12th Sunday of the Year 2020
Some years ago I read how a woman, a religious sister, who was involved in care for people living with HV/AIDS. She told about her father’s physical and psychological abuse. In one line, in defiant self-talk said: ‘There is one part of me you cannot touch’. Despite maltreatment, she knew as a young girl that she had value in herself despite her treatment. Like many people who are or have been oppressed, many have a sense that their lives cannot be defined by those who try to control them. A profoundly powerful expression of this was in the May 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart by Australia’s First Nations people who would no longer allow themselves to be counted but demanding a voice.
As we come to trust that our true identity in Christ, we will not allow others to define us or be defined by fear. Jeremiah emerges as a passionate person even without status or power. He knows that God does not abandon the poor. Do we really believe this? How do we express this in our lives? God causes the truth to well up in us as for Jeremiah. It demands to be heard despite our preference for comfort and safety in our silence. This truth has been manifested worldwide and in our country in response to systemic racism due to white privilege. Many have looked with compassion and solidarity on people causing them to take risks by protesting – the risk of police violence, the risk of contracting Covid-19 virus, the risk of abuse from those close to them in family, work place and community. As we look out, what do we see? All who benefit from the status quo – those in authority, clergy, the dominant race, the highly educated, the wealthy, etc. - know that anyone who questions their privilege is a threat. They want the light to be kept in the dark. The ‘dark ‘is oppression, cover-ups, injustice, corruption, abuse, high-handedness.
Jesus says ‘Do not be afraid’. We need voices that cut through fear, unaccountability, complacency and indifference. These voices more often than not emerge from people considered without status who say ‘no’ to abuse, violence, environmental degradation, inequality and inequity, cronyism and vilification. They imagine that the world can be different. Fr. Johann-Baptist Metz, a German theologian, says that our task is ‘to keep alive the memory of the crucified Lord’. Keeping this memory alive means not ignoring the crucified peoples in our world. It denounces all previous sets of priorities. This is risky business. Perfect love takes sides and demands nothing less than our lives.
Today, the church needs to hear the words ‘do not be afraid’ over and over. We have just celebrated the coming of Spirit at Pentecost. It calls for courage and we must uncover the disguised mistreatment of others, the ever-present effects of colonisation upon the First Nations’ people, women subjected to atrocities of gender-based violence, rape, and killing, the torture and abuse of LGBT people, and the poor and the defenseless often threatened, crushed, and sacrificed by political and economic interests. These and so many other bodies (West Papuans and Palestinians) call out to us. The gospel exposes the lies proffered to justify petty interests and privileges. The spirit of Jesus does not allow silence to be unchallenged. When we come out of the silence and stand with Jesus on the side of full humanity and liberation, we may find that people who claim to be our family begin to act like enemies. We might walk into a wall: fear, opinions of friends, family security. We have a choice – silence, look away, or truly look, feel the compassion, and act.
So what stand do we take before many injustices people experience today? What stand do we take at the verbiage of social lies that cover up injustice? We know Jesus scandalised the authorities – and provoked opposition. He was not scandalised by prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners but embraced them. He refused to condone any victimisation and scapegoating by confronting a system based on violence and destruction. Our solidarity with people cruelly treated in any way brings to light injustice and brings to light what perpetrators want to ignore or keep hidden.
As followers of Jesus, will we ask ourselves if we are prepared to step into the places where the gospel is contradicted and say ‘It does not have to be this way?’ We cannot become players in the world's most popular game, where people are either victim or victimiser. Bucking the system means recognising in the one who victimises the need for embrace, love and mercy. It sounds impossible. It can be seen as unbearably weak. However, it really contains the strength of God. We refuse to be remade by the evil done to us. We reject the stifling identity a win-lose world might thrust upon us. We accept that our identity comes from God. Because we belong to God, and manifest God’s image and likeness, we are able to work so that others – the just and the unjust – may be free.
We are assured that the truth of who Jesus is—and who we are—will challenge our relationships, challenge our economic status quo, and put our lives in jeopardy. But we are also assured of a love so all encompassing, a love that marks the fall of each sparrow, that every hair on our head is counted.
In the first reading, Jeremiah says: ‘I hear the whisperings of many: ‘Terror on every side!’ These are the whisperings of bodies of women, men and children during the Black Lives Matter protests that are now shouting to us. This shouting joins the grief for the loss of so many people, many black bodies, lost to COVID 19, LGBTQ bodies ravaged by bullies and by parents, and many female and child bodies raped or sexually enslaved. As we reacted to the death of a black man-one among many-at the hands of police violence in the USA, we are faced with the reality of 432 black bodies who have died perpetrated by the police without justice since 2000. It is not about police brutality but we are confronted by place of privilege in the system. It is called ‘repentance’ and ‘conversion’.
Today’s gospel says ‘do not be afraid’. Irrespective of where we live we see white people fear black bodies; men fearful of female bodies, straight, cisgender people fearful of queer bodies; abled people fearful of people with disabled bodies; wealthy bodies fearful of poor bodies. Abled people fear disabled bodies. Rich bodies fear poor bodies. Fear is often buried deep in our subconscious and we want to control that fear. And we can do that through various forms of violence. These bodies are telling stories.
As we grieve and lament people lost to COVID 19, First Nations’ people relive over and over again the pain of colonisation, LGBTQ people relive the violence of church, society and families, survivors relieve the pain of abuse. We are facing the ongoing atrocities against people unlike us – not straight, not white, not rich, and not male. But they are telling their stories-stories of dignity and acceptance. Will their stories awaken us to changes we need to make personally and collectively? Jesus calls us to courage. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost will not go away. Will we find the courage to speak out individually and as church? As Jesus breathed on the disciples, but we see images of choking and suffocation in police cells and in parks. As we have the Pentecost image of tongues of fire, we see cities burning with rage following 230 years of brutality in Australia with economic inequality, politic brutality and inequitable educational and health care not to mention more than 400 years of brutality against African Americans in the form of slavery.
So how will we use the breath that we have been given? Will we be responsible for how we breathe? How we will use our voice? How will we use our voice when black and brown bodies are beaten, shot, or smothered to death by police officers in the USA, Australia, Palestine, France?
John Wood, Jr., to members of the ‘Braver Angels’ organisation wrote: The work of maintaining a free society, a country where we can speak our truths without reprisal, where we can come and go freely without fear of violence, destruction, persecution by police or chaos from the mob, crashes headlong into the reality of the cruel presence of injustice in American life and the justifiable anger that boils over into unjustifiable destruction. When passions run high in America, it can be difficult to hold the ground for understanding across divides and . . . (move) institutions towards justice and reform.
But somebody must hold that space. And some of us will.
We are ones who can, who must, hold that space. We must listen and understand what it is like for people who live with prejudice, unfair treatment, false accusations, and disproportionate violence because of their skin color, or their religion, or their accent. This takes courage. It requires overcoming our fears. The gift of Pentecost was not just about speaking but also listening. What are we hearing? Who are we willing to listen to? Our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need. If the church has a future it is a future with the poor in whatever form. (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey)
Fr Claude Mostowik msc