Two recent experiences frame the thoughts I wish to share with you this evening. In September, 18 US bishops spent ten days in the Holy Land on a pilgrimage of prayer for peace. Most moving to me was when my brother bishops, many for the first time, visited Yad Vashem. Joining us was a dear friend, Rabbi Schonfeld whose daughter narrated our visit. Unknown to me, my friend the 91 year old Rabbi, is a survivor of the Holocaust. Visiting Yad Vashem is always moving. This time was even more so because the Rabbi shared several moments of his journey to freedom with us. My brother bishops and I were deeply touched. I know it made a difference in our understanding of what Jews suffered in the Shoah simply and solely because they were Jews.
A week later I participated at Fordham in a seminar organized by the Papal Foundation, Centesimus Annus. One of the speakers was Canadian General Romčo Dellaire who was sent by the UN to Rwanda to intervene and try to bring an end to the genocide of Tutsi that wracked that country twenty years ago. A radio campaign labeled the Tutsis as “cockroaches” to be slaughtered. He spoke of children as young as ten being made into soldiers and taught to use machetes to hack to pieces their own neighbors. His new book, They fought like soldiers, they died like children and his earlier one, Shake hands with the devil, tell it all in its gruesome reality. Two horrific examples of man’s inhumanity to man!
IN WW II, the world, including the US President, was silent on the Shoah. In the 1990s, most of the world, including the US President, was silent on the Rwanda genocide. The result was a savagery that gave the lie to any claim that humanity had been progressing and “getting better” or more humane. All our advances in science, technology and “modern progress” are hollow and empty in the face of human slaughter.
In this current century, we are living through a new phenomenon that eerily mirrors the two scenarios I just mentioned. The Middle East has become a new killing field. The current President finally has admitted this. Neither he nor his putative allies can offer a solution that corresponds to, or can rectify by itself, the scope of the threat. No military response by itself will ever render that region of the world a place fitting for peaceful human life and mutual respect among peoples. Force by itself is not enough.
The role of law failed in Germany. It failed in Rwanda and it seems almost helpless as an adequate tool for today’s challenges in the Middle East.
Please do not think that I am abandoning the rule of law. Quite the contrary. You and I know that the rule of law, law that is just, law based on equity, fairness, human rights and the common good remains the one way a society and culture can survive and flourish. Jerusalem, Athens and Rome remain the three founding citadels of all western civilization and indeed for civilized society throughout the world today. Yet in extreme situations like those cited, law by itself has proven inadequate and not just because it is subject to the vagaries of politics and self interest. The current proposal to “degrade” ISIS may well accomplish that goal. But it will not bring about the advancement of a society of justice, equity, mutual respect and peace.
During the Balkan crisis, Pope St. John Paul II proposed the idea of “humanitarian intervention” in response to the slaughter in Kosovo. He raised it one other time in a Message to the UN. It received little or no response from any quarter. Yet can we not, from the perspective of men and women of faith, raise that or something similar today? Are there not humanitarian issues that cut across the dividing lines of national, political and civil limitations? Is there not a common sense of humanity that recoils when atrocities become realities, a sense of decency that transcends narrow self interest?
Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, spoke at the UN General Assembly last week. His address is on the Vatican website in English and is well worth reading. He rejected the argument that the “clash of civilizations” is inevitable and argued for a deeper reading of what is going on. He scored the silence in so many quarters about what is going on in Syria, the Middle East and Ukraine He affirmed the “responsibility to protect” as incumbent on states and international actors. Finally he made an appeal that the “responsibility to protect” might be more widely because he said, such a responsibility is one that belongs to the whole international community to confront heinous crimes such as genocide, ethnic cleansing and religiously motivated persecution.
I am well aware that the Cardinal’s words may sound and may be utopic. However there is enough here in his words and Pope St. John Paul’s suggestion that merit serious discussion and reflection. They also provide a wider framework for international solidarity in support of humanitarian intervention in regard to the responsibility to protect that ought to be shared by all nations and all civilized societies. And are we, as Christians, not bound, by our understanding of God’s merciful love and Christ’s salvific death, to advance the cause of humanity precisely because we experience life as communion within the Church, a communion that demands solidarity with all who suffer, especially those who are victims of religious or ethnic persecution?
The promise Christ makes in the Gospel today has been realized by his death and resurrection. He is the living water that will nourish all who turn to him. His Holy Spirit cuts through our humanly conceived divisions and calls us to transcend those divisions because we recognize that human life has a divine origin and a divine destiny. All of us here are committed to supporting the law and serving justice for the good of our fellow citizens and the common good of us all in our nation. The common good cannot end at our shores. The common good must include all people around the world. Otherwise it is not the common good.
My question to us all is: Can the talents and expertise of men and women like you help create or support initiatives that would take the concept of humanitarian intervention and give it a substance and a shape that would truly help those who are suffering? The vision of our faith is truly Catholic. It sees everyone as brother and sister because we believe that all the world has been saved by Jesus Christ. That means no person, no group, no minority can lie outside the circle of our concern or our commitment to reach out, a commitment my Jewish friends call tikun olan, repairing the world.
St. Paul today offers us hope but it is a hope that must lead to action as we widen our vision and deepen our commitment: We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and we too groan as the first fruits of the Spirit. Now hope that sees is not hope…But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance….But the Spirit does come to the aid of our weakness…And the one who searches our hearts know what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
In that same Spirit, we pray for guidance in our own lives as upholders of the law, of justice and equity. We cannot, however, limit our concern solely to the good of our county or our country. Ours it is to join in solidarity by prayer and commitment with all those suffering in the Middle East to alleviate their pain and protect their lives. There has to be a renewed acceptance of responsibility to bring justice and freedom and mutual respect so that all peoples in the Middle East can drink from the waters of life and know the freedom that is the gift of God’s love and peace with justice for all his people. Amen