The word ‘peace’ runs through much of the bible. One of the OT prophets said that Jesus would be the ‘Prince of Peace’. (Isaiah (9:6). And when Jesus sends out his disciples, he told them, “Whatever house you enter, first say ‘peace be to this house’”. Thanks to many great people, we have been able to remove much of the communal violence in our community. But in the year that recalled the end of the horrible First World War a century ago, we still face a world with much conflict and confrontation, where one in six children is affected by war or its effects.
Pope Francis, on this World Day of Peace, has written a message entitled ‘Good Politics at the Service of Peace’. It is easy to ridicule politicians and others in positions of power – and often with good reason. But people in political power face enormous challenges and they are those who make laws and offer leadership to states. Their role is vital in helping us find ways forward to make a better society for our young people. It is not an easy time to be a politician. Not only have some elected representatives abused their power – but the tone of international and local politics has often become very coarse and confrontation. But Pope Francis wants to encourage those with political power to use it well in the service of the Common Good.
Politicians have two huge roles to play besides the making of laws.
Firstly, in their leadership role they can model for us what it means to be a great public servant. Good countries will be created by people with big hearts. Angry, confrontational people have nothing to offer in terms of role models for how to resolve problems. Political parties here have backed themselves into corners when they fail to even meet or speak. Certain issues have become matters of principle and everything comes second to these idols. But the priority has to be dealing with poverty, illness and the need for education. Many people here want to live in a new Ireland that stands for something, not one that falls for anything. The ignored baby of Bethlehem tells us that the cry of the needy has to be heeded above the shouts of the strong. We need political leaders who inspire us by their integrity.
Secondly, politicians are elected to help our societies negotiate the challenges of the future. It is their job to find solutions, not to wage battles. Hope arises when the electorate see that human progress and healing are possible. People are crushed when political structures fail to promote realistic ways forward. Elected leaders have a responsibility to model the best that we can be. Unless they do that, they don’t just fail to inspire. They depress. Good leaders did great things here in the recent past. We need that greatness as much today as we ever did.
But there is also a real challenge for Christians on this World Day of Peace. In recent decades the dominant consumerism-driven ideology has been pushing us to sacrifice everything at the altar of the great gods of globalisation, a redefinition of terms like marriage and gender, and a vacuous post-faith philosophy, where ‘I am worth it’ becomes the new Gospel. There is now a backlash in various societies with a new – and sometimes angry – emphasis on nationalism, family and faith. An often arrogant liberal secularism is meeting a sometimes arrogant black and white traditionalism. The challenge for people of faith is to engage with the burning human thirst for salvation and wholeness – but to do so in a way that listens to the pain of everybody (as Jesus did) and then speak the Gospel of hope into that lived reality. We have had centuries of armies screaming at each other. Followers of Jesus – whether they are politicians or electors – have a vocation to humanize the world and never to demonise others. As Pope Francis writes, “Political addresses that tend to blame every evil on migrants and to deprive the poor of hope are unacceptable.” Anger destroys. Only love heals.
Politics is a noble calling, even though – as in every profession – some members betray the trust that others have placed in them. It is the task of politicians to serve the welfare of all. But people of faith – as electors – have the right to demand high standards from those whom they elect and pay. Thus, it is a very worrying sign when politicians act is ways that bring democracy into disrepute or – by their actions or inaction – hint that the ballot box does not offer a way forward. Those who undermine the credibility of democracy damage the very fabric of society. Where democracy fails to deliver, others will seek to fill the gap.
Similarly, it is right that public figures speak out against how many underprivileged children lived and died in church and state institutions in the past. But it seems grotesque when the very same politicians suggest that a better way forward is that unwelcome or awkward children should be actively killed even before they have had a chance to live or die. A child’s life should never be disdained, before or after birth. People of faith will continue to acknowledge the evils of the past and point out the contradictions in some modern assumptions about how to deal with embarrassing or unwanted children. I had hoped that we in NI would have learned that killing – before or after birth – is never the solution to anything.
As we face into a new year which – as Pope Francis says – is ‘marked by a climate of mistrust rooted in the fear of others or of strangers’, we call upon politicians to clarify what sort of future they are offering us and sketch ways forward that are based on justice for all, love of life and the building of healthy communities. This is a time when we need our very best people to dedicate their lives to public service as politicians of credibility, consistency and courage who will promote unity and not division. People of faith will continue to challenge and encourage all involved in politics. As Pope Francis implies, what is at stake is never the power of a party or the status of a leader but the welfare of the population, especially the weak. In a world that is crying out for peace, people of faith are invited to constantly pray for that peace and to actively work for it. That is a New Year resolution that I recommend to everybody!