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A Covenant of Peace

First Sunday of Lent

Scripture Readings

Genesis 9:8-15
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:12-15


The liturgical readings for the First Sunday of Lent begin with the symbolic “rainbow” that signifies the covenant of peace between God and humanity. In the Bible the terms compassion, hesed, and peace, shalom, indicate the very being of God. Where there is hatred and war we will never find God.

The Gospel of Mark presents the temptations put to Jesus in the desert. Matthew and Luke tell us that Satan recognized Jesus’ power and wanted him to use it. It was a temptation to vanity. Power is almost always the cause of wars. Whether it is a defense of political or economic power, the question of vanity is always present. It is the need to show that the power we have is superior to that of other peoples.

Psalm 24 reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything that is in it, the world and all who live in it.” Who can stand before God? The psalm responds that it is only those who have clean hands and a pure heart and do not swear by what is false. These are the people who seek the face of the Lord.

I have been a Franciscan since I was 12 years old. My daily prayer has been that of my father St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.”

Even in the worst days of our military dictatorship, I have never suffered or prayed as much as I have since Sept. 11, 2001. We are now facing another world war between East and West.

I have read the letter of Cardinal Bernard Law to President George Bush. And I have meditated on what I have read in the National Catholic Reporter about the religious groups and the activists who are protesting against another war with the East.

Since my youth I have been a disciple of the revolutionary nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi. I have a book of his writings on my bedside table. Together with other Brazilian bishops I have studied Professor Gene Sharp’s book, Methods of Nonviolent Action. My deepest conviction is that war never brings peace. Those who take up the sword will die by the sword.

Cardinal Law’s letter is so full of truths that it almost hurts to read it. He states so clearly that no one hates the United States because it is a symbol of freedom and of democracy. There are many other democracies and none are universally hated. He states that the United States is hated because people see the actions of its government as imperialistic and evil. Most of the world believes that what is important to the U.S. government in Iraq is its petroleum. And that it is willing to let any number of innocents be killed or maimed so that gasoline will remain relatively cheap in the United States. This may be pure prejudice, but it is what millions of people think and it determines how they judge your government.

I was encouraged and deeply moved to read in the National Catholic Reporter (Oct. 25, 2002) that church leaders from Britain and the United States told President Bush that the war with Iraq cannot be justified under the theory of a “just war.” I myself doubt that with the sophisticated arms we have today that any war can be considered just.”

I was even more moved by the testimony of the law professor from Loyola University of New Orleans (in that same issue). After sending e-mails home about the effects of the sanctions on Iraq, especially on the children, he wrote: “I am sorry to be so grim, but the reality here is pretty incredible. I have no doubt that if any of you were here to see what I am seeing, you would be as moved as I. These folks are people like us.”

Yes indeed, in every country of the world, in every race and in every religion, these folks are just like us. If we kill them we are, in fact, destroying ourselves.

The government of the United States represents the world’s only remaining superpower. Because of this it bears a large part of the responsibility for the world’s being what it is.

This is why your government feels it has the right to accuse, to judge and to punish any country that it feels is part of an “axis of evil.” We were amazed to read in our newspapers that the Financial Times printed that the new Brazilian government will soon be considered part of this evil axis.

As I reflected on all this that is happening, I opened my Bible to the prophecy of Isaiah. I wanted to read his words in time of war: “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more!”

God looked at the nation he had chosen to be a model for the rest of the world. But it had decided to be an empire and to lord it over its neighbors. Isaiah tells us that God looked at Jerusalem and said that the fertile vine he had planted would end up a wasteland. He had looked for justice and saw only bloodshed. If God is to remain “holy,” the arrogant of the world must be humbled.

The Book of Revelation is even more incisive. A symbolic dragon is presented as the incarnation of evil. Its color is the dark red of blood because it is murderous in its very being. It searches for a state that has absolute power -- at that time, the Roman Empire -- and unites itself and its evil powers to the state. This state has to become idolatrous, because if it is to be all-powerful, there is no more room for God in its world.

The author of Revelation sees only one vocation for Christians who live in the empire. They must put an end to any state that becomes obsessed with its own power.

In today’s gospel, Mark tells us that Jesus came and preached the Kingdom of God. Jesus was born in a colony of the Roman Empire, and the empire put him to death. Why was he dangerous to the most powerful empire the world had known up to that time? It was because he told his followers to love their enemies and to do good to those who hate them.

There is nothing as powerful as love. In the 20th century it was “necessary” to shoot Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, and the Jesuits of El Salvador. In my own country there is a long list of those who have been killed because they loved so much and did so much good.

My dear friends, the Bible tells us that love is stronger than death. The only reason we haven’t changed this world of ours is because we love very little.

Years ago, here in Brazil, we translated your beautiful hymn, “America the Beautiful.” We are Americans too! My dearest prayer for you all this Lent is that you will do good, as individuals and as a nation and that God will “crown your good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!”

About the Translator
The translator for Cardinal Arns’ Lenten series in NCR is Ana Flora. Forty-three years ago this American — then known as Florence Mary Anderson — went to Brazil on a Fulbright Scholarship to do master’s work in Brazilian history. She has lived in her adopted homeland ever since, discovering a vocation to theology. A former student at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, she has been teaching New Testament studies in Brazil since 1970. She was a close friend of the late Penny Lernoux, a frequent Latin American contributor to NCR. It was Penny who introduced her to NCR and its peace and justice mission.

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003