Monday, May 5, 2014

Localizing Justice and finding true Peace

Saturday, 3 May 2014

[“Joseph was a righteous man…” (Mt 1, 19)]

          To help me prepare my talk for today, Father sent me four of the Pope’s messages, from January 1st of four different years. They are from the world day of prayer for peace and touch upon the importance of establishing justice in our world, as the only true and lasting basis for peace. These four messages came from three great Popes: Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I hope Father gave them to all of you to read as well.
          The first of these four messages from Pope Paul VI, who inaugurated during his pontificate the observance on January 1 as the World Day of Prayer for Peace, bears the title of our pilgrimage today: “IF YOU WANT PEACE, WORK FOR JUSTICE” - 1 JANUARY 1972. In case you tried, the English is hard to read, because translations of papal documents into English were fairly novel back then and not well thought out: too much Latinism and too close to the Italian mode of expression. It is also difficult, because it is directed to a world audience and not just to Catholics.
          The second, entitled “FROM THE JUSTICE OF EACH COMES PEACE FOR ALL” – 1 January 1998, is from Pope St. John Paul II. It is addressed specifically to people around the world in government. Much of what I have to say today takes inspiration from this one.
          The third, also from St. John Paul II, for 1 January 2002, entitled “NO PEACE WITHOUT JUSTICE NO JUSTICE WITHOUT FORGIVENESS”, addresses the issue of how to face terrorism. It applies one of the Pope’s priority messages, seeking and granting forgiveness, to the 9/11 tragedy and the menace of terrorism. Sadly, our world here, Ukraine and surrounding countries, has not understood that true justice requires that we move first to forgive our enemies.  Let me quote the Pope’s words from N. 10 of this message: “My ministry at the service of the Gospel obliges me, and at the same time gives me the strength, to insist upon the necessity of forgiveness. I do so again today in the hope of stirring serious and mature thinking on this theme, with a view to a far-reaching resurgence of the human spirit in individual hearts and in relations between the peoples of the world.” 
     Fourthly, Pope Benedict XVI, on 1 January 2012, wrote his message entitled “EDUCATING YOUNG PEOPLE IN JUSTICE AND PEACE”… Shall we?
I asked myself when I sat down to prepare this talk, just what is my duty here today? Should I do a summary kind of analysis of these four messages for you and then send you off to discuss? Should I try to string them together into some kind of super synthesis or message of my own? What would for my part be the better gift which I could give to you this morning? Well, I have set a very modest goal for myself. In the light of Papal teaching, I wish to try to deepen your understanding and mine of some of the terms we have just used, taking their definition for granted, almost without thinking: justice, peace, and truth, for starters. Concretely, all three terms represent values and goals which these days people of good will here in Ukraine are striving desperately to attain. People here want to live in peace; they want the truth to win out over lies and falsehood; they want to live in peace with their neighbours; they want justice to prevail in all aspects of society.
          Let it be said first off: Ukraine is not the only country in the world today which does not know peace, where injustices abound.  It is not the only place in the world which has not known peace practically since forever. It is just that Ukraine is the cradle of a big part of Slavic Christianity, that of the Kyivan Rus. We ask, just as people here in Ukraine ask themselves again and again: why? Why despite over a 1000 years of Christianity, of living in God’s time, Anno Domini, in the Year of Our Lord 2014, do we here not know peace? The answer is elementary both for Ukraine and for the rest of the world: because of sin, because the Truth which comes to us from God is not respected or held sacred, because there is no justice. That semblance of order in society, which some people call peace time, is frequently imposed or intended to be imposed by a violence which does not respect the true nature of the human person. How can there be peace with things as they are in our world?
          I suppose there are many ways to define justice, but fundamentally justice is a matter of giving the other his or her due, that which in truth is rightfully, truthfully his or hers by God’s own design. Justice is about as real as you can get; justice is truth in action, truth applied. Much about our sinful world is unjust simply because we are deprived of the truth which comes to us from God, either through falsehood or through imperfection, or through a kind of ignorance such that “we cannot see the forest for the trees”. In order to win the victory over our sinfulness, our imperfections, nothing is more important than coming to live in the light of truth and being just toward others or righteous in ourselves. This cannot be achieved except by being obedient to the will of God, the Author of Truth, by obedience to Him, the only One Who is Just. We are to be profoundly obedient to God and to His every command in all humility, for One only, the God-Man Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We follow Him Who is the Light of the World.
          Little else really needs to be said, but saying that truth and grasping it fully, or at least as best we possibly can, is not all that easy or self-evident. It is sort of like St. John Paul II speaking about the necessity of forgiveness given to others and received; we neither understand nor accept the concept. The same is true about obedience to God our Creator and Redeemer; we don’t take this teaching to heart, even though it is the only reasonable option. We live in a dark world, which in the extreme kills other human beings and sometimes even whole peoples not only out of hatred, but for selfishness, out of greed, simply for its own ugly convenience: crime, organized or not, white collar or blue collar; state violence through abortion and euthanasia, seducing people into choosing the death of another human being for personal convenience. I could go on and on with my litany of bad things which happen or of cases where help was not given to others, who by God’s design could expect such of us: poor Lazarus as recounted by Jesus Himself in the Gospel, covered with sores and dying of hunger on the rich man’s doorstep. Pity, charity, mercy, yes, but fundamentally also matters of justice, of giving to others that which is their due!
          I can remember being taught as a child in school, but perhaps not really comprehending, that true peace is much more than a mere absence of war. So many fairy tales, so many fantasies or legends recount how the world’s good order was destroyed through a seemingly insignificant transgression; truth is that there is nothing insignificant about that kind of sin. I guess I enjoy fairly tales as much as the next person, but really the truth is a much cleaner and elementary affair. The establishment of justice here in our midst goes forward by something less than a daring and romantic quest: namely, by turning away from sin and being faithful to the Gospel.
Over the course of the last months in Ukraine, before the killings of last February, I can remember reading English translations of the separate accounts of two people, of a man and a woman both residents of the city of Kyiv, both with regular jobs and a family, trying to explain the importance of Maidan in their lives. In both cases, they felt better and happier there than at work or even in their own homes and in their own beds. Why? Because the world within the barricades was orderly and respectful; people cared for each other. With violence, suffering and even death around them, they found peace in giving to others and receiving from others their due; they were affirmed in their personal worth and affirmed others, despite the hardships and tragic limits of that situation we still today call Maidan. It is no wonder to me, why some people yet today cannot break away and return home from Maidan; maybe they never felt so appreciated in all their lives as they were there.
          Despite my 63+ years, I am not old enough to have experienced the general poverty of the years between the two World Wars, what in the United States is referred to as the Great Depression. My part of the Midwest became for years, because of drought, what was called The Dust Bowl, a major ecological disaster, which left people without enough food and no money. These hardships caused many people to flee for their lives westward with what little they could carry, in hopes of finding elsewhere the means for them and their families to survive.
My father’s family did not move west; they stayed on in South Dakota, in one of the State’s poorest counties, despite all the hardship. We had a big old trunk at home, filled with all kinds of unsorted, black and white photographs, as well as some old family picture albums. There are pictures of my father as a little boy, on an old farm, which I never saw, because my grandfather lost it, not being able to pay the mortgage, because he couldn’t raise either crops or livestock, only enough to feed his family. Nonetheless, those pictures include some of a young man on the farm, referred to as the hired hand. As poor as my grandparents were in those terribly hard times, they could still take in this young man, who had no one, and in exchange for a little work, give him food, shelter and even a little pocket money.
I knew an old Salesian Father from Belgium, who remembered how after the war at home, when his father had still not returned as a soldier from the fighting on the eastern front and his mother did not rightly know whether he would indeed come back alive, she would seat at the kitchen table with her children at meal time any poor man, any stranger who happened by on his way back from the fighting, hoping no doubt that others elsewhere would be so kind to her own dear husband and the father of her children, please God, making his way home to them on foot.
          You can call such Christian charity and not be far from wrong, but I think our world would know genuine peace if we were to describe such rather as justice, as giving our neighbour his due. The rich man ended up in fiery torment precisely because he did not see it as his duty to care for poor Lazarus at his gate. There was nothing righteous in God’s eyes about that rich man, as he was unjust toward the poor man he couldn’t help but see, whom he nearly had to step over, coming and going from home.
          We are told here in Ukraine that we cannot trust either politician or the media; they string along all kinds of lies, denying the truth out of ignorance or wilfully bent upon getting the upper hand, somehow getting ahead, most often than not at the detriment of others. Some, who would call themselves well-meaning people of principle, seek to vilify others in their quest for a life without bribery and subservience; such violence, contrary to peace, is unjust because it is not rooted in the truth from God about the dignity of even our enemy, about our having to be like God, sending His rain upon the just and the unjust alike. In the last months, I have met lots of people here with that kind of high purpose, with those kinds of ideals. Sadly, outside Ukraine, we encounter embarrassed silence among some Westerners, who cannot believe that there is a people which actually seeks such basic things as rule by law, equality before the law, in a word, justice, a people seeking that which is their due and extending that due to others, even enemies, living in the light of truth, no more but also no less.
          Every once in a while at one of the diplomatic receptions, which ambassadors give for their country’s national day or for some other appropriate occasion, there is a university professor in Kyiv who comes up to me and insists that some group in his native Ukraine, usually having to do with either Church or Government, is doing everything wrong and needs help to secure the country’s future, help that only I can source out, or so it seems. I watch him make the rounds of the hall and presume that I am not the only one he is trying to convince to get on board and help solve the country’s problems. He always wants highly qualified, highly respected people from outside to come in and solve Ukraine’s problems. He seems convinced that if you get enough experts together, by the sheer quality and quantity of their intellect, you can solve any problem.
          One of the overriding intellectual theories, still however ignorant of or denying the Kingship of Christ, would have us believe in one fashion or another that our world is indeed controlled by the movers and shakers. Here in Ukraine we call them oligarchs; some say they are rich because they are high achievers. My professor friend seems to think that somewhere outside of Ukraine, maybe within the hallowed halls of the Vatican there exists a professional and moral elite, we will call it a holy oligarchy, which could step in anywhere, like UN peacekeepers and just sort things out. He refuses to believe in the might of popular movements like Maidan. Ultimately, I guess my professor friend refuses to believe that people on their own, Catholic, Christian or not, that people of good will can promote the victory of justice through establishing the primacy of truth and thereby opening the gates to allow the Prince of Peace to come into this earthly city, meek and humble as He is, riding on a donkey….
          In all of this, ultimately neither you nor I can escape coming home to the manger in Bethlehem or to the workshop and cave-home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Nazareth. As recently as 1955, Pope Pius XII gave the Church the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, celebrated on May 1, in contradistinction to the communist, soviet or socialist content/propaganda ascribed to that day. The feast of St. Joseph the Worker teaches about the dignity of labour; it puts a very simple lifestyle in the midst of the work of creation and salvation. At the centre of our world, as the image of the human person in all his or her dignity is not the captain of industry, is not the philosopher king or queen, is not the oligarch, but rather the defenceless child, served and protected by Mom and Dad, the holy family not spelled out with capital letters, but written small and attributed to your family and to mine. It is the husband and wife united in their commitment to each other and to the life which springs from their union in the person of that child; the child, children are the tangible witness to the dignity of their union and its only possible reason for being. What makes the commitment to marriage and family today heroic and seemingly unreachable or unattainable is that we deny the righteousness of Joseph the Worker; we give to no one his or her due; we do not understand justice and so cannot come to know and enjoy true peace.
          People have almost a morbid fascination with oligarchy. Years ago on television in the United States there was a weekly half hour program, hosted by a man with a sort of phony British accent, called “Homes of the Rich and Famous”. In recent years, MTV did something similar with sports and music stars called “My Crib”. In either case, one could see all the money somebody had decided to lavish upon himself, building an outrageously expensive mansion. We were never shown poor Lazarus at the gate of any such home, but we could always wonder what happened with the scraps which fell from that rich man’s table. I guess we could scold the disadvantaged and desperately or not poor for envying the rich and powerful, but there is more to establishing peace on earth, a just and lasting peace, than convincing the poor of the demands of righteousness.
          I count among my friends a distinguished author and lecturer, George Weigel. He is the English language biographer of St. John Paul II. There are lots of things we do not agree upon. At the beginning of the 20th Century G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were among the proponents of an economic theory called Distributivism, essentially declaring that smaller is better. Belloc wrote a book called The Servile State, which pointed out that both Socialism and Capitalism lead to the enslavement of a good part of the population, only Distributivism, putting the means of production in the hands of the people who labour, can avoid this pitfall and assure the dignity of the human person. In our day, Distributivism is enjoying a sort of revival, and my friend George is totally against such as utter folly and utopianism. I disagree somewhat and usually counter with a call to a return to subsistence farming: living off the land and content with the bare minimum needed for a dignified life, as my grandparents did, raising happy children like my parents.
          If I were Pope and had to write a message for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, which discussed what Justice has to do with true and lasting peace, I surely doubt if I would have more or better to say than the three great men whose messages provided background for this reflection today.
My mother was the youngest of eight children; her parents were subsistence farmers, who had to make lots of sacrifices for the sake of their children. Two of her fondest memories as a small child were going fishing with her father in summer time on Thursdays at the Klondike millpond and catching bullheads for their Friday meal and the year her only dolly disappeared without a trace just before Christmas, only to reappear on the great feast with a pretty new dress and a bonnet her mother had sewn from scraps of leftover material.
           I don’t rightly know if I achieved my purpose of giving color and 3D to abstract terms like justice, truth and peace. Starting with their scepticism about the truth, which must perforce come to us from God, lots of people either despair or void justice and peace of their content. A wicked sort of emotional display then is all which remains; it just plain shouts the other down. Such comes from being a low-life, rich and famous or not. These people obviously give little thought to the date awaiting them before the throne of God’s justice, where we truly hope for His mercy, convinced as we must be that we have not ever truly and sufficiently obeyed Him and given our neighbour his or her due. Jesus told Pilate the reason He came into the world was to give witness to the Truth; we are His servants and can do no less, for justice’s sake and for the sake of the truth which comes to us from God alone. Peace be with you!

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