Over the last few weeks we have heard a lot about a Sudanese Christian woman, Meriam Ibrahim, jailed and sentenced to lashes and to death for her alleged apostasy of Islam. Some in the media claimed she had been a victim of jealousy as a successful entrepreneur; others thought she became an object of a power struggle between different political factions. Whatever the reason, she was made out to be a criminal simply because she was a Christian. The only solution offered to her was to renounce her faith and ‘return’ to Islam – an offer she rejected regardless of the consequences. Eventually she was released and, at the moment of writing this piece, was in the US Embassy ready to leave Sudan with her American husband and children.
There are astonishing similarities between her story and that of Peter which we’ve heard in today’s first reading. King Herod wasn’t popular among his subjects, particularly among the Jewish religious leaders. When he found that beheading James, the most respected Apostle in Jerusalem, pleased them, he learnt that the persecution of Christians could help him politically. Quite likely, he didn’t know Peter personally; Peter was only a useful pawn in King Herod’s political game. ‘All the time Peter was under guard the Church prayed to God for him unremittingly.’ Similarly many people around the world have been praying for Meriam and for her release. The main difference between the two stories is that Peter was taken out of prison in a miraculous way by an angel, while Meriam’s release has been brought about by a less than miraculous public outcry and by political influence. But the difference is illusory. In the story of Peter ‘the angel of the Lord stood there and the cell was filled with light.’ The Greek word ‘angel’ literally means ‘a messenger’, not necessarily of supernatural origin. I’m pretty certain that the embellished story of Peter’s release echoes a real, though much less glamorous event. Perhaps one of the reasons to glamourize the story was to protect ‘the angel’s’ identity. That messenger didn’t even have to share the religious views of Peter, as many appealing for Meriam’s release weren’t Christians themselves.
Sometimes people hostile to Christianity, or indeed to any religion, claim that the attitude of believers is wrong because they look forward to heaven while neglecting their earthly existence. Many see contemplative orders, devoted to prayer, as unproductive time- and life-wasters. Taking action seems to be the correct attitude, the one changing the course of the world; unfortunately not always for the better. As the current conflict in Iraq shows, the situation is politically and religiously so complicated that any oversimplified military approach can cause more problems rather than sort them out. Decision makers have to consider their options and possible outcomes, supported by intelligence, experts, and so on. This kind of approach requires time, but usually their joint efforts can lead to more effective action. In the Church there are always similar temptations of either ill-considered activism or pious but inactive prayer-ism. Neither leads to any desirable outcome. The proper Christian approach starts with prayer as a spiritual consideration, followed by well thought-through action. Usually it’s a joint effort, when people with different skills and vocations come together to contribute their best – that’s the very nature of any community. In our parish we also need this kind of approach if we want to keep this community alive and developing. Each one of us has gifts and talents, sometimes still undiscovered or shied away from. There’s no need for us to wait for angels coming down from heaven to our communities. The angels of the Lord are among us. You just have to discover one in yourself.