Lent, Peace Spirituality

Lent 2019: Reflection for First Sunday of Lent – Pull back to discover what is important

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

[Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of reflections throughout Lent from Rev. Paul Lansu. Reflections on the Sunday readings will be posted each week on the Friday before the Sunday which the reflection references. Holy Day reflections will be posted the day before the actual Holy Day. See all of these reflections and other resources at this link.]

Deut 26:4-10 |  Ps 91 (90) | Rom 10:8-13 | Lk 4:1-13

It is often suggested that each stage of a person’s life is deeply influenced by a particular event, emotion or drive. While pride is ever-present in our hearts, the suggestion is that sometimes young people seek only fun or pleasure and look for an ambitious future; the middle-aged long for stability and status; and many elderly put their hope in certainty and possessions. Some people find such wayward trends alive and well in every stage of their lives and are happy in the ongoing human struggle by inviting Christ to be with them as they grow gradually in the gospel values that redirect these strong human ambitions.

The desert is a learning place

Indeed, before starting a new phase of life, it is worth considering: where do I start? What is important in my life? Why do I want that? What does this mean for my life? A person can withdraw, go to an abbey or search for some silence in the mountains, take a time out, or, like Jesus, go into the desert.

In the Bible, “desert” has its own meaning. It is “a learning place.” You can learn life, consider the important choices that a person has to make and try to give them place. That’s how Jesus did it. He left his family and home, knowing himself as very close to God. And before giving an answer to the call of God, he thought deeply about it. It is about struggling against the temptations that every person knows, the temptations that can keep us from our deepest vocation. In the Gospel, Jesus is tested in his authenticity. Does he, as a preacher behind the scenes, give up his principles when he is offered wealth and status?

Temptations can be part of life!

Today’s gospel recounts in a vividly descriptive way how Christ himself experienced comparable temptations. The bread he was offered when he was hungry is a symbol of how easy it is to justify putting our own comfort and pleasure before the needs and rights of others. His trip to the high mountain with its offer to control many kingdoms alerts us to how we can be tyrants in small ways through emotional blackmail in our families or communities and through pressure groups on the job or in school.

Jesus stayed in the desert for forty days. This refers to the deserts of the Jewish people who lasted forty years. Moses also had to flee to that desert when it all got too much for him. A bush that burns but does not burn up brings him to the realisation: this is a sacred place; here one can meet with God.

By sticking to his principles and his words Jesus showed that the short-lived temptations of power and wealth are inferior to values that last. Yes, status and power are desirable but, in the end, they are passing joys which can drive you mad with addiction and destroy you and your freedom in the process. The biblical advice to set “your heart on things that last because they give you greater peace” does not mean that one choice excludes the other, but rather that we should not worship them as gods.

At the beginning of this Lent, these desert stories about Moses and Jesus also have a special meaning for us. Their message is: we can experience God more than we think. There is more in this world, more around us than we suspect.

In each situation, the choice is between selfishness and the other’s good, between settling for human limitations and accepting our greatness as God’s children. Lent is a time to strengthen the choice to belong enthusiastically to God’s family.

See the good in people

We should live the connection between our prayer, our words and our actions; we should avoid hypocrisy and do good works without telling the whole world about it. We are simply good because God lives in us and, as such, our reward is a better world, a more peaceful heart and the fact that we do not have to hide behind false facades.

We sometimes make mistakes. However, making mistakes in itself is not sinful. It is far worse and sinful to do nothing.

When we see the good in people and bring out the best in each other, there is no distinction between Jew or Greek, between Catholics or Orthodox, between Hindu or Muslims, between Shiites or Sunni, between natives and immigrants. We do not have to prove anything or convert others because who we are and what we do will speak for itself.

Living in a communal home

People are a fundamental part of the earth – the Creation – as the ‘communal home’ in which all creatures have a place. The Encyclical Laudato Si [1] is offering a new grammar of ecology and the virtues that lay the foundation for a new lifestyle, proposing that a dynamic tension must be maintained between a preferential option for the poor and an encouragement of human industry, in furthering the common good.

Ecological issues such as polluted rivers and oceans, air pollution or global warming are increasingly playing out internationally and politically. Climate change has become the most important international issue. These issues concern the direct living conditions of people and have, among other things, bearing on working conditions, fair salaries, working with clean paint materials and non-toxic pesticides. We all know that resources have limits. In the end we will all gain if we can use our resources responsibly.

Putting faith into motion

People’s desire for ever more consumption of goods is the underlying source of today’s spiritual crisis. The message is to carefully handle the earth’s resources. It is a matter of enjoying the ‘enough’. A possible eighth work of mercy [2] is the care for climate, the care for our communal home, the earth.

Every Lent comes with an opportunity to make our love more visible. We call it the Lenten campaign. An idea could be that you put a tree in your church, place of worship, your office or even at home. That tree needs leaves on it so that at Easter it can symbolise new life. The leaves could be made available in some baskets put close to the tree. Before people hang them on the tree, you can write your Lenten gift on them. Not money, but energy! There might be ideas to give back either to the planet or save energy to guarantee sustainable living.

All these eco-gifts could be an Easter-gift. God entrusted us with the task of taking care of his creation. By giving energy in one way, or saving it in another, we can experience the Resurrection because our faith has been put into motion. This doesn’t just benefit ourselves but also raises up the world around us. May our Lent turn ashes into new life.

[1] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_of_mercy

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Photo credit: https://rwelling3.artstation.com/projects/nY53K
Lent, Peace Spirituality

Lent 2019: Reflection for Ash Wednesday – Beginning the Lenten season

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of reflections throughout Lent from Rev. Paul Lansu. Reflections on the Sunday readings will be posted each week on the Friday before the Sunday which the reflection references. Holy Day reflections will be posted the day before the actual Holy Day.]

Joel 2:12-18 | Psalm 51 (50) | 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Ash Wednesday is a liturgical event that gives us, in the middle of our week of work, a moment to reflect on where all of our being and work is taking us. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season and falls forty-six days before Easter.

Ash Wednesday is a day of additional prayer, fasting and repentance. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It shows how relative everything in life is. Today we say, “Repent and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Fasting, solidarity and prayer are the three works of the season of Lent and is a time of preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others. People should not need to ask where their God is, because he should be visible and tangible in people who “have opened their hearts to him and are therefore rich in kindness. We are the incarnation of God.”

Helping to carry the crosses of misery

These forty days are a moment in which believers express, more than ever, their concrete solidarity with people, in our own society or abroad, who suffer from injustice, famine, poverty, insecurity or violence. Many people carry their daily cross! We are ready, or prepared ourselves, to carry the crosses of poverty and exploitation. To carry suffering together makes the crosses lighter as well.

See the image of God in others

Lent alerts us to our need of God through our relationships with human beings, especially with the weakest of our societies. We look at God through the faces and eyes of the others: the poor, the hungry and the hurt. The Lenten period invites us to clean away the corrosion of selfishness and to share his love with others as he told us to do.

Conflicts and wars, violence in response to climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor. More than ever, our time calls for radical choices.

Lent is about decisions and making choices; deciding to pray and to see more clearly what is important; to be connected and reconciled with the other; to make contact with God as his people on the road. Our life is always a work in progress.

The trumpet of Joël

Now that we are going into the fasting period the strong appeal of Joël sounds again. He uses the trumpet – today the megaphone – to call and collect everyone, young and old. The call is to return to the Source of our Life and to realize what it really is about. To turn the tide and live again from God. With Jesus, we learn that repentance, examination and change of lifestyle mature and grow in silence.

Importance of our motivation to fast

The prayer that may accompany the ashes is “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” It is a stern warning that death awaits each of us sooner rather than later. Unless we give up our selfishness, we are doomed. Lent is a lived out reminder that the cross of Calvary is the announcement of God’s love for us. One’s life is worth so much to God that he died for each one of us. God’s gift of love is total, unconditional and forever. It requires that we love ourselves deeply so that loving others as we love ourselves evokes heroic generosity in us. Lent is an ongoing announcement of God’s offer of himself. We are invited to absorb this love and make it present daily in our world through justice, truth seeking, reconciliation, generosity and forgiveness.

During his life Christ made it very clear that fasting is not about what you do or give up, but about the motivation for doing it. Just giving up sweets for example does not really make the world a better place or you a happier person. Our way of fasting can have an effect on the world and our personal spirituality only when our hearts return to God and when our deeds match our words. Hypocrisy is the opposite of fasting. When you fast, make it a part of an Easter journey. The good news of the risen Lord motivates us to identify with those who have crosses to carry.

Faith in action

Many Pax Christi members and Christians (such as our member organisation in the United Kingdom) give on Ash Wednesday a witness to nuclear war preparations. This is carrying the cross of the possible destruction of our planet. This is faith in action. Nuclear weapon states are modernising their nuclear arsenals while the threat and possession of nuclear weapons needs to be condemned and complete nuclear disarmament should be realised in order to save our planet. Ash Wednesday is a day to come to new visions — not only in the way of being a human in our society or our world but also in the field of peace and security, also in the field of international politics. The call for conversion is to total nuclear disarmament.

Worship linked to our action in the world can make a difference. Our fast is at the same time our feast, because our word is our deed. I wish you all a very meaningful Lent.

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Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/czarny_bez
Peace

The war in eastern Ukraine and clash at the Black Sea: Church used as a political tool

by Rev. Paul Lansu
Pax Christi International Senior Advisor

The situation in eastern Ukraine can be described as a permanent and ongoing (-armed) conflict. Lives continue to be destroyed. The rebels of the two “People’s Republics” – Donetsk and Luhansk – and their backers in Moscow continue to provoke Ukrainian government forces. The Kiev government is doing little to win the “hearts and the minds” of the people in these two eastern republics. Tensions persist.

From time to time the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine gets coverage in the national and international media. What is in the news is the persistent corruption coupled with the decline in living standards in the country that occupy the public. The rule of law remains low in Ukraine and that allows the government’s administration to pressure journalists, opinion makers and the broader civil society including churches for instance to speak out more in patriotic, nationalistic and uncritical wording. However, a political democracy needs critical opinions!

Identity of civil society is changing

For years, civil society has tended to be seen as liberal: supportive of human rights, democratic reform and the protection of minorities. Often, it is still these “progressive” causes that appeal to younger activists. However, today also in Ukraine, civil society involves an increasingly diverse mix of people and political goals, with those on the right gaining traction. Ukraine has seen radical national activists protest against Russian interference, while socially conservative groups, as in other Central European countries, focussed on religious and family values have grown. Identifying and belonging to a people, church and religion has apparently become a necessity for many. It mainly means turning against the other person who does not belong to his own group.

Russia wants to continue to exercise influence

The outcome of the 2018 presidential elections in Russia confirmed Vladimir Putin as its ongoing president. The presidential elections in Ukraine on 31 March 2019 will probably clarify the new direction the Ukrainian government is going to follow. The Minsk peace process[1] is not very popular and not part of the current debate. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine began building defensive fortifications along its eastern border.

Russia does not want Ukraine to end up in the Western sphere of influence. Russia sees Ukraine as historically belonging to it. The cradle of Russian civilization is largely in Ukraine. It seems that there is a majority among the Russian public opinion having the Crimea annexed as historically part of their country. At the same time, the annexation of the Crimea is illegal and that is why the Russia-Ukraine conflict will remain internationally visible.

Black Sea clash

On 26 November 2018, the Ukrainian parliament has promulgated martial law for the next 30 days in all republics bordering on Russia after a weekend of naval confrontation off the disputed Crimean Peninsula in which Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels amid renewed tensions between the neighbours. While a 2003 treaty designates the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov as shared territorial waters, Russia has sought to assert greater control over the passage since the annexation.

Since 2014, Russia views the Kerch Strait as its own territorial waters. It also claims territorial waters around Crimea. Russian officials fear a Ukrainian attack on the expensive, recently opened Crimean Bridge linking the Peninsula with Russia. The Russians no longer want free passage for Ukrainian vessels through the Kerch Strait without approval by Russia.

Churches used in political play

In October 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew recognized Ukraine’s “autocephalous” independent Orthodox Church.[2] This recent new fact in Ukrainian society was not unexpected but reflects about the relationships between churches and nation states and is in this case, a country in transition, a dangerous fact that makes good neighbour ship between Russia and Ukraine even more complicated. Why is that? This is all about contemporary politics. There are some 12.000 churches in Ukraine that could become a new Russian-Ukrainian battleground.

For more than 300 years, the church in Ukraine has been part of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The split of the two churches is one more consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that began in 2014. President Petro Poroshenko who is standing for re-election in 2019 wants this move and sees himself as the father of the nation using the super-patriotic triple slogan of “Army, Faith, Religion” in his campaign. He uses or misuses the relationships of the churches in his political campaign. Nevertheless, church leaders should be independent and should not become part of the nationalistic bargain. It is also clear that Russia will defend all the Russian Orthodox Christians “everywhere”. The Moscow ROC still has millions of adherents in Ukraine and it is the default mother church of many who also regard themselves as Ukrainian citizens.

The new autocephalous church will only be able credibly to call itself Ukraine’s national church if it can persuade thousands of priests currently loyal to the ROC to defect, along with their parishioners and churches. The split of churches within Ukraine and between the ROC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a step backwards towards unity and cooperation.[3] Is it splitting first and then working together again afterwards? The World Council of Churches has a file on top to mediate and to look for new forms of cooperation.

However, more important might be the religious dimension of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. It is possible that the church situation on the ground can provoke violence and spark yet another dimension to the conflict, which would be truly intra-Ukrainian and with a highly pronounced religious dimension. These types of conflict might be less manageable and can lead to fragmentation of political space, the rise of radical far-right conservative politics and largescale violence and chaos. There are groups of muscular young men who are prepared to fight for both churches. There are hundreds of villages and towns in eastern Ukraine where the ROC is strong.

Religious politics are now another reason to be worried about what 2019 will bring with the election campaign and the result of it in Ukraine.

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsk_Protocol
[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-church-russia/russian-orthodox-church-breaks-with-constantinople-in-row-over-ukraine-idUSKCN1MP24G
[3] https://www.dw.com/en/ukrainian-church-wins-independence-battle-against-moscow-patriarchate/a-45854480
Photo courtesy of https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2018/11/26/ukraine-demands-russia-release-vessels-as-tensions-build.html
Peace, Refugee Stories, Social Issues

Is migration the “mother of all problems”?

By Fr. Paul Lansu
Senior Policy Advisor, Pax Christi International

Europe is now home to people from all over the world. In most European countries, we see the increase of rejection of new foreign citizens in Western society. Anti-migration sentiments are growing. In the south and east negative attitudes prevailed. In Italy for instance, one in every two persons perceive migration as a problem. Several European countries have built fences and barriers at their borders playing on people’s fear of foreign threats and focusing on the dangers from immigration of terrorism.  Recent elections in different EU states demonstrate that concerns surrounding migration and asylum continue to dominate the public space, shape national, and EU politics. Extremist (right wing) political parties are winning votes massively.

Migration remains the biggest challenge and is a debatable issue both in public opinion as well as in politics. Is this question the mother of all problems? Negative perceptions of “outsiders” have caused divisions not just between countries, but also within communities, political parties, the media, at street level, even within families. This topic will make a big difference in the next EU elections in May 2019.

Unhappiness characterizes modern man. Many people experience living in a chaotic world. Fear of innovation is the result of this. Determining or confronting other customs and cultures gives rise to resistance, even hatred and racism. Because the “stranger” is now also visible in the small cities and municipalities, the fear of migration is growing. It all became so unexpectedly and chaotic, loss of political control. Emotions are put to the test. Hosting in my neighbourhood refugees of different cultural and religious backgrounds is a sensitive issue. The fact that refugees/migrants want to go to places where they are among themselves is understandable but that does not help the integration. Ghettos should be prevented.

Some politicians use the rhetoric of keeping and “kicking migrants out.” That can result in criminalising these people. Even Prime Ministers or Presidents of EU member states use xenophobic rhetoric and hate speech against migrants and refugees. That behaviour is observable within authoritarian populist leaderships in Europe. The microphone of xenophobia is often the megaphone of a loud minority.

Migration is not going to stop

We cannot and must no longer withdraw ourselves from the needs in the rest of the world. Due to the expansion of the EU some years ago, we see economic migration from Central and Eastern European countries in the direction of Western Europe. There is also the economic migration from former Soviet Republics into Eastern and Central European countries as well as negative attitudes toward Middle Eastern (Muslim) refugees recently arrived in many European states. Refugees will continue to turn up in the EU because it is the only haven within reach for dozens of conflict areas.

Accepting the other and integration of new people is not an easy thing to do. That asks specific programmes, budgets and especially the political will to implement or apply values and standards not at least the principles of democracy and human rights, including the rights of minorities. Political will includes also recognising the concerns of ordinary people. We cannot underestimate that. Two obligations should come first: care for the welfare of the own population within the borders and care for victims of violence both within and outside our borders.

Fear of the Other

Since some time a culture of fear has been created. Behind the fear of migrants lies in many cases the fear of the unknown. We speak also about the fear of the Other, which stems from the fear of the Self. The Self that goes through an identity crisis feels vulnerable vis-à-vis the Other. Are we afraid of the other? Fear is also about change. When change looks out of control, it stirs social tension and political polarization.

The EU should develop some robust collective instruments to deal with migration challenges. With no clear public action in sight, fear remains and the populist wave can grow. Public action includes burden sharing and ways of solidarity. Our priority of concern must go to the thousands of women and children who are the most vulnerable groups in the communities. Young refugees, minors, often end up in criminal networks, prostitution and child labour.

The immigration issue is a huge challenge. As said that needs political will and especially the recognition that the world has significantly changed and our principles must be applied in different ways. The aim should be a sensible, pragmatic and compassionate migration policy. The question is how to best manage migration and coordinate on an international level. There is no purely European or purely national way to solve to this challenge: a mix of these and integration can be the only effective solution. That needs dialogue!

A human and Christian approach

The common basis for our thinking and attitudes is the conviction that all human beings are equal in dignity and rights and equally to be respected and protected. Every person has the same right to be respected, whatever his origin. Because of this, we are called by God to resist evil, to act justly, and pursue peace to transform the world. Evil can be seen in attitudes of exclusion, marginalisation, hate speech, racism, stigmatization and criminalization of migrants and refugees.

The drivers of (forced) displacement and migration are extreme poverty, food insecurity, lack of opportunity, climate change and insecurity. Religious extremism is often the breeding ground for terror, violence and fear. Respect is required for the rights of all people on the move, regardless of their status. The West has a moral obligation to help those fleeing violence and persecution.

Racism is a sin. Rejecting the “other” is a threat to our Christian identity. People of faith must condemn racism because it denies human dignity and the mutual belonging to the one human family and defaces the image of God in every human being. All media and public opinion makers should stop to dehumanise the other.

Xenophobia or “fear of the foreigner” must be converted into understanding, meeting and possible cooperation. Assistance in emergencies and for survival should not be denied.

The Gospel is calling the faithful to welcome the stranger as an act of love inspired by faith (Matthew 25:35-40). Jesus Christ identifies himself with the stranger. Based upon the principles of our Christian faith and the example of Jesus Christ, we should raise a narrative of love and hope, against the populist narrative of hate and fear. Every human being is worthy of respect and protection. Matthew 7:12 should inspire us: “do to others what you would have them do to you.” That is a golden rule! Our duties to the “others” includes welcoming, protecting, offer hospitality and to integrate.

Integration of refugees or migrants often involves abuse of power and often ends in new forms of slavery and unfair competition on the labour market. Only an inclusive approach that considers all dimensions of the human being and calls for the participation of each one in society can effectively fight against discrimination and exclusion.

Churches are important actors in civil society and political life. Their role as conscience-keeper should be fully assumed. A culture of encounter and dialogue should be promoted. We should recognize God in the faces of the other, the stranger and migrant.