Although I’m a long-standing fan of the Papal World Day of Prayer for Peace Messages – and quite possibly the only person in Australia who reads them on New Year’s Day – I must admit that this year’s Message troubles me. It’s not what it says; it’s what it doesn’t say.
The theme of this year’s Message is that religious freedom is the path to peace. I guess I would not say the path, but certainly I agree that it is an essential dimension of the path to peace. But that is not what troubles me. The Message asserts that “at present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith” and it goes on to focus on the religious freedom of Christians.
In Europe, the Americas, and in the Pacific, Christians are not the group which suffers religious persecution the most. In Asia, Africa and the Middle East Christian communities do suffer from very significant persecution. In some places, Christians would be the group that suffers the most from persecution, but in other places it may be Muslims in general, or Sunnis or Shiites or Ahmadis, or Hindus … You get the point.
It reminded me of the challenge of a Jewish friend to an interfaith justice network in which I represented the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference – ‘why is it that when a place of worship is attacked, the Jewish community is always the first to speak up, but when a synagogue is attacked others are so slow to speak?’ Slow. Not unwilling or condoning, but lacking the sense of urgency with which we respond when ‘our own’ are attacked. I was ashamed because it was true.
Unless we speak with the same urgency and passion when the religious freedom of faith communities not our own are persecuted, then speaking out against the persecution of our faith community anywhere sounds a lot like self-interest. There’s the rub. We have to ask ourselves if the religious freedom of other faith communities is just as important to us as that of ‘our own’. In other words, do we really believe in religious freedom?
The World Day of Peace Message makes important points concerning respect for the dignity of the human person requiring acknowledgement of the spiritual dimension of personhood and of our openness to the transcendent (WDP 2010, n 2). Our personal and collective capacity to transcend ourselves and our own affiliations and interests, to engage with Mystery, to experience wonder and awe, and to strive for the good are often systematically subordinated to the material. The belief that there is something more than the directly observable material world is commonly ridiculed as superstition. And yet love, that most immaterial force which routinely takes us beyond ourselves, is as perennial as the grass.
Sadly Benedict XVI is correct in observing that the year just ended “has again been marked by persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance” and that “in some areas of the world it is impossible to profess one’s religion freely except at the risk of life and personal liberty. In other areas we see more subtle and sophisticated forms of prejudice and hostility towards believers and religious symbols.” (WDP 2010, n 1)
It is true that there are forms of hostility towards Christianity that would not be tolerated in relation to other faiths in some secular Western countries. Maybe we feel entitled to criticize ‘our own’ even if we have left the fold – a bit like Tim Minchin’s comic song ‘Only a Ginger can call Another Ginger, Ginger’? Yet we can’t kid ourselves that mocking a large, established, religious group with relatively high social status and resources has the same consequences as mocking a marginalised, recently established, minority religious group.
Benedict correctly points to the contributions of religions, and specifically Christianity, to culture and society (WDP 2010, n 6). But it does feel a bit like self-justification when so little acknowledgement is given to the role of religions in various kinds of conflict and injustice over the centuries. And it wasn’t always fundamentalist or fanatical elements within faith communities either. The Message says very little about the responsibility of faith communities to address fundamentalism and the misuse of their faith by extremists.
It does not deny the persecution of faith communities other than Christianity nor does it suggest that this should not be a focus of concern and action by Christians. Yet it makes no clear call to Christian majorities to address the persecution of religious minorities in their midst.
For all of the Message’s limitations, what it says is true and worthy of action. Persecuted Christian communities will find in it great encouragement. It’s what it doesn’t say that troubles me as I read the Message from the Australian context. I suspect the Message would be better understood and more widely accepted if it employed a larger canvas and more inclusive brush strokes.
The full text of the World Day of Prayer for Peace Message 2010, Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace, can be found at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/peace/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20101208_xliv-world-day-peace_en.html