to appreciate why prophets get martyred. Once you publicly acknowledge society's problematic injustices, it won't be long before you are identified as the problem yourself.

Pushing, Pushing

Seeing how the widow in the parable is traditionally described as troublesome, it is interesting to consider how Jesus views her. Clearly the story is not about the judge and his response—which is rendered unwillingly in her favor just to get her off his back. The main character in the tale is the widow, and the focus is on what she does. In a word, she persists. She takes on the system that is cheating her and calls out for justice relentlessly. Finally, the judge admits he's scared of her and what she might do next! His heart is not changed, but he reverses his decision to save his own skin.

Comically, Jesus compares the judge to God, and the "troublemaking" widow to his disciples. Obviously, God can be expected to show compassion and to be on the side of justice without persuasion on our part. God's response, like the final action of the judge, is never in doubt.

The point of the story is that we are to model ourselves on the troublemaker. We are to persist in our faith and the demand for justice no matter how we are perceived or even mistreated by powerful people and structures that identify us as threatening to their interests. It's a bold vocation for the followers of Jesus: to be, professionally, the people who rock the boat that society is meanwhile sailing in so merrily. Are we up to it?

Uphill Climb

Naturally, if we disrupt business as usual and disturb the placid American dream of acquiring stuff, taking care of our own in an insular fashion, saving for retirement with tunnel vision about today's societal responsibilities and always being right about what's best for the rest of the world, then we are inviting a heap of trouble on our own heads. The more we persist in our questioning of the way things are, the more people we stand to offend. Who wants to be the one who is greeted in every gathering with the words: "Here comes trouble!"? Even in church we may find ourselves the source of conflict.

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells the story with such amusement, casting God as the heavy and the disciple as the troublemaker. Without a sense of humor, few people would get the irony of what happens to those who blow the whistle on society's problems. So how about it: Wanna stir up some trouble?

Alice Camille writes a monthly series, "Exploring the Sunday Readings," as well as the "Testaments" feature in U.S. Catholic magazine, which was awarded Best Column by the Catholic Press Association. She is the author of Invitation to Catholicism: Beliefs & Teachings & Practices and The Rosary: Mysteries of Joy, Light, Sorrow and Glory (both by ACTA Publications).

Next: The Rich Fool

Questions for Reflection:
• Have you ever found yourself on the unpopular side of a peace and justice issue? How did you respond?

• What virtues do you think it takes to voice support for unpopular truths? How do we receive these virtues?

Discuss this month's Questions for Reflection
from “God in Our Midst.”

FAMILY CORNER
September Blessings
By Judith Dunlap

More than 30 years have passed since my oldest child left for his first day of school. Up until that September day I was able to watch his every move. It was a rare morning we spent apart. Then came the fall morning that he began a life independent of me. I made the sign of the cross on his forehead, asked God to bless him and watched him leave.

I continued to bless all five of our children on significant occasions: the first day of school, during final exams, before they went trick-or-treating, when they left for class excursions or trips. I remember when that same firstborn son (newly graduated from high school) left for Florida with a group of buddies. I blessed not only him but also his friends—and would have blessed each of the car doors and the steering wheel if they had let me. I realized, of course, that the prayer was as much for me as it was for them.

A simple "God bless you" reminds us of God's vigilant presence and constant love. And when we mark those three words with the sign of the cross, we remember who we are and the faith that binds us together. Like so many prayers this blessing not only speaks to our needs, but also satisfies them.

For our family, each September seemed to mark another step to independence. It was a September morning in 1991 when the whole family blessed that oldest son, handsome in his tux, just an hour before his wedding. And another September morning when our youngest son blessed me before I took my first trans-Atlantic flight. It was probably at that point that I realized all of our steps to independence had led us to a healthy state of interdependence. And all the "God blesses" I had said, worked.

For Family Response:

Have a family prayer service this month to celebrate new beginnings. End the service by having family members bless each other.

Discuss this month's FAMILY CORNER.

Media Watch
Finding Nemo
By Frank Frost

Welcome a brand-new children's classic. Finding Nemo employs extraordinary imagination and animation to tell a story that children of all ages can love. Although this is a totally imaginary world created beneath the ocean waves, the characters become very real to the audience, thanks to the father-son relationship that forms the basis for the search for the child Nemo.

At the start, we are immersed in a colorful and wildly diverse paradise of sea creatures on a coral reef where a clownfish, Marlin, and his wife have found the perfect home and happily await the hatching of their 400 "children." But danger lurks in these deeps, and in a flash Marlin and one egg, named Nemo, are the sole survivors of a barracuda attack.

When the first day of school comes for Nemo, his fiercely protective father does not want to let him go. When finally he does relent, Nemo dashes off in a moment of rebellion and is snatched by humans, ending up in a fish tank in the office of a Sydney, Australia, dentist. There another delightful set of fish characters becomes part of the drama.

Back on the reef, Marlin is desperate to find his son. He is joined in his search by a ditsy blue fish named Dory with short-term memory loss, which helps support her eternal optimism. Their destination is based on a name and a Sydney address inked on a pair of goggles that the snorkelers had dropped.

To achieve their goal Marlin and Dory must survive a trio of sharks, an abandoned shipwreck surrounded by mines, a seductive monster fish, a whale and a forest of deadly jellyfish. They are assisted by a school of sea turtles surfing the Eastern Australian Current, but must escape an attack of seagulls before reaching their Sydney Harbor destination. There Marlin's unstoppable paternal love becomes a legend in the underwater rumor mill.

Finding Nemo is a lively, exciting adventure filled with laughs targeted not only at children but also at adults (as when using a musical phrase lifted from the movie Psycho to signal approaching danger). Another example: The three sharks that seize Marlin and Dory are members of a self-help group formed to overcome their compulsion to eat fish. Their mantra is "Fish are friends, not food."

The adventures of Marlin and Dory are intercut with the life-threatening danger now faced in the fish tank by Nemo, who believes that his father will not be coming to rescue him. Under the tutelage of the tough tank leader, Gill, Nemo becomes self-empowered and courageous, enginerring his own escape.

Finding Nemo carries uplifting messages for both children and their parents: finding the balance between caution and courage, between protecting and empowering, and the different gifts afforded by diversity.

 

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

Discuss Frank Frost's film review
in this month's MEDIA WATCH.



SAINTS AND HEROES AMONG US
By Judy Ball

St. Peter Claver (1581-1654)

The estimated 1,000 slaves per month who survived the 60-day journey from West Africa to Cartagena, Colombia, in the 1600s arrived full of disease, dread and despair. They may well have wondered if God had forgotten them as they first saw the seaport, teeming with merchants and slave traders, and envisioned the horrors that awaited them.

Into this forbidding world stepped Peter Claver, a small, humble Jesuit priest who had left his native Spain in 1610 to become a missionary in the New World. Whenever word reached him of yet another new arrival, he rushed to the port, holding high a cross to announce his mission. He would board the ship and make his way to the infested bowels of the slave hold. There he offered its wretched human cargo food and clothing, tended to their medical needs and listened with compassion to their fears. Then, when they were ready, he spoke of God's love and mercy and assured them of their dignity.

"We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips," said Father Claver, who called himself the "slave of the slaves."

He continued his apostolate for 40 years, employing interpreters and using pictures to help communicate the basics of the faith. He baptized an estimated 300,000. Even after the slaves were scattered among the various plantations in the countryside, Father Claver conducted annual missions for them. He also came to be a moral force within Cartagena, preaching to sailors and traders in the city square and hearing confessions. Illness forced him to be inactive for his final four years, but his funeral was a major public event.

In 1888, Pope Leo XIII canonized Peter Claver. His feast day is
September 9.

Jim Keady

Jim Keady didn't set out to be a social justice activist—until, as he puts it, "God kidnapped me."

It happened when Jim was a theology department graduate student in a social ethics class at St. John's University in New York. For an assignment he wrote about Nike labor practices in light of Catholic social teaching. He got an "A." But more to the point, what he learned about Third World sweatshops so startled and appalled him that it changed his life.

Jim, now 31, is founding director of Educating for Justice, a human-rights initiative. Its present target is sweatshops, and Nike is the group's test case. But, Jim told Every Day Catholic, the well-known manufacturer of sports goods has no corner on the market when it comes to unjust working conditions, excessive hours, dangerous working conditions, abusive situations and starvation wages. These can be found all over the globe, including the U.S.

The mission of Educating for Justice is to raise awareness at the grassroots level and spark social change. To date, Jim and his staff have spoken on 140 college and high school campuses. The message: Don't try to close sweatshops or boycott products made in them; neither action will help laborers. Instead, "learn about the issues involved, become active, write letters, apply political pressure.

"The gospel asks for radical, decisive action on behalf of the poor and oppressed," says Jim. He learned that at St. John's, and for several years he taught it as a high school religion teacher. He learned it in a deeper way when he spent five weeks in Indonesia and got to know Nike laborers personally.

His is another David vs. Goliath story. But, Jim observes, "in the end, David wins."



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