This weekend marks the first anniversary of the assassination of Clement Shahbaz Bhatti. Aged 42, the life of Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, was cut short by self described Taliban assassins. His murderers scattered pamphlets describing him as a “Christian infidel”. The leaflets were signed “Taliban al-Qaida Punjab.”
A devout Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti stands in a long tradition – from Thomas Beckett to Thomas More, Maximilian Kolbe to Oscar Romero – of men willing to lay down their lives for their friends and their faith. Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder also ranks alongside assassinations which stirred consciences, precipitating change: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr.Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy.
Shahbaz Bhatti once said: “I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of the cross, and I am following the cross, and I am ready to die for a cause.”
Bhatti knew his outspokenness against appalling discrimination would make him a target. He insisted his stand would “send a message of hope to the people living a life of disappointment, disillusionment and despair” adding that his life was dedicated to “the oppressed, the down-trodden and the marginalised” and to “the struggle for human equality, social justice, religious freedom and the empowerment of religious minorities’ communities.”
Following his death, local Catholics in Bhatti’s diocese of Faisalabad fasted, prayed and venerated his legacy. Archbishop Saldanha of Lahore and the Pakistan Bishops Conference then wrote to Pope Benedict asking that Bhatti’s name be listed among the martyrs of the faith.
At the time of the murder Pope Benedict entreated the faithful to reflect on Bhatti’s death contrasting Christian suffering with the tepid way we take our religious liberty for granted: “I ask the Lord Jesus that the moving sacrifice of the life of the Pakistani minister Shahbaz Bhatti may arouse in people’s consciences the courage and commitment to defend the religious freedom of all men and, in this way, to promote their equal dignity.”
Bhatti’s death recalls other shocking assassinations.
In 1948, the father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, was shot at point blank range – following five previous attempts to kill him. His murderer, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu nationalist who reviled Gandhi as sympathetic to Muslims.
Gandhi’s grandson, Arun, attributed the following remark to his grandfather: “You must be the change you want to see in the world” . Shahbaz Bhatti had truly become “the change he wished to see”
Ghandi believed in the centrality of personal transformation; that how we live is more important that the rhetoric or words which we use. Gandhi particularly warned his followers not to forget their roots and to stay close to the people: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves”
Twenty years after Gandhi’s death, Dr. Martin Luther King, then aged 39, was gunned down in Memphis.
Five years earlier he had given his landmark speech – “I Have a Dream” – in which he described the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence as a promissory note:
“A promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “inalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.”
Fundamental change about how we see colour and race was ushered in throughout the USA, Europe, and in South Africa’s apartheid regime by King’s sacrificial entry into political life. But like Shahbaz Bhatti and Gandhi he understood the price that would be paid to bring change:
“Change,” he said, “does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
On Tuesday of this week Americans will vote in “Super Tuesday” primary elections – which are supposed to determine who will be the Republican candidate in November’s elections. I have met two of the candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both Catholics. They, and all the participants in what is becoming a “culture wars” election, steeped in negative and vicious campaigning, need to recall Dr.King’s words, perhaps also reflecting on the words of another assassin’s victim. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln, observed that “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Any aspiring politician should also ponder the life and death of another Catholic presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy, gunned down two months after Dr.King. Kennedy had a profound belief in the importance of individual actions, that each of us is made in God’s image (Imago Dei), is, therefore, of inestimable worth, and that we should neither be discouraged by seemingly impossible odds or by the intractable nature of the challenges we face:
“Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one person can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills, misery, ignorance, and violence. Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of a generation.”
Robert Kennedy, like Dr.King, Lincoln, Gandhi, and Shahbaz Bhatti, understood that it is easy to pander to man’s prejudices, harder to call him to a higher, more noble ideal; that our duty is to speak against injustice and to search for the truth. That’s not about right or left, more about right or wrong.
This anniversary of Shahbaz Bhatti’s death challenges should stir us to see politics differently: as sacrificial service.