Sunday, March 20, 2016

We Know Not


Catholic Peace Fellowship
Deacon Tom Cornell

                      After the Last Supper, Jesus and his companions walked across the Kedron Valley to Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives.  If you visit Israel today, you will surely want to see the Mount of Olives where Jesus suffered his Agony in the Garden.  You come to a little stream at the bottom of the valley on the way.  The guide tells you, “This is the Kedron River.” You are surprised.  It’s not much of a river now, just a little stream, not much more than a trickle.  You can hop over it.  It was broader then, the guide tells you.  Jesus and the apostles took their sandals off to wade across.  Imagine it.  

                       Jesus knew he had a special relationship with the Father even as a boy.  “Didn’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?”  At his baptism he had heard the voice from the clouds, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”   Then the Spirit led him into the desert where he fasted and prayed for forty days and nights to discern his mission.  And there he was tempted by Satan, who at last departed from him, for a while, we are told, for a while.  Satan would come back and tempt him again, maybe now.  As they waded across the river, if Jesus turned his eyes to the right, southward, did it occur to him that safety was not far away, escape?  The caves!  Caves where robbers and insurgents hid were just a night’s walk into the desert.  Night was about to fall.  By morning he could be far enough away....  True God, true man.  What drowning man does not grasp at straws?   

                         Jesus knew what was coming, who was coming, an arrest party, Judas.  In righteous wrath Jesus had upset the tables of the buyers and sellers in the Temple court; he had driven their animals out with a knotted cord and he had castigated the Temple authorities: “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.”  He had enemies.  They were coming after him now, to kill him.  If he made it to the caves to hide for a month or two maybe the anger against him would pass, maybe the tide would turn again in his favor. Or maybe they’d just forget. 
                            Just a few days earlier the crowds had greeted Jesus on his arrival in Jerusalem riding on the back of an ass. Then they shouted for joy, wouldn’t you, wouldn’t I?  Imagine you are in that crowd.  “Hosanna, hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They cast their cloaks down before him, and palm fronds.  We are in the same crowd a week later before Pilate’s praesidium.  This time the shouts have changed.  Now it’s “Give us Barabbas!”  “We have no king but Caesar!”  “Crucify him!”      
                             Imagine the humiliation on the Cross, Jesus stripped in front of men and women too, his mother.  His body is weakened by hours of beating; he heaves, gasping for breath.  Taunts are hurled up at him, gall and vinegar raised to his parched lips, three hours of this.  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  It is over.  The salvific act is completed.  We are saved.  At the reading of it we fall to our knees in awe and sorrow and we pray. 

                               God’s command to Abraham to spare Isaac signaled the end of child sacrifice.  The descendants of Abraham were never to do such a thing, the most horrid abomination among the pagans, feeding their sons and daughters to Moloch.  Today, old men -- and now old women, send young men -- and now young women to kill and to be killed in war and they call it sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice they call it, when it is more truly sacrilege.  God does not will the death of a sinner.  He did not will the death of Isaac and he did not will the death of Jesus.  God cannot will evil. Sin did it, we did it, you did it, I did it.  God willed faith and obedience, Obedience for Jesus was the acceptance of his destiny as it unfolded in the spirit and in the deeds of nonviolence.  And this Jesus did to the utmost, achieving atonement, at-one-ment.  But why such a brutal death?  To show us the ugliness of sin and the greatness of God’s mercy!

                               Just imagine:  what if Jesus hanging on the cross had prayed, “Father, you are just.  I demand justice now.  Avenge me!”  There would have been no salvation.  No!  He prayed, “Father, forgive them.  They know not what they do!”  Jesus obeyed.  Jesus heard the will of God in the depths of his soul and he acted upon it: God demands compassion, forgiveness.  So were we saved, by his obedience and his prayer of forgiveness, in the final revelation of God’s love, the Paschal Mystery, life out of death.    
                             From what are we saved?  From sin, of course, the results of sin, hell.  Rings of torture, fire, steam and ice in Dante’s Divine Comedy are poetic images inadequate to describe what it is not to love any more, to be alone.  “Hell is not to love anymore” (George Bernanos).  Sin is a deliberate rupture of right relationship.  Sin is a turning from love.  Sin is refusal to acknowledge Truth.  “What is truth?” Pilate asked, not the last skeptic.  From what are we saved?  From the wages of sin, death, the second death, hell, utter alienation.  It need not be.  It is true.  God’s seal on Christ’s redemptive act is the Resurrection.

                               Forgiveness is an act of will to break the cycle of vengeance and violence and death.  Jesus forgave.  Peace is Christ’s gift to us, a peace that the world cannot give.  There can be no peace without justice.  Pope John Paul taught there can be no true justice without forgiveness for we are all enmeshed in the web of guilt.  Vengeance is death.  Forgiveness is life.

                                Oh God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.  Inscribe in our hearts your law of justice; carve into us the New Commandment that Jesus gave his own at the Last Supper, to love one another “as I have loved you,” that is, even unto death.  Make us know that every time we turn to violence even in a just cause we shout, “Give us Barabbas!”  Every time we put loyalty to nation-state above loyalty to God we shout, “We have no king but Caesar!”  Every time we strike out in anger to harm or to kill, we shout, “Crucify him!” 

                                Forgive us, Lord, we know not what we do!  W

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Works of Mercy, Works of Peace

Catholic Peace Fellowship
Deacon Tom Cornell

Pope Francis has designated January 16th World Day of Peace this year in an especially moving appeal for the things that make for peace.  He declared indifference a fundamental spiritual problem, indifference first of all to God, then indifference to our fellows and to the fate of our common home in defiance of the Two Great Commandments.  It is all too easy to be indifferent to men and women in prison.  They are not like us, we assume.  We are respectable, hard-working, law-abiding citizens; they are not.  “If they didn’t belong there they wouldn’t be there,” some will say.  “This is a free country,” they argue, “and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and we have the fairest laws and the most honest courts in the world.”  And the kicker: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”  The fact remains that the United States has less than five percent of the world's population but almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.  The US is number one all right!  China with four times our population comes in a distant second.

 Pope Francis has long made prison ministry a mainstay of his vocation. On nearly every foreign trip he has made he has visited prisoners to offer words of solidarity and hope, and he still stays in touch with Argentine inmates he ministered to during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.  And Francis has gone farther than his predecessors in condemning the death penalty, saying there is simply no justification for the death penalty today.  He has called for its world-wide abolition. He has called life prison terms a "hidden death penalty" and solitary confinement a "form of torture" — and said both should be abolished as well.  "Jesus tells us that love for others — foreigners, the sick, prisoners, the homeless, even our enemies — is the yardstick by which God will judge our actions….  Our eternal destiny depends on this.”

I remember a conversation I had with the associate warden at Danbury federal prison in 1968.  “You are an educated gentleman,” he told me.  “You will soon learn that most of the men in here are good for nothing.  They’ve always been good for nothing, and that’s all they’ll ever be.  Good for nothing!”  And so that’s the way he and the rest of the staff treated us, as good for nothing.  1968 was the most tumultuous year across the globe since 1848, and although I had helped to conceive it, for better and for worse, I missed half of it.  I missed the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  I had to see what I saw of it on TV in a Mafia dorm.  The Mafia guys rooted for the cops.  “Kill the ______ hippies!”  I was lucky to be assigned to that dorm because it was safe there.  Rape is a constant threat in prison.  When an effeminate man was assigned to our dorm and one fellow declared “he’s mine!” the Mafia boss told him that if there were any force involved he would wake up the next morning with his throat slit.  Nothing happened.

The maximum sentence for violation of the Selective Service law is five years and $250,000 fine.  Most men convicted under the draft act as I had been got two to three years.  I must have had the shortest sentence in Danbury, only six months, for burning my draft card.  But it was horrible, even if it was “baby-time,” as the inmates called it.  Even so, I value the experience.  Without it I would not understand the suffering of people behind bars.  It is unremitting boredom.  No one in jail is happy, guards included.  Prison guards have the shortest life expectancy of any occupation.  And the cooks!  Unhappy people cannot cook.  The food was terrible; whatever they cooked they ruined one way or another.

Preaching on this subject has little if any positive effect on parishioners.  REC does!  REC, Residents Encounter Christ, is a Cursillo based three-day retreat program that brings eight or so parishioners into a prison for a couple of over-nights so that they can share their faith journeys with prisoners, called “residents” rather than convicts.  Mostly middle-class white men share their lives with mostly poor men of color.  They laugh together at the silly games woven into the program.  That’s the best part for me, to hear them laugh.   You don’t hear much of that in prison.  And we find that we have much more in common than not.  We come to see these men as brothers and sons, if only for such a short time.  It is forbidden to have any on-going relationship with the men.  It’s here and now and that’s it!

 Who benefits from this program, REC, the prisoners or the parishioners?  You guessed it, the parishioners of course.  They cannot fail to notice the disdainful glance of a prison guard when he sees a civilian carrying a Bible.  These church people are advocates for the inmates!  That’s not what the guards want!  Most importantly, the parishioners come to realize how little correction there is in the correctional system, how little penance in the penitentiary, how little justice in the Justice Department.  Then they are open to questioning how much defense there is in the Defense Department.  

Ask your pastor if he knows how to contact a REC organizer.  If he doesn’t, call the chancery office.  Visiting the prisoner is a corporal work of mercy.  Praying with the prisoner is a spiritual work of mercy.  In the end, the merciful will be shown mercy.   W