We must find ways other than violence to build peace in the world

by Thomas Gumbleton

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As you are aware, I'm sure, every time we listen to the Scripture readings for our liturgy, we should do that within the context of what's happening within our personal lives, in our community, our world, so that we can hear God's word and reflect on it in a way that helps us to determine how we should react to what's going on.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Numbers 21:4b-9
Psalms 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17
Full text of the readings

And I must confess that these Scripture lessons are very important for me because they give me a hope, a sense of what can happen even out of evil, out of hatred and violence and destruction. Something good could happen, but we have to listen, and to follow the way of Jesus. At first, then, I was filled with sadness this week because, as we all know, once more, we're going to war again. Well, we say we're going to be bombing, and we'll just send some troops in to train those who can fight on the ground, but that's how we got into Vietnam. And that's how we've been getting into every war ever since.

My sadness reminded me of Pope John Paul [II] -- St. John Paul now -- during the last year of his life, the last international trip he made just a few months before he died when he was suffering so terribly. And we all remember seeing him suffering from the ravages of Parkinson's disease. But he went to Spain, and a reporter wrote about his first evening there, when John Paul was speaking to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of young people.

The reporter says, "[John Paul is] still filled with a palpable sadness over the war in Iraq." This is the second Persian Gulf War, and John Paul had done everything he could to try to persuade President [George W.] Bush and the leaders of Iraq not to go to war again, but we went to war anyway. And John Paul was feeling this sadness as he spoke to these hundreds of thousands of Spanish youth here today.

Now, what he wanted desperately for the world was peace, and the reporter says he kept repeating that word: "The world needs peace! There must be peace! We need peace! We have to have peace!" because the alternative is so unacceptable. And so John Paul said, "Beloved young people, you well know how concerned I am about peace in the world."

And he went on to express distress about what he called "the spiral of violence, terrorism and war." He pleaded with these young people, "Keep yourselves far from every form of exaggerated nationalism, racism, and intolerance. Instead," he said, "be artisans of peace. Respond to violence and inhuman hatred with the fascinating power of love." And that's what these Scripture lessons will teach us today if we listen deeply and if we're willing to respond to them.

But first, I also want to emphasize how war is this unspeakable, unacceptable violence. You know the president says we're going to bomb. Now to most of us, that doesn't mean very much because we never experienced bombing, most of us. Our own country hasn't been bombed literally. But during that war, that second war in Iraq, here's what bombing meant -- and this is testimony of a doctor who went into the city of Fallujah after we had bombed there in preparation for our troops to go in: "In the third day of the siege, they used the cluster bomb, preparing for the Marines to strike the area."

And he says, "That day, we did not work as doctors. We just collected the heads of children and women; heads and limbs. And I remember our duty was just to find the appropriate limb with the appropriate body and head so we can put in one bag, so we can prepare for being buried. That night was six hours, and it was so long, six hours." And this was a famous incident the doctor described -- a child with his brain opened. He lost all his brain; it was a famous picture. "I carried that child with my hands. He was one of eight -- four children, four women. All of them are just pieces."

See, that's what our bombing does to people. It doesn't just destroy buildings, it tears people apart -- little children -- and so that's why it is so sad that we're going to war again. It should disturb us because there is another way. What Jesus tells us today in the Scriptures is really -- or, what God tells us -- in the first lesson from the Old Testament, there's that beautiful example of how something evil, those serpents that could bring death so quickly, which brings suffering.

Moses found a way, under God's direction, to show that you can transform evil to good. See, it's symbolic, but the truth is behind it. This evil serpent, made in a bronze image, put on a pole, then becomes the source of healing for all who look upon it. And of course in the Gospel, Jesus says, "I, when I am lifted up, will have the same effect. When you look upon me in my crucified insistence, and understand what the message is ... you can be healed."

There's another passage in St. John's Gospel further on, where it becomes even more clear what Jesus is talking about when he's speaking in today's Gospel to Nicodemus. It's in the 12th chapter of John's Gospel, and Jesus is explaining to some outsiders -- that is, pagans, not Jewish people -- about his own mission in the world. He says that, "when I am lifted up from the Earth, I shall draw all people to myself."

With these words, Jesus referred to the kind of death he was to die. "When I am lifted up from the Earth, I will draw all people to myself." Why? See, we often think of the crucifixion as the way that Jesus bought us back. But that's a very cruel way to think about God -- that somehow God would put Jesus through that kind of horrible suffering and death, ignominious death on the cross, to buy us back. What kind of a God would that be?

But the real message is that when Jesus dies on the cross, as St. Paul says, "He empties himself and becomes one like us in every way." Empties himself, gives himself over to death, even the ignominious death on the cross. When Jesus does that, he's showing us how we can overcome violence and hatred and evil, because how does Jesus die? Not hating his enemies, not seeking to hear revenge, not using violence against them. He dies loving them, forgiving them.

It's the culmination of all of his teachings about how we are going to transform our world into the reign of God, where there will be fullness of peace and life and joy for every person. What Jesus does through his death is show us how we can bring life to our world, bring peace and fullness of life into our world. Not by hating, not by taking revenge, not by returning violence for violence, but by returning love.

That's the ultimate message of Jesus. He said it all in the Sermon on the Mount: "Don't just love those who love you; love your enemy. Do good to those who hurt you." There are other ways to bring peace to our world than to try to do it through the foolish way of violence and hatred. That will never work. St. Paul, in writing to the church of Corinth, talks about this whole message of Jesus when he tells them they obviously were struggling with the idea that you can overcome hatred with love.

They couldn't understand it, but Paul says to them, "Look, here am I preaching a crucified Christ. Crucified Christ -- a Christ who won't be using revenge, who won't retaliate, who doesn't return hatred for hatred." That's a Christ who is totally weak on the cross. And Paul says to the Jews, "It's a scandal; a stumbling block." They can't conceive a God who would become so totally weak and only return love for hate, so it's a scandal, a stumbling block.

And he says to the Greeks, so-called wise people, "It's foolishness! But," Paul says, "the weakness of God, Jesus on the cross, loving us, is stronger than human strength. And the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom." And so what we're being told today is that Jesus does show us the way. Instead of returning violence for violence, instead of going to war again, we must find other means to reach out -- to enter into dialogue, to negotiate, to use diplomacy, to use what we have to build peace in the world, not to bring more violence.

And the first lesson shows us we can transform hatred and violence into something good. The Gospel lesson tells us the same thing. Jesus tells us, "I, when I am lifted up, pouring forth love upon the world, will draw all people to myself." And all of us, if we really take seriously what it means to follow Jesus -- to follow his way of peace, forgiveness and love -- we, too, can be entering into the work of Jesus to transform our world into the reign of God where peace will happen in its fullness.

Perhaps, if we would go home remembering these words again of Pope John Paul speaking to the young people -- "Be artisans of peace" -- dream of how we can make peace happen, then make it happen. Respond to violence, hatred, with the fascinating power of love in everything that we do -- as individuals, as a community, as a nation. That's the way that we can change what is the situation that causes of profound sadness into something that could definitely bring genuine peace and joy into our hearts and into our world.

[Homily given at St. Philomena parish in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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