Hope and peacemaking begin in mourning

By Albert Nolan
Published by Orbis, $18

I’ve read enough of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, John XXIII, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Paul II, Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton to hear the call for personal, national and global conversion to nonviolence.

For starters, we learn the methodology and practice of personal, interpersonal and global nonviolence. We teach nonviolence to one another even as we explore and expose and seek to heal our own violence. Sorrow is a good beginning. Grieve. Hold the sorrow. And amid the tears, take heart. Our tears teach us to participate in global transformation. Our broken hearts enable us to sow the seeds of nonviolence.

In the sorrowful songs of black slaves, the minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and confidence -- sometimes faith in life, sometimes death, sometimes justice in a world beyond. The songs are the message of the slave to the world, the music of children of disappointment, death and suffering. They are distinctly sorrowful but the cadences of despair interchange with triumph and confidence.

That resonated in me reading Dominican Fr. Albert Nolan’s Hope in an Age of Despair. In apartheid South Africa, Nolan, in solidarity with others, unleashed the message and power of Christian hope.

Nolan and his community seized the time to develop genuine Christian hope, which, he understands, is always hope against hope. He learned to be hopeful where there were no signs of hope because he understood that hope is not based on signs but on God. And God’s power is not in coercion, control and domination but in love and compassion.

People are inheritors of a great spiritual promise. They can find energy to keep going, into peace, hope, love, even in dark times. Acting in hope for Nolan is embracing the cause of justice. He did it in South Africa. His experience can and should inspire us to rediscover the power of love and compassion within us. When we see God crucified in those who are poor and oppressed, may we feel the urge to act in hope, to be committed to acts aimed at ending their injustice.

Some things about God became clearer to Nolan in his years in South Africa. His vision is a profound gift to many of us still finding our way amid the suffering that surrounds us. He moved from seeing God as the cause of suffering, to God as one who allows people to suffer, to God as one who is suffering with the lowest and least of us.

By Paul J. DaPonte
Published by Orbis, $34

Paul J. DaPonte’s book, Hope in an Age of Terror, is a theological reflection on Sept. 11, 2001. He divides his reflection into 9/10, 9/11 and 9/12, the better to engage his examination of the terrorist attacks through the lens of history, crisis and hope. In the flyleaf DaPonte writes: “I pray that God will grant you wisdom to find creative ways to practice embrace in our world shot through with violence,” then he notes that this is the voice of Miroslav Volf, concluding his remarks at the United Nations’ annual International Prayer Breakfast on Sept. 11, unaware that only blocks away the World Trade Towers had just imploded.

In 9/10, DaPonte acknowledges a long history of suffering written in blood, which he proves to be causal of the tragedy of 9/11. Theology, as he understands it, begins in those desperate spaces where human beings cry out in agony and bewilderment. In this section, DaPonte focuses on the evil and suffering of Auschwitz. In that one extermination camp Nazis were responsible for one death per minute, day and night, for three years. Many of those killed were living corpses who had endured their death as juridical and moral persons and the death of their individuality. The former caused outrage; the latter despair.

In 9/11, the author focuses on the Sept. 11 question: How do we respond to an act of unfathomable cruelty resulting in incalculable suffering? Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the early hours that day. Millions more were traumatized. Towers imploded. Dust and ash blanketed the streets. We were left with the discomfort of knowing that we created monsters we could no longer control. Terrorism and counterterrorism alike feed on fear, manipulating it to irrational hysteria. And we know that the manipulation of fear is a familiar tactic among governments.

DaPonte suggests that the United States missed the potential of this crisis, failing utterly to consider the foundations upon which we built our empire or the systems of power and domination with which we have victimized so many in our world. Sept. 11 can’t be understood without acknowledging the connections between terrorism and the cycles of violence and revenge.

It is as simple as ABC. Revenge is a visceral response to humiliation. Those humiliated can perceive religion and violence as antidotes to their humiliation. As the political head of Hamas explained: “To die as a suicide bomber is better than to die daily in frustration and humiliation.” The antidote must include seeing the humiliations others suffer and seeking to alter their condition. We, as a people, did nothing of the sort and so we feed the cycle in our hatreds and wars.

In 9/12, he acknowledges that we have seen more devastation than we can cope with. We are losing the ability to mourn, to be compassionate, to feel the pain and death. The 9/12 of our hope is rooted in repentance for all the days we ignored the peace of Christ and opted for the vicious cycle of violence and revenge. The 9/12 that can make a difference is a courageous and practiced hope that pays close attention to the voices of actual witnesses. No sword can cut away all forms of danger and distress when relationships are involved. Transformation can only occur by way of empathy, compassion and persuasion.

Suffering is real and cannot be expunged; loss is real and cannot be recovered. Everything will not come out all right, as if the anguish were justified or amounted to nothing. But everything can be resurrected to become new life. That is not resignation, nor is it denial or escape. That is conquest from within, a gentle strength working to transform suffering into a new creation.

DaPonte offers a thoughtful exploration of the self-donation of God as Trinity as the theological foundation for the hope he calls 9/12. And he summons us to share in the life of our triune God. Terrorists make a statement in the world; their statement is fear. God makes statements in the world; God’s statements invite us into perfect self-giving and mutual indwelling. DaPonte invites us to open our ears to hear both “fear” and “fear not.”

The Trinity means that suffering is profoundly social. It forces us to understand that we are involved in the tragedy, participants in the humiliation of people we name “terrorists.” Change must take place on both sides of the grievance. The journey into the other is the heart of Christian forgiveness. Our model and inspiration in this is Jesus’ plea from the cross that his murderers be forgiven. That is self-giving love, what we believe to be the very life of God.

Brutal regimes deflect anger and stridency every day. In face of them, we walk with sorrow. Broken hearts enable violated people to sow seeds of nonviolence. It is no accident that “Blessed are those who mourn” precedes “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Peacemaking begins in mourning, mourning the dead of Baghdad, Gaza, Kabul, Bogotá, Port-au-Prince, Darfur. Mourn the loss of every sister and brother, of every species and iceberg. Mourn the loss of creatures and creation itself. Expand mourning, offer love and compassion to everyone. Teach nonviolence. Pursue a culture where guns, bombs, poverty, weapons and war are unwelcome. Walking with sorrow is a human response to an inhuman time.

[Liz McAlister lives and works with the Jonah House Community in Baltimore. She was the community’s cofounder in 1973 with her late husband, Philip Berrigan.]

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