Pope Francis has often spoken of the need to pay more attention to the people and places on the world’s periphery. Starting today, ZENIT is publishing a four-part reflection by Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangoon, Myanmar.
In his insightful reflection, Cardinal Bo makes no apologies for being from the periphery. Instead, he speaks of the challenges his world faces — and the lessons his world can share with those in more affluent parts of the world.
In Part One, we share his introduction and his thoughts on the Rights and Duties of all people. In subsequent parts, he will address the quest for Peace, the legitimate role of Defense for a nation, and the importance of Religious Freedom.
Reflections From The Periphery: “God’s love for the people and Nations of Asia”
by His Eminence Charles Cardinal Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar
In the Gospel of St Matthew, Our Lord Jesus Christ provides a clear and beautiful vision of how He wants us to live and behave towards others when He says: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-40).
In Myanmar today there are still too many people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and in prison. Too many who are displaced or homeless, too many who have been trafficked or have become addicted to drugs, too many who are enslaved, too many who have been raped or tortured, too many whose land has been taken from them, too many who have been driven off their land and displaced, too many killed, too many who face daily injustice. As a priest of the Church and a servant of Christ, it is my responsibility – literally where possible, and metaphorically or spiritually through acts of solidarity – to feed, clothe, care for and visit them. And such acts of mercy must always be accompanied by a search for justice. As Pope Francis has said, “True mercy, the mercy God gives to us and teaches us, demands justice; it demands that the poor find the way to be poor no longer.”
I am a religious leader, not a politician, and as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “the Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State”. Nevertheless, as he goes on to argue, “at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the side-lines in the fight for justice … The promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply”. As the former Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom Lord Sacks put it in his book The Home We Build Together: “Religion is about the exercise of conscience. Politics is about the exercise of power. When a nation seeks to accommodate more than one system of religion, it must separate faith from power … The wise remember what they should never have forgotten, that the voice of the prophet speaks truth to power. It does not use power to impose truth.”
It is therefore in that spirit that I write, to express the deep concerns of the Church about the challenges facing the people of Myanmar today, particularly as the country prepares for the next election in 2020. I do so without taking any particular side except that of peace, justice, reconciliation, human dignity, and love. I do so inspired by the words in Deus Caritas Est, that God is love, that the Church is a living force “alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ” and that “anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor”. I open my heart to every person in Myanmar, all of whom are my brothers and sisters. I hold open my hands of friendship, ready to offer help to anyone who needs me and whom I am able to help. Let us work together to end violence and terror in our country, and to build a Myanmar where every man, woman, and child of every race and religion born on Myanmar soil is recognized both as our fellow citizen and as our brother and sister in humanity. I pledge to renew my efforts to that end, and I extend my hand to any of my brothers and sisters of any race or religion who will join with me.
Rights and duties
“It is from the inner wellspring of love that the values of truth, freedom, and justice are born and grow,” says the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. “Human life in society is ordered, bears fruits of goodness and responds to human dignity when it is founded on truth; when it is lived in justice, that is, in the effective respect of rights and in the faithful carrying out of corresponding duties; when it is animated by selflessness, which makes the needs and requirements of others seem like one’s own and intensifies the communion of spiritual values and the concern for material necessities; when it is brought about in the freedom that befits the dignity of men and women, prompted by their rational nature to accept responsibility for their actions. These values constitute the pillars which give strength and consistency to the edifice of life and deeds: they are values that determine the quality of every social action and institution.”
For most of the past five decades, the people of Myanmar have not known freedom. Their rights, dignity, and identity have been repressed. And for most of the past seven decades, the people of Myanmar have not known peace, as civil war has raged in one part of the country or another.
Seven years ago we saw what we thought was the beginning of a new dawn. As political prisoners were released, ceasefires were signed, space for civil society and the media relaxed, and a dialogue between political leaders led to the first credible elections in a quarter of a century and the election of a democratic, civilian-led government in 2015.
But in recent years very dark clouds have appeared again, overshadowing the flickers of light that had begun to emerge. Continuing conflict, continuing abuses, and the spread of religious and racial hatred threaten the hopes, freedoms, and dignity of people throughout the country. And so I say again what I said in my Christmas homily five years ago: “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to seek your rights to dignity. Do not be afraid of resisting injustice. Do not be afraid to dream, to imagine a new Myanmar where justice and righteousness flow like a river”. The Church stands to serve the nation, and empowering the vulnerable is our aim.
Myanmar is a wounded nation, a bleeding nation. It still suffers from old wounds, and yet new wounds have been inflicted upon us. Until we achieve real freedom – freedom from fear – we will never be able to heal. Until gross violations of human rights cease, we will never be without fear. Until every woman in every part of the country can go about her daily life without fear of being raped or trafficked, we will never be free. Until every journalist can perform their duties without fear of arrest and imprisonment, no one is free. Until every person of every religion and ethnicity can know that they have an equal stake in the future of the country, based on equal rights and respect, our wounds will continue to fester. It is time then to seek true peace, based on real justice and genuine freedom.
But with rights come duties. With freedom comes responsibility. We all have duties to one another, our families, communities, and nation. Every right is balanced by a duty. This is because we are all – every single one of us, everywhere – made in the image of God. The Imago Dei within each of us means that no one – not one single human being – should be condemned as ‘untouchable’, marginalized as ‘unclean’, looked down upon as ‘inferior’ or disregarded as a ‘foreigner’, an ‘immigrant’, a ‘displaced’ person or a ‘stateless’ person. Even where people are displaced, they are not misplaced. Each one of us, from conception until natural death, has an innate dignity and therefore a right to life – no exceptions at all and, as God does not make mistakes, in His unconditional love, none of us is a reject or untouchable in His eyes.”
And yet throughout the world, and around Myanmar, the Imago Dei is trampled upon mercilessly on a daily basis. In some societies, there is the evil of a caste system which consigns some human beings to a seemingly unalterable life at the very bottom of the economic ladder, even outside society. In others, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee is rejected or subjected to vile racist abuse. In still other societies, those with disabilities are often ignored or mistreated.
Jean Vanier, the founder of the remarkable L’Arche community, who died earlier this year, has much to teach us on this. In his book Signs of the Times: Seven Paths of Hope for a Troubled World, Jean Vanier writes: “When the strong and the weak live together, a compassionate love is born: mutual help passes through weakened bodies. The stronger help the old to get up and go to bed; they help those with a disability to shower, shave, to get dressed. The weaker people awaken tenderness in the hearts of the stronger; they transform them into ‘real’ people, capable of true compassion. The stronger reveal to the weaker their deepest human value. So each person, weak or strong, becomes someone uniquely valuable. At the heart of society’s ills is a call to create more community … A coming together of those at the top of society and those at the bottom: that is what we need today”. In a world where youth should certainly be encouraged to pursue their dreams, there is at the same time a timeless value in traditional respect for the wisdom of elders.
“Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image,” says the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. “Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. The value of freedom, as an expression of the singularity of each human person, is respected when every member of society is permitted to fulfill his personal vocation; to seek the truth and profess his religious, cultural and political ideas; to express his opinions; to choose his state of life and, as far as possible, his line of work; to pursue initiatives of an economic, social or political nature. This must take place within a “strong juridical framework” within the limits imposed by the common good and public order, and, in every case, in a manner characterized by responsibility.”
Our freedoms cannot be secured, nor can they be protected, without the rule of law. But it is important to understand what the rule of law means. It does not mean that the people obey the law while the rulers commit injustice with impunity. That is rule by law. The rule of law means everyone – the powerful and the powerless – is equal before the law.
Freedom is endangered when lies are told about a people. There will always be groups who seek to exploit a generous welcome and a State has the right to resist when violence is deployed against it. But this can never become a substitute for finding wise accommodations and creative solutions. If it is able to promote genuine integration and provide protection, to all who are genuinely entitled to live under its roof, a diverse society such as Myanmar can become a shining light to other nations.
When preachers turn messages of love into sermons of hate, freedom for all of us – not only those who are the targets of such vitriolic campaigns – is diminished. Freedom can only be protected when truth is told. In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Pope St John Paul II asserted that “truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery”. The issue of human freedom, he says, is “fundamental”.
And the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed earlier this year by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, reinforces this: “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race, and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept; Justice based on mercy is the path to follow in order to achieve a dignified life to which every human being has a right; Dialogue, understanding and the widespread promotion of a culture of tolerance, acceptance of others and of living together peacefully would contribute significantly to reducing many economic, social, political and environmental problems that weigh so heavily on a large part of humanity…The concept of citizenship is based on the equality of rights and duties, under which all enjoy justice. It is, therefore, crucial to establish in our societies the concept of full citizenship and reject the discriminatory use of the term minorities which engenders feelings of isolation and inferiority. Its misuse paves the way for hostility and discord; it undoes any successes and takes away the religious and civil rights of some citizens who are thus discriminated against… It is likewise important to reinforce the bond of fundamental human rights in order to help ensure a dignified life for all.”
As Nelson Mandela said, “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom.” Or as William Lloyd Garrison put it, “wherever there is a human being, I see God-given rights inherent in that being.”