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Issue Date:  December 8, 2006

From Istanbul to Fort Benning, tales of peacemaking

This week’s issue is dominated by two stories, both of which represent remarkable leaps of faith and peacemaking. One of the stories captured world attention when Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Turkey. The other remained relatively unknown outside a small circle of activists, confined as it was to a short, dead-end street in southwest Georgia.

Some might consider it a stretch to connect the two events, but we’ll venture an attempt, inasmuch as each of the events, in its own way, was an extravagant expression of faith and hope against great odds. Each represents the believer’s push, if you will, against business as usual, whether that business deals in ancient enmities or in the more recent scars of modern militarism.

As NCR senior correspondent John L. Allen Jr. described it, Benedict “sent an unambiguous signal that he’s willing to go to great lengths to win Muslim hearts and minds.”

“Over and over,” wrote Allen from Turkey, “a series of key words percolated like leitmotifs through the pope’s remarks: dialogue, understanding, brotherhood and peace. Repeatedly, Benedict stressed his ‘great esteem’ for Muslims and, in particular, his respect for Turks, often invoking the memory of Pope John XXIII, who served as apostolic delegate in Turkey from 1933 to 1945 and is remembered fondly here.”

It was an acknowledgement at one level that in order to have the serious discussions Benedict would like to have about faith and reason and not using religion as a justification for violence, he must first be taken seriously as a conversation partner. That a pope could change his tone from Regensburg to Istanbul and go to such lengths to show respect for a religion that is so widely characterized today as an enemy in a clash of cultures can hardly be overstated in its significance.

Popes are both, by virtue of the office, politicians and spiritual leaders. So one must assume that more than a little politics was wrapped into Benedict’s approach to his visit to Turkey. It is the language and the context of faith, however, that elevates what are minutely calculated gestures and phrases beyond the merely political.

And so it was outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., home of the infamous School of the Americas, recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

For most of the estimated 22,000 who gathered to protest the school’s existence, faith was an element that elevated the event beyond a futile bit of dramatics on a sunny afternoon. The School of the Americas, as symbol of the past, also points a path to the future. Those who dare face certain elements of our history honestly -- the secret militarism, the scores of Latin American forces trained in our camps who went back to commit gross human rights violations against their own people -- come to a new understanding of what faith requires of citizenship today.

An amorphous, open-ended war against terror or a preemptive invasion of a country on trumped up reasons can occur only with the assent of a culture so self-absorbed that it believes its self-interest alone is justification for massive, state-sponsored violence.

The old School of the Americas is a symbol, though perhaps on a smaller scale, of the hubris that ultimately dooms us to the hellish chaos of today’s Iraq.

Faith demands more.

The SOA rally serves to shine a light beyond our borders and beyond the ordinary experience of college students. It expands their expectations of faith, pushing them to allow faith to shape their attitudes about issues -- global poverty, militarism, torture, economic exploitation -- that most Americans stack beyond the walls of their sanctuaries and out of their line of vision.

The pope in Turkey, offering generous gestures of peace to Muslims. Thousands of the faithful at the gates of Fort Benning, engaging in a generous dose of truth-telling about their country. Both very Catholic episodes that will help shape the future.

National Catholic Reporter, December 8, 2006

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