This week's prayers:
- Peace Sunday
- Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity
- Short Notes: United States, Haiti
Openness to God ... an understanding that God seeks our love and obedience, not just material sacrifices ... a willingness to trust that faithfulness to God will be rewarded, whatever trials it involves ... a readiness to witness publicly to God's goodness. These are positive character traits evident in this week's Revised Common Lectionary texts. As we examine our lives, in which areas do we need to pray that God will strengthen us?
In his message for this year's Peace Sunday (January 15th) Pope Francis contrasts the violence of the last century (two deadly World Wars, the threat of nuclear war and a great number of other conflicts) with the “piecemeal” violence of this: “wars in different countries and continents; terrorism, organized crime and unforeseen acts of violence; the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking; and the devastation of the environment”. Both the violence itself and the diversion of resources it entails “can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all”, he writes.
In the face of such a bleak appraisal of widespread and overwhelming violence, can ordinary individuals play any role in peace making? Is this not the preserve of governments and specialised bodies? Pope Francis argues not only that individuals can be peacemakers but that they are also the principal hope for peace. “Everyone”, he writes, “can be an artisan of peace”. How?
First, there is the need to recognise and respect “the image and likeness of God in each person [which] will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity”. Second, we need to choose to “make active nonviolence our way of life”. He explains, “I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values. May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life… In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions…”
But what does “active non-violence” actually mean? The idea is explored in more depth in some of the accompanying materials for Peace Sunday, in particular the video, the Peace Sunday booklet and the worksheets Exploring Gospel Nonviolence. Thus the nonviolence of Jesus is not passive, meek and mild or defeatist, but is a positive force for healing, restoration and the assertion of human dignity, which exposes hypocrisy, speaks truth to power and resists exploitation – but which rejects retaliation and the temptation to respond to violence in kind. A visual aid, "the two hands of active non violence" graphically explains the concept. Two hands are placed at ninety degrees to each other, touching at the wrists, one upright, the other outstretched. The upright hand says ‘Stop’ to the person involved in the injustice or violence; it shows a refusal to cooperate in that violence or injustice. But the outstretched hand says, ‘We need to talk… I will not reject you’ and makes it clear that change and the opportunity to work things out together is being sought.
In her video message, Pax Christi International’s Marie Dennis says, “Mobilizing courageous and creative people-power, nonviolence doesn’t escape conflict but actively and powerful engages and transforms it”. She describes a conference held in Rome last year where many of the 85 participants were from war-torn or violent countries including Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia, South Sudan, the DR Congo and Afghanistan. “Their testimony was extremely powerful”, she says. She quotes Dominican Sister Nazek Matty whose community was expelled from Mosul by ISIS, who said, “We can’t respond to violence with worse violence. In order to kill five violent men, we have to create 10 violent men to kill them. . . . It’s like a dragon with seven heads. You cut one and two others come up.” Marie Dennis continues, “Many of the conference participants highlighted a deep yearning for just peace, especially in war zones around the world, and an amazing persistence in the pursuit of peace even in the most difficult circumstances. Courageous people in local communities living with unimaginable danger said, ‘Stop the militarization, stop bombing, stop the proliferation of weapons. Rely on nonviolent strategies to transform conflict’.” And she goes on to describe the involvement of the church in non-violent peace-building strategies, working in some extremely dangerous places to bring a just and lasting peace. The Pax Christi materials for Peace Sunday cite other examples of non violence in action.
Perhaps this Peace Sunday we might pray using this prayer from Pax Christi USA (reproduced with kind permission):
Recognising the violence in my own heart,
yet trusting in the goodness and mercy of God, I seek to practice the nonviolence of Jesus: by striving for peace within myself and seeking to be a peacemaker in my daily life; by refusing to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence;
by living conscientiously and simply so that I do not deprive others of the means to live;
by actively resisting evil and working nonviolently to abolish war and the causes of war from my own heart and from the face of the earth.
God, I trust in your sustaining love and believe that you will give me the grace to live out this prayer.
Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity
The message for Peace Sunday beautifully complements this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme of which is “Reconciliation – the love of Christ compels us”, based on 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.
The materials for the week of prayer are themselves a remarkable achievement and worthy of engagement and celebration for their provenance alone. The resources have been created by the Council of Churches in Germany (ACK) in the context of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. They are the result of an ecumenical project and have been long in the making.
The theme for the week emerged from the broader discussions that have been going on in Germany over the past few years about how the churches in Germany might commemorate the Reformation ecumenically. “After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD – the Evangelical Church in Germany - ([EKD's partners include] Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities. Given the fact that the history of the Reformation was marked by painful division, this is a very remarkable achievement.”
The materials for the week have two main “accents”: first is the celebration of God’s love and grace, reflecting the great theme of Martin Luther’s Reformation of ‘justification by faith alone’. Second is the recognition of the pain and division that subsequently afflicted the church. The resources “openly name the guilt and offer an opportunity to take steps towards reconciliation”.
It is also noteworthy that the resources were being written in 2015 against the backdrop of the huge influx of refugees to Germany from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere, in which many individuals and churches actively practised reconciliation by offering hospitality. “The practical help and powerful actions against hatred of the foreigner were a clear witness to reconciliation for the German population”.
There are two main components to the materials: a worship service outline and eight daily reflections (for individual reflection or church use). Both have been adapted, as intended, by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland for use in a UK context and can be found here.
The worship service incorporates a powerful symbolic action of constructing and then tearing down a wall. The stones or bricks each represent a sin that divides (for example, lack of love, abuse of power, discrimination, etc). As each sin is named, the brick is brought forward to build a dividing wall. Forgiveness for each sin is sought. Later in the service, a prayer of reconciliation is offered and the wall is dismantled – the bricks being rearranged into the form of the cross. This symbolic act is given added poignancy by its inspiration: the Berlin Wall and its fall in 1989 – “a symbol of hope for any situation in which a division seems insurmountable”. The whole service, focused on reconciliation, is a profoundly helpful liturgy that would be useful in a variety of situations where acknowledgement of conflict and reconciliation are needed.
- In thanksgiving for the work that has gone into creating the resources for the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity – for the individuals involved, for their determination, faithfulness and witness.
- In thanksgiving for situations where reconciliation has happened against the odds, including in Germany.
- For situations of conflict where reconciliation seems impossible – for strength and resilience for those who strive to keep the hope of peace alive.
- That the materials will inspire and lead others in situations of conflict towards reconciliation and healing.
Short Notes: United States, Haiti
With the presidential inauguration on Friday, preparations for the shift in government are moving into high gear. As we pray for the United States, it's important to remember the broad range of those for whom we need to pray: the US government has a strong system of checks and balances of power at the federal level, and state and local governments have far more power than, say, regional, county, and local authorities in the UK. Hence, for example, Congressional leaders and Congresspeople can and do disagree with the Executive branch, even if they are from the same party, and states have quite broad freedoms to set their own policies and to challenge federal policies in the courts.
For this reason, it's important in the coming week - and beyond - not simply to pray for the President-Elect, asking God to grant him wisdom, discernment, a willingness to seek out justice and righteousness, and strength to reject self-interest and all that distracts from love of God and neighbour. We also need to pray for all those involved in government at national, state and local levels. Pray especially for the Congress to seek out paths of righteousness, justice and mercy, asking guidance for the Senate as it holds confirmation hearings for Cabinet positions and votes on Cabinet appointments, and for both houses as they begin their new legislative programmes. Pray for Cabinet nominees, legislators, and all those who will be seeking to formulate policy at a federal level. And pray for the people of the US - and people in all democracies - as they engage with the political process: may they search out paths of righteousness, justice and mercy and seek to hold their elected officials accountable.
"So many absences. So many rifts still present in our wounded hearts. Painful memories. Are hopes permitted?"
With these words, independent journalist Gotson Pierre reflected on the 7th anniversary of the Haitian earthquake. Looking at materials put together by Haitians to commemorate the event, and coverage from the time (NYT - also very hard to watch), one is again stunned by the scale of the destruction. We mourn as a society - and rightly - when events occur which kill people in their dozens: how can we begin to comprehend an event which killed such a large proportion of the population that its equivalent in the UK* would be something that killed between 325,000 and 2 million people? It is beyond imagining.
The time since the earthquake has been marked by well-publicised political difficulties, issues around aid (especially controversies caused by the way aid was channelled to foreign agencies and by the decisions [cf here and here] of external bodies), and the addition of other crises, such as the introduction of cholera by UN peacekeepers and the destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew . It's also been marked by less-well-publicised - but important - small-scale successes in rebuilding (cf here, here and here)
As the New Year begins, many Haitians are seeking to look forward, using the memory of what has happened in the past to inspire future action. They are also awaiting a new government. On the 3rd of January, Jovenel Moise was confirmed as the new president-elect of the country, having received over 55% of the vote in the first round of presidential elections held in November. He will take office on 7 February. He has promised to focus on curbing corruption and growing food security.
- for all whose hearts remain wounded by the events of 12 January 2010
- for all who are still seeking to rebuild, that they may rebuild well and in a way that meets the needs of the most vulnerable ... and for all who have had further losses since the earthquake
- that national and local government leaders may have clear vision, an ability to prioritise, and the capacity to accomplish what is most necessary. Pray especially for the new president and those he will ask to help govern.
- for justice for Haitians who have suffered because of the decisions made by international actors. Pray especially for proper funding of efforts to fight cholera, including efforts by the UN to fund their new plan.
- that aid organisations will continue to learn from the experiences of Haiti and the impact of their work on the state there
*figures based on the full range of estimates for the death toll - see discussion here