Counter evil with the light of the Gospel

Archbishop Aquila

So many innocent people have died. I think of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City and Washington D.C., the years of conflict in the Middle East, the wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, and more recently in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, and now Orlando. Hatred and the influence of evil have motivated the killing of innocent people without distinction for religion, race, political beliefs, sexual orientation or age.

The influence of evil can only be countered by a culture that respects the God-given dignity of every human being. Evil is real, just as God is real. Our forefathers clearly understood and attested to God in the Declaration of Independence. They held that truth is self-evident and can be known. Yet when cultures and societies abandon nature’s God and stop seeking the truth or desiring the good, evil is going to step in, in all its darkness, despair and confusion.

Certainly, from what we have learned about the Orlando shooter his motivations were complex: a volatile mix of wounds from a traumatic childhood, political and spiritual beliefs, and perhaps inner conflict about his sexuality.

How do Catholics respond to tragedies like what occurred in Orlando? Partisan political finger-pointing and angry outbursts are not the answer. For Catholics the response is conversion of heart to Jesus and to living his Gospel in the public square, rather than treating political party platforms as some kind of “gospel” that must be adhered to at all costs. We must seek to counter the influence of evil with the light of the Gospel. We must always remember that Jesus Christ has conquered evil, sin, and death!

Jesus’ teaching is radical. In his teaching he goes beyond the law, as he comes to fulfill the law and not destroy it (Mt. 5:17). Thus he teaches us, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5: 43-48). He practiced what he preached from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).

Several years ago I had a conversation with a Catholic Vietnam veteran that struck me deeply. He was conflicted about the war, yet he engaged in the battle. He told me that every time he went into battle, life would be lost and he always prayed, for he knew it was either his life or the life of the enemy. He told me he always prayed for forgiveness for each man he killed and prayed that the Lord would open his eyes to heaven, the truth, and the good. He prayed too that he would be forgiven for his sins.

We Catholics and Americans have the duty to put our faith first, for you cannot serve both God and mammon (Mt 6:24). And while I do not advocate pacifism, as I believe we have an obligation to protect and defend innocent life, we must ask in our encounter with Jesus how he is calling us to live the Gospel, most especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. While there may be differing solutions to the world’s confrontation with terrorism and radical Islam that we can legitimately disagree with in our civil discourse, we must first recognize that good and evil exist. And it is God who reveals to us what is good and evil. If we become disconnected from God, then evil will prevail.

Christians and all who believe that we have God-given dignity and are best served by living in accordance with our nature must work to bring these truths into every aspect of society. With its insights into the human person, the Church has a special responsibility to help build a culture of life, peace and justice founded upon the dignity of the human person. And there are many areas that this can be done. We must not be silent about creating such a culture, bringing it into the public square and promoting it at home and abroad, through every possible avenue.

We must pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, for their conversion, that they may encounter Jesus. We must pray, too, for all the innocent victims throughout the world who come from many religions, countries and states in life. No class of people is exempt. We must live the Gospel, be converted each day, and give hope to the world!

Preventing Orlando from happening again requires that an alternative be present that answers the genuine longing found in every person’s heart to love and be loved, to be treated in accord with their God-given dignity. It is true that we will only experience that fully in heaven, but in the meantime we must strive, with God’s help, to create a society that values every person equally and encourages their flourishing according to God’s plan for creation. May our hearts be formed like Jesus’ and may we be his light, hope and leaven in the world!

COMING UP: Paris, Nigeria: brotherhood rejected

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The need for peace in every corner of the world has been weighing upon my heart following the terrorist attacks in Paris and the mass slaughter of thousands by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

The calculated brutality of these attacks has stunned us all and made our hearts ache. But the cause of these murders is nothing new—it goes all the way back to Cain and Abel.

Pope Francis noted this in his 2014 Message for the World Day of Peace, where he stated, “Cain’s murder of Abel bears tragic witness to his radical rejection of their vocation to be brothers. Their story (cf. Gn 4:1-16) brings out the difficult task to which all men and women are called, to live as one, each taking care of the other.”

There has been much discussion in France, in the press and in our own country about the importance of defending freedom of speech, but there is another side to the debate. The ability to freely express ourselves must be tempered by respect for the dignity of others, including their beliefs. Free speech needs to be exercised within our larger vocation to be brothers and sisters to one another.

Peace is missing in our world. There are many contributing factors to this situation, such as poverty, corruption, a lack of education and jobs, or hatred of others because of their religious beliefs, but at the heart of it all stands a rejection of the vocation to be a brother or sister. It is a failure to follow the second great commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

This refusal creates a world that is deficient in love and forgiveness, and it breeds a society that thoughtlessly discards the dignity of others, and among some, even justifies murder and violence. This dynamic was on display in the Paris attacks, the massacre in Nigeria and in many other violent events.

Although the severity of their rejection varies greatly, both those who drew the cartoons that offended many Muslims and the gunmen who attacked the cartoonists, turned away from their call to brotherhood.

The radical Islamist group Boko Haram carried out its deadliest massacre yet in northeastern Nigeria last week, taking the lives of some 2,000 people in the villages of Baga and Doron Baga. Certainly these men have violently cast aside their vocation to be brothers to their fellow Nigerians. Yet the Nigerian government’s failure to protect its people and to tackle some of the underlying causes that have attracted young people to Boko Haram is also an abandonment of its duty to serve its brothers and sisters.

I want to be clear that by saying this I am not in any way equating the evil of murder with insulting someone’s religion. Instead, I am pointing to their shared roots: the disregard shown for a brother or sister, the failure to respect the inherent dignity of the human person.

If the world is going to become a more peaceful place, then we must be faithful to our vocation to brotherhood, which we received from God when we were given the gift of life.

While flying between Sri Lanka and the Philippines on Jan. 15, Pope Francis spoke to reporters about free speech. Each person, he said, has “the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. … We have the obligation to speak openly, to have this liberty, but without giving offense …” In other words, he explained, “there is a limit” to free speech, and that limit is determined by what will respect the other person’s dignity.

This means people deserve the truth about what will help them flourish; they deserve to hear the Gospel and be introduced to Jesus. The truth, though, must be proclaimed in love.

Treating every person as a brother or sister, especially those who do not love us in return, requires God’s grace. As Catholics, we know that Cain’s rejection of Abel and his brotherly vocation was redeemed by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. In Christ, all human relationships can be restored and every person can become an adopted son or daughter of the Father.

We are called to be people who respond to what Pope Francis calls the “globalization of indifference” by fostering a culture of solidarity and fraternity, beginning in our own families, parishes and neighborhoods. We are called to share the truth in love in these places.

When each of us faces Christ at our final judgment, he will ask us what we did for our fellow man. May we be able to say that we saw the face of Christ in the face of every person—a brother, a sister—and did for them what we would do for Christ (Mt 25: 40). Without a renewed fidelity to our vocation in Christ as brothers and sisters, a commitment to caring for the least and living the fullness of the Gospel in humility, the world will only become more violent and more divided.