Prayer and Reflection in a World of Action (talk was given to the Leeds J&P Assembly, 29 Sept. 1984

2,073 words.


We have to reflect together, put trust in each other.

The whole church and parish has to be about justice and peace.

For God is asking for his wonderful world to be preserved, to be loved.


It is kind of you to invite me here today out of the depths of Merseyside, to speak to you on this day of Justice and Peace. I am also very conscious that when one does and in so doing come from another area, even a country, Justice and Peace, if it is to be something real, must always grow out of where we are. My experience of the past fourteen years of the inner city of Liverpool, has brought me certainly to a conviction that the very theme of prayer and reflection, that we have made the theme of this Mass, is perhaps one of our greatest needs. Reflection – prayerful reflection is perhaps one of our greatest needs, if we are to lead an authentic, and I use the word deliberately, radical action in t he change of our Society. I would like today to reflect on two points, first the general problem of justice and then, having reflected upon that, to reflect on certain aspects which are needed in terms of what I can only call its underpinning spirituality.

It is obvious at the present time, not only in our own country but in the world at large, that the ship of state, and indeed the Church, is rocking. One of the dangers in the midst of this rocking and disturbing is to see its cause in the articulation of certain individuals. So people see certain voices raised in the world, even within the theological world, such as Fr. Boff and the South American liberation theologians and in our own world, and it is very easy to say that the rocking of our world is caused by them. This is totally untrue. The rocking, the disturbing, the trouble of our world goes much deeper than those who have become articulators. We are being rocked by the powerless and the poor of this world. It is they whose voices are beginning to be heard and very openly and confidently being articulated in the voices of certain individuals. There has always been poverty, there has always been the possibility of war, there has always been racism, but we would suggest that these experiences and facts of history have now reached mammoth proportions. In spite of our technology we are living with millions in hunger. We are seeing that we cannot turn our power into the enrichment of human life. In spite of the boast that we are a mature world that has moved to a great democracy and sharing of power, there are millions living in inequality and there are millions being discriminated simply by colour of skin. We have failed to see that all the development, all the technology, has not brought about the betterment of human life, simply on the grounds that whilst the development and technological revolution has taken pace we have failed to reflect on the deeper perennial values of life.

If the twentieth century has ended up sour industrially, one suggests that it has ended up so because we have worshipped competition and greed. We sowed a bitter harvest of inequality and social failure. The reign of Paul VI has not yet been fully analysed, looked at. We know that there were many subjects in it where there was great conflict, but what was its most wonderful insight, an insight which caused trouble both in the Church and in the world, was its straightforward understanding and statement that you cannot change society without changing the institutions and structures of society. Private and personal efforts, he saw, as others had seen, were not enough. At the present time we are going through, in this country, a stage of de-industrialisation. Sometimes this can be wrapped up in words of “world recession”, but a whole new era is beginning, an era which will be renowned above all things, not simply for how you re-arrange the fabric of society, but how you are to re-analyse the fact and exercise of power. For it is above all in the exercise and disposition of power that our problems rest. What is power over destiny? How is power over destiny to be truly shared? Great moments of history, technologically and industrially may bring blessings. They also create new elites. It is a sad matter that new elites come among us who take to themselves certain aspects of control over other people’s lives. The paradox of a Christian faith is that the God we reach for is the powerless God. The agreement by Jahweh in his partnership with mankind is demonstrated in the incredible act of the suffering Jesus. Not a morbid act, not some kind of self mutilation, but a dramatic act, a statement in flesh and blood, that creation’s final and ultimate personal institutional answer, the source of all creation, God, could find no other way that radical fundamental equality with the little ones of this world, in the midst of the nations, is only to be demonstrated by the self-emptying of his own power as God. Liberation for all demanded the imprisonment of the holy one in the confines of the finite, and above all in that wonderful and staggering expression of human love, to be crucified in the midst of two criminals in this world; to state to the religious and political establishment of his day, Pharisee, Sadducee, Herodian and Rome itself that “I have become the small and powerless of this world”. Only in this way could the reality and foundation of all sin, which is selfishness, be given a vision for radical change, and fundamental alteration.

Change, radical change, is a great price. And this change, as the world faces its need for change, is to be called through a dark night of the soul and the sense. In the Christian vision, union with God meant equal union with the brethren and sisterhood of this world. Whilst it is true that we are all weak, that we are all rooted in sinfulness, that we’re in original sin, original sin must never become an excuse for us ever saying, “But that ‘s the way things are. You can’t really change them.” – an escape hatch, if I may say, that has been used all too often. Contemporary sectors of our world are locked in combat but that locking in combat is a symbol. It is a symbol which is saying that you cannot possibly develop the true human society until with all sides you begin to search in dialogue and sometimes in conflict and misunderstanding for the basic realities of human existence. So great and prolific is the phenomenon of social and political disintegration that for us as Christians entering into it, entering into social justice, into the battle for peace, it can no longer be a specialisation. The voice of God is speaking delicately through the terrible phenomenon of poverty, the possibility of nothingness in nuclear war, division in racism. It is speaking to us, speaking to us that we have created a whole contrast world; we have created a world, of which I have said before, where we live in the stupidity of being able to bring moon rock to earth for the curiosity of the scientist and we cannot move grain around the world to feed the hungry.

To get to this is not only a matter for action. There is a call to a terrible purgation. In Christian, spiritual and mystical life the great practitioners always realised they had to face the unbearable. The unbearable of their own sinfulness and selfishness and the unbearable suffering of Christ. They had to take to themselves the unbearable Christ. I know that is all past now and we don’t dwell on it much, but when the poor man of Assisi received the stigmata of Jesus, whatever that may be, but with all our puzzlement he was taking to himself the unbearable, the suffering of Christ. I would suggest that the unbearables of today are the poor, those discriminated against, and even the unbearable of that possibility of nothingness that has been born to us in terms of nuclear war.

When the Church is told not to interfere in politics we must be very careful. Peace, equality, truth, relationships, the stewardship of the goods of this world, love and justice, are not political realities. They are the deep yearnings of the human soul and it is these deep yearnings that have been imprisoned in a terrible powerlessness. There are five new wounds on the body of Jesus. There is the wound of poverty. There is the wound of racism. There is the wound of hopelessness in the lives of thousands. There is the wound of possible nothingness. And the fifth wound in the heart, is thinking men and women are pierced to the heart with fear. The Christian Church is called into this new reflection, new meditation. The Christian Church is called to say our God, the God of Golgotha’s cry, will not peter out into a political apology. Our God, the God who was crucified between two thieves, will not be reduced to a certain position so that he can be slotted comfortably into every single class of society. There must be change. Our God, the God who dragged his feet to Calvary, that shame and dragging of those feet will not be drowned by the march of armies. We want a poor Church, a powerless Church, which will reach without fear to gather into itself the suffering, the powerless of this world, which will state again the values that are deepest in human experience. Make no mistake, there will be a springtime if we face it.

Those of us here in the justice field, those of us who are from the inner cities, we must not be told that we are doing a specialised job. We are reaching for the agony of the world. The Liberation movement of South America, which has just been confirmed in a recent document, is not just some private game, or dangerous movement. It is trying to see the salvation of God moving through a people who will mature and grow in their dignity in trying to see the wounds of Jesus on the bodies of the oppressed. And there can be a resurrection. But we have to go through a dark night of the soul and sense. We have to reflect together, put trust in each other. It is not a question of groups in parishes engaged in justice and peace, the whole church and parish has to be about justice and peace. For God is asking for his wonderful world to be preserved, to be loved. In his name let us have courage, let us reflect, let’s not be afraid. Let us be stigmatised by the new wounds of Jesus and, though we cannot be identified with the poor and powerless of this world, let’s be identified with their struggle. Let us not be fearful, for there is this wonderful, living experience still, that in our suffering, there is always rising, there is always resurrection, there is always the possibility and reality of peace.

May God give each of us, and those of you particularly struggling in this world in the name of justice and peace, give you courage. You are about the high things of the Christian Church as it comes to the end of the twentieth century. In this struggle, this struggle for change in ur world, please God those who enter the twenty-first century may bless us, above all, that we did not leas the world or allow the world to go to nothingness. Not only that, but we returned from the brink of nothingness and healed the wounds and the sufferings, clothed the naked, with all these things that Jesus demanded, that we might have a true order of justice and peace in line with the God pf all power who became powerless in the condemnation and suffering of his Son.