by Scott Wright, Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among all,
To make music in the heart.
- Howard Thurman
Many years ago, in a refugee camp not far from the border of Honduras with El Salvador, I sat in a hammock, feet on a dirt floor, as a Salvadoran mother surrounded by children cooked supper over a fire. It was Christmas eve, and we were sharing a reading from the Christmas Mass, words from the prophet Isaiah that begin: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:2).
She was recalling the many journeys she had made with her family, under the cover of darkness, escaping from the Salvadoran army to a place of refuge, just across the river in Honduras. Isaiah continues: “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown.” She smiled as she heard these words and the words that follow: “You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing, as they rejoice before you as at the harvest.”
It had been many years since her family had experienced the joy of a meager but sufficient harvest of corn and beans. At least now her immediate family was safe, even in the harsh conditions of a refugee camp and the cold and rain outside that pounded on the tent that served as a roof. Her smile did not hide the pain she felt, as she remembered the suffering of war, and how victory comes at a cruel price: “The rod of their taskmaster you have smashed … Every cloak rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for flames.”
Fast forward to today, and we find the children and grandchildren of these same refugees, and others like them, literally camped out in the cold and rain under plastic tarps, at the foot of a bridge in Mexico, waiting to make their claim to asylum in the U.S. This is the reality I saw on Thanksgiving Day, 2019, as I visited the Columban Mission in Juarez and El Paso. We have forgotten Pope Francis’ invitation, when he visited this border in 2016, to “build bridges, not walls.” We have become a nation of immigrants who has forgotten the dream of our ancestors.
Pope Francis’ recent World Day of Peace message is a reminder of how “the desire for peace lies deep within the human heart.” Like the Salvadoran refugee mother and those families camped out today on our southern border, we too bear deep within us both the wounds of war and the desire for peace.
“Our human community bears, in its memory and its flesh, the scars of ever more devastating wars and conflicts that affect especially the poor and the vulnerable … Many are the innocent victims of painful humiliation and exclusion, sorrow and injustice, to say nothing of the trauma born of systematic attacks on their people and their loved ones,” the pope reminds us.
How do we put flesh and blood on such a terrible human reality? How do we make present these real-life stations of the cross that we reenact every Holy Week in churches and streets across the world?
Every migrant family we separate and detain at the border, every refugee family we turn away like the innkeeper who turned away the Holy Family in the Christmas story, reminds us that “our sin is ever before us.”
In a previous message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Francis reminded us that “Migrants and refugees are men and women in search of peace.” Why do we turn them away? Perhaps we are not as attentive as they are to “the desire for peace [that] lies deep within the human heart.”
In that message two years ago, the current pope recalled, with his predecessor John Paul II, how the increasing numbers of displaced persons in the world today – bordering on 70 million – are one of the consequences of “the endless and horrifying sequence of wars, conflicts, genocides and ethnic cleansings” that had characterized the 20th century, and that continue to characterize our world today.
“Every war is a form of fratricide that destroys the human family’s innate vocation to brotherhood. War often begins with the inability to accept the diversity of others, which then fosters attitudes of aggrandizement and domination born of selfishness and pride, hatred and the desire to caricature, exclude and even destroy the other.”
“War,” John Paul II reminded us, “is a defeat for humanity.”
Every now and then we are reminded of the ravages of war. Sometimes it is an anniversary, 100 years since the end of the Great War in 1918, or 75 years since the end of the Second World War. More often, in fact, every morning on the news and every evening, we hear the drumbeats of possible war with Iran or North Korea; we hear, too, the cry of the victims we will likely never meet, and the names of places in Syria, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other far off lands we will never see.
Last November, Pope Francis journeyed for the first time to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, site of the U.S. atomic bombings that devastated these cities on August 6 and August 9, 1945. It was the final act of a world war that was marked by cruelty and suffering on all sides, a war in which the majority of victims were civilians, and a war that generated millions of survivors and refugees.
I visited these cities with my family and my then ten-year-old daughter in 2008. You had to look very hard to find any traces of the devastation that obliterated these two cities a half-century before. But the signs were there, if you looked for them, most presently in the wounds and scars of the survivors, the hibakusha, who were children when the bombs exploded, but now were approaching their final years.
They are the ones who, in Pope Francis’ words, “keep alive the flame of collective conscience, bearing witness to succeeding generations to the horror of what happened in August 1945 and the unspeakable sufferings that have continued to the present time.”
There is a “subversive” power to memory, especially when we hear the stories of survivors, intimate stories of what they were doing as children the moment the bomb exploded, what they thought, experienced, felt, did. These stories evoke empathy and tears, as we imagine them as children, experiencing such horrific suffering, and now, as old persons, pleading for us to help them make sure that this will never happen again. We cannot forget or turn away, without losing something of our own humanity. The victims have a claim on our lives!
In his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis invites us into “a journey of listening, based on memory, solidarity and fraternity … Memory is the horizon of hope,” he reminds us. “Many times, in the darkness of wars and conflicts, the remembrance of even a small gesture of solidarity received can lead to courageous and even heroic decisions. It can unleash new energies and kindle new hope.”
That is the gift that survivors offer us, like these hibakusha, if we are open to receiving it. But the gift comes with an obligation, as well: “The world does not need empty words but convinced witnesses, peacemakers who are open to a dialogue that rejects exclusion or manipulation … seeing in an enemy the face of a brother or sister.”
“Never again!” the victims cry. “No more war, war never again!” Paul VI said, echoing their cry, at his October 4, 1965 address to the United Nations General Assembly.
Perhaps one of the great gifts that Pope Francis offers to the world and to our generation, is to remember that we are on a journey together, we live in a common home, and we have a responsibility for each other.
A generation ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who together with Dr. Martin Luther King provided a model of prophetic leadership to the world, captured this same sentiment: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
In a similar fashion, Pope Francis invites the church to think of itself as “a field hospital,” and pastors “to smell like sheep.” These are images that evoke both the real suffering caused by war, as well as the real poverty experienced by migrants and refugees. His journey to the Italian island of Lampedusa to encounter the plight of refugees shipwrecked on the Mediterranean Sea, as well as his encounter with the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, speak to this invitation and legacy.
We may not be able to travel to Lampedusa, but we can encounter migrants and refugees already in our midst, not only on the US – Mexico border, but in many rural communities and cities across the nation. Or we may not be able to travel to Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but we can meet the victims of violence, gun violence, domestic violence, police violence, in places not far from work or home. Here, in our midst, we can listen to the stories of the victims, feel the tears evoked by their suffering, and become committed peacemakers, moved to action.
But we still need to do more, much more, to address the systemic causes of poverty and violence that divide us so often along racial and cultural lines. “Divisions within a society, the increase of social inequalities and the refusal to employ the means of ensuring integral human development endanger the pursuit of the common good,” Pope Francis writes. Our fear of the “other,” someone different, is stoking the fire of racism and xenophobia across our nation, rather than the Gospel invitation to welcome the stranger.
We have a choice to listen to our better angels, or give in to the demonic voices in our cultural and political life that foment hatred and division: “Patient efforts based on the power of the word and of truth” – both the Gospel story and the stories of those who are different from us – “can help foster a greater capacity for compassion and creative solidarity.”
We must never give up on anybody, and remember the times when some significant person never gave up on us. “We should never encapsulate others in what they may have said or done, but value them for the promise that they embody.” Another way is possible. “Only by choosing the path of respect can we break the spiral of vengeance and set out on the journey of hope.”
That is, in so many words, what the journey of peace is about, a journey of listening, of memory, of solidarity and fraternity, of reconciliation and hope: “This path of reconciliation is a summons to discover in the depths of our heart the power of forgiveness and the capacity to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters.” But we must be the first ones to reach out, to reach out like the Good Samaritan to our sister or brother fallen by the wayside.
“Peace will not be obtained unless it is hoped for,” but only love produces hope, and that means moving away from “the culture of conflict” to “the culture of fraternal encounter.” Every encounter can be “a gift of God’s generous love,” but it also requires something of us: “to set aside every act of violence in thought, word and deed, whether against our neighbors or against God’s creation.”
Another of the great gifts that Pope Francis has brought to the church and to the world is the recognition that if we are to have peace, real peace, a peace based on justice in our time, we have “to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49). Everything is connected in our world, we are connected to each other, to our past but also to future generations. We live in a common home; we are on a journey together.
But for the dream of peace to become flesh, there must be broad and systemic changes, in our personal lives but also in our social, political and economic institutions: “There can be no true peace unless we show ourselves capable of developing a more just economic system,” one that responds justly to “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
Creation itself stands as a Witness, as we hear in that great text from the Hebrew Scriptures: “I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you, life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:19).
Even now, we see before us the evidence of what we have done: devastating wildfires and torrential floods, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, displacing entire communities and creating millions of “climate refugees.” By relying on fossil-fuels and destroying our forests and wetlands, we are causing climate change and creating havoc throughout the world.
In the Pope Francis’ words, “Faced with the consequences of our hostility towards others, our lack of respect for our common home or our abusive exploitation of natural resources … we are in need of an ecological conversion.” That conversion will require radical changes to our global patterns of production and consumption, which in turn will require courage and wisdom. “We need to change the way we think and see things, and to become more open to encountering others and accepting the gift of creation, which reflects the beauty and wisdom of its Creator.”
What is heartening is to see how those who are most impacted by climate change – for example, indigenous communities and the poor – and those who will be most impacted in the future – the current generation of young people – are leading the way through climate strikes and extinction rebellions, showing the rest of us that “another world that is indeed possible,” and necessary, if we are to survive on this planet.
But will we have the courage and the wisdom to embrace this future? That is the hope Pope Francis holds out for us, and invites us to consider:
“All this gives us deeper motivation and a new way to dwell in our common home, to accept our differences, to respect and celebrate the life that we have received and share, and to seek living conditions and models of human society that favor the continued flourishing of life and the development of the common good of the entire human family.”
And so the work of Christmas begins, as we embrace this new year and new decade with hope: “Day by day, the Holy Spirit prompts in us ways of thinking and speaking that can make us artisans of justice and peace.” May we embrace with joy the light of this Christmas season, as we set out once again, like the Holy Family of centuries past, mindful that we are on this journey of peace together, we share a common home, and we have a responsibility to see that life is possible for present and future generations.
On January 3, 2020, the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach joined a coalition of faith-based organizations responding to the United States escalating violence with Iran. You can read the full statement here.
Copyright © 2021 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.