Rome Friday 26th of October 2007
Thomas a Kempis, in The Imitation of Christ, wrote that: “Those who love stay awake when duty calls, wake up from sleep when someone needs help; those who love, keep burning, no matter what, like a lighted torch. Those who love, take on anything, complete goals, bring plans to fruition … But those who do not love, they faint and lie down on the job.”
Echoing the urging of Thomas a Kempis, to “keep burning no matter what…take on anything, complete goals, bring plans to fruition”, Pope Benedict tells us that “the heart sees where love is needed, and acts accordingly.”
Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” is a rhapsodic call to arms – urging us to give from the depths of our being, to animate our lives through selfless giving, to pour out our spirits, and to be utterly focused in our concern for the common good This rhapsodic call to arms takes as its text St.Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians (13.1): “If I have all the eloquence of men and angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” Benedict calls this “the Magna Carta of all ecclesial service.”
Although the Pope begins with an interesting exploration of the three Hellenistic forms of love – eros, philia and agape – any reader simply hoping to escape into an erudite exploration of form or Scripture, or a theological exegesis from a master theologian, will be disappointed.
This call to arms is a call to become intimately engaged as citizens shouldering their duties in the world around us.
Like Aristotle, Cicero, De Tocqueville, or through the example of a man like Nelson Mandela, we are reminded that through engagement we change for the better.
Aristotle wrote in Politics that we are not “like solitary pieces in chequers.”
We need, he said, to cultivate a common life.
Shame, aidos, would attach to those who opt out of communal existence.
• The good citizens would be those who were wholly and effectively committed through thought and action to the common good.
• Through living a virtuous life the citizen benefits himself as well as the state: “man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis”
Cicero wrote in his work On Duty that “the whole glory of virtue is in activity.”
De Tocqueville argued that an impressive practical wisdom and power of judgement may be developed simply from participating in the affairs of a free society.
His contemporary, the English Oxford philosophy and proponent of ethical liberalism, T.H.Green, held that citizenship is developed through an outpouring for the common good.
Put in an African context, Nelson Mandela often quotes the African proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – a person is a person because of other people.
Mandela was reared on the African belief in ubuntu – brotherhood, which is about mutual responsibility and the importance of compassion
These thoughts sit happily with the injunctions of Benedict XVI. At turns, he tells us:
“Love grows through love”; (section 18)
“Love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable, they form a single commandment” (section 18); and that
“Love needs to be organised if it is to be an ordered service to the community.”
In applying these ideas to the world of politics, in which I have lived and worked for more than 30 years, I was struck by the Pope’s thought that although faith and politics “are distinct, yet they are always inter-related” (section 28 (a)). He is clear that “the Church cannot and must not replace the State” (ibid) but insists that the Church must not “remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (ibid). Her role is not to govern “but to form consciences” (ibid).
This emphasis on the importance on forming consciences reminds us that there is noting more dangerous than ignorance in action; that we are duty bound to intelligently inform ourselves of the issues and to act accordingly; and that it may come at a price.
Love in action will cost us something. How will we answer when the recording angel asks us: “where are your wounds?”
The Englishman who stands at the head of lay engagement in public and political life – declared by John Paul II as the patron saint of politicians and statesmen – is St.Thomas More. He said he was “the king’s good servant but God’s first.” Having formed his conscience he knew that the greatest act of love that he could offer his countrymen was to lay down his very life.
Nearly four hundred years later St.Maximilian Kolbe, in confronting and refusing to appease Nazism, also knew that serving the Truth was the greatest act of love that he could make. In contemplating his likely imprisonment and execution at Auschwitz, he wrote “and of what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves.”
In our own times what then might be some practical implications of putting into effect the Pope’s call to action?
Let me briefly give two examples.
This week is the fortieth anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act in Britain. Since 1967 7 million abortions have taken place – 600 daily. Abortion is permitted up to and even during birth on a disabled baby, including disabilities such as cleft palate and hair lip. In the past decade we have destroyed or experimented upon two million human embryos and we have permitted the cloning of human embryos for “therapeutic” purposes. Attempts have been made to follow the Dutch lead in legalising euthanasia. In Holland 3,000 people now die each year through euthanasia – 1,000 are without the consent of the patient.
If we are to confront this “culture of death” as John Paul II memorably described it, we must do more than speaking out and voting against these life-taking laws. It is not enough to be anti abortion, anti experimentation, anti euthanasia.
We must be positively pro-life; for the woman and the child; for the suffering patient; for the terminally ill. Pro-life must mean pro-love.
To the young woman who is constantly told it is her “right to choose” but who frequently feels cornered and believing she has “no choice”, we must be at the forefront in providing radical pro-life alternatives.
In Britain the charity, LIFE, provides safe houses for pregnant women, life centres to provide counselling, and now two baby hospices to care for sick, terminally ill, or disabled babies and to provide respite to their parents. This is being pro life and pro love.
Pro Life physicians must stay at the forefront in demonstrating that good science and good ethics can march hand in hand. The licit use of adult stem calls offer hope to sufferers of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other debilitating illnesses without any of the moral hazards involved in the destruction of human embryos. This is being pro life and pro love.
And, through the hospice movement, we can continue to demonstrate that to die in dignity you don’t need doctors to kill you.
Pro life means being pro love – from the womb to the tomb.
Life begins at conception but it doesn’t end at birth; and Deus Caritas Est is an urgent appeal to see the face of God in the most desperate places on earth.
Consider for a moment that half the world – nearly three billion people – live on less than two dollars a day; that the World Bank reports that more than 800 million people are wracked by starvation or despair, living below any rational definition of human decency; that
the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of the poorest 48 nations (i.e. a quarter of the world’s countries) is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined; that 20% of the population in the developed nations, consume 86% of the world’s goods; that, according to UNICEF, 30,000 children die each day due to poverty; and that nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
Last week, during his weekly general audience, which coincided with the World Day to Overcome Extreme Poverty, Pope Benedict cited our duty to respond to abject poverty as part of his call to engage; and specifically told us that if we searched our consciences they would require us to act. He said that the growing disparity between the rich and the poor is an offence against human dignity.
“This worrying situation appeals to the conscience of mankind because the conditions being suffered by such a large number of people are such as to offend the dignity of human beings and, as a consequence, to compromise the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community.
“I encourage, then, an increase in efforts to eliminate the causes of poverty and the tragic consequences deriving from it.”
In recent years I have published reports of situations I have seen first hand in Southern Sudan, in Darfur, in the Congo, in Rwanda, in Burma, in North Korea and in the favellas of Latin America.
What Benedict calls “the tragic consequences deriving from poverty” are seen in the emaciated bodies and the hopelessness of the children from each of those countries. They are graphically illustrated in the blood red silhouettes etched into the roadway outside the church of Our lady of Candelaria in Rio, where eight young children were gunned down by police officers as they slept on the street; they are seen amongst the detritus dumped on the sea shore near Coco Cabana where if you look carefully you can see the small feet of a dead child, discarded as rubbish – unwanted and unloved.
At the heart of the human problem is the human heart. That is why the Pope urgently pleads with us to embark on “the formation of the heart.”
(Section 31 (a)).
The tragic consequences of a world which refuses to love can be seen in the violence which continues to devastate vast swathes of our earth. Seven million have died in Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda in the last 15 years: it is Africa’s World War One.
Bishop Akio Johnson is a bishop in Southern Sudan. He had nine attempts on his life: I met him standing next to the bomb shelters that saved the lives of school children as the Government of Sudan bombed their school, the church, the health centre and the bishop’s home.
Surely our consciences should require us to see the link between conflict resolution and grinding poverty; and also the role that we in the Western arsenals have played as quarter masters of so many of these conflicts.
A report last week estimated that during the 15 years up until 2005 the cost of conflict in Africa has been around $300 billion.
Between 1990 and 2005, 23 African nations have been involved in conflict and according to new research by the aid agencies, Oxfam International, IANSA and Saferworld, this is equal to the amount of money received in international aid during the same period.
The study, “Africa’s Missing Billions”, shows that on average a war, civil war or insurgency shrinks an African economy by 15 per cent.
Conflicts are costing African economies an average of $18bn a year – desperately needed money which could solve the HIV/AIDS crisis, prevent TB and malaria, or provide clean water, sanitation and education.
It is also worth noting that 95% of the Kalashnikov rifles used in these conflicts come from outside Africa; and until a global Arms Trade Treaty is ratified they will continue to do so.
Kalashnikovs are the most common weapon in Africa’s conflicts. These are weapons of mass destruction and you don’t need international weapons inspectors to find them. You can see them everywhere you go; often brandished by young children. Globally, 1000 people are estimated to die daily, the victims of small arms.
And the story doesn’t end there.
More people, especially women and children, die from the consequences of conflict than in the fighting itself. Visit the camps in Darfur, as I have done, where the depredations of the Janjaweed militia have led to 2 million people sheltering in squalid and unsanitary conditions as the world looks away with feigned embarrassment from this first 21st century genocide.
As western nations continue to sell arms into these conflicts, where are our consciences?
And as African leaders continue to corruptly squander lives and resources, where are theirs?
As nations like North Korea and Burma trample on human rights, political freedoms and religious liberties, do our consciences lead us speak out and act, or do we retreat into our private hobbit holes, fearful of the daunting odds and seemingly intractable and insuperable nature of the issues with which we are confronted?
In Britain this year we have been celebrating the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The laws were changed as a result of Christian political action, notably led by William Wilberforce: political action made possible by the religious revival which preceded it.
But consider these facts:
• 27 million people enslaved today;
• ILO say this includes 8.4 million children;
• 700,000 trafficked every year;
• Debt Bondage affects 20 million people;
• Forced labour, child labour, economic servitude, racially motivated and caste based slavery all still persist throughout the world;
• At least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labour worldwide;
• 80% of the 700,000 people trafficked annually are women and children;
• Human trafficking is the third largest source of income for organised crime (after arms and drugs);
• Trafficking generates $7 billion per year;
– and, in considering the facts, ask whether our consciences should rest easily.
In Deus Caritas Est the Holy Father combines two thoughts in telling us how to respond.
Reaching right back to a tradition which flowers in the words of the prophet Amos – who demands of all rulers that they promote justice, we are reminded of Augustine’s dictum that “A state which is not governed by justice is just a bunch of thieves.” (Section 2 (a))
Pope Benedict tells us:
“The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew…. The Church cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice….The promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.” (Section 28, (a))
If social justice demands that we speak and act, Christian love demands an outpouring of charitable endeavour, love in action. This is the Pope’s second great injunction:
“Despite the great advances made in science and technology, each day we see how much suffering there is in the world on account of different kinds of poverty, both material and spiritual. Our times call for a new readiness to assist our neighbours in need.” (Section 30 (a)).
“Charity”, he says, “must animate the entire lives of the lay faithful and therefore also their political activity, lived as “social charity.”
I was struck by the contrast which is drawn in Deus Caritas Est between Marxism and Christianity; the Marxist insistence that the poor simply need justice, not charity; and the Marxist belief that anyone who involves themselves in charity or philanthropy is propping up an unjust system; that through Marxism – “this inhuman philosophy” – “people of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future – a future whose effective realisation is at best doubtful.” (Section31 (b)).
The Pope reminds us that “We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now;” (Section 31 (b))
He also insists that charitable endeavour must not be used for proselytism; that by our deeds, our faith will be known:
“…a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love.” (Section 31 (c)).
At the conclusion of his encyclical, the Holy Father reminds us that God is not asleep “even when his silence remains incomprehensible” (Section 38).
The pain and suffering and evil in the world are not what God intended for us. We are given the great gift of free will and can -with Pilate – wash our hands of our responsibilities – or we can give unconditional love to the man made in the image of God.
Although adherents of the great world religions can be responsible for intolerance, indifference and violence, it is worth noting that Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist historian, says that 185 million have died as victims of secular ideologies.
Our British Chief Rabbi, Dr.Sir Jonathan Sacks, reminds us that man’s destiny, for good or ill, lies in the free will we have been given; that our destiny is in our own hands: “Do not ask where was God at Auschwitz, ask where was man.”
Faith must be aligned with reason; and faith must express itself through its actions.
Let me end with the some words of Mother Teresa, talking about the nature of love:
“We must not think that our love has to be extraordinary. But we do need to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. These things are like the small things of daily life: faithfulness, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being quiet, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. These are the true drops of love that keep our lives and relationships burning like a lively flame.”
For the past 10 years Lord Alton of Liverpool (David Alton) has been an Independent member of the House of Lords. He served for 18 years in the House of Commons, has published 10 books, is a Fellow of St.Andrews University and Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University. He was a founder of Jubilee Campaign: www.davidalton.com