Today’s first reading can seem a little terrifying. Is God really asking Abraham to kill his son? Traditionally we think God’s request is a “testing” of Abraham. But a closer look at God’s surprising reversal shows that it’s not a test but a lesson in the fruits of discipleship.
Following God’s will can lead us into dark places, full of violence and death. The passion of Jesus and the lives of the martyrs teach us this. But just when we think violence and death have won, God proves us wrong. The great paradox of Jesus’ Resurrection is exactly this: that sometimes we have to be willing to put everything on the line – including our life – so that the fullness of life may be possible.
The story of Abraham and Isaac from today’s first reading teaches us this same truth. Abraham is willing to enter the places of violence and death in order to follow God’s will, and as a result, he finds instead the gift of life and peace (Genesis 22: 16 – 18). We get a hint of this in the Gospel as well, when Jesus instructs Peter, James, and John to keep the Transfiguration a secret until the “Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9: 9).
Throughout history, we see brave women and men following Abraham’s and Jesus’ examples. They offer up their lives doing God’s work. These include those who die protecting the natural world. In 2017, 185 “environmental defenders” were killed protecting their community’s land and the ecosystems they depend on. Whether they are “wildlife rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or indigenous land rights activists in Brazil,” on average four environmental defenders are killed every week across the world.  Corporations carrying out these extractive projects are often linked to these profit-motivated killings.
The practice of killing environmental defenders has been going on for a long time. In 2005, hired mercenaries murdered Sr. Dorothy Stang, S.N.D. for trying to protect the Amazon rainforest and the rights of indigenous communities to manage their own land. Before they killed her, they asked Sr. Dorothy if she had any weapons. She said her only weapon was her Bible and then began reading the Beatitudes. Brazil continues to be a dangerous place for environmental defenders. In 2016, Brazil boasted the highest number of assassinations of environmental defenders in the world based on sheer numbers. Honduras was the deadliest in terms of murders per capita.
Martyrdom is terrifying – even Jesus was afraid – and God doesn’t call everyone to it. But we are all called to hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” – to stand in solidarity with creation. Faced with the oftentimes difficult and scary task of discipleship, we can all take comfort from St. Paul’s counsel in today’s second reading: “If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?” (Romans 8: 31 & 33)
If we want to live in a world that respects life and promotes peace, we have to be willing to confront the violence and the death we cause with our throwaway culture. In recognition of the sacrifice that environmental defenders like Sr. Dorothy make, what violence have we committed against the natural world? How does the call to discipleship lead you to act differently?
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