and a still small voice implores
the strength of a people whose lives will be spent
so the children may die no more.
Tim Mannion, Rachel's Lament
Some years ago, a fine songwriter named Tim Mannion wrote a piece called Rachel’s Lament, using this little snippet from the prophet Jeremiah that gets quoted in Matthew’s Gospel at the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents: “the sound of Rachel weeping in the streets, for her children are no more.” Oddly enough, he wrote the piece when his son Sean was born, having some doubts about having brought a child into a world that seemed to be careening headlong toward annihilating itself. As he said, “For the swords of Herod still rise and fall indeed as nations spend billions of dollars on nuclear weapons while millions of children starve to death each day.”
I think of that song every year during this season, as we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents and the Holy Family in the Roman tradition, and when we celebrate World Peace Day on January 1st; but I’ve especially been thinking of that song this year because of the Holy Father Pope Benedict’s World Peace Day message, which was released early this year. It’s called “The Human Family, A Community of Peace.” Not surprisingly, he starts out by saying that the building up of a community of peace has to begin in the home, with the family, (#3) because that’s where children have to learn the language and the actions of peace, the vocabulary of peace that they can carry with them through their whole lives. The letter to the Colossians, read on the feast of the Holy Family, beautifully spells out this vocabulary and these gestures of peace:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:12-14)But peace is not an isolated state. Citing the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Holy See’s own Charter of the Rights of the Family, Pope Benedict goes on to say that in order for there to be peace, families need to have a home, families need employment, families need the possibility of schooling for children, and families need basic health care for all, because if “society and public policy are not committed to assisting … people in these areas,” he says, “they deprive themselves of an essential resource in the service of peace.” (#5)
Earlier in the document he had quoted Gaudium et Spes, saying that “All peoples are one community and have one origin, because God caused the whole human race to dwell on the face of the earth; and all people have one final end, God.” (#1). And the next section (#8) of the letter is entitled, “Humanity is one great family.” This may seem a little touchy-feely but coming from a philosopher-academic such as Pope Benedict, we shouldn’t take it so. The human race has to learn to see itself as one big family, because that is what it is––literally not figuratively. We are all related to each other, with familial relationships like parents, spouses, siblings, aunties and uncles, and nieces and nephews, so we can apply the same language and actions that we expect in the home to the whole human race. (#6)
And so, in the next section he insists, since this family needs a home, that we need to care for the environment that has been entrusted to us “to be protected and cultivated with responsible freedom.” Yes, he hastens to add that it’s important that assessments be carried out “prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom,” and that they be “uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions,” but he says that “prudence does not mean failing to accept responsibilities and postponing decisions” because “the problems looming on the horizon are complex and time is short.” We simply must to gain a “’sense’ that the earth is ‘our common home’” We must reach “agreement on a model of sustainable development” so as to ensure “the well-being of all while respecting environmental balance.” What this means is not selfishly thinking that nature is “at the complete disposal of our own interests,” because “future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.” (#7-8) As the native peoples teach us, the earth does not belong to us; it belongs to our children.
Furthermore, the Holy Father says, there needs to be an economy that is capable of responding to the requirements of a common good. But now that the human family has become increasingly unified as a result of globalization, we need to be aware that the common good is now planetary in scope. We have to ensure a “prudent use of resources and an equitable distribution of wealth. In particular… aid given to poor countries.” (#10)
But the thing that really got my attention was the last section. The Holy Father concludes his message speaking about the international arms race and nuclear weaponry. He first of all points out “with regret” the growing number of states that are engaged in the arms race, and how even some developing nations allocate a significant portion of their tiny domestic product to the purchase of weapons. But this is not just pointing fingers at Iran; as far as he is concerned, no one goes without some share in the blame. “The responsibility for this baneful commerce is not limited, because “the countries of the industrially developed world profit immensely from the sale of [these] arms, while the ruling oligarchies in many poor countries [try] to reinforce their stronghold by acquiring ever more sophisticated weaponry.” And so,
In difficult times such as these, it is truly necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms. At a time when the process of nuclear non-proliferation is at a stand-still, I feel bound to entreat those in authority to resume with greater determination negotiations for a progressive and mutually agreed dismantling of existing nuclear weapons. In renewing this appeal, I know that I am echoing the desire of all those concerned for the future of humanity. (#14)In a statement that he issued while presenting Benedict’s message to the press Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace added that global spending on weaponry reached $1.204 billion in 2006, and that spending on arms went up 37 percent over the period 1997-2006. That’s the largest level of spending ever recorded, even during the ‘Cold War.’ Martino also argued that the arms race that this spending fuels is actually counter-productive with regard to anti-terrorism efforts, since build-ups in arms actually make the world less secure, not more.
In conclusion the Holy Father noted, along with the Charter on the Family and the Anniversary of World Peace Day, that sixty years ago the United Nations Organization issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that with that document
… the human family reacted against the horrors of the Second World War by acknowledging its own unity, based on the equal dignity of all men and women, and by putting respect for the fundamental rights of individuals and peoples at the [very] center of human coexistence. This was a decisive step forward along the difficult and demanding path towards harmony and peace.And so he ends by inviting “every man and woman to have a more lively sense of belonging to the one human family, and to strive to make human coexistence increasingly reflect [the] conviction” of belonging to the one human family, because this is what is essential for the establishment of true and lasting peace. (#15)
This is what should inform our prayer today: we should lament that the swords of Herod still rise and fall indeed, and we should lament our part in it, even if it be small, through our complacency our through our willful ignorance. But let’s not just lament: let’s let our celebrations increase in us, as the Holy Father suggests, a conviction of our unity, a conviction of the equal dignity of all women and men, and the conviction that respect for the fundamental rights of individuals and peoples is the center of human coexistence, a conviction to care for our planetary home, and the conviction that, even if we can’t do anything to improve the situation of others, we at least do nothing that aids and abets in worsening it. And let’s not stop believing that there is an answer other than weapons, even against all evidence to the contrary.
Tim’s lament ends with a challenge:
Softly and far there sounds a lament
And a still small voice implores
The strength of a people whose lives will be spent
So the children may die no more.
world peace day 07