4 October 2009
Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for Pax Christi Ireland Mass for Non-Violence
Today’s Gospel may seem a strange one for us to proclaim on this Sunday when Pax Christi celebrates its annual Mass. But Jesus had a great way of surprising, shocking his disciples when he was with them. God still wants to raises our vision outside the narrow box that our mind offers us, outside the narrow range of priorities and preoccupations that our Western culture tells us are key. That is why we gather on Sundays – to let God whisper his insidious dream into our ears so that we might glimpse something of how God’s grace can renew the face of the earth, and then to celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death for that is where we place out hope. The prophetic voice of the Church began with Jesus and the early faith communities, led by the apostles. It built on the radical tradition of the Old Testament prophets and the unwelcome voice of John the Baptist. If we let that prophetic voice die in any age, we risk moving away from the scandal of the Cross that always both asks a question and proposes an uncomfortable answer.
Jesus’ shocking teaching about marriage and about children was designed to shatter complacency in his contemporaries. It is probably no less shocking to our contemporaries. In a society where male dominated decision making and the man’s right to divorce his wife were taken for granted, this was questioning basic assumptions and the accepted social order. But it is always important to approach this passage, not as Jesus banning divorce but rather as him exalting the status of marriage and of human beings. Jesus’ teaching is always positive, always concerned with exalting human dignity, always telling us that we are capable of so much more than we imagine. He tells us that he has a dream for each of us and that we don’t have to be stuck in re-running the nightmares of the past. He tells us that love and faithfulness are possible, that facing huge challenges with love is not a waste of time.
We all know the pressures on marriage. A generation ago it was assumed that a marriage would last forever. There is now an increasingly widespread assumption that it would be nice if a relationship were long term – but that disposable relationships are the norm. There is a worrying percentage of children who get to 15 with only one of their parents being involved in their lives. The increase in pre-nuptial arrangements suggests a social shift where marriage lasts only as long as it lasts. Skills in relationship building appear to be taking a backseat ahead of other presumed priorities.
But Jesus understood human nature and knew that the relationship building skills were vital for us to grow as people. And he knew that the skills that apply in marriage are transferrable and universal. Marriage involves commitment, forgiveness, self sacrifice, dreams, joy in partnership. It needs an investment of self and not just of money for only personal generosity will produce personal growth. That also applies in the context of building community just as it does in international relations. Relationships at all levels involve questions of power and trust, forgiveness and healing, goodness and growth. We have a culture where self assertion is proclaimed as good whether in marriage or in politics. That means that intimate relations and international relations can become based on convenience rather than on commitment. That is what Jesus was saying in today’s Gospel. Problems will come – but with generosity and grace they can be solved and human beings can win through. Anything else is not to exalt or free human beings – but rather to insist that we are not really capable of much, that love and faithfulness are not really possible. Jesus came to tell us that we were capable of greatness and not just of greed, fit for heroism and not just for hedonism. That was not welcome then and remains counter-cultural now. The Church has had huge dark and disgraceful corners in its history – and we know that from our own country – but the generosity of the Gospel vision inspired many to great things in Ireland and beyond. We will all be impoverished individually and collectively if we come to believe that we are capable of little, that good human relationships are the result of luck rather than of dedication, that the future is full of danger and failure rather than rich in divine hope and human potential.
Thus any proclamation of non violence goes to the core, not so much of international power games and politics as of the human heart. Violence has become an everyday feature of life – domestic violence, sexual assault, theft and robbery, the constant depiction of war and conflict in cinema and television. All of these communicate the assumption that righteous violence – whether it comes from the perspective of the brave sheriff or the idealistic Robin Hood – is the way to resolve conflicts. The obscene amounts that are spent on national armies and their weaponry suggest that many still believe that the world is made up of us good people and the others who are evil – and that righteous violence is glorious is not only permissible but commendable, that everybody is at it, so why shouldn’t we. It is an anti-Gospel value that assumes we have to do unto others before they do unto us.
We discovered in Northern Ireland that we would never find a way forward until we moved away from any analysis of our troubles that assumed that our side was virtuous and the others evil. We had the glorious myth of the evil state and the mighty liberation army, or the simplistic myth of the good state and the evil terrorists. We made progress towards a non-violent way forward only when we came to accept that we were all part of the problem and that we all had to be part of the solution. That meant moving away from the trite portrayal that it was a crazy sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants to a position where politicians, governments and churches accepted their key roles in supporting, developing and exploiting identities. In Northern Ireland we believe that the war is long since over – but that the conflict is alive and well because that conflict is about the future allegiance of Northern Ireland. Is it to be British or Irish? But we have found non violent ways of carrying on that conflict. Thus it is silly to believe that the Northern Ireland conflict is over – but it is great to know that it is being carried on without bombs or bullets. That is a huge progress for all and it has involved a change of heart and a change of culture. That has needed much courage and honesty – but it has paid a dividend. It is possible to move from a context of conflict to a more non-violent culture. And in this context I have to commend publicly the great generous involvement of the Dublin government in supporting imaginative schemes in Northern Ireland, mostly in disadvantaged areas and especially in loyalist areas. Many in those areas have discovered that their best friends are not in Stormont but in Dublin.
And that has all involved a change of culture, a conviction that problems can be solved by honesty and truth, by acknowledging the past and believing that the future can be different. We have struggled with the problem of how to deal with the past. That is not a particularly Northern Ireland problem. We know from institutional abuse of children, from the white-owned farms in Zimbabwe, from the victims of the Holocaust and from the whole Middle East conflict that peace comes dropping slow, very slowly. The hurt of the past cries out for recognition – but the response to that pain can often create more pain. It is so difficult to know how we can allow the voice of the hurt to be heard and accepted – but in a loving way that enables healing. A defensive attitude to the pain caused to another – whether in war, institutions or marriage – demeans the real pain that was caused. It is only a loving rather than formalistic listening, that can help those betrayed to trust and hope again. But anything that encourages or exploits the desire to destroy the hated enemy often leads to the creation of more victims. There has to be a better way – and Jesus keeps pointing us in new directions. As Bishop Eamonn Walsh said recently, “we need to replace a culture of violence with a culture of renewed sense of justice, responsibility and community.” We have to be able to move forward to a better future rather than just repeating the past. Jesus has a dream for each of us and for our society that does not involve a re-run of the nightmares from the past. Trust and love will set us free. Bitterness, self-righteousness and vindictiveness will only trap us in the past. We risk being technological wizards and intellectual and moral pygmies. That would not be development but rather a distortion of who we can be.
Thus I suggest that Jesus would say a couple of specific things to us today in the context of the readings. He’d ask us whether we want his peace – Pax Christi – in our lives or whether we really think that we know best and that history is only a mine where we can search how to grow in deviousness rather than in virtue. He’d ask us how we promote marriage and responsible relationships, how we proclaim the human capacity to love, how our Church challenges people with examples of generosity and heroism. He’d ask us how critical we are of the structures of power in our society and world, structures that alienate and marginalise. He’d ask us in Belfast why it is that in some of our parishes, male life expectancy is now about 50, lower than it was during the Troubles. He’d ask us, before we be concerned about criticising foreign powers for what they do, that we also tackle the structural violence in our society, that we ask why so many people are dying for want of reason for living, why economic and fiscal policies often seem to damage social cohesion and human interconnectedness. He’d say that there is no acceptable level of collateral damage, whether in Afghanistan or in Fatima Mansions, whether in Baghdad or on Belfast. Human life is precious and never expendable. He’d say that the only life we can surrender for the greater good is our own, not that of someone else whose demise might serve our glorious cause. He’d ask us to be unhappy with the right questions rather than happy with the wrong answers. He did that in his ministry and on Calvary. It was only by the facing the truth of human violence that he could show just how the worst that humans could do to one another could never destroy the love that God has for the world.
In these days we celebrate the feast of St Therese of Lisieux and St Francis of Assisi, we celebrate Gandhi’s birth, the UN Day of non-violence. The Republic has voted overwhelmingly for the Lisbon Treaty. But it is important to avoid any illusion that salvation will come from Brussels or the UN or anywhere else. Ireland will thrive or be destroyed, not primarily by external structures but by the hearts of Irish people. Jesus invites us to seek all healing and renewal in the human heart and in human relationships. He invites us, not so much to love him as to know his love. He invites us not to be good but to be holy. He calls us to have faith in the God who never ceases to have faith in us. It was through suffering that he brought us to salvation and he invites us to take up the Cross that alone will heal the broken heart of the world. Sin, violence and broken hearts will be healed by love and not by legislation. The past will be healed by grace and not by grants. The hurt child in each of us will be enabled to grow when we seek to love and heal that child, rather than becoming the tough adult who can only be childish rather than childlike. On this Day for Life, we are challenged to remember the huge dignity of each human life – and how we respect that in marriage, national policies and international politics. If our culture ignores that dignity in one facet of life, it will ignore it at all levels.
Notes to editors
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese of Down and Connor. Bishop McKeown has responsibility for Pastoral Outreach to Youth & Third Level Students
- Bishop McKeown delivered this homily on Sunday 4 October
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