February 21, 2024, 6:00 AM

Franciscan Fractals: “N=Nitrogen”

Contemplating today’s culture with the wisdom of Jesus and St. Francis.

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” 2 Kings 2:1-2

According to Wikipedia, nitrogen is a chemical element; it has symbol N and atomic number 7. It is a common element in the universe, estimated at seventh in total abundance in the Milky Way and Solar System. It’s one of the basic chemicals that supports all forms of life on earth, including the air that we breathe. Nitrogen is harmless to humans, unless there is no oxygen with it.

St. Francis immersed himself in the world of nature, and moved freely through it. Within his world, suffering was present as well as healing. Nature has no ability to say “yes” or “no” to suffering. Animals and other creatures are born, suffer, and die without consent. This preceding “scientific” description could also capture our story. Albeit, it does not.

Unlike animals and their inability to consent, human beings often have an ability to say “yes” or “no.” We, members of the body of Christ, always have the freedom to say “yes” or “no” with regard to the imposition of suffering. This very freedom allows us to show compassion – something of which animals have limited capacity.

A prisoner last month, convicted of murder in Alabama, was executed by using nitrogen without oxygen delivered through a mask. The “new technique” was proclaimed to render a victim unconscious within seconds, despite it being a never-before-used method. (A technique even the American Veterinary Medical Association refused to endorse on animals.) The victim struggled and writhed for 22 minutes before ceasing to move, per the prisoner’s pastor who accompanied the man to his death.

Like an animal, the prisoner had no choice in this situation. He was condemned to death by a judge who overruled a jury which had recommended life without parole. Instead of a modicum of compassion, the judge resorted to the old adage, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” (Matthew 5:3) This might be called “mimetic violence” at its worst. Yes, in some minds, justice was served because the murderer was now being murdered. The score would be even. Yet, Jesus would add a corrective to this, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)

Where was the God who never abandons us as in this scenario? God’s compassion rested with the one person who did not give up on the prisoner. Like Mary and John who accompanied Jesus to his crucifixion, the pastor stayed with the prisoner throughout the execution. He witnessed the man’s struggle, unlike the Attorney General of the State of Alabama who refused to watch, and later boasted about the execution’s “success.” Despite the difficulty of the situation, the pastor lived out what the Apostle Paul commanded, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)

We as Christians are often in places where we can do little, if anything, to change circumstances that seem unjust. However, we are called to do what we are able by staying present with those who are affected in these situations, even if it means simply praying. When we become clear in our minds and hearts about the underlying causes of unmerited conditions, we are instructed to faithfully move forward with actions that create a more just society.

Be confident that, through us and by us, God’s powerful presence is moving to renew the face of the world and impart God’s righteousness.

Prayers and Blessings,

Fr. John