Fire in the belly

Among popular posters for student rooms is the iconic picture of Che Guevara, the South American revolutionary who assisted Fidel Castro in Cuba.  In 1999, in a bid to promote Easter, the church produced a poster of Jesus in the manner of Che Guevara, (a black outline against a red background). The caption read ‘meek and mild, as if! Discover the real Jesus.’

The image was striking and very effective. Some thought it sacrilegious. But it showed us of another side to Jesus, as the revolutionary prophet, which went far beyond the gentle image of Jesus as a little baby that was the limit of many people’s experience of him.  

The image would have resonated in South America, the home of liberation theology, that saw the gospel as being at the service of social justice, that worked to improve conditions for the poor. It challenged the cosy relationship of the church with the rich and powerful; it challenged the church to stand up to oppressive and cruel regimes.

Brave people such as Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador stood up for the poor and oppressed. He was openly critical of the government of his country. He paid the price by being gunned down while celebrating Mass. Such a man had an inner fire, the fire of the spirit burning in him, which meant he could not keep silent in the face of the terrible things he saw around him.  

Jesus said that he came to bring fire to the earth. Fire can be destructive and dangerous but it can also act as a purge enabling new growth. Not so long ago, farmers would burn the stubble after the harvest before ploughing the fields and sowing seed. Fire is associated with the presence of God, in the burning bush, in the pillar of fire that went before the people of Israel in the wilderness, in the tongues of fire that hovered over the apostles’ heads at Pentecost.John the Baptist warned that the Messiah when the Messiah came would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus were the latest in the long line of Israelite prophets, men such as Jeremiah, men who could not keep quiet, but had to denounce what they saw was wrong and corrupt. Prophets are not usually popular people because they say things that people do not want to hear. Jehoiakim, King of Judah did not want to hear Jeremiah’s criticisms, and had the scroll of his writings burnt. Jeremiah himself was thrown in the well for predicitng the fall of Jerusalem.

It takes a bit of fire to speak out, to potentially make ourselves unpopular. But there are some things that cannot and should not be tolerated. It is hard speaking out to institutions who wear down the individual into giving up what they are trying to achieve who take the attitude that if you ignore someone long enough they will give up and go away. Others promise to do what you ask and then do nothing. It takes perseverance, and a terrier-like determination and fire in the belly to persist and get a result. None of the great reforms in this country were achieved overnight.

Speaking out also requires patience and discretion. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. We have to judge whether it is worth speaking out, worth the reaction we may get. We must judge whether it is the right moment to speak, but not continually put off the moment out of nervousness.  Nowhere is this more true than in families. Jesus says that he came to divide families, but not for its own sake. There are families which have been divided by Christianity. If you are a Christian and someone in your family said they would disown you if you persisted with your faith would that be reasonable? How would you respond?

Just because we love someone does not mean that we agree with all that we do. If we condone bad behaviour then we are not really loving that person. We need the fire of the spirit to give us the courage to speak out when we are aware of someone causing harm to others or to themselves. The spirit gives us courage and guides us towards recognizing the truth.  Oscar Romero said there are some things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.

He also said that “The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: ‘You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that.’”           

May the real Jesus give us that courage.



Jeremiah 38:4-6,8-10

The leading men of Jerusalem spoke to the king. ‘Let this man be put to death: he is unquestionably disheartening the remaining soldiers in the city, and all the people too, by talking like this. The fellow does not have the welfare of this people at heart so much as its ruin.’ ‘He is in your hands as you know,’ King Zedekiah answered ‘for the king is powerless against you.’ So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the well of Prince Malchiah in the Court of the Guard, letting him down with ropes. There was no water in the well, only mud, and into the mud Jeremiah sank.

Ebed-melech came out from the palace and spoke to the king. ‘My lord king,’ he said ‘these men have done a wicked thing by treating the prophet Jeremiah like this: they have thrown him into the well where he will die.’ At this the king gave Ebed-melech the Cushite the following order: ‘Take three men with you from here and pull the prophet Jeremiah out of the well before he dies.’


Luke 12:49-53                      

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over! Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; the father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’