Living Humanly in the Midst of Death: Obadiah and St. Peter Claver


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This morning’s first reading at Vigils was from the Jewish prophet Obadiah 1:10-16.

In this passage, the prophet gives a stark warning to the nation of Edom, related to Israel through the brothers Jacob and Esau. According to the Talmud, Obadiah himself was an Edomite who converted to Judaism. He was also said to be a descendant of Eliphaz, the friend of Job. I find it fascinating that Obadiah is identified with a friend of one who suffered and then chastises his own people for refusing to do the same.

Obadiah’s beef with Edom is that they refused to get involved when the Babylonian Empire invaded and conquered the Kingdom of Judah, enslaving its people. He writes:

On the day that you stood aside, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth, and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you too were like one of them.

The result of this inaction, according to the prophet, is that cycles of violence will continue to be perpetuated. Those of us who excuse ourselves by saying “it’s not my problem” are not immune from the effects of violence. Obadiah says:

As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.

The end result is that we will annihilate one another, not by conscious actions, but through our mutual indifference and passive participation:

For as you have drunk on my holy mountain, all the nations around you shall drink; they shall drink and gulp down, and shall be as though they had never been.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of privilege is the self-deception that keeps us from accepting the reality that “we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality” (MLK). This is the demonic lie by which we absolve ourselves of responsibility when another woman fleeing domestic violence cannot obtain shelter because “she hasn’t been abused enough”, another black teenager is gunned down, and another lesbian couple’s home is broken into and the words “Move or Die” are scrawled on the wall. All of these have happened in my city (Kalamazoo, MI) this year.

In stark contrast to the indifference of Edom, there is the caring action of St. Peter Claver (1581-1654), who we remember today. Claver was a Jesuit priest and missionary to Colombia who focused his ministry on the slaves who were being brought across the Atlantic from Africa.

He brought food, medical care, and education to his fellow human beings in the ships’ holds. He refused to disembark until each person inside had received some measure of care. He likewise declined to accept the hospitality of slave owners. By the end of his life, he had baptized over 300,000 slaves, saying, “We must speak to them with our hands before we speak to them with our lips.”

Claver lived in a time when it was not possible for one person to turn the tide of the slave trade. Yet, he found a way to “live humanly in the midst of death” (Wm. Stringfellow). He refused to accept or participate in the injustice of his time.

People of faith and conscience, like St. Peter Claver, cannot afford remain silent or neutral in the face in injustice. We must not “stand aside” like Edom.

Perhaps we feel overwhelmed or hopeless when we think of our unfair social system that resists change. Perhaps the problem seems too big or too far away to do anything of significance. Perhaps we cannot do everything, but let us do something.

May God show each of us some way (however small) to “live humanly in the midst of death”, that we might find ourselves on the right side of history and our lives bear fruit for eternity.


2 thoughts on “Living Humanly in the Midst of Death: Obadiah and St. Peter Claver

  1. It was good to learn about St. Peter Claver and to be reminded of William Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s Ethic for Christians and other Aliens in a Strange Land was an important book for me when I was finding my way.

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