by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The quotation from the prophet Habakkuk at the heading of these weekly entries is considered to be the first time in Israelite literature that a human being questions the ways of God. Habakkuk asks why God “gazes on the faithless in silence… [those who] slay peoples without mercy” and he reports God’s answer.
It is an answer particularly relevant to our times especially as we stand at the threshold of Holy Week once again. We have every right to question, beg, call God to account for faithlessness in our times – of people being slain without mercy by violence, injustice and environmental degradation. Still, this week we remember yet again God’s promise – the vision that has “surely come” and “has not been late”.
But the vision is still a great mystery. The unbelievable fact that the Divine did actually join with the Human in Jesus of Nazareth and that this historical person condemned evil situations in his time which led to his being executed in the cruelest way, by crucifixion. This vision of God’s intervention in a world of sinful structures and the consequences of that intervention bend the mind and challenge our faith.
Because taking that “leap of faith” in the truth of all of this, as we do especially during these “high holydays” of our Christian/Catholic tradition, brings us face to face with a crucial, if obvious truth. This carpenter from an obscure village in a distant colony of imperial Rome did not die because he “made a bad impression on those in power” as theologian Jon Sobrino says. He maintains that in Jesus’s basic attitude, his preaching and his denunciations, he is constantly accusing those who wield oppressive political and religious power that they are trying to cover the sinfulness of their situation in the name of God. This dynamic goes much deeper than a particular political debate of that time; it is part of the ever-present conflict between evil and good and questioning where God stands: either wielding oppressive power (as claimed by the religious/political structure of Jesus’s time) or offering and bringing about the liberation he was calling for. Jesus makes it clear where God is found and he dies for his conviction. Jesus is confronting institutionalized sin.
All of this can sound entirely abstract or esoteric until we remember similar “Holy Week experiences” in our own times:
- Archbishop St. Oscar Romero, shot dead because he denounced a “Christian government” of warring against the Salvadoran people to maintain a death-dealing status quo.
- Sister Dorothy Stang, left to die in a muddy Brazilian field because she called out powerful industrialists who placed extractive industries above the habitat of indigenous peoples.
- St. Franz Jagerstatter, beheaded for his refusal to cooperate with the brutal Nazi war machine.
- Four American missionary women, brutalized and buried in shallow graves for defying an oppressive military regime and accompanying innocent peasant farmers suspected of being guerrillas.
The Paschal Mystery of Jesus repeats itself over and over again throughout the centuries. In other times the struggle has been over religious questions – heroes and heroines who refused to worship false gods or false doctrines. Today, in a return to the circumstances we celebrate during Holy Week, the conflicts center on social, structural sins – as indicated in the examples just cited.
Today the Church, the People of God have a vital role to play in this struggle. We are called to take similar prophetic positions over against oppressive power and in favor of liberation. This vocation should form a central part of our Holy Week observances. As St. Romero once famously said: “A church that does not touch the real sin of that society in which it is proclaiming the Gospel: what kind of a Gospel is that?”
[Disclaimer. These reflections are my own. They are the result of personal reading and prayerful meditation and not in any way “official”.]
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.