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Archive for September, 2013

Telemachus & the pope: In the name of God, stop!

Posted by Ron George on September 8, 2013

Saint Telemachus, Peacemaker, by Ade Bethune

Saint Telemachus, Peacemaker, by Ade Bethune

It is ironic in our time that we first hear of Saint Telemachus from a fifth-century Syrian bishop, Theodoret.

Telemachus was a legendary Christian monk who tried to stop a gladiatorial contest in Rome early in the fifth century, which so enraged spectators that they stoned him to death. (Clearly, this is a cautionary tale for anyone who would protest the ridiculous violence of American football.) Telemachus’ death so moved the emperor, Honorius, that he banned gladiator contests from then on.

The story has acquired some details in its retelling through the centuries, as such stories invariably do. The one I like best quotes Telemachus: “In the name of God, stop.” He silences the unruly crowd and marches into the arena; whereupon, the emperor orders the crowd to disperse and that the contests cease forever. (This is the Ronald Reagan version.)

Whatever actually happened – if it actually happened – it is a story of Christian witness, a story of courage, of standing against popular sentiment, against barbarism and violence, against forces of evil that have beset humanity throughout recorded history – not some sort of supernatural evil but that of which we humans are so capable of inflicting upon ourselves. Whatever Christianity may have become since the death of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no question that its message is unequivocal regarding warfare: In the name of God, stop. Be reconciled. Only love, forgiveness and mercy will heal the world’s brokenness.

Bishop Theodoret  of Cyrrhus was making a point with his short but sweet story of Telemachus’ martyrdom. He was praising the monk, of course, but also the emperor who, in Theodoret’s view, saw the hand of God in Telemachus’ prophetic effort to stop arena violence and death. Honorius saw clearly, given the tableaux of Telemachus’ singular courage against the irrational, blood-thirsty, arena mob, that the monk was right and that the emperor would be denying the truth of Telemachus’ witness if the games were allowed to continue. It shouldn’t have had to come to that, but it did, because the emperor and almost everyone else was culture-bound, too blind to see just how wrong the arena blood-letting was. Telemachus spoke the truth that set the emperor free.

Pope Francis: 'Violence and war are never the way to peace!'

Pope Francis: ‘Violence and war are never the way to peace!’

The irony of Theodoret’s story is that Syria today would be well to have a prophetic monk within its borders, to call that nation’s brutal dictator to task with the word of God’s truth that warfare of any kind, with or without chemical weapons, is no cure for what ails Syria’s sick, broken body politic. Indeed, the entire region and especially Western Europe and the United States might well ask, What would Telemachus do?, regarding an imminent escalation of violence in Syria – American military violence.

We’re told that Syria has crossed the line by using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. We’re told again and again how many children were killed in recent chemical attacks (at least 426). The secretary of state, John Kerry, is fervent about what must be done to teach Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a lesson, presumably to inhibit his using chemical weapons again. President Obama will address the nation this week to make his case for bloodying Assad’s nose with American missiles. The administration wants to co-opt Congress to support intervention, but that’s unlikely because public opinion is running against American intervention. 

Christian pastors across the nation are no doubt pondering how to pray about all this, especially in public even with more than 60 percent of Americans opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria. Our preacher confessed to the Lord this morning that we don’t know the answers to the complex and difficult issues raised by the Syrian crisis but that we live in hope that God’s wisdom will inform the hears and minds of our leaders. 

Enter Pope Francis. This ultra-conservative churchman appears willing to take on Telemachus’ mantle in the name of Christ Jesus. There is no doubt whatever in the pope’s mind what the right answer is – for Christians – and Christians of every stripe throughout the United States should take notice.

The pope went public Saturday. He had called a week ago for a peace vigil in St. Peter’s Square and an estimated 100,000 people showed up. It wasn’t just for Catholics or even Christians. The world’s religions were represented, and the message was clear as enunciated by the pope: “This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!

“Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow and do not add to it, stay your hand, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter!”

Telemachus might have written the headline for the pope’s eloquent homily: In the name of God, stop!


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