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Elijah the Prophet, Earl Robinson, and the Iraq War

In a series of old, Ashkenazi Jewish folk tales, a mythic Elijah appears as a poor person, looking for help. When people help him he blesses them (usually with something to eat, since this was generally lacking in that culture); when they turn him away, he leaves. Here is a contemporary Elijah story:

Elijah appeared when the world was on the brink of self-destruction.

"Where on earth were you?" a chorus of voices asked.

"What took you so long? What kind of angel are you anyway?"

"I'm not an angel," Elijah told them

"What do you mean, you're not an angel?"

"Who are you anyway?"

"Well," said Elijah, "If you ask Earl Robinson and John LaTouche, they'll give you an answer to that question. But I don't mean you have to call them up in a séance. Just listen to their oratorio, Ballad for Americans."

"Hey, wait a minute!" someone called out. "Why do you want us to listen to that?"

"You're not a Zionist are you?"

"Are you a secularist?"

"Let the man speak. What are you getting at?"

"Well, it's about what all of you are saying…" Elijah replied

"And just what do you think this is?"

"Well, I'll tell you…" he began...

"No – let us tell you!"

A Native American man came forward, from the center of the crowd.

"We've been trying to tell people for a long time," he said, "that radioactive waste and tailings are radioactive. It's not rocket science. But we know it personally because we've seen it close up. So stop pushing the proliferation of poison dust, and buying into advertisements that imply yellow cake is something good to eat."

A Jewish lady spoke up. "Scapegoating anyone is the terrible flaw that keeps people from coming together. Right now people are pulling up all kinds of insane myths, like the myth that the world will be purified if they get rid of us. This gets in the way of efforts to treat them as brothers and sisters. But for some reason, we just don't give up."

"It gets to be too much sometimes," a Palestinian man responded. "There's a limit to how long people can handle being spit on, stepped on and held down. And then some people we've been taught were our worst enemies want to reach out and try to make things better for everyone. We just can't quite agree on how to go about it. But it would be good if we all keep breathing long enough to figure it out."

An elderly African-American lady walked over to them, arm in arm with her husband. "There are too many people who are down," she said, "We may be down, but we're not about to be out. Everyone's sitting around asking which people are responsible for their own poverty—or whose poverty is worse than someone else's. Meanwhile billionaires with bunkers are cutting social security, Medicare, city services – and saying, 'Let them take taxis.' What about all this is so hard to see for what it is?"

"They say, 'Do the math,' " a high school girl added. They say there just isn't enough to go around.. What is that supposed to mean, 'Do the math'? Is the idea to let the majority starve because the math demands it? My math teacher says that math isn't life. One thing that's clear to me is that killing people by the thousands isn't furthering life."

A waitress said, "Politicians keep talking about the middle class but they're out of touch. I want to hear them talk to me. I'm not middle class; I'm working class. I work hard all day and can barely get by. I'm not sure I can get by.

"They say the want to help 'the poor', but to qualify you have to be so poor you can't breathe freely. Why are they afraid to talk to me and admit that they're doing it? And why do they assume I'm some kind Jane Public they've never met who doesn't know anything and isn't capable of understanding anything?

"I've got news for them. Just because I'm poor it doesn't mean I can't read or don't have the attention span to take in real information. Or that I don't have the discernment to know when I'm being handed a bill of goods. I have enough bills for goods already."

"I agree," said Elijah. He walked over to her, motioning her aside. "I don't have a lot of money on me, but here's twenty dollars. If you need more I'll try to help again."

When he returned, people were talking, trying to figure out what was going on.

"But what about you?" someone asked him. "None of this has told any of us who you are. I know you say your name is Elijah, but a lot of people have been saying that. Who are you really? And what do you make of all this?"

"It's really very simple," said Elijah. "I'm every person who cares about life and has something to offer. It doesn't mean you're looking at a holy essence that got wafted in and is permeating everyone. It's just that the meaning of my name applies to everyone. That's nothing new or striking; it just doesn't get noticed a lot.

"We're all the hard working, 'wannabe' working, and disabled people, of all races and religions, who say that telling them they're expendable isn't where it's at. Realists who say that overblown myths – racial myths, religious myths, money myths—are dangerous when treated as competitive, absolute truths. We're religious and secular idealists who say that the human spirit, or soul (nefesh, atman—call it what you like) is sacred in every person and needs to be treated that way. People with enough sense of decency to know that it isn't 'realistic' to go into another country wreaking havoc and thinking it's OK as long as the media don't show it at home. People who point out that anyone can use buzz words like 'racist' to divide people and set them against those who have the insight and human concern to think rationally. People who know that a person is a person and that's all there is to it."

A story can point to the human spirit, but I think it comes across more fully set to music. I'd strongly recommend everyone take heart from this promise in Paul Robeson's recording of "Ballad for Americans":

Out of the cheating, out of the shouting
Out of the murders and lynchings
Out of the windbags, the patriotic spouting
Out of uncertainty and doubting
Out of the carpetbag and the brass spittoon
It will come again
Our marching song will come again

High as our mountains, long as our rivers
Deep as our valleys, strong as the people who made it
For I have always believed it, and I believe it now
And you know who I am ...America.

Paul Robeson, Ballad for Americans by Earl Robinson and John Latouche (Music CD), Vanguard Records, 1993.

Edna Garte is a writer and musician who teaches cross-cultural humanities on the college level. The Baltimore Chronicle ran her previous article on the Iraq war, "Misplaced Myths and Modern Dangers," (November 1, 2004. ) She has also been published by the National Gallery of Art, Gazette des Beaux Arts and the Jewish Quarterly Review.

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