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Of films, riots and hatred I: Benedict XVI in Lebanon

[ by Charles Cameron -- where to begin? let's start with peace ]
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Photo credit: Ciro Fusco, EPA

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Pope Benedict XVI has been in the Lebanon these last three days, and after an extremely turbulent week in which many discordant religious and / or “religious” notes have been sounded, I thought I’d begin what I imagine will be a series of posts from my POV on the mayhem with some words of peace (Heb: Shalom; Ar: Salaam) from the Pontiff, seen above celebrating an open air mass on the Beirut beachfront.

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The Pope was in the Lebanon to sign a Catholic document of some significance, the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, and it is from that document that I would like to extract some specific paragraphs:

Here’s the kernel of the situation as the Pope sees it, going into it –

How many deaths have there been, how many lives ravaged by human blindness, how many occasions of fear and humiliation! … How sad it is to see this blessed land suffer in its children who relentlessly tear one another to pieces and die!

– grief at human folly.

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Benedict then begins to address the situation, offering us his definition of peace:

For the sacred Scriptures, peace is not simply a pact or a treaty which ensures a tranquil life, nor can its definition be reduced to the mere absence of war. According to its Hebrew etymology, peace means being complete and intact, restored to wholeness. It is the state of those who live in harmony with God and with themselves, with others and with nature.

Since we are not yet in harmony with each other…

Authentic witness calls for acknowledgment and respect for others, a willingness to dialogue in truth, patience as an expression of love, the simplicity and humility proper to those who realize that they are sinners in the sight of God and their neighbour, a capacity for forgiveness, reconciliation and purification of memory, at both the personal and communal levels.

He observes that such a dialogue should be theologically oriented rather than politically driven:

The Church’s universal nature and vocation require that she engage in dialogue with the members of other religions. In the Middle East this dialogue is based on the spiritual and historical bonds uniting Christians to Jews and Muslims. It is a dialogue which is not primarily dictated by pragmatic political or social considerations, but by underlying theological concerns which have to do with faith.

This dialogue can be grounded in in the one God common to the Abrahamic faiths:

Jews, Christians and Muslims alike believe in one God, the Creator of all men and women. May Jews, Christians and Muslims rediscover one of God’s desires, that of the unity and harmony of the human family. May Jews, Christians and Muslims find in other believers brothers and sisters to be respected and loved, and in this way, beginning in their own lands, give the beautiful witness of serenity and concord between the children of Abraham.

It will demand humility rather than triumphalism:

The truth cannot unfold except in an otherness open to God, who wishes to reveal his own otherness in and through my human brothers and sisters. Hence it is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: “I possess the truth”. The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth. Truth can only be known and experienced in freedom; for this reason we cannot impose truth on others; truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love.

I imagine that some will find here an echo of the Qur’an:

Let there be no compulsion in religion.

– Quran 2. 256

Thus far the pope has expressed his grief at the circumstances, and outlined the basic issues between religions. He now turns his analysis to the situation within the religions:

Like the rest of the world, the Middle East is experiencing two opposing trends: secularization, with its occasionally extreme consequences, and a violent fundamentalism claiming to be based on religion.

Benedict is well know for his opposition to the “occasionally extreme consequences” of secularism: here he speaks in favor of what he terms “healthy secularity”.

Some Middle Eastern political and religious leaders, whatever their community, tend to look with suspicion upon secularity (laïcité) as something intrinsically atheistic or immoral. It is true that secularity sometimes reduces religion to a purely private concern, seeing personal or family worship as unrelated to daily life, ethics or one’s relationships with others. In its extreme and ideological form, secularity becomes a secularism which denies citizens the right openly to express their religion and claims that only the State can legislate on the public form which religion may take. [ ... ]

A healthy secularity, on the other hand, frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres.

Religious fundamentalism is the second challenge the Pope addresses:

Economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion help open the door to religious fundamentalism. This phenomenon afflicts all religious communities, and denies their long-standing tradition of coexistence. It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons.

Here he addresses his colleagues in religious leadership:

I appeal urgently to all Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region to seek, by their example and by their teaching, to do everything in their power to eliminate this menace which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions.

He then drives the point home by quoting his own words on an earlier occasion:

“To use the revealed word, the Sacred Scriptures or the name of God to justify our interests, our easy and convenient policies or our violence, is a very grave fault.”

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That’s the substance of the Pope’s message in the context of recent disturbances in the region. There were a couple of notes he touched on, however, that interested me not for any connection with recent events, but for specific theological connotations:

Growth by individuals in the life of faith and spiritual renewal within the Catholic Church will lead to the fullness of the life of grace and theosis (divinization).

Theosis is a term more commonly found among Eastern Christians, and I wouldn’t want to define the doctrine in words, though I’ll suggest that its spirit is captured in the English mystic Thomas Traherne‘s magnificent meditation [Century I. 29]:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

One of Benedict’s comments specifically addresses an issue of importance as Christianity and Islam find common ground in the Middle East:

In those unfortunate instances where litigation takes place between men and women, especially regarding marital questions, the woman’s voice must also be heard and taken into account with a respect equal to that shown towards the man, in order to put an end to certain injustices.

He gives an account of the Catholic doctrine of scriptural interpretation, which will be of interest to those concerned with such things in specifically Catholic, more generally Christian or comparative contexts:

The representatives of the various schools of textual interpretation were agreed on the traditional principles of exegesis accepted by the Churches of both East and West. The most important of these principles is the conviction that Jesus Christ incarnates the intrinsic unity of the two Testaments and consequently the unity of God’s saving plan in history (cf. Mt 5:17). The disciples would only come to understand this unity after the resurrection, once Jesus had been glorified (cf. Jn 12:16). A second principle is fidelity to a typological reading of the Bible, whereby certain Old Testament events are seen as a prefiguration (a type and figure) of realities in the new Covenant in Jesus Christ, who is thus the hermeneutical key to the entire Bible (cf. 1 Cor 15:22, 45-47; Heb 8:6-7). The Church’s liturgical and spiritual writings bear witness to the continued validity of these two principles of interpretation, which shape the ecclesial celebration of the word of God and inspire Christian witness. The Second Vatican Council went on to explain that the correct meaning of the sacred texts is found by considering the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, in the light of the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith.

He also addressed the question of liturgical renewal, in a similar spirit, both orthodox (little o) and catholic (little c):

Such a renewal must of course be undertaken, to the extent possible, in cooperation with those Churches which are not in full communion, yet are also heirs to the same liturgical traditions. The desired liturgical renewal must be based on the word of God, on the proper tradition of each Church, and upon the new insights of Christian theology and anthropology.

As an aside — anthropology is an interesting word to have made its way into that statement. I must admit I am not sure whether he’s in any way suggesting something along the lines of “cultural anthropology” — which has a fair amount to say about ritual and how it functions — but I’m pretty sure his main meaning here is something closer to the original meaning of the word — along the lines of the “sound understanding of man” that he’d mentioned in an earlier passage in the Exhortation.

One passage suggested to me that Benedict might be alluding to the Muslim terminology of the Companions of the Prophet, and suggesting some measure of similarity with the disciples of Christ:

By rediscovering its original inspiration and following in the footsteps of those first disciples whom Jesus chose to be his companions and whom he sent out to preach (cf. Mk 3:14), the Christian presence will take on new vitality.

I’m hoping that will prove to be a deft touch, a tiny but significant gesture of friendship.

**

Finally, Pope Benedict makes another reference which must have resonated with his Eastern Catholic and Orthodox co-religionists, returning to the grief with which he began his orations, appealing to Mary as Theotókos, “the one who gives birth to the one who is God”:

The heart of Mary, Theotókos and Mother of the Church, was pierced (cf. Lk 2:34-35) on account of the “contradiction” brought by her divine Son, that is to say, because of the opposition and hostility to his mission of light which Christ himself had to face, and which the Church, his mystical Body, continues to experience. May Mary, whom the whole Church, in East and West alike, venerates with affection, grant us her maternal assistance. Mary All-Holy, who walked in our midst, will once again present our needs to her divine Son. She offers us her Son. Let us listen to her, for she opens our hearts to hope: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

In so doing, he remembers also, and reminds us all, of those who are martyred for their Christianity in a world where religion can so often be your excuse to kill, or another’s excuse to kill you.

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15 Responses to “Of films, riots and hatred I: Benedict XVI in Lebanon”

  1. Gretha Says:

    A most interesting and hopeful blog post! Thank you very much.

    The Pope’s discourses are always inspiring and insightful and your selections and intelligent insights into what he tried to bring across in these crazy times are impressive. Not everyone in the virtual world has this ability. A pity media such as The New York Times (inter alia) do not have journalists with your depth and honesty to report and comment on these topics.
    Thank you! 

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