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13 June: Today this is my vocation I

walking together

Sister Johanna’s reflection yesterday reminds me of the time when, talking to Philippe, a Missionary of Africa, I described my work with children and teenagers who were excluded from school. His response was, ‘First of all, you have to love them.’

Talking to my colleagues over the years, I came to realise how true this was of all of them, though they would more likely have spoken about ‘getting alongside’ the young people and their families; loving is not a recognised professional activity. Yet some tutors kept a supply of children’s clothes and shoes, either for their pupil or a sibling; I’ve known outgrown bikes and beds to be supplied by tutors, while home-made cakes and preserves showed that we cared without ‘giving charity’.

All this contributed to establishing trust between families on the margin and professional teachers; a trust that could not be taken for granted. The young people and their parents were often Sister Johanna’s

so-called “sinners” … people who were thought to be involved in all sorts of iniquitous practices, whose entire life-style was considered morally dubious at best. I daresay that then as now, there were people relegated to this group who were essentially honest but had fallen on very hard times, people for whom earning a living had proved impossible, and for reasons beyond their control. But many will have been truly as dishonest and even criminal as they were thought to be, and all were deeply wounded people for one reason or another. This is a crowd of seeming failures – if you judge success by the sleek appearance of it. And this is something Jesus never did.

I would not have you see my families as stained glass saints, far from it: in many cases they really were dishonest and criminal, and not necessarily skilled crooks, so they tended to get caught. One father was later murdered by a drug dealer; a dear boy was murdered by his stepfather; assault and theft were not uncommon. More than once I was warned not to visit alone, but then the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ was easy to answer: this is my job today and today this is my vocation.

‘Will, you come and sit here and tell me I’m a good mum. You know I’m not!’

‘That’s not what your children say, is it?’

Her children did not judge her by appearances. Part of my job, my vocation, one of the parts not mentioned in any job description, was to vindicate her children by helping that mother find the good mother in her heart. Perhaps we should dare to remove the masks and let Jesus breathe on us, then take his healing grace to the battered souls crowding around us.


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Thoughts on St Oscar Romero by Canon Anthony Charlton of Canterbury

Saint Oscar Romero
Image open access via Wikipedia

Another of Fr Anthony’s thoughts, this time about our unofficial second patron saint, Oscar Romero.

On 24th March 1980 Saint Oscar Romero Archbishop of San Salvador was shot and killed while celebrating Mass. In his sermon the day before, Romero ordered the army to stop killing people: “In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I beg you, I implore you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!” We are very privileged to have some of his vestments here at St Thomas’s in the Martyr’s chapel.

Here are some words from a sermon he gave in November 1977

Do you want to know if your Christianity is genuine?
Here is the touchstone:
Whom do you get along with?
Who are those who criticise you?
Who are those who do not accept you? Who are those who flatter you?
Know from that what Christ said once:
“I have come not to bring peace, but division.” There will be division even in the same family, because some want to live more comfortably
by the world’s principles,
those of power and money.
But others have embraced the call of Christ
and must reject all that cannot be just in the world.

We give thanks for the witness of his life and death and ask that through his intercession we may also be a powerful witness to Jesus and his Gospel in our lives today..

If you want to know more about his life and message click here.

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25 November: Taken by Surprise, I.

Sister Johanna is back! With Advent just around the corner, we find Jesus and the disciples looking for peace and quiet to absorb the news about the prophet of Advent, John the Baptist.

Jesus and the disciples withdrew by boat to a lonely place…. But the crowds heard and went after him on foot. So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick (Mt.14:13f.).

Jesus and the disciples are taken by surprise here – several surprises. The first surprise is a shattering piece of news: they had just heard of the death of John the Baptist – that’s why they wanted to go off by themselves. It’s easy to forget that Jesus and his disciples were like us, and the death of Jesus’ cousin John, who had been a profound spiritual force in their lives, was as traumatic for them as such a thing would be to us. Jesus knew that they all needed some space in order to come to terms with their grief – to some extent anyway. So Jesus organises a boat, and they go by sea to what they hoped would be a place of solitude. They needed to talk about John together, to weep, to pray.

But no solitude was given. Second surprise: a large crowd met them as they got out of the boat. Jesus was grief-stricken, but he saw the faith-filled, needy crowd, and was filled with pity. It’s possible, in fact, that their great faith strengthened Jesus, and enabled him to heal their sick. As I read this, however, I found myself thinking about the disciples, rather than the miraculous healing of the crowd. The disciples don’t seem able to draw energy from the crowd. What happens to them? The text doesn’t say, but during the time when Jesus is healing the crowd, the disciples seem to have disappeared. They are still overwhelmed by grief, surely; I imagine them creeping away, out of sight of all the people who are focused on Jesus. They try to watch the action from a safe distance maybe. As I read on, I realise that Jesus also remembers his disciples, even while he is taken up with the needs of the crowd. He knows that his sorrowing disciples need healing, too.

At length, a further situation develops. Evening comes. Those whom Jesus had healed need to eat. The disciples materialise now, finally, and suggest that Jesus draw the event to a close so that they can all find some food somewhere. Jesus has a different idea. ‘There is no need for the people to go,’ Jesus tells the disciples. ‘Give them something to eat yourselves.’ They must have groaned inwardly at Jesus’ words, and wondered what madness had possessed him. They only had the provisions they had brought with them: five loaves and two fish – barely enough for their own meal. There are over five thousand people to feed. Jesus, always good at registering unspoken words, reads the disciples’ stunned and tired faces and doesn’t even try to dialogue further with them, in Matthew’s account. Jesus simply tells the disciples to bring him their food. Jesus himself instructs the people to sit down on the grass. Then, quietly blessing the food and breaking the five loaves, he gives the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute to the five-thousand-plus people. We know how this story ends. Everybody eats – and well. Third surprise for them.

Why does Jesus do this? The people could probably have managed to get home without expiring, picking up some food as they went through different villages on the way. This miracle of feeding doesn’t seem to be one that addressed a desperate need, as did the physical healings Jesus had performed for them earlier in that day. But Jesus has a message here. He seems to be saying: “I do not fulfil only the minimum requirements of a needy situation, and I do not address only the most obvious and most desperate troubles of my people. I am willing to do more – so much more than you have asked or think you need. Or rather, I show you that you need more than you think. The healing that you sought from me is not complete without the food that I alone can give you.” That was perhaps Jesus’ primary message, and it was addressed both to the crowd and to the disciples. And now to us. But something more was involved here for the disciples. I would like to explore this tomorrow in a second reflection on this story.

SJC

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14 September: Wesley on slavery XIV. Human trafficking in the 18th Century

Wesley continues his argument that it is not by nature that Africans were slaves but by deliberate cruelty on the part of slavers. We today do not know who might be on board a lorry, in a car boot, only to be deprived of liberty and justice by the traffickers and their co-conspirators.

They were, in most parts, a sensible and ingenious people. They were kind and friendly, courteous and obliging, and remarkably fair and just in their dealings. Such are the men whom you hire their own countrymen to tear away from this lovely country; part by stealth, part by force, part made captives in those wars which you raise or foment on purpose. You have seen them torn away, — children from their parents, parents from their children; husbands from their wives, wives from their beloved husbands, brethren and sisters from each other. You have dragged them who had never done you any wrong, perhaps in chains, from their native shore. You have forced them into your ships like an herd of swine, — them who had souls immortal as your own; only some of them leaped into the sea, and resolutely stayed under water, till they could suffer no more from you. You have stowed them together as close as ever they could lie, without any regard either to decency or convenience. And when many of them had been poisoned by foul air, or had sunk under various hardships, you have seen their remains delivered to the deep, till the sea should give up his dead. You have carried the survivors into the vilest slavery, never to end but with life; such slavery as is not found among the Turks at Algiers, no, nor among the Heathens in America.

Oscar Murillo’s Turner Prize travellers

 May I speak plainly to you? I must. Love constrains me; love to you, as well as to those you are concerned with. Is there a God? You know there is. Is he a just God? Then there must be a state of retribution; a state wherein the just God will reward every man according to his works. Then what reward will he render to you? O think betimes! before you drop into eternity! Think now, “He shall have judgment without mercy that showed no mercy.”

Sadly, trafficking continues – we must not grow inured to people dying in the back of container trucks, or smuggled across frontiers in other ways. And if the places they are leaving are poverty stricken, is that not thanks to the economic system which has benefitted us in the prosperous West, but not the people whose fingers do so much of the work, whose products are affordable to us but highly priced to them.

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10 September: Wesley on Slavery, X; legal arguments against slavery

Wesley turns to the scholar of English Common Law,    Sir William Blackstone.

I cannot place this in a clearer light than that great ornament of his profession, Judge Blackstone, has already done. Part of his words are as follows: —    “The three origins of the right of slavery assigned by Justinian, are all built upon false foundations:

(1.) Slavery is said to arise from captivity in war. The conqueror having a right to the life of his captives, if he spares that, has then a right to deal with them as he pleases. But this is untrue, if taken generally, — that, by the laws of nations, a man has a right to kill his enemy. He has only a right to kill him in particular cases, in cases of absolute necessity for self-defence. And it is plain, this absolute necessity did not subsist, since he did not kill him, but made him prisoner. War itself is justifiable only on principles of self-preservation: Therefore it gives us no right over prisoners, but to hinder their hurting us by confining them. Much less can it give a right to torture, or kill, or even to enslave an enemy when the war is over. Since therefore the right of making our prisoners slaves, depends on a supposed right of slaughter, that foundation failing, the consequence which is drawn from it must fail likewise.    “It is said, Secondly, slavery may begin by one man’s selling himself to another.

And it is true, a man may sell himself to work for another; but he cannot sell himself to be a slave, as above defined. Every sale implies an equivalent given to the seller, in lieu of what he transfers to the buyer. But what equivalent can be given for life or liberty? His property likewise, with the very price which he seems to receive, devolves ipso facto to his master, the instant he becomes his slave: In this case, therefore, the buyer gives nothing, and the seller receives nothing. Of what validity then can a sale be, which destroys the very principle upon which all sales are founded?   

“We are told, Thirdly, that men may be born slaves, by being the children of slaves. But this, being built upon the two former rights, must fall together with them. If neither captivity nor contract can, by the plain law of nature and reason, reduce the parent to a state of slavery, much less can they reduce the offspring.” It clearly follows, that all slavery is as irreconcilable to justice as to mercy.

That slave-holding is utterly inconsistent with mercy, is almost too plain to need a proof. Indeed, it is said, “that these Negroes being prisoners of war, our captains and factors buy them, merely to save them from being put to death. And is not this mercy?” I answer,

(1.) Did Sir John Hawkins, and many others, seize upon men, women, and children, who were at peace in their own fields or houses, merely to save them from death?

(2.) Was it to save them from death, that they knocked out the brains of those they could not bring away?

(3.) Who occasioned and fomented those wars, wherein these poor creatures were taken prisoners? Who excited them by money, by drink, by every possible means, to fall upon one another? Was it not themselves? They know in their own conscience it was, if they have any conscience left.

But, (4.) To bring the matter to a short issue, can they say before God, that they ever took a single voyage, or bought a single Negro, from this motive? They cannot; they well know, to get money, not to save lives, was the whole and sole spring of their motions.

Sir William Blackstone was a judge and scholar of English Common Law. Image in public domain, via Wikipedia.

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9 September: Wesley on Slavery IX:an Angolan has the same rights …

Slave ship from a XIX Century Methodist history

Wesley now appeals to the Natural Law, beloved of Catholic moral theology, as opposed to human law.

The grand plea is, “They are authorized by law.” But can law, human law, change the nature of things? Can it turn darkness into light, or evil into good? By no means. Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still. There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy. So that I still ask, Who can reconcile this treatment of the Negroes, first and last, with either mercy or justice?

   Where is the justice of inflicting the severest evils on those that have done us no wrong? of depriving those that never injured us in word or deed, of every comfort of life? of tearing them from their native country, and depriving them of liberty itself, to which an Angolan has the same natural right as an Englishman, and on which he sets as high a value? Yea, where is the justice of taking away the lives of innocent, inoffensive men; murdering thousands of them in their own land, by the hands of their own countrymen; many thousands, year after year, on shipboard, and then casting them like dung into the sea; and tens of thousands in that cruel slavery to which they are so unjustly reduced?

But waving, for the present, all other considerations, I strike at the root of this complicated villainy; I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.

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8 September: Wesley upon Slavery VIII, Bad Laws enable slavery

Wesley now exposes the lie behind the claim that slavery is legal so therefore is not wrong.

In order to rivet the chain of slavery, the law of Virginia ordains: “That no slave shall be set free upon any pretence whatever, except for some meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed by the Governor and Council; and that where any slave shall be set free by his owner, otherwise than is herein directed, the Churchwardens of the parish, wherein such Negro shall reside for the space of one month, are hereby authorized and required to take up and sell the said Negro by public outcry.”

   The law of Jamaica ordains: “Every slave that shall run away, and continue absent from his master twelve months, shall be deemed rebellious.” And by another law, fifty pounds are allowed to those who kill or bring in alive a rebellious slave. So their law treats these poor men with as little ceremony and consideration, as if they were merely brute beasts! But the innocent blood which is shed in consequence of such a detestable law, must call for vengeance on the murderous abettors and actors of such deliberate wickedness.

But the law of Barbadoes exceeds even this: “If any Negro under punishment, by his master, or his order, for running away, or any other crime or misdemeanor, shall suffer in life or member, no person whatsoever shall be liable to any fine therefore. But if any man, of wantonness, or only of bloody-mindedness, or cruel intention, wilfully kill a Negro of his own,” (now, observe the severe punishment!) “he shall pay into the public treasury fifteen pounds sterling! and not be liable to any other punishment or forfeiture for the same!”

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24 February: Cardinal Lavigerie’s Campaign against Slavery, 3.

crososososo1450655040

It had taken three hundred years of campaigning to undo the Atlantic slave trade, often in the face of determined opposition from powerful men, but now the missionaries had made Pope Leo XII aware of the continuing situation in Africa. He wrote:

It is indeed manifest, by their testimony and word, that each year 400,000 Africans are usually thus sold like cattle, about half of whom, wearied out by the roughness of the tracks, fall down and perish there, so that, sad to relate, those travelling through such places see the pathway strewn with the remains of bones.

This horrific picture was conveyed to Leo by Cardinal Lavigerie, who now called for support from European governments, as he travelled to speak in their major cities. In London he related the methods used by the Tuaregs in the Western Sahara:

“Their hearts are as hard as the iron of their lances, and a handful of raw sorghum each evening, with a drop of water, are all that they give to the Slaves who travel, carrying the horrible Slave yoke. If anyone falls it is instant death – the experienced eye of the merchant can judge whether his victim is likely to escape from him by death before the end of the journey. If he feels sure of this, he finishes him off with one blow of his club – the hyenas and the jackals will come and devour their flesh, leaving blanched skeletons to mark the road to the markets of Morocco or Fez.”

A situation that is paralleled today, as thousands try to cross desert and sea to reach the gold-plated streets of Europe.

MMB

A cross made from a wrecked migrant boat on Lampedusa, Italy.

 

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27 January: The murder that shook the Middle Ages.

crypt (640x481)

This link is to the British Museum blog  post about ‘the murder that shook the Middle Ages: that of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his own Cathedral.  In this period of Brexit and withdrawal from Europe, it is as well for us all to realise that:

In death Becket remained a figure of opposition to unbridled power and became seen as the quintessential defender of the rights of the Church. To this end you can find images of his murder in churches across Latin Christendom, from Germany and Spain, to Italy and Norway. Becket was, and remains, a truly European saint.

By no means was Thomas simply an anti-establishment English hero. Let us pray for the grace to discern when to support and when to oppose or challenge authority.

The British Museum will be holding a major exhibition about Becket and his world in the Autumn of 2020.

 

From 1170 to 1220, Saint Thomas’s remains lay in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

 

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November 21: The King V: Over to Jesus.

 

Readers who are picking up these posts for the first time may wish to scroll back to Sunday 17th to catch up. We are looking at the dialogue between Jesus and Pontius Pilate in John 18:1-19:22. Today we are reflecting on John 18:33-38.

If Pilate pleases the crowd he may gain their support, and that could be useful in the future, possibly. This is always in the back of Pilate’s mind. Jesus has just told Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate has retorted, ‘So then! You are a king’? In answer, Jesus volleys the question right back to him: ‘It is you who say that I am a king,’ Or, the words of Jesus could be fairly rephrased as, “It is you who are so determined to misunderstand my words about kingship.” Jesus’ statement exposes Pilate’s power-obsession.

Pilate can’t quite believe Jesus when he implies that worldly kingship and power are not what define him. Again, the sniffer dog is alert in Pilate. If that is true, there must be some other power that Jesus has that has caused this furore. What would that be? Jesus answers this implied question. He now solemnly gives the reason for his very existence, and explains the nature of his power and kingship: ‘I was born for this,’ Jesus says. ‘I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.

Truth is indeed powerful, but Pilate has never seen enough of it at work in a human being to realise just how powerful. We, the readers of the text, can see that Truth has frightened the religious authorities enough to turn them into murderers. But this is not something of which Pilate has any real understanding – or not yet. On the contrary, Pilate bursts out, ‘Truth?? What is that?’ Or, he might just as well have said, What use is that? Who really cares about truth? Almost no one! Certainly not this group of Jews, for whom Jesus seems to be challenging a religion that they think has been good enough for a very long time. But at least Pilate realises now that Jesus will never be a rival to any political power on those grounds. Yes, Pilate is smug now, thinking that he has at last sussed it. He is incredulous that such a fuss is being made over a man who is little more, in his estimation, than a harassed philosopher. This man Jesus does not deserve the death sentence.

Pilate is exasperated as he goes out to the dais and makes his pronouncement to the crowd, ‘I find no case against him.’ The accusations against Jesus seem unfounded to Pilate, and the mob-violence bizarre. Few authorities in charge of keeping order in their district would feel indifferent about such a situation. Nor is Pilate indifferent, but neither is he a moralist. He merely wants to regain control. Pilate probably wonders: does all this strange hate come from only a small but vocal minority? A few pushy crackpots? What about the rest of the people? So Pilate offers the saner majority (if such majority exists) a chance to swing this situation. Pilate says to the crowd, ‘According to a custom of yours, I should release one prisoner at the Passover; shall I release this king of the Jews?’

It would be easy to idealise Pilate here for this seeming reluctance to sentence Jesus, but let’s consider: does Pilate care about Jesus for any religious reasons? No. He has already made that clear. He is a political animal. He just wants to end this crazy religious feud and restore order. He sees that Jesus is a nobody: not rich, not influential, not ambitious; Jesus knows none of the right people. His only claim is that he knows truth and who cares about that? In Pilate’s mind, Jesus is rather a freak, but no more than that. The sniffer dog in Pilate has temporarily gone to lie down. But he will soon be alert again.

 

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