Reconciliation Lessons from the Middle East

Though a few weeks have passed since Pope Benedict’s visit to the Middle East in the midst of the violent demonstrations, the weight and wisdom of the words remain. The Pope proclaimed the document “Ecclesia en Medio Oriente” in Lebanon during his visit and below a few of the highlights. One central theme of course was reconciliation and peace of course. Reconciliation, which as a theological approach informs a rich Catholic response to environmental problems. The Pope emphasized how the Church itself becomes a sacrament of this reconciliation which God brings. And in this sense, a fruit of reconciliation is peace (and here), which in its deep sense means the restoration of holiness:

9. For the sacred Scriptures, peace is not simply a pact or a treaty which ensures a tranquil life, nor can its definition be reduced to the mere absence of war. According to its Hebrew etymology, peace means being complete and intact, restored to wholeness. It is the state of those who live in harmony with God and with themselves, with others and with nature. Before appearing outwardly, peace is interior. It is blessing. It is the yearning for a reality. Peace is something so desirable that it has become a greeting in the Middle East (cf. Jn 20:19;1 Pet 5:14). Peace is justice (cf. Is 32:17); Saint James in his Letter adds that “the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:18). The struggle of the Prophets and the reflections of the Wisdom authors were inspired by the hope of eschatological peace. It is towards this authentic peace in God that Christ leads us. He alone is its gate (Jn 10:9). This is the sole gate that Christians wish to enter.

The Pope also engaged topics which concerned politics and secularizations. He echoed calls to a healthy secularity, something mentioned before in reference to the Middle East. Also he touched on issues of fundamentalism, and the pathology of religion that this phenomenon expresses. This theme is recurrent in Ratzinger and something he engaged Habermas with in their famous dialogue here, here and here. He weaves these themes into the current experience of the Middle East and concludes with reconciliation.

Two new realities

29. Like the rest of the world, the Middle East is experiencing two opposing trends: secularization, with its occasionally extreme consequences, and a violent fundamentalism claiming to be based on religion. Some Middle Eastern political and religious leaders, whatever their community, tend to look with suspicion upon secularity (laïcité) as something intrinsically atheistic or immoral. It is true that secularity sometimes reduces religion to a purely private concern, seeing personal or family worship as unrelated to daily life, ethics or one’s relationships with others. In its extreme and ideological form, secularity becomes a secularism which denies citizens the right openly to express their religion and claims that only the State can legislate on the public form which religion may take. These theories are not new. Nor are they confined to the West or to be confused with Christianity.

A healthy secularity, on the other hand, frees religion from the encumbrance of politics, and allows politics to be enriched by the contribution of religion, while maintaining the necessary distance, clear distinction and indispensable collaboration between the two spheres. No society can develop in a healthy way without embodying a spirit of mutual respect between politics and religion, avoiding the constant temptation either to merge the two or to set them at odds. The basis of a constructive relationship between politics and religion is, first and foremost, human nature – a sound understanding of man – and full respect for inalienable human rights. A sense of this correct relationship should lead to the realization that relations between the spiritual (religious) and the temporal (political) spheres should be marked by a kind of unity in distinction, inasmuch as both are called, while remaining distinct, to cooperate harmoniously in the service of the common good. This kind of healthy secularity ensures that political activity does not manipulate religion, while the practice of religion remains free from a politics of self-interest which at times is barely compatible with, if not downright contrary to, religious belief. For this reason, a healthy secularity, embodying unity in distinction, is necessary and even vital for both spheres. The challenges raised by the relationship of politics and religion can be met patiently and courageously through a sound human and religious formation. Constant emphasis needs to be put on the place of God in personal, family and civic life, and on the proper place of men and women in God’s plan. Above all, greater prayer is required for this intention.

30. Economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion help open the door to religious fundamentalism. This phenomenon afflicts all religious communities, and denies their long-standing tradition of coexistence. It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons. I appeal urgently to all Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region to seek, by their example and by their teaching, to do everything in their power to eliminate this menace which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions. “To use the revealed word, the Sacred Scriptures or the name of God to justify our interests, our easy and convenient policies or our violence, is a very grave fault”.[23]

When she proclaims Christ crucified and risen (cf. Acts 2:23-24), the Church becomes ever more fully what she is already by nature and vocation: the sacrament of communion and reconciliation with God and between men.[66] Communion and witness to Christ are thus two aspects of a single reality: both draw from the same source, the Holy Trinity, and rest on the same foundations: the word of God and the sacraments.

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