Friday, March 21, 2008

Famous Jesuit Challenges People

Keynote at Boston College Sees World Renowned Jesuit Challenge Christians for a Better World

If a Jesuit university is not being persecuted, then something is wrong!" Father Jon Sobrino made this statement at Boston College this past week at the end of his keynote address entitled "Jesuit Catholic Universities in the 21st century". It encompasses many of the virtues and beliefs espoused throughout his lecture. Father Sobrino is the renowned Jesuit theologian famous for his life long struggle against injustices and human rights violations in El Salvador. He was the spiritual advisor to the martyr Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero who was shot dead by a right wing death squad on March 24, 1980 while celebrating mass and is heralded as the Mahatma Gandhi of Latin America. Father Sobrino narrowly escaped assassination at the university in El Salvador that he founded. He was away giving a speech abroad when six Jesuit faculty members and two lay workers were murdered by the army for teaching and preaching against the establishment (the government, the military, and people of privilege) on behalf of the poor who were suffering blatant human rights abuses during a vicious civil war.

Some people may think 'persecution' an odd choice of words but when you listen to Sobrino you cannot help but feel you are in the presence of a modern day prophet. In Catholic pedagogy prophets speak truth to those in power. Although his tone was softer than his written words, Sobrino's passionate discourse challenges the very core of American culture. He contends that consumerism and capitalism are flawed and that Christians (he believes the term Catholic is too narrowing) and especially Jesuit Universities should be attempting to come up with different or altered economic models. His argument is based on Jesus' preachings of the 'here and now' reign of God on Earth as stated in the Lord's prayer "…on earth as it is in Heaven…". Sobrino warns us that consumerism and the capitalism in practice today are overwhelmingly exclusive and wrought with injustices. He observes that consumerism causes people to extend themselves, live beyond their needs, and excessively use resources. The capitalism that he denounces preaches the accumulation of wealth and the building and building of capital often at the expense of others. Rather, he espouses a model that "rejects the accumulation of wealth and capital and is based on providing basic needs and the pure word of development".

While I believe both 'isms' have their positive aspects (e.g. helping to create and maintain the overall economy and support the private sector), each has the potential to be gravely misused. In the USA, whether we look at energy consumption, the role of corporations and corporate capitalism, or our foreign policy, it is evident that a disproportionate amount of our wealth and power is concentrated within the hands of the few. A recent CNN article notes "US income disparity reaches highest since 1920s". With all the excessive gains and wealth created by the US and world economies there are still billions living without access to clean water, dignified living space, or the rights to quality education or healthcare.

Sobrino challenges all people and especially Christian universities to have a mission of "influencing society in the right way". He speaks of the "crucified people". These are the overwhelming majority of the world population that live in poverty or face human rights violations that keep them oppressed. He challenges us to look at these people as Christ on the cross and to do two things. First, reflect on why these people are up there and if we did anything in anyway to aid in the process. Second, ask ourselves what are we doing now to help that person down.
How do we do this? Sobrino would say through solidarity and "a compassion that lights the dark spaces of the world". Some may dismiss him as a communist or socialist but they would be stuck in the past and not understand his message. He is talking about humanity and how the social institutions should have a mantra of "research with reason": Look at what is wrong with this system and tweak it or develop a new one. Perhaps instead of stressing accumulation of capital, the stress should be on pure development and basic needs. Perhaps multinational corporations that have long been accustomed to running rough shod over foreign governments and labor markets should have to take into account universal labor rights and environmentally friendly approaches. Perhaps instead of giving CEOs 50 million dollar bonuses the money could be used to create new jobs or run corporate social responsibility programs.

Sobrino's message brings hope but focuses on reflection, the courage of action, and social responsibility. It puts less stress for change on the institutions and large entities and more on the person and the individual. It transcends religion and is a cause that anyone can take up.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Power of Individuals

Speech at UN Focuses on Two Women Who are Changing their Communities

“Can you link your experiences to give a speech about women peace builders?” The answer is yes, but how to do it became quite the internal debate. Who do I choose? How should I present the issues? All I knew is that the audience would be members of the International Movement of Catholic Students – Pax Romana and the location would be at the UN plaza. Hailing from all over North America and with representatives from Ivory Coast, England, India, and Bangladesh, I took my seat and began to tell the stories of Daxa and Maria.

In a perfect world I would have had an opportunity to show the audience the four photos I had selected, but then again in a perfect world their would be no story to tell. The first two photos were simple full body pictures. Maria is there in a plastic multicolored hammock with jeans and a t-shirt. Leaves from a banana plant provide shade and in the background one can make out the red metal sheets of her out house style bathroom. Daxa’s photo shows her in a beautiful white sari with her traditional gold nose piercing and dark red wedding mark on the middle of her brow. A mere glace at the photos would convey the differences between the two women. Religion, culture, appearance, even continent, nothing would lead someone to initially create parallels.

Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words, but rarely do they provide the viewer with the story. Everything that unites these women comes as a consequence of their status as HIV positive and what links them is their struggle. Both Maria and Daxa had “normal” lives in their communities. They committed to a relationship and remained faithful to their partner. However neither expected to become HIV positive from their spouse and neither expected what could come from such news. Maria’s church criticized her, her family disowned her, her employers fired her and the hospital, the place that should have understood the situation best, treated her as if she had the plague and did not keep her status confidential. Daxa too was not spared ill treatment at the hands of those who should have known better. She was provided no counseling when she tested positive as a pregnant mother and went through an abortion because she thought her baby would die soon after being born. Furthermore, the hospital attempted to overcharge her various services because she was HIV positive. Between the heavy stigma and the ostracization, Daxa and Maria could have given up or succumb to the depression that clouded their minds. Instead, we would flash to the last two photos and see what path they have chosen.

Maria and Daxa made a decision somewhere in this journey to stand up and be a pillar for those who were in similar situations. Both were instrumental in beginning HIV support groups and networks that have given HIV positive people a fighting chance to, at least, not struggle alone. The first picture is of Maria addressing the audience at the official inauguration of the city’s only HIV self-help group (see December "Inauguration" post). Her group does not have a working relationship with the government and finds it’s support coming from a local NGO and its funds coming from a German NGO. The group has had some difficulty recruiting members and had 15 members for the entire city last November. However with each public speech and awareness campaign the visibility of the group increases and, hopefully, any stigma maintained by audience members decreases. The services they provide run the gamut from hospital visits to group declamations for violations of rights. Daxa’s photo shows her giving the inauguration address at a TB/HIV Center that unites NGOs, the government, and India’s largest corporation with the positive people network that she heads. The group now has grown to over 3,000 members and has an office in one of the hospitals for counseling and testing. She wants no pregnant woman to go through what she did. Last year they were responsible for getting 2,051 people HIV tested and they still do house to house follow ups and awareness programs.

Within only four pictures and brief explanations the audience can see the power of the individual. Maria and Daxa have dealt with and lived through many hardships, and have responded with dignity, courage and an impassioned voice. Maria’s wildest dreams would include the success that Daxa’s work has achieved, but her access to resources does not allow it thus far. However, they both would agree that success is based on individuals and not raw numbers. The importance of providing a physical place to call their own, a place where there is no discrimination or stigma, has not been lost on either women. Both women are not professionally satisfied as the presidents of the groups and still face very real personal struggles. Maria struggles to find work to feed her family healthy portions and also to buy secondary medications for opportunistic infections. Daxa meets children who are HIV and relives the pain of aborting a child that she now knows could have been born HIV-. Her health is also an issue as her medications have been increased after adverse reactions to the previous ones. However, these women understand that life is about struggle and responding to it – if not for yourself, then for others – and this is why I label the presentation “Women Peace Builders”.