The great question to us is whether we are still capable of being truly shocked or whether it is to remain so that we see thousands of things and know that they should not be, and must not be, and that we get hardened to them. How many things have we become used to in the course of the years, of the weeks and months, so that we stand unshocked, unstirred, inwardly unmoved.
This quote comes from Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., a German priest who was part of the Resistance to the Nazis and was convicted of treason and hanged by the Nazi’s in 1945. Maybe it’s because of the extreme horrors of the Camps that we too easily become unshocked by what we see today. The constant bombardment of the reality of the depth of human depravity like the Concentration Camps, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Gulags of the USSR, the Rwandan Genocide and so many other examples too often desensitize us so that our outrage is muted, and we become impotent, too overwhelmed to take action or raise our voice.
So here are two things that should shock us, one small and one very large. Recently, I saw a Girl Scout troop (not ours) selling cookies in front of a Marijuana Dispensary in Tempe. What kind of message does that send to 8 and 10 yr. old girls? So the girls come away thinking that the Cheech and Chong munchies are just really fun and harmless. It’s “just pot” after all, right? No, it is not a joke as it is an intoxicating substance with harmful side effects. They also were taught good old capitalistic greed: make a profit no matter how shady, tawdry or unethical your business practices might be. I would bet that these same adults who took the girls there also rail against corporate greed and exploitation (but, of course, not for their Girl Scout Corporation profits). Many of us fought hard to make sure the pot dispensaries were located far from schools, childcare centers, and playgrounds precisely so children would not be exposed to them.
Now for the much larger shock. Next Sunday, on the First Sunday of Lent, we will welcome Sr. Betty Banja. She comes from the country of South Sudan. Our Bishop recruited her and two other sisters to come to our Diocese to help minister to the many refugees settled here from parts of Africa and the Middle East. Sister Betty speaks 5 languages including Arabic. She needed all those languages as she spent the last 20 years ministering in the South Sudan and Sudan, Chad, Libya and other African countries where the Christian population was a small, very persecuted minority.
Sister Betty gave me a taste of what day to day life was like for Christians in those parts. To start with, for Christians to be even able to exist in the Sudan, one of her Sisters from her religious community, had to marry the King, becoming his tenth wife. As a result, the King allowed Christians to live in his Muslim nation. A modern day version of Queen Esther for sure.
Her stories tell a tale of daily struggle and persecution in the most horrifying terms possible. I admit I was not prepared for what she told me and the photographs she showed me. After 30 years of priesthood, you have pretty much seen it all, or so I thought. It is really hard to be unshocked by the witness Sister Betty gives.
Recently, one of her catechists was killed, beheaded to be exact. He was killed by a Muslim. But when the police came, they had to make up a story and say that the man was killed by another Christian. Otherwise, the police would start killing more Christians assuming they would try and seek revenge on Muslims. It is the only way to survive.
Now how do you swallow that kind of injustice? More than that – how do you get your people to not react in revenge and hatred? Beyond that, she showed me several pictures of other Christians who were crucified. Again, how do people hold on to faith? How is it they don’t say, “Give it up; it is not worth it.” The horror stories got even worse. But I think you get the picture.
The great lesson that we can take from her experiences is that we, too, must learn to keep faith alive. We don’t face the horrors of religious persecution or physical torture or violence, but we do face a culture that marginalizes faith to the point of irrelevance. We also suffer from our affluence so much so that we wonder why we even need God. I hope Sister Betty can wake us up to the precious gift of faith we have and that we stop taking it for granted.
More than ever, we need Lent. Let the barrenness of Lent remind you of your need for God and offer your prayers, fasting, and sacrifices for our Christian brothers and sisters who live daily with the threat of death simply because they love Jesus. May this Lent be shocking and move you inwardly and stir up your passion for Christ.
Love, Fr. John B.
P.S. The push to legalize recreational use marijuana is on again in AZ. So stay tuned for more info on the efforts to stop it and how you can help.