Sunday, November 30, 2008

The straight and narrow

Published in The Fiji Times, Wednesday 26 November, 2008, p7

WARM greetings from the cold United Kingdom! We are approaching the end of what has been another eventful year for Fiji.

In just over a week, we will have been under a military dictatorship for two years. Many of us will reflect on whether or not things have actually improved since December 2006, when elections will be held, what real impact the People's Charter will have and what the cost has been for this enforced soul-searching our nation is currently experiencing.

There are those who have already made their minds up as who is right and who is wrong, while some are waiting to let history be the judge.

Some have chosen sides in this political crisis. Some are taking advantage of the situation to settle old scores or further their own interests, while others struggle to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict that has enveloped our home.

A small number of people, often misunderstood by those who only see right or wrong, and black or white, are walking a path to work with all parties involved in the crisis. They look to foster goodwill, empower the oppressed, and shape and guide dialogue and action towards a peaceful resolution, recognising that everyone in Fiji has a stake in the political future of this nation.

They are men and women; young and old; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Baha'i and non religious; academics and farmers; soldiers and civilians, elite and common folk.

They are just like all of us. But they do not merely seek peace or end to conflict at any cost. They are engaged in the positive transformation of our society - a difficult and often thankless task.

To those who work to transform our society into one that is just, peaceful and compassionate, thank you. To those of us who wish for the courage to join them, I offer two examples, perhaps a little extreme, of two such people who worked to transform their communities.

Reverend D Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian, who left the security of the United States to return to Nazi Germany to work in the Confessional Church and during the Second World War opposed the Nazis and was arrested and executed in 1945, just weeks before Germany surrendered, for plotting against Adolf Hitler.

The publishing of his letters and papers smuggled out of prison have served as an example of the prophetic call for righteousness.

An essay titled 'After 10 years,' written a few months before his arrest in 1943, serves as to obeying the call to speak truth to power and act for the oppressed and poor even to the point of death:

"Who stands his ground? Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and exclusive allegiance to God.

"The responsible man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call to God.... It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free responsible men.

"It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day, many Christians have suffered with him."

Bonhoeffer's story echoes the biblical tradition of prophecy.

Like the prophets of the Old Testament who risked all to censure corrupt kings and priests, Bonhoeffer recognised that God calls us not only to care for the poor, oppressed and vulnerable, but also to challenge any religious or secular power that perpetrates injustice. His life exemplifies the prophetic call to action:

"Loosen all bonds that bind unfairly, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke. Share your bread with the hungry, take the homeless into your home. Clothe the naked when you see him, do not turn from your fellow human beings."

Bonhoeffer's work came to fulfilment only after his death.

His insistence on the significance of a committed response to Christ's Sermon on the Mount, a call to social justice, inspired many great civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Junior and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

His concept of a "religionless Christianity" has challenged Christian theology to face uncertain landscape of post-modernism. It is an idea, which exposes the vitality and relevance of faith in a world, as Bonhoeffer put it, "come of age."

In 1980, in the midst of a US funded war that the UN Truth Commission called genocidal, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador promised history that life, not death, would have the last word.

"I do not believe in death without resurrection," he is quoted as saying. "If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadorian people."

On March 23, 1980, he preached his last radio broadcast sermon directed at the National Guard, the police and the military, which has been described as his most thunderous prophetic denunciation of repressive acts committed by the security forces:

"No one is bound to obey an immoral law. It is time you recovered your conscience, and obeyed your conscience instead of orders to commit sin. The church is the defender of God's rights, God's law, human dignity, and the worth of persons. It cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We ask the government to consider seriously the fact that reforms are of no use when they are steeped in all this blood.

"In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!

The church preaches your liberation just as we have studied it in the Holy Bible today. It is a liberation that has, above all else, respect for the dignity of the person, hope for humanity's common good, and the transcendence that looks before all to God and only from God derives its hope and its strength.

The next day, as he celebrated Mass, a sharpshooter murdered him. Several people who attended his funeral were also shot outside the cathedral. Romero had a prophetic view of the church's voice and speaking truth to power at the peak of the persecution.

Space does not allow more stories of the countless women, men and young people around the world who have sacrificed their lives in order that justice and peace may one day exist in their communities.

Many of their visions remain unfulfilled. I live in the hope that theirs and ours will one day be.

May your week be blessed with light, love, peace and the strength to walk and talk in truth.

Reverend James Bhagwan is currently on leave from the Methodist Davuilevu Theological College where he is a member of the faculty. All opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church or any organisation Reverend Bhagwan is affiliated with.

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