Moving from conflict to peace

Every nation, almost every community has painful events that are etched in its collective memory.

Nov 29, 2020

By Anil Netto
Every nation, almost every community has painful events that are etched in its collective memory.

Globally, there have been many horrific episodes over the last century. The world experienced the genocide of the Holocaust, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War Two, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the slave trade. There have been several painful episodes in Malaysian history too.

Some in society may say, “Let’s move on. Why dig up old scars? Let bygones be bygones.”

In Chapter Seven of his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All), the Bishop of Rome looks at “Paths of Renewed Encounter”.

It is important to recall the historical truth of events so we can persevere in understanding one another: “It is a patient effort to seek truth and justice, to honour the memory of victims and to open the way, step by step, to a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance”. Such truths should not lead to revenge but rather to reconciliation and forgiveness.

Peace processes must involve ordinary people and their communities. We must put human beings at the centre of the process, starting from the least of them. We cannot ignore inequality in society and the lack of human development - for these make peace impossible. If we leave the marginalised on the fringes, “no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquillity,” Francis writes. The early Christian communities, who lived in a corrupt and troubled pagan world, showed patience and understanding. Scripture urges us “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish” (Tit 3:2-3).

Jesus does not encourage us to seek conflict, but to endure it when it inevitably comes. That said, we should not defer to others for superficial peace in important matters lest it detracts from our own intergrity.

We are called to love without exception.

But loving an oppressor “does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us, or letting him think that what he does is acceptable”. On the contrary, “true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use.”

And we cannot remain silent. “Those who suffer injustice have to strenuously defend their own rights and those of their family, precisely because they must preserve the dignity they have received as a loving gift from God.”

But we should not fuel anger, which is unhealthy for our own souls, or become obsessed with vengeance, the Bishop of Rome writes. It is hard to overcome the bitter injustices, hostility and mistrust left by conflict. But the only way forward is to overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21) and to cultivate virtues that foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace.

Forgiveness also does not mean forgetting. Certain memories like genocides and the slave trade must be kept alive. “Nowadays, it is easy to be tempted to turn the page, to say that all these things happened long ago and we should look to the future. For God’s sake, no!” Francis writes. “We can never move forward without remembering the past; we do not progress without an honest and unclouded memory.”

These memories keep alive our collective conscience, bearing witness to succeeding generations of the horrors that once took place. Such witness “awakens and preserves the memory of the victims, so that the conscience of humanity may rise up in the face of the desire for dominance and destruction”.

Those who truly forgive do not forget; rather they opt not to succumb to the same destructive forces that inflicted so much suffering on them. In doing so, they halt the advance of the forces of destruction.

This does not mean the guilty should get off scot-free. We still must seek justice “out of respect for the victims” and as a means of “preventing new crimes and protecting the common good, not as an outlet for personal anger”.

In seeking solutions in dramatic circumstances, some nations resort to war and the death penalty. Francis says these are false answers that do not resolve problems but instead introduce new elements of destruction. “War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.”

The Church once used to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. But with nuclear and chemical weapons around, the risks of war “will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits”. So, “Never again war!” Francis writes. We must instead work to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. The money saved on such weapons could go to a fund to end hunger and promote the development in impoverished nations. The rule of law at the international level should be upheld.

We must work tirelessly through “negotiation, mediation and arbitration”, as proposed by the UN Charter, to resolve conflicts.

As for the death penalty, the Church is firmly committed to its worldwide abolition. This stance is all about upholding the inalienable dignity of every human being: “If I do not deny that dignity to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone. I will give everyone the possibility of sharing this planet with me, despite all our differences.”

The Bishop of Rome urges all Christians to work also for the improvement of prison conditions. The latter is out of respect for the human dignity of those deprived of their freedom. “I would link this to life imprisonment … A life sentence is a secret death penalty,” he adds.

Francis also warns of “the growing practice in some countries of resorting to preventive custody, imprisonment without trial” and “so-called extrajudicial or extralegal executions, which are ‘homicides deliberately committed by certain states and by their agents’.”

Finally, he reminds us of Jesus’ warning to one of his disciples to put his sword back into its place, which he says harkens back to an ancient warning: “I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:5-6).

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