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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
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The other important thing is what the people were saying: "Amen! Amen!" You know what that means. They were saying: "Yes! Yes!" The word of God was being proclaimed to them, and the Word of God bound them together as a people in unity and strength. They listened carefully to take it in so they could say: "Yes, we will accept this word of God. We will live by it. It will inspire us. It will guide us."
We need to apply that to the gospel lesson. Jesus is giving us the word of God and laying it out as his agenda. He came into the world, he said, to proclaim good news to the poor, give the blind new sight, set the down-trodden free, bring liberty to captives, heal the broken hearted and proclaim God's year of jubilee. He acknowledged this when he said: "This day, this scripture passage is fulfilled in me." That's what Jesus was saying.
As we listen to this reading, the same thing should happen. We are the followers of Jesus. As St. Paul said so marvelously in the second reading, we are the body of Christ. We should be saying: "This day, this scripture passage is fulfilled in us who carry on the work of Jesus." The words will be fulfilled if we each say: "Yes. Amen."
That means, of course, that we have to apply the word of God, this agenda of Jesus, right now, where we are. In this point in history. In this place where we live. In this nation of which we are a part. In the circumstances of the world in which we live. As I think about that -- what it means to proclaim this message right now and to make it happen -- two things come to mind that I suggest we use as background for our reflection.
One is the situation of Iraq, where I have just spent a number of days in these last couple of weeks. The other is the life and message of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday we just celebrated. Dr. King was one who did say yes to these scripture passages. I suggest that these two things are connected: Iraq and the message of Dr. King as he lived out the message of Jesus.
When I was in Iraq during these past days, I read this gospel thinking about today and what I say about these scriptures. I was overwhelmed with an awareness that everything Jesus said in this gospel is not happening in Iraq.
I'll give you are few examples: Proclaim good news to the poor!
A week ago yesterday I was in Baghdad just outside the compound housing the headquarters of the military occupation forces in Iraq. The morning after I was there, a bomb went off that killed 25 people. I was with thousands of people among the poorest people in the city of Baghdad. These are homeless people -- squatters. They had taken over a government ministry building that had been severely bombed during the recent war. It was empty. All the windows were shattered and there was no electricity, heat or anything like that. But between 2,000 and 3,000 people had taken over this building and were living in it, trying to find some place of shelter. It gets cold in Baghdad during the night at this time of the year so it wasn't really a marvelous place to be living, but it was better than being on the street.
Just the day before they had received a letter from the government, the Ministry of Interior, telling them they had to leave that building the next day. They were saying: "Where will we go? We have no place to go!" Yet, they were being pushed out -- these poor homeless people. They protested this, and we heard on Monday that they had been given another month, but by the end of this month they have to be gone. Where they will go, they do not know. It is hardly good news for the poor.
That is only one minor example of what is happening in that tragic country. There are worst places, if you can believe it, than those who are squatting in these buildings. The city of Baghdad has areas where tens of thousands of people live in shacks. I guess you could call them homes, but they are only shacks. They have no heat, no plumbing, and no electricity. They are desperately poor, and they are not hearing a message of good news. There is no good news in the near future for them that I can see and that they can see. The agenda of Jesus is not being carried out for the poor of Iraq.
The majority of the people in the country are becoming increasingly, desperately poor. Sixty to 70 percent of the people are unemployed. They have no incomes. When their current resources run out, they will be desperate simply to find food to survive.
Or think of healing the broken-hearted, the physically ill or the emotionally troubled. That's not happening in Iraq either. We visited hospitals where the administrators told us that they have a little bit more medicine now than they used to have, but they still don't have the equipment the need. They don't have the electricity they need everyday, all day. They don't have what it takes to provide healing. The hospitals aren't functioning the way they were before the first Persian Gulf War.
The schools are decrepit. A family I met refused to send their children to school because they are not learning anything. They don't have the teachers. They don't have equipment. The condition of the country's health and education systems tells you how desperately poor the situation is.
Some people would say (and I've had people say this to me since I have been back): "The situation isn't good, but they've got their freedom. They should be rejoicing." Think about the freedom they have. Does it mean they have the freedom to live in constant fear (as they do), never knowing when the next attack will take place, always fearing their children might be kidnapped. When there is no order in the country, is that real freedom? The freedom to starve? The freedom not to be educated? What's freedom if you can't become a full human being?
So we are not bringing good news to the poor. We're not healing the broken-hearted. We're not setting the downtrodden free. We are not releasing the captives. The agenda of Jesus is not happening.
I was overwhelmed, really, by what I experienced in Iraq this time. As you know I have been there 7 times prior to this trip. The first time was before the first war. It was a marvelous, beautiful, active city. Now it is in shambles. Five million people living in a terrible situation. It is always ready to erupt into violence.
As I experienced this, I recalled the words of Pope John Paul II, who tried to prevent the first Persian Gulf War, the sanctions that followed that war and the second Persian Gulf War. He said: "War destroys the lives of innocent people."
That's what has happened! The lives of innocent people in Iraq, now in the millions literally, have been destroyed. What is left is hatred and resentment that make it all the more difficult to resolve the problems that provoked the war. Clearly that is what is happening in Iraq right now. We're not coming to peaceful solutions. The whole situation is becoming more volatile.
Even the CIA is trying to understand what is happening over there. I read in the Detroit Free Press the day after I got back that the CIA reported to the government that there is great danger of civil war erupting at any moment. So we have left a trail of hatred and resentment.
As I mentioned before, we celebrated Martin Luther King this past week. What a different message he proclaimed in the presence of injustice. The laws of this country imprisoned the Black people of the United States. The laws took away their freedom to eat where they wanted to, to stay in the hotels they might want to, to travel on buses and sit where they wanted to. Many people proposed Black Power, violence and killing. But Dr. King had a different message. He rejected violence and responded to hatred with love.
Remember the Freedom Riders? I am sure you do. They went into the South, not with weapons but to ride on the buses. White people and black people defied the law, sitting together at lunch counters, marching in quiet. White and black, they defied the law because the law was wrong. It had to be changed. The situation was unjust. There was no freedom. But you don't bring freedom with guns. You don't bring freedom with violence. You don't bring justice and peace with war.
Dr. King proposed a different way and that way was, of course, the way of Jesus. If we would listen once more to Dr. King and follow his way, we could bring peace, justice and freedom to the people of Iraq. We also could remove a lot of the fear within our own country. We are afraid because at almost any time terrorists could attack us. The terrorists hate us not just because they resent our freedom, as our leaders sometimes suggest, but because we use violence against them.
What if we really changed the agenda? Right now we spend a billion dollars a week to support an army of occupation in Iraq. What if we were to use that billion a week for rebuilding? We could reconnect with the people in a loving, peaceful and just way. We could bring peace. We could end the violence. We could give true freedom to the people of Iraq and enable ourselves even to live in a greater spirit of freedom, freedom from fear at any moment of an attack.
It is possible! The agenda of Jesus is what can make it happen. We've heard that agenda this morning: "Proclaim Good News to the poor. Heal the broken-hearted. Give the blind new sight. Set the captives free. Lift up the downtrodden. Proclaim God's year of favor." That's the agenda of Jesus.
Each of us must ask ourselves: Am I ready to say "amen" to that agenda? Am I ready to follow it? Am I ready to urge the leaders of my country to give up violence and to use our resources in a loving way for the people of Iraq and people in other places who are desperately in need of being lifted up, of being given their freedom and of being healed?
As we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, my hope is that all of us will pray about this agenda of Jesus and how we can carry it out through active love and non-violence, imitating the way of Dr. King, which is the way of Jesus. I pray that each of us will say "amen" to the agenda of Jesus and "yes" to the way of Jesus.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
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