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The Word Encountered
Twenty-Fifth Sunday
of Ordinary Time
September 23, 2018
John Kavanaugh, SJ

Perils of Power

“Inner cravings make war.” (Jas 4:1)

Why murder? The question has haunted me these months. It is difficult enough to face the deaths wrought by impersonal forces of nature, the wear of time, or the frailty of bodies. But murder. The will to kill. The choice to exterminate a human being—this roils the mind.

This was a murderous year. Perhaps they all are. But the killing fields of Syria, irrigated by ethnic cleansing, had been more than matched by the slaughterhouse of Rwanda. All the labors of the years—the schoolchildren, nurses, nuns, priests; the buildings built and people trained; the families started and commitments made; the neighbors welcomed and babies nourished—all obliterated in this Christian, predominantly Catholic, country.

An estimated half million persons were killed in little over a week’s time. These men, women, and children were murdered, not by bombs or antipersonnel weapons but by hand-held clubs and knives. It is incomprehensible that such brutal devastation could be brought by ordinary people upon their friends and fellow believers.

Are we to believe that there is more to our existence than our deepest human need for survival?
But as further reports mounted, the logic of murder was presented with greater clarity. I had to face the question myself: what would I do if the price of staying alive, of protecting my home and family, was the hacking to death of the family next door? 

  “We were forced to move with the killers in order not to be killed,” a teacher was quoted in the New York Times. “It was just a way of protecting myself. We risked being killed.” Another account presented the fatal choice: “A drunken vicious gang confronts me and says that if I do not hack to death the family next door, my family will be executed. In the end, my loved ones, my autonomy, my land are at stake.” And so the “patho-logic” mounted. Is this the logic of all murder?

As Christians, whether we live in Rwanda or Philadelphia, we employ a different logic, a different wisdom. The Letter of James says it is a wisdom “innocent, peaceable, lenient, docile, rich in sympathy and kindness.” It yields a harvest of justice, sown in peace. Conflict, however, arises from the logic of inner craving that yields a war within us and around others: “What you desire you do not obtain, and so you resort to murder!”

The problem is we desire to live, to be free, and to make a family and home in peace. What if these are threatened by a monstrous world? What if, to be alive and loving and free, we must take away the life and love and freedom of the neighbor in the next yard or the neighboring country?

Anyone whose faith is radically Christian is at a terrible disadvantage. Everything, even our deepest attachments, is put at risk—especially when we confront a monstrous threat. “With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.” So the wicked plot, Wisdom reminds us.

And so it would be with Jesus, who was “delivered into the hands of men to put him to death.” Ultimately Christ refused the logic of power and self-preservation. He entrusted his entire being into the hands of the One who sent him. And three days after his death, he rose.

Are we to follow him in entrusting our lives and loved ones to God even if it means sure death? Are we to believe that there is more to our existence than our deepest human need for survival?

Perhaps the depth of our Christian faith makes too terrible a demand upon us. Perhaps it did for the Christians of Rwanda. A Lutheran minister admitted that to prove one was not on the side of the victims, “you had to walk around with a club. Being a pastor was not an excuse. They said you can have religion afterwards.” The aftermath brought a horrible realization to this man of God: “I haven’t found the answers. There are times when you lose faith. Sometimes we think God has abandoned Syria and allowed the devil to enter the souls of our people.”

Underneath the logic of murder, however, is not only the gaping abyss of God’s absence. There is also a void of faith, hope, and love—even for ourselves. An infinite hole yawns at the bottom of our humanity, when we admit that in our hearts is a desire that can lead us, yes, even to slaughter the innocent in defending our own. Commentators have not been far off in opining that the carnage of Rwanda somehow represented a total loss, not only of religion, but of any moral, social, or humane order.

To be sure, there were heroes. We have the stories of men and women who resisted even to the extent of being killed rather than killing, of neighbors who harbored and hid their friends at great peril, of families who departed a monstrous world rather than take part in it.

Yet a troubling conundrum haunts me: would I have done the same?

John Kavanaugh, SJ
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Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
The Word Encountered: Meditations on the Sunday Scriptures
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York (1996), pp. 103-105.
Art by Martin (Steve) Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go http://www.ltp.org
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