The Naked Man – pt. 40

Olive-Tree-in-Courtyard-of-the-Church-of-the-Multiplication

Mark spent the morning reading over his manuscript again. His mind often drifted back to Peter, and that cell in Rome, where he had heard so many stories of the early days of life with Jesus. Which to include, which to leave out? How did you tell the story faithfully, and in such a way that it invited faithful response? He had once more felt a sense of urgency: how much longer before the Roman legions received orders from their new emperor, and the siege began? And do I stay, or return to Rome before those orders arrive? Or do I take this gospel back to the hills of Galilee where so many of these stories took place? He laid down the manuscript, and turned to prayer.

Later that afternoon Mark wandered into the courtyard, where he discovered his mother in animated conversation with Rachel and a few other young women he did not recognize. “Ah, Yohannan,” his mother greeted him, “come and meet my new friends.” Noticing the look of surprise on the face of one of the women, Miryam laughed, and laid her hand over the young woman’s. “As you will discover if you choose to spend time with our ecclesia, Jesus has profoundly changed the ways in which we relate to one another.” She turned to Mark. “Rachel came by to see me, and brought Adina, Devorah and Ya’el with her.” Mark greeted them before taking the cup of watered down wine his mother offered him.

“Adina was a servant in our household,” Rachel began, seeing Mark’s curiosity. “After my father died, and things became hard, we had to let our servants go, and Adina returned to her father’s household. I bumped into her and her friends in the marketplace today, and your gathering came up in conversation, so I brought them to meet your mother, and to ask if your hospitality can extend to three more in the evenings.” “And I just assured her,” said Miryam, “that all are welcome here, and that we each share what we can and somehow there is always just enough.”

Adina looked at her friends before speaking. “We would be grateful to join you in the evenings. Prices in the market continue to rise, and I have not found a new household to serve. None of us have. If you will extend your patronage to us, we will honor you in the marketplace, and serve you as you tell us how.” Rachel smiled, and addressed Miryam. “I keep trying to tell them that your household is different, and your ways are…not quite subversive, but certainly different.” “I heard you were subversive – and worse!” blurted out Ya’el. “I served in the household of a member of the Council. I have waited on your son, Benyamin. On more than one occasion after he left, I heard them speak of his family in…ungenerous ways.” Miryam smiled sadly. “I imagine you did, my dear.”

Miryam turned to Mark. “Yohannan, perhaps you can tell a story this evening that would introduce these young women to the Way of Jesus and how it has re-shaped our understanding of honor and shame and how we relate to one another.” “Do you have one in mind, mother?” asked Mark. A twinkle appeared in her eyes, and Mark felt a surge of affection and then…grief. Sudden grief. He knew how tenuous life had become. He had seen the consequences of proclaiming and embodying the gospel, of being part of the Way. And yet, as he held his mother’s compassionate gaze – for she saw the rush of emotions in his face – he was reminded once more that he had determined long ago that the life he had found with Jesus and the Way was worth any cost.

“Well,” said Miryam, “there are many such stories to choose from. But I am thinking that you could tell the story of the time the synagogue leader in Capernaum approached Jesus, desperately seeking his help. Although,” she said, the twinkle returning to her eye, “it is not really his story, is it…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 39

Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_65_(Canto_XXXI_-_The_Titans)

If you’re new to this series, you can read the introduction here.

Mark continued the story. “Now, the herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and out in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the ‘legion’; and they became frightened.”

Frightened?” said Rachel. “Why were they frightened?” Yiftach’s companion laughed. “You’ve obviously never seen the content of a Roman’s breakfast. Jesus just sent a year’s worth of breakfasts into the sea! I’m sure the herdmen were not looking forward to trying to explain that.”

“Perhaps,” said Mark. “No doubt they feared the kind of response their children came to experience last year – swift, brutal, and terrorizing.” He lifted his eyes to the south of the city, and the Romans’ encampment. “The same kind of retaliation many within these walls fear. But how many men like this are cared for in our villages?” Yiftach’s friend looked blankly at Mark. “How many of us have lived our whole lives anguished by the Roman occupation? And how many of us have had to repress that anguish, turning it inward, for fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and finding ourselves the object of such retaliation?”

“Not us!” exclaimed Yiftach’s friend triumphantly. He raised Yiftach’s arm. “We never shrank from our oppressors.” Yiftach pulled his arm away angrily. “You may recall life in the hills that way, but I do not. I remember nights when the smallest sound left me terrified that the Romans had found us.” He turned to Mark. “And yes, every village has such a man. Not just a madman. Not just someone who hurts himself. But someone who reminds us every day of what it feels like to be oppressed – and powerless. Someone who does not have to hide their anguish and hatred for fear of retaliation.” He turned to Rachel. “That’s why the villagers were frightened. Because the person who outwardly expressed their inner turmoil about their unbearable life was sitting before them clothed and in his right mind. What would they do with those feelings now?”

Mark nodded slowly. “Indeed. Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine. And they began to beg him to depart from their region.” Yiftach spoke softly. “I’m sure there are many widows in Gerasa who begged their husbands not to try to cast out the legion.” His voice tailed off as he said, “I’m sure there will be many in Jerusalem…”

“No there won’t!” said his friend angrily. “Jesus cast the legion out. And so will we.” A few heads nodded at this remark. “No,” said Mark, quietly. “You will not.” As the man began to respond, Mark held up his hand. “Oh, you may by some miracle defeat that legion out there. But another will take its place. And another. Because violence begets violence.” He turned to address the entire gathering. “Do not forget that Jesus – like this man – will end up naked, outside the city, bound to a Roman cross after his back was shredded by the lash at the Roman governor’s behest. But that is how the demons were ultimately dealt with. That is how healing and liberation finally came.”

“Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of darkness that lie behind every legion, every empire, every oppressor. Forget that, and we are doomed to continue the endless cycle of violence and counter-violence. Jesus took the very worst the empire has to offer, and in doing so, defeated the power of the empire. Those of us who claim to follow Jesus must carry that message to others, and embody that victory. Which means we may well suffer as Jesus did. We may well die.” Sudden tears appeared in Mark’s eyes as Peter’s face came to mind. “But G_d has defeated death, and the powers: our hope does not lie with insurrection, but with resurrection – G_d’s vindication of Jesus and the Way of the kingdom.”

He turned to Rachel. “But if that is the broad canvas on which our story is painted, do not miss the individual brushstrokes. Jesus met a man in great distress, and set him free. Wherever we encounter people in pain, we are to embody God’s healing and liberating power.” “What happened to the man?” asked Rachel. “As Jesus was getting into the boat,” said Mark, “the man who had been demon-possessed was begging him that he might accompany him. And Jesus said to him, ‘Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you.’ And the man went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone marveled.”

Silence fell over the gathering. Many cast sideways glances at Yiftach and his friend, who was glaring angrily into the cup in his hand. Mark invited the gathering to stand, pronounced a benediction and said in parting, “Tomorrow we will hear the story of the healing of another person forced to live outside their community…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 38

Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_65_(Canto_XXXI_-_The_Titans)

Mark’s throat suddenly felt dry, so he stooped to lift his cup of wine from the table. As he sipped from the cup, he took the opportunity to compose his account of what happened once the disciples reached the other side of the lake. Savoring the last few drops, he replaced his cup and then looked around the courtyard.

“When they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes, as soon as Jesus had come out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met him, a man whose dwelling place was among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. And constantly – night and day – among the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out and gashing himself with stones.”

Rachel, who had been unusually quiet the past few nights, spoke up. “That poor man. Living all alone in the most unclean of places. I can only begin to imagine his torment. What happened?” Mark continued. “When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before him; and crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What do I have to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore you by God, do not torment me!’ For Jesus had been saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’”

“Do not torment me?!” Yiftach said. “After all the suffering the unclean spirit had caused that man, the spirit asks Jesus to spare him?” “Indeed,” said Mark. “But Jesus was having none of that. Once again, an unclean spirit tried to exert power over Jesus by naming him. But this time Jesus puts an end to their striving. He asked him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said to him, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ And he began to entreat him earnestly not to send them out of the country.”

“I can’t see Vespasian’s legions responding like that.” Engrossed in the story, no one had noticed Yiftach’s companion slip quietly into the courtyard. Yiftach half rose at the sight of his friend, who hesitated before walking across the courtyard to sit beside him. He laid a hand on Yiftach’s shoulder for a moment and then turned his attention back to Mark. “Gerasa, you say? I’m sure the few remaining residents of that town would love someone like your Jesus to show up and take on the troops Lucius Annius left behind.” He spat on the ground before turning to address the assembly. “I suppose the Gerasenes were inspired by our revolt to try and throw off the shackles of Rome themselves. But when Annius and his legionaries were done with them, they left behind a thousand young men’s bodies to rot in the streets before setting the town to the torch and then marching on to squelch any residual rebellion in the surrounding villages. Poor fools.” He shook his head. “So, did your Jesus drive this ‘Legion’ out of that man?”

Mark nodded grimly after this account of the recent and brutal suppression in Gerasa, which had come to mind as he had composed the story. He continued. “Now, there was a big herd of swine feeding there on the mountain. And the demons entreated him, saying, ‘Send us into the swine, so that we may enter them.’ And he gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.”

Yiftach’s companion grabbed a cup of wine, saluted Mark with it and said bitterly, “I’ll drink to that. We could use another Moses. Pharaohs or caesars, they’re all the same: we need G_d to sweep our oppressors away. Would that those Romans out there,” he gestured towards the city walls, “suffered the same fate as those pigs.”

“What happened to the man once the demons left him alone?” asked Rachel. “I imagine the townspeople were delighted he was finally delivered from his torment.” Mark offered a wry smile, as he responded, “Not exactly…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 37

Chaos waves

If you’re new to this series, you can read the introduction here.

Seeing the inquisitive, somewhat skeptical expression on Yiftach’s face, Miryam spoke up. “Do you remember the story of Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum? When the unclean spirit confronted him?” “Yes,” responded Yiftach. “Well, we just heard that those in the boat with Jesus asked, ‘Who is this?’ But the unclean spirit said, ‘I know who you are – the Holy One of G_d!’ And Jesus rebuked the spirit just as he rebuked the wind and the sea, saying the same thing to both, ‘Be still.’ Both the spirit and the sea listened to Jesus, and those looking on – seeing this – responded with amazement and fear.” She paused. “Jesus was always inviting us to listen, especially when he told parables. The spirit and the sea listened – and acknowledged his authority.” Miryam lifted her gaze to take in the whole gathering. “The question for us is always whether we will do likewise.”

Yiftach looked thoughtful as he addressed Mark. “You said that when Peter told this story he talked about how slow he was to understand. Then you said the church still struggles with this. But it seems like you all,” he gestured around the courtyard, “have acknowledged Jesus’ authority, and believe he is the Holy One of G_d.” Mark nodded. “Indeed. But that is not what Peter was referring to. Your friend picked up on that, before he left.” Yiftach looked confused. Mark continued.

“Your friend asked why Jesus would want to travel to the gentile side of Galilee. That was not the only time he sent the disciples on the trip from the Jewish shore to the gentile shore. And on both occasions, storms blew up quickly, threatening to swamp their boat. That was the lesson Peter said he failed to understand. That was what he came to understand was central to Jesus’ teaching. That the story of G_d’s people was expanding beyond Israel to encompass the gentiles – those who are ‘not us’. And those harrowing sea journeys were supposed to prepare the disciples – and the future kingdom community – for the challenges of overcoming the rigid social divisions that exist between us.”

“From the very beginning, people questioned whether the gentiles could truly be part of G_d’s people. And we encountered all manner of social hostility as we attempted the integration Jesus called us to – hostility that at times felt overwhelming, like those waves must have felt to the disciples in that small fishing boat. But just as Jesus spoke and silenced the waves, he continues to speak to silence the winds of opposition. Especially when that opposition does not come from outside the kingdom community, but from within.”

Yiftach looked around the ecclesia. “So, groups like this elsewhere are mixed? Jews and gentiles breaking bread together?” “Yes,” said Mark. “Although in some cities, our own people rejected the Gospel, and so the churches there are entirely gentile.” Yiftach turned to look in the direction of the Roman encampment outside the city. “And those gentiles out there. Would you break bread with them?” At these words, some members of the ecclesia shifted uncomfortably. Others leaned in, eager to hear how Mark would respond.

“With those whose bodies your friend would gladly sheathe his sword in? And who some gathered here might do the same to?” At this, a few peoples’ gaze dropped to the ground. “What do you think?” Yiftach’s features hardened. “Break bread with the soldiers of Rome? With the legions that occupy our homeland, who even now are just waiting for the word to besiege the holy City of David? What do I think? I think it’s one thing to ask a man to abandon the way of violence. It’s another thing entirely to ask him to sit at table with his enemies.”

“It is indeed, my young friend, it is indeed. But that is the way of Jesus. Perhaps one way we can begin to abandon the way of violence is to sit at table with our enemy. To break bread with those not like us. To refuse to hate.” Yiftach shook his head. “I do not believe those troops out there would accept your invitation. And I can’t imagine Jesus ever had any dealings with the legion.”

“Well,” said Mark, “there was this one time…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 36

Chaos waves

Mark mopped up the last of the olive oil in the bowl before him with a piece of flatbread. The meal tonight had largely consisted of bread and vegetables. The availability of meat – and now grain – in the marketplaces of Jerusalem was on the decline. Rumors were spreading that grain was being diverted to storehouses in anticipation of a siege. Mark suspected the rumors were true. Savoring the taste of his family’s oil on his tongue, he rose to address the ecclesia.

“Sisters and brothers, tonight’s story is one I heard so many times from Peter in his prison cell in Rome. He’d always end with a wry smile and a sigh at his own lack of comprehension at something so central to Jesus’ teaching. But Peter was not alone among the disciples in that lack of understanding.” At this, Mark shook his head. “And it is something G_d’s church continues to struggle with to this day.”

“One day, when evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’  And leaving the multitude, they took him along with them, just as he was, in the boat; and other boats were with him. And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up.'”

Yiftach’s companion snorted. “‘Let’s go over to the other side.’ Ha! I don’t know why anyone would want to get in a boat on Galilee other than to catch fish. And what’s he doing heading off to gentile territory?”

“What indeed?” responded Mark. “Now, Jesus himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they awoke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ And being aroused, Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Hush, be still.'” Mark looked directly at Yiftach as he continued, “And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm.”

Yiftach’s companion snorted even louder. He got to his feet, and tugged on Yiftach’s arm. “Come on, we don’t have to listen to any more of this nonsense.” Yiftach shrugged off his friend’s hand. He looked up at him and said, “I know we don’t. But I want to.” His companion looked at him in disbelief, then turned sharply on his heels, and strode across the courtyard and out of the gate. His mocking laughter echoed into the night.

All eyes were on Yiftach. His eyes were on Mark. “I have cousins who fish on Galilee. Like me, they don’t know too much scripture. But they learned Psalm 107.” His eyes took on a distant hue. “‘Some go down to the sea in boats…there they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He caused the storm to be still, so that the waves of the sea were hushed.’ My aunt prayed that psalm every time her boys took to the boats.” He paused. “Her prayer was not always answered.”

Simeon spoke into the hush that Yiftach’s words evoked. “We are not a sea-faring people – we leave that to the Phoenicians. The sea has always symbolized the dark power of evil to us. Its chaos threatens G_d’s people and G_d’s purposes. Jesus’ words and work provoked those same forces of evil: they constantly threatened him. What confidence must he have had in G_d that he could fall asleep on a pillow as they headed out across the sea?”

“Apparently enough confidence to believe G_d would still the waves when he spoke to them,” said Yiftach, his struggle to accept Mark’s account writ large across his face. Mark nodded slowly. “You are not alone in questioning what happened that day. Peter was there, and if it were possible, he would tell you that the twelve had questions before and even after this happened. Indeed, Jesus said to them, ‘Why so afraid? How is it that you have no faith?’ And they became very much afraid and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?'”

“Who indeed?” Yiftach wondered…

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The Naked Man – pt. 35

Olive-Tree-in-Courtyard-of-the-Church-of-the-Multiplication

Mark found himself strolling around the courtyard in the shadows of late afternoon, his lips moving in silent prayer. He paused from time to time to lay a hand unthinkingly on a bench, or a tree as a distant memory overtook him. The scuff of sandal on stone interrupted his prayerful reverie and he turned to see Yiftach standing in the gateway. “Yiftach! Come in, come in.” As Yiftach approached, Mark indicated one of the benches, and they sat down together. Yiftach leaned forward, contemplating the hands he folded in his lap. Mark said nothing, waiting for his young companion to speak whatever was on his mind.

Eventually Yiftach straightened up and turned to Mark. “I wanted to try and catch you alone before the gathering this evening. I find my thoughts are increasingly…troubled by what I have heard you say over these last few nights.” Mark nodded, encouraging Yiftach to continue. “I was a simple farmer when I met Simon bar Giora, and he turned my world upside down.” He looked down at his hands once more. “These hands were calloused from the plow handle and from pulling out the rough stones the plow uncovered. Within a year of meeting Simon and moving into the hills, I had lost the callouses as I learned to wield first a knife, and then the sword. Rough hands that had always had dirt under the cracked fingernails, turned softer, and now had blood under the nails.”

He looked up at Mark again. “But you must understand, Simon turned my world upside down with hope. He gave my life meaning, he gave me a brotherhood I did not know I had longed for. And I believed in something, perhaps for the first time in my life. I have placed my life in his hands on many occasions, ultimately following him to Jerusalem, so I can play my role in the final battle against Caesar’s legions out there.” He gestured down the mountain with his chin. “But…?” Mark said gently. Yiftach held his gaze before continuing. “But…now I have doubts. I have given my allegiance to Simon and the cause – I love that man – but all that you have said about Jesus, and his way has me…conflicted.” He looked down at his hands again.

“I heard that in something you said last night,” said Mark. “Yes,” Yiftach replied, “for which my friend berated me afterwards. He believes my faith in our promised victory is waning.” He turned to Mark earnestly. “And I confess that it is. I find myself wanting to be here, among your ecclesia, listening to these stories of Jesus, more than drinking wine and making battle plans with my friends with whom I have shed blood. And I do not know what to do with that feeling. Because I am far from convinced that this kingdom you talk about is any more likely to come than the one Simon promises.”

“These parables you tell, about soil and seeds and farmers – that is the world I left behind for the world of cold steel and banditry. I left the world of powerlessness far behind, and learned the power of the blade and brotherhood.” He laughed self-mockingly. “Oh, in some ways I knew we were just playing at revolution. Knifing a Roman soldier in the back and running away. Killing the occasional collaborator or tax-collector. Stealing food from our fellow countrymen who I knew could not spare it, and who might have shared it with us anyway. But then…” He paused. “But then,” picked up Mark, “came the battle of Beth Horon.” “Yes!” exclaimed Yiftach. “We defeated the Syrian legion of Cestius Gallus! 6,000 troops killed – the greatest defeat the Roman army has ever suffered – at our hands! And then, when Vespasian brought down the wrath of Rome upon us, and then suddenly stopped out there” he gestured with his chin once more, “Well, why not believe that G_d was with us, and that the final battle was at hand?”

“Why not, indeed?” asked Mark. Yiftach’s shoulders slumped. “Because we started fighting with ourselves, that’s why. John of Gischala, the Zealots – it’s no wonder the city elite invited Simon to lead us into the city and try to bring some sense of order. I believed each faction would rally to his banner, but no, we each control our own part of the temple or city. And no doubt the Romans just sit out there and laugh at us. Before…” “…before they receive the order to besiege the city,” completed Mark. “Yes,” replied Yiftach, his eyes dropping once more to his hands.

He spoke softly, his eyes rooted firmly downward. “I guess you have forced me to see the truth I did not wish to see. And all the hope and belief I have developed over the years is being stripped away.” He looked up at Mark, a pleading look in his eyes. “But I find I cannot embrace the hope and belief you have. So where does that leave me? If Simon’s 15,000 troops cannot defeat the power of Rome, then what can your ecclesia do? Because the mustard seed of your story may indeed grow into a tree, but that tree can be cut down. What power does your Jesus – do you! –truly have? Where is this kingdom? Tell me.”

Mark laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder, looking up to see the first members of the ecclesia to arrive walking into the courtyard and said, “What power? Tonight’s story may hold an answer to your question…”

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Jesus of Nazareth obituary: (not) a retraction

 

Face of Jesus - forensic reconstructionI am sitting in the same seat at my favourite coffee shop two weeks after writing an obituary for Jesus on Good Friday. The post arose from a desire to mark the day in some small way. I had originally written the obituary a decade ago, and when I found the document and re-read it, I wanted to update the language to reflect the ways Jesus’ story intersects with the stories of so many people today: whether refugees fleeing violence, war and political, ethnic and religious persecution; those caught in the prison-industrial complex; or those who experience the suspicion and hatred that can befall anyone who makes friends with “the wrong people.”

I could not have anticipated the response: 14,000 shares on Facebook, and 60,000 views (which is approximately 1000x the usual view rate for my posts). Obviously the post struck a nerve somewhere: either that, or it was just different from other posts on Good Friday. Or perhaps it was simply because of the image I chose.

I also could not have imagined how swiftly people wanted or provided a retraction: “Yes, Jesus died, but he rose again!” Perhaps because for so many Christians, as we only experience Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday during Holy Week, we almost by-pass the cross on the way to resurrection. But Jesus did suffer and die. People still suffer and die. Yet all too often we want to skip the suffering and go straight to the ‘happy ending.’

How many of us have met refugees and been far more interested  in hearing about how great their  new life in our country is, rather than about the suffering they fled to get here? How many of us make assumptions about people who are in custody or incarcerated that belie or minimize the structural injustices of our justice system? How many of us surround ourselves with people who look, think, believe and vote like us? How many of us do all we possibly can to avoid suffering and work as hard as we can to ensure our own ‘happy ending?’

I did not feel the need to post a retraction of the obituary on Easter Sunday because the facts of Jesus’ life and death remain the same as those I imagined Mary might have chosen to  offer in tribute to her son. The suffering and injustice of his arrest, conviction and execution remain true: his resurrection does not somehow negate them. On Good Friday this year it seemed important to me to reflect on that reality – and on the ongoing suffering of Jesus in the bodies of those who suffer those same injustices today.

If we truly want to experience the ‘happy ending’ that I believe the Story of Jesus we find in the bible leads to, then we are invited – no, we are called – to enter the suffering of others and together work against the kind of fear, hatred, prejudice and structural injustice that causes that suffering, both for Jesus two thousand years ago and our neighbours today.

May it be so.

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