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Lent 2003 - Reflection

God, Our Rock, Our Strength

Third Sunday of Lent

Scripture Readings

Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
John 2:13-25

He who thinks
that loving one’s enemies
is impractical
doesn’t take into account
the practical
of hating one’s enemies.
-- Erich Fried


When we read our daily newspapers here in Brazil we are led to pray and reflect on Psalm 18. In the midst of so much violence only God can be our Rock, our Deliverer. Psalm 18 reminds us that only God is our fortress, our refuge and our stronghold. When we are in the torrents of destruction and violence, the Lord reaches down and saves us from the deep waters of our despair.

In this last year, four upper middle-class youths from Brasília, our federal capital, were convicted of burning to death an Indian who was sleeping on a bench at a bus stop. Another group beat to death a waiter who asked them to sit at another table. A young 19-year-old law student, descendant of German nobility -- her father was the great nephew of the Red Baron of World War I fame -- planned the death of her parents. They had objected to her dating an unemployed youth who sold drugs.

All this violence by teenagers occurs in the context of innumerable deaths caused by reckless drivers; accidental deaths of persons caught in crossfire between the police and drug dealers; forced slavery by large landowners, and death by malnutrition.

In the United States and in Europe, there have been massacres in schools, serial killers and suicides. In Erfurt, Germany, in April 2002, a 19-year-old youth killed 16 people, including most of his teachers, and then shot himself. Sociologists tell us that our youth practice many other acts of violence that remain unrecorded because the media only publish the most spectacular crimes.

Our globalized world has become a culture of internal and external violence. We read constantly of civil wars, religious violence against groups with different creeds, robberies followed by killings, and protests of the most varied types that end in violence.

Suicide has become a solution for individual or collective despair. Young people, living senseless lives, see ending their own lives as the only solution. Terrorists use suicide as a weapon to kill or maim dozens or thousands of people.

This “desire to die” has become a worldwide phenomenon that is not related to a certain social class, culture or religion. It is not the poor, the Muslims, or the drug addicts who are the cause of all this violence. When violence is worldwide, touching all cultures, races, age groups and religions, its cause has to be much deeper and more serious.

When we put the blame for violence on one race, class or religion, it is simply our way of excusing our own responsibility. The loss of meaningful references destroys any minimal social coexistence. All our most respected philosophers agree that coexistence is only possible when there is a minimum of shared values and standards. We are living in a worldwide ethical crisis. It is important to remember what Horace wrote centuries ago: “Those who live dominated by fear can never be free.”

The liturgical texts for this Sunday help us to reflect on our responsibility. The Book of Exodus reminds us that when God’s people were a tiny group looking for freedom in a Promised Land, they announced two communal goals to facilitate their living in peace. The first goal was to embrace the primacy of God. No idol such as economic or political power could be put before him or worshiped in any way.

The second goal was the avoidance of all violence. Not only were killing, stealing and lying prohibited, but also they were explained in great detail. The people of God were told that they could not strike one another, or kidnap anyone, or throw stones at each other or even dig a pit that others could fall into.

In today’s reading, St. Paul insists that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and that the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. This taught the people of the first century that the much-admired Pax Romana was control by military force and not peace. The possibility of peace was given to humankind by the death of Jesus on the cross. The Romans used the violence of the cross to show the world that they were all-powerful. But it was the powerlessness of Jesus, dying on the cross, that brought salvation to all the peoples of the world.

Even the Gospel of John, which seems to show Jesus using violence, was originally a criticism of the Jewish revolutionaries who brought their violence into God’s Temple, the house of prayer.

Today religion is seen as a cause of violence in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in Africa, in India and in Eastern Europe. The real battles in these regions are economic, political, cultural and military. But religion creates a mystical union among the members of the same creed and this seems to them to give the struggle a certain justification.

Hans Küng has stated that there will never be political peace unless there is, at the same time, an ecumenical dialogue that produces peace among all religions. This will only happen if all the religions of the world seek what they have in common and not keep on stressing their differences.

This ecumenical dialogue is only at its beginning. The tasks it faces are immense. It will take more than one generation to reach a depth of understanding, but we have to begin now.

Religious wars have always been the most terrible massacres the world has known. The threat of new wars remains present -- and that is why intense dialogue is so important in all the sectors of life that are touched by our different creeds.

The world will only be freed from universal violence when it reaches a certain level of community. The United States government seems to think it can whip the world into some form of harmony by military force. I believe that the more force is used, the more the world becomes divided.

The Bible insists that the grace to live in solidarity and in fraternity comes from within: It is written in our hearts (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 34). Grace is a gift that persuades one person to trust another. When there is trust, community becomes possible. Only grace can persuade peoples of different faiths, cultures and political and economic power to collaborate in building a new international alternative to that which exists now.

The famous gospel passage of Matthew 25 tells us that Jesus invites those who have come to the aid of the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned and foreigners to enter his Kingdom because they have done all this to him. How do they answer him? With great surprise they ask: When did we do this? We never met you!

Jesus responds that when they came to the aid of the needy of the world they did meet him. All religions are based on love. And God will judge all the nations and all the peoples of the world on how they have loved their neighbors.

When Jesus preached in Palestine that love is always superior to force, the great Roman Empire thought this so dangerous they put him to death on the cross. Today the supremacy of love in our world, dominated by economic and military power, still seems to be irrelevant. What can love do, faced with the force of a superpower?

I would like to answer, not with the words of a theologian, but with the words of an American anthropologist, Margaret Mead. She wrote: “Don’t ever believe that a small group of dedicated individuals cannot change the world. To tell the truth, these are the only ones who have ever changed the world!”

On March 24 we celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The lovers of violence who hate the peacemakers of this world assassinated him. But he had already prophesied that he would rise again in the people of El Salvador.

Each one of us who believes that the world must reject violence as an instrument of change has to unite with others in the search for solidarity and universal understanding.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns is the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003