Christ: the Key to our Solidarity
I’ am writing this more or less as my plane to London is flying 30 000m over Paris. Inevitably, my thoughts and prayers go out to the people of that beautiful city affected by the recent terrorist outrages.
The city of the Louvre Museum and the Eiffel Tower is also the source of the Miraculous Medal, the shrine of St Vincent de Paul, the place where the first Jesuits met, and the home of the magnificent basilica to the Sacred Heart built by grateful citizens on the highest hill. Paris is truly a city of culture and of faith.
Many South Africans have wanted to show their solidarity with the people of Paris in this difficult time. One indication of this has been the prayers said in parishes or the messages and images posted on Facebook.
Solidarity is one of the key pillars of Catholic Social Teaching a word frequently found in the exhortations not only of Pope Francis but also of Pope Benedict. So, as Catholics, we should be unmatched in our sensitivity to the plight of others and in our willingness to share their pain: compassion.
In The Gospel of Life (or Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Francis explains that solidarity should be characteristic of us as Christians because it is created in us by the Holy Spirit as a reflection of the mutual self-giving and receiving that is characteristic of the Holy Trinity.
But I worry that we can too easily be selective in our solidarity. My plane has also flown near Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem, cities which have faced even worse atrocities and suffered the deaths of many hundreds of people. But how often have they been prayed for in our churches? How many people have coloured their Facebook profiles with the flags of these countries? How many of us would go on a march or sign a petition to show our compassion with their suffering?
Surely this is not because the deaths of white people, or of Christians, or of rich people matter more to us than those of others. Or that we have perhaps given up on those countries as places beyond hope and beyond prayer. Or that their suffering is, in some contorted way, their fault.
Others might fall into these traps. We absolutely cannot. Especially not in South Africa where we can be tempted to privilege some people’s suffering of others: violence and death should tear out our hearts no less when it happens to black people in townships than when it happens to white people in suburbs.
A more innocent explanation is that our focus is inevitably affected by the media’s focus which will be more on some atrocities than on others: deaths in Europe are news, deaths in the Middle East less so. With limited space in the papers and fixed minutes on the TV bulletin, editorial decisions have to be made.
But Catholic solidarity has to transcend the limitations of the news agenda. We are called to show compassion for all, not just those in the headlines. And in the age of the internet a part of what Pope Francis calls the globalisation of solidarity we can no longer claim that we had no way of knowing about these other places. (And I should also acknowledge the excellent commitment of The Southern Cross to keeping forgotten conflicts on our radar.)
Of course, to take on compassion for the whole world, for all its suffering and conflict, is overwhelming. But this is the model our Lord gives us from the cross.
He was dying for the oppressed Christian in Iraq, for the terrified Palestinian and Jewish people in Jerusalem, for the atheist night-club reveller in Paris. His compassion knew no limits and, with his arms outstretched, embraced the whole messiness of the world.
Pope Francis gives us an evocative image: Today, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding a mystique of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage (Evangelii Gaudium 87).
A good mark of solidarity is how broadly we are willing to embrace and support one another. The recent Fees Must Fall student protests were hailed by some as a positive sign that students today share the activist tendencies of previous generations. But it is only when students campaign selflessly for something that does not directly benefit them that they are genuinely showing solidarity.
I thank my Muslim and Jewish friends for reminding me on Facebook of atrocities in the Holy Land but I do wish that sometimes it was my Jewish friends who told me about the deaths of Palestinians, or my Muslim friends who drew my attention to the murders of Israelis.
One of the reasons Archbishop Denis Hurley’s stance against apartheid was so praised in the recent coverage of his centenary was because, as a white man, he had no personal reason for putting his neck on the line. He had to reach out beyond his immediate experience to feel the suffering of people whose backgrounds were very different from his own.
In doing that he was an inspiration to other white pastors. But he was also a reminder to black pastors to fight not only for their black congregants; to Muslim and Hindu leaders to campaign not just for their coloured and Indian communities.
When I was a student in Britain in the 1980s, our big campaigning issue was the threat to mining communities under Margaret Thatcher. There is a heart-warming film, titled Pride, based on a true story of a group of gay activists in London at that time who decide that the energies they put into campaigning for their community should instead be put at the service of the miners many hundreds of miles away with whom they seemingly have nothing in common.
In all the recent turmoil in Europe, one of the greatest signs of hope for me was when ordinary German citizens marched on the streets in support of Syrian refugees precisely the people who might have been least welcoming showing their government the very opposite.
Solidarity is a religious act because it is an act of the imagination. It requires us to go out beyond ourselves our networks, our friends, our life experience and imagine the plight of people so very different from ourselves. The point of the model of the Good Samaritan was that he was the most unlike the person who was attacked.
The step from Johannesburg to Paris requires imagination: from Johannesburg to Bagdad even more so. But prayer is the space in which we can allow God to take us to places of suffering quite unlike our own and there find our shared humanity.