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Justice – Memory – Healing: Paths to Reconciliation

Michael Lapsley’s homily in Luxemburg - 2 December 2009

Justice – Memory – Healing: Paths to Reconciliation

In a few days the world will be celebrating the 61st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is easy to be depressed about the state of the world or equally tempting to be falsely optimistic.
I pray that my message will be one of hope, recognising, that Easter Day follows Good Friday as certainly as day follows night.

These last couple of months, with my colleague, Madoda Gcwadi, I have been in the United States.

I met a man called Riley. He is what in the US is called a nurse practitioner. He was sent to Iraq and was stationed at the hospital in Abu Ghraib, a place which has become synonymous with torture. When he first arrived in Iraq, he was told by a chaplain that because Iraq was not officially at war, the Geneva Convention did not apply. By sharp contrast, the person responsible for the hospital told him and his fellow nurses: ‘You will treat everyone who comes into this hospital as a human being. Most of them will be innocent victims, a few will be those who will wish to kill you. You will treat them all as human beings’.

That officer was got rid of by the military. Nevertheless, I am sure that he sleeps peacefully at night. When Riley told me the story he said quietly, ‘I ask myself: if I had been in the same position as the one above me was, would I have had the courage to say what he said?’ We can ask ourselves the same question.

Sometimes, fighting for human rights takes only our time and our energy. Sometimes it can cost you your life.

Jesus was a human rights activist. If you read the New Testament, it is clear that Jesus interacted
with all human beings as worthy of dignity and respect, even those regarded as ‘beyond the pale’ by
his society – sex workers, outcasts, lepers, foreign occupiers. We see especially how Jesus treated women and children.

St Paul in the Letter to the Galatians said that, in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in Christ. We Christians have been quite slow learners. It took us more than 1800 years to decide that slavery was not a good idea. I live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world after Luxembourg – Cape Town. Only recently I learnt that in the 18th century, there were more slaves in Cape Town than free people.

In the 20th century we had modern-day slavery in the form of apartheid. Inside South Africa, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, African traditionalists and secular people joined together to defeat Apartheid. The international Christian community declared apartheid to be a false doctrine – a heresy. In our country, torture became endemic under apartheid. It still lingers on in some of our police stations.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said that during our struggle for freedom there was no country or a people who were prayed for so much as the people of South Africa. Today we are just at the beginning of building a new society – dealing with the economic, social, psychological and spiritual
legacy of apartheid.

And what of the rights of women? I am told that women got the vote in 1919 here in Luxembourg. Overcoming patriarchy still has a long journey to travel. Formal rights are one thing, the substance is another.

Today, many of our Churches continue to tear themselves apart as to whether the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered are equally entitled to their place in the sun. I am so proud that my country, South Africa, was the first country in the world to outlaw in its constitution discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I am so ashamed that black lesbians in poorer communities in South Africa are still subject to violence and rape.

10 days ago, we were in Haiti listening to the stories of women whose adult sons were killed in front of their eyes in a massacre in 2006. One of the women said: ‘I have been humiliated all my life. Her words cut through me, imprinting on my body as well as my soul. The mothers came with photos of their dead children to show us.

I just prayed that, in some small way, by the way we treated those women, they had a glimpse of a God who loves and values us all, with great tenderness. We learnt that the perpetrators, many of them police officers, were arrested and then released without going to trial. There are also more than 3000 people detained without trial in Haiti as we were told by a human rights lawyer.
The young human rights lawyer, Mr Elred Fanfan, was a shining example of hope and source of comfort both for the mothers and all seeking the return of the rule of law.

Over the years I have come to see that all of us are against all forms of oppression except the ones we are in favour of. How about you? Do you make exceptions? Are there some forms of oppression which you justify?

I have also realised that there are ‘popular’ victims and ‘unpopular’ victims. In one period of history, a group of victims may be very popular, but when the victims continue to insist that no one has attended to their needs adequately the same group becomes quickly unpopular. When it comes to torture, often the victims are people whom society despises such as those who have committed terrible crimes. We see it in hate crimes against same-gender loving persons.

Jesus was also a torture victim – and, as is so often the case, an innocent victim of torture. We Christians follow the tortured one. For us, torture can never be an unimportant issue. Because we believe that all human beings have been made in God’s image and likeness, when we torture we are attacking the divine image.

Thank you, ACAT, for all you are doing in the name of Christ.

However, if we want the human family to live in peace, we need to grasp that the future of humanity is an interfaith future – and to learn not just to tolerate but to reverence other faith traditions. Today, there is Islamophobia and millions of Moslems are pilloried for the actions of extremists.
The abuse of faith, be it Christian, Buddhist, Moslem, Hindu (or secular), for violent ends is something contrary to the core teachings of all the great religions.

In our prayers, we have prayed for particular groups of people – dissidents – those who dare to dance to a different drum. We prayed for those on death row and for the abolition of the death penalty everywhere. In the United States, which still practises this barbarous form of torture, one state was discussing a more efficient way of executing people just a few days ago. Soon, in the Federal Court in New York, they will be trying the alleged mastermind of September 11. My friend Phyllis Rodriguez, who is part of ‘September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows’ and whose son was killed in the Twin Towers, told me she will oppose the death penalty. It will not bring her son back if another mother cries.

In the US, African Americans make up 12 % of the population but 41% of those on death row.
A high percentage of those who do terrible things to others have had terrible things done to them.

One of the places I have worked in is Rwanda. where genocide happened on the altars of churches. Genocide confronts us as human beings with the worst of what we are capable of doing to other human beings. Its roots are there, wherever we see a group of human beings as not human in the way we are. How do we act today to prevent the genocides of tomorrow? Whether in Darfur or Rwanda, we still seem to lack the political will to prevent genocide.

I have always experienced Europe as an inviting place when you walk through the front door. For political refugees and undocumented migrants, the back door is often a very bitter experience.
Sadly, South Africa and my own city of Cape Town is confronted by the reality of xenophobic violence as much as it has reared its ugly head across Europe.

We dare not forget, as Christians, that the infant Christ was a refugee on the continent of Africa.

Only a world with just and fair economic policies will tackle the root causes of migration. Climate change will exacerbate these challenges.

These last weeks, I have been reading ‘The Blindfold’s Eyes’, by Sister Dianna Ortiz. It is the story of how, during a 24-hour period, this Roman Catholic sister was tortured, raped and forced to do unspeakable acts upon another, and the many years it took for healing to take place.

As a victim of state terrorism myself, it confronted me with my own journey of healing which never
ends. Sister Dianna’s story reminded me also of our work in Northern Uganda with victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army, many of whom, like me, lost their limbs.

Dear sisters and brothers, tonight we have acknowledged all those who have and continue to suffer
human rights violations. We have prayed for them. We must also pray for all people, including ourselves, when we become the victimisers of others. We pray for the healing which breaks the cycle that turns victims into victimisers.

Let us all raise our hands in thanks and praise for all people everywhere who work for human rights. Let us not forget that we stand on the shoulders of giants – those who fought and sacrificed
in every generation, not only for their own rights but also for the rights of others.

My dear friends, to work for human rights is to embrace the human family – to be part of the best form of globalization.

I believe that the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 61 years ago, is a sign of the spirit of God working in human history. The Bible tells us that we are invited to be co-workers with Christ in building God’s kingdom.

Jesus the tortured one. The victim of Good Friday became the victor of Easter Day. When the risen Christ appeared to his disciples, the marks of crucifixion were still visible but no longer bleeding - they had healed. Christ invites us all, wounded and imperfect as we are, to be his co-workers in healing and transforming God’s world into a home for all.

Please accept my loving embrace to each of you.


Father Michael Lapsley,SSM
Institute for Healing of Memories
Cape Town, South Africa

Wednesday, 2 December 2009, 7.30 pm
Church of the Trinity, 5 rue de la Congrégation, Luxembourg

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