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We Are Not Spectators: A Christian Perspective
Jan 1, 2017

In a letter to G-20 leaders in 2013 Pope Francis stated, “It is regrettable that, from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, one-sided interests have prevailed and in fact hindered the search for a solution that would have avoided the senseless massacre now unfolding.”  The head of the Roman Catholic Church proceeded to call for “a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community.” In hindsight, his words were prophetic. It is now 2017. The atrocities of ISIL, and Boko Haram and the devastation from armed conflict world-wide have increased. The flow of refugees into Europe from Syria has reached epic proportions, testing the ability of diverse and at times conflicting religious cultures to establish mutual understanding and trust. But the situation of ethnic and religious conflict goes beyond narrow Muslim-Christian differences and extends to intra-religious, intra-ethnic, and intra-cultural hostilities.

Sustained commitment and constructive dialogue become difficult when one crisis supplants another in the non-stop flow of information-as-news. Real resolutions require diplomats and politicians to reach an (increasingly unlikely) agreement as to what is at stake, before rational decisions can be made about what to do.  With global political discourse focused on “country” and “region,” “national interest” and “homeland security,” responsive strategies lose sight of “the people” and their human right to life, safety, and self-determination. Military intervention does not honour that right; nor do Western strategies favouring partisan economic and geo-political options.

The degradation of human dignity and the apparent overwhelming power of evil is a cause of bewilderment for believers in a loving God, the all-merciful Lord of the worlds. From a Christian perspective the words of Pope Francis, in Joy of the Gospel, resonate with me. “Sometimes I wonder if there are people in today’s world who are really concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results, which yield easy, quick short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness.”  

Homeland security or global solidarity?
None of us—neither Christian nor Muslim—stands outside this concern; none is unaffected by the suffering. In a 2013 vigil, Pope Francis prayed that God give all “Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will,” the resolve to “cry out forcefully: violence and war are never the way to peace!”  And he offered, in a non-particularistic phrase, the “goodness of creation” as the moral standard for judgment.  Those who call “Allah, the Lord of the worlds” and those who call “God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” appeal to a moral measure beyond national security or sectarian interests to a shared sense of humanity, whose dignity cannot be negotiated at the tables of political or economic power.

Against such a profound understanding of human dignity—a dignity that transcends even human legislation—it is difficult to argue in favour of bombing or boots on the ground, which will inevitably feed international crises, create divisions among groups, and erode human hope. It is equally untenable to stand by, numbed and inactive, in the face of the enormous and relentless degradation of humanity.

A creation perspective would allow governmental and legislative policy makers to let go of the Gordian knot of irreconcilable—because partial—positions on what ought to be done. It is difficult enough to define justice in peaceful times – and most difficult when the definition is skewed by particular interests and shared biases that pass for common sense.

On the Catholic side of the dialogue, Pope Francis stresses our moral obligation, not only to respond to violence, but to look at the prejudices that enforce and are enforced by entrenched positions, especially those of cultural and economic exclusion.

One of these prejudices is the idea of distance or of space or territory, where we view boundaries and borders as principles of containment or security—a notion pursued by both terrorists and anti-terrorists. “Giving priority to space means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present, trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion; it is to crystallize processes and presume to hold them back.” The Pope calls for “giving priority to time ... being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.” He readily concedes, however, that while easily imagined such hopes do not readily penetrate the heart and move the will. He blames a mindset that compromises truth and goodness through political self-interest, a “globalisation of indifference,” and an intellectual laziness that can no longer be bothered with authentic “dialogue and reconciliation.”

If the Pope appeals to the conscience of world leaders, he appeals more directly to the conscience of every person.

Both Christians and Muslims have substantive reasons for opposing war, not least of which is the economic hardships suffered by the poor in their respective nations. But we in the West are joined to the victims in the Middle East and Africa, along with all those following dangerous migration routes in hope of new lives. We are connected as well to the impasse to peace created by dominant economic and political structures benefitting the West. As Pope Francis says, “Today in many places we hear a call for greater security. But until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence.” Economic and political structures have a causal relationship to the oppressive conditions and revolutionary anger that fuel violence not only in the Middle East, but across the world and within our own nation and neighborhoods.

While calling on divine intercession and protection is an authentic expression of religion, without meaningful deeds on the part of believers, these words become routine and empty. Moral outrage without decisive action toward significant resolution leads to hypocrisy. 

It is not enough to feel bad about the wanton violence and degradation of life that has become commonplace, or to make moral judgments about the failure of politicians and governments to act effectively. Pope Francis insists, “We need to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point that they bear fruit in significant historical events.”

Only communicative action and authentic conversation can contribute to a satisfactory outcome—not one that brings about “eternal peace” (as was the dream of Kant), but that creates the conditions for human progress, an alternative to the current cycle of decline. Here is an appeal to conscience, a summons to act.

Conscience is more than a moral judgement about something “out there;” it makes a claim on the one making that judgment. We are not spectators in an evil world; we are connected to that world, and share in that evil—some by being its direct victims. The continuation of soul-destroying violence threatens to extinguish everyone’s sense of human dignity and the value of life.

Formation of conscience and the task of building a moral community
Conscience is often portrayed as a mysterious inner voice that tells us that what we have done, are doing, or thinking of doing is morally good or evil. The pinch of conscience, in this view, can torment a person until he or she repents. While we may try to dull it, conscience can never be totally silenced. Conscience is not a moral “app” that works like something independent of who we are. Its range is often limited by bias and culture to individual actions, choices, and attitudes. Moral education for most of us has not included weighing our relationship to or responsibility for the violence, suffering, and pain that is so real in the lives of millions.

However, the incessant reports of unspeakable violence and insufferable circumstances of the lives of countless others is a summons to find a space where we can leave behind the rhetoric that narrows our understanding and feeds the impatience and indifference that leads to the apathy of despair or the anger of militarism. But we must go further in order to become a strong social force.

Because the world's Muslims and Christians do not belong to a single organization or community in the simplest sense of that word, one cannot expect a spontaneous emergence of a shared understanding and common will that leads to peace.  We need a process that fosters the development of a collective moral consciousness among and between Muslims and Catholics, and enables groups and individuals to make decisions and take actions that offer alternatives to war.

Religious leaders must lead and not just moralize. How can they demonstrate that believers are able to act with cooperative, conscientious responsibility? First of all, Muslims must dialogue with other Muslims, and Christians with other Christians, about how they can respond in faith to suffering and injustice. An internal discussion is not a substitute, but may be a condition for a Christian-Muslim exchange. It is also a prerequisite for dialogue with other citizens and the formation of public opinion with transformative potential in the face of current fatalism over the possibility of harmony in the world.

The kind of process and dialogue that leads to resolution and action requires structure and organization, which in turn depends on leadership and inspiration. If the religious leaders believe in what they preach, they will recognize this moment as a transformative opportunity, an opportunity to bring their followers together to think seriously about the senseless escalation of violence in our world.

The kind of dialogue that is needed will require coming together in prayerful resolve, to gather often and share at length in order to even begin to gain some understanding of what is happening. A transformative moral consciousness in Islam and Christianity can only take root in the lives of people.

Resistance to the radical rejection of life inherent in escalating global violence is not just a matter of religious morality. Wherever people of conscience raise their voices and act against the de-humanizing intent and consequences of terrorism, we are all summoned to stand with them. Standing up to any threat to humanity is not a “Christian” or “Muslim” issue. But it is one that challenges all believers to make clear what faith means in terms of the real lives of people in tangible solidarity with the victims of violence.

More than a war for territory or property, this is a struggle for the minds of people. It requires an acknowledgement of the feelings, and even despair, of heartbreak and compassion as a necessary prelude to talking about how to respond. We don’t need simplistic or naive ideas. We don’t need to fall into hasty reductionisms that reduce “the whole problem” to this or that. Dialogue must be patient, and, as Pope Francis suggested, it needs us to not be overwhelmed by the urgency, so that we do not lose sight of the other and not hear what they are saying. If neither side learns from the other, nothing is accomplished.

Such a process is risky and can get out of hand. It may be subject to conflict between people with entrenched or simplistic political opinions. But the development of a moral will for peace requires leaders who can help participants learn mutual respect and gain the capacity for conversation.

The hope, however, is that as we learn to listen to one another and that the bonds of inter-religious community will, in the vision of Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan, “make the experience of each resonate to the experience of others and arouse in all a drive to understand and an insistence on behaving intelligently that generates and implements common ways, common manners, common undertaking, common commitments.”

In the face of the atrocities multiplying daily in centres of violence around the world, Catholics cannot be spectators; they must be actors. For moral opinion to become formative of public will, and for social justice to become a mass social movement, something has to change. The process of creating a truly human moral consciousness, capable of peace-making, with the credibility and persuasiveness to influence world politics, begins with the recognition that we are not spectators.