Keeping Hope Alive: The Christian Journey of Peace

Plenary Address by Dr. Phillip Thompson for the Catholic Orthodox Prayer Service on October 23, 2018

Christ the King Cathedral (Atlanta)

Jesus Weeps

“Jesus Wept.” This is the shortest sentence in the New Testament. He wept for the suffering of Mary and Martha at the loss of Lazarus. Their tears moved him.

But what would Jesus think of our world today? Would he weep?

In the Catholic Church, October is Respect Life month. And yet there are so many unnecessary deaths today from a lack of proper medical care, abortion, endless wars, the death penalty, and the latest technique of death-euthanasia as too often many abandoned elderly people increasingly yield to hopelessness.

“Surely, Jesus weeps at these deaths too”

We see the hopelessness that is driving thousands to embrace the rising black tide of opioid addiction and suicide devastating our land.

“Jesus weeps.”

We have been reminded recently that people’s lives have been destroyed by the actions and inactions of our Churches.

“Jesus weeps”

There are almost seventy million refugees in the world according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. They are fleeing war, economic blight, the ravage of diseases, the violence of drug gangs.  They live on the edge of life and death-without a real home, often in squalid and lawless refugee camps where they are easily exploited.  Seventy million-so alone, so forgotten.

“Yes, Jesus weeps.”

Sometimes these refugees, at great risk, come to our borders. We separate mothers and children. We have put some of them in pens like animals.

“Jesus weeps.”

And Christians, many of them Orthodox Christians, are persecuted and are being steadily eliminated in much of the Middle East, the home of their savior on this earth. They are joined by Jews, Yazedis and many Muslims in these same areas who are being killed or persecuted for their faith by people of faith.  I am reminded of the words of the French Catholic philosopher, Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”And I would add ideology to Pascal’s religious conviction.

“Jesus weeps.”

Yes, Jesus surely weeps. But do we Christians weep? Or do we just shrug? Yes, all of that death and destruction is a pity. But it is hard to focus on all of that pain. And besides, what can we do?

I gave a talk titled “the Church in 2050” at the University of Connecticut that warned of potential future calamities – a much smaller church, the dangers of genetic engineering, the end of the social welfare state because of rapid declines in birth rates. etc. After my lecture, I overheard one woman leaving that talk mutter with some exasperation, “Well, that certainly was dark!” And she had a point. It was more than a bit gloomy. So, the next part of this talk is dedicated to her.

A Faith of Hope

Our Christian faith is one of hope. We believe in a good GOD, a GOD of an amazing creation who rested on the seventh day because all that he saw was “good.” This goodness includes us. Every person is made in the image and likeness of God. No exceptions. So, in times of darkness, of fallenness hope remains.

This makes me recall a special moment many years ago. Father Edward Everett at Holy Cross Church used to remind us of our role in denying Jesus in our lives and our actions. He would on Good Friday lower the lights in the sanctuary, except one light on a large cross that was laid on the steps leading up to the altar. The congregation would slowly process up to the altar in two single file rows. On the arms of the cross where Jesus hands would have been were two large metal stakes. Each line of congregants when they got to the cross would pick up a hammer and hit the metal stakes. I can still hear the echo of the clanging of metal on metal. Bang, Bang, Bang.  What a reminder of a fallen world and our role in it.

BUT, Jesus’s story does not end with our actions. He forgave us. “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” And he offered and still offers a path to eternal life. As Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life. So like Lazarus, we too can rise.

But then what? We must act. We must act to bring his peace into the world. To this end, let us look at one issue tonight-the long-desired but illusive prospect for peace in the Middle East.

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew embrance as a gesture of brotherly love

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew were involved in a day of prayer at Bari, Italy in the summer of 2017 for peace with the Patriarchs of the Christian churches of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. Pope Francis noted there that to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East we must end our indifference to the pain and suffering there. He declared,

“Today, as one, we want to kindle a flame of hope. May the lamps we will place be so many signs of a light that continues to shine forth in the dark. Christians are the light of the world (cf. Mt5:14) not only when everything is bright around them, but also when, in dark moments of history, they refuse to be resigned to the encircling gloom but instead feed the wick of hope with the oil of prayer and love. For when we lift up our hands to heaven in prayer, and we stretch out our hands to our brothers and sisters without seeking our own advantage, then the fire of the Spirit, the Spirit of unity and of peace, is kindled and leaps into flame.

Let there be peace! This is the cry…For their sake, we have no right, in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world, to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference. We want to give a voice to those who have none, to those who can only wipe away their tears…”

In summary, Pope Francis remembers our hopes, requests our prayers, and asks us to reject indifference.

Patriarch Bartholomew also has affirmed the harm of violence in our times. He observed that, “taking away the peace of a people, committing every act of violence, or consenting to such acts, especially when directed against the weakest and defenseless, is a profoundly grave sin against God.” In his closing remarks in Bari, the Patriarch reminded the participants that our search for peace requires concrete actions by

#1Condemning terrorism in all its forms and

#2 Engaging in acts of peace and cooperation between faiths.

III. What You Can Do: Your Homework

Listening to this, you might say what can I do? Well, you have a number of options:

#1 Let us “feeds the wick of hope with the oil of prayer and love.” We are doing that tonight with our prayers. But let us pray tonight as if God is really here.

#2 Demand that Congress and the President assist people of faith around the world whether it is in Myanmar or Syria or Egypt or any other country. Let us bring the enormous resources of the United States to help such refugees. There are over one million refugees in Jordan and it has a population of six million. How many refugees does the United States, a country of three hundred and twenty five million,  take in? We welcomed over 200,000 legal refugees per year under President Reagan. This declined under President Obama to 110,000 in 2016 and finally to 29,022 in 2017. That is pathetic, pathetic and shameful. Write or call your elected representatives, make your voice heard. Demand of your congressman and senator that we raise the number of legal refugees we accept each year. There are special groups like Catholic Charities who with incredible skill offer that most special of gifts-hope and a new beginning. I have volunteered with Catholic Charities when they helped a refugee family. It was a special day. I was reminded of the biblical verse, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:1-2).

The issue of refugees is a large political issue. And you will get to that tomorrow. But tonight, there is something that we can all do. We can carry a light into the darkness. We can bring this light to the reception tonight. Let us get to know one another as friends in hope and faith. And what better way than over some food. This is how people have come together for many millennia.

So, let me close by giving you a homework assignment. At the reception, you must talk to someone who is not of your faith. “Be not afraid!” They will not bite, except into their food. They are made like you in the image and likeness of God. So, let us talk and eat and rejoice and be lamps of hope. Let us rise from our indifference and like Lazarus let us walk with Jesus. And perhaps, we can end this evening with Jesus not weeping but smiling and thinking maybe someday these people “will all be one”. I hope you all get an A on this homework assignment. Now, let us continue with glad hearts to “feed the wick of hope with the oil of prayer and love.”