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Fighting poverty to build peaceby

by Fr. Vimal Tirimanna

(December 31, Rome, Sri Lanka Guardian) The year we are just winding up (2008) has been marked by an unprecedented international financial crisis which experts say is as serious as (if not more serious than) the ‘great recession’ of the early 1930’s. Already we see the negative effects of it all over the world, hitting hard especially the poor and the marginalized of all societies. It is in this sense that one has to appreciate Pope Benedict XVI choosing "Fighting Poverty to Build Peace" as his theme of this year’s traditional Papal Message for the "World Day of Peace" which falls on 1st January. In this essay, I wish to highlight the relevance of this message to a war-torn country like Sri Lanka which has been yearning for peace for the past two or three decades.

In recent history, Sri Lanka has always had a majority of its citizens living in poverty, but the lot of the poor became worse since the liberalizing of our economy in 1978. All available statistics not only confirm this fact but they also go on to show that the gap between the rich and the poor has been progressively increasing since then in our country. The rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer, to put it in the ordinary parlance. Successive annual Human Development reports of the United Nations (UNDP) clearly state that this is a world-wide phenomenon ever since the globalization of market economy came into full swing in the last two or three decades. Pope Benedict refers to this alarming fact, and calls for immediate action on the part of those responsible. He also points out the importance of action taken in solidarity among the nations all over the world, since it is a crisis that affects all humanity in our globalized world. Already, in his World Peace Day message of 1993, the late Pope John Paul II drew attention to this fact pointing at it as a threat to world peace when he wrote:

Our world shows increasing evidence of another grave threat to peace: many individuals and indeed whole peoples are living today in conditions of extreme poverty. The gap between rich and poor has become more marked, even in the most economically developed nations. This is a problem which the conscience of humanity cannot ignore, since the conditions in which a great number of people are living are an insult to their innate dignity and as a result are a threat to the authentic and harmonious progress of the world community.

Although they are not economic or political experts, Popes do rightly refer to such facts of lived reality (which threaten the very human existence) not to give advice or counsel to governments and other socio-political institutions that are responsible for economies, but mainly to stir the consciences of people, and thus, mobilize them to move their respective rulers and decision-makers to action in the practical level. Moreover, the Popes are aware that all human beings, irrespective of their religion, race and other man-made differences, are members of one human family, and that’s precisely why concepts like ‘globalization’ and ‘solidarity’ do matter, the very concepts that can either let all humanity down or resurrect them to new life. In this year’s message, Pope Benedict XVI says:

Fighting poverty requires attentive consideration of the complex phenomenon of globlization. This is important from a methodological standpoint, because it suggests drawing upon the fruits of economic and sociological research into the many different aspects of poverty. Yet the reference to globalization should also alert us to the spiritual and moral implications of the question, urging us, in our dealings with the poor, to set out from the clear recognitions that we all share in a single divine plan: we are called to form one family in which all – individuals, peoples and nations – model their behaviour according to the principles of fraternity and responsibility.

The belongingness to one single human family, especially, the sense of solidarity with the poor which is so characteristic of the true disciples of Jesus of Nazareth down through the ages, has become an indispensable virtue today more than ever, in an economically globalized world. One cannot simply shrug his/her shoulders off, and mind his/her own business any more, for our survival or peril is not as individuals, but as one single human family. Anyone who claims to follow Jesus cannot ignore this fundamental virtue. During his earthly life, Jesus who did not have a proper place to be born or a place of his own to be buried, did fully associate himself with the poor, the down-trodden and the rejected of his society, and it is this attitude of the Lord which makes it obligatory for anyone who calls himself/herself a ‘Christian’ to be in solidarity with the poor. When millions die due to hunger, lack of proper medicine, lack of shelter,…..and due to other such avoidable factors, no human being can dare to say that he/she is not responsible for the others’ welfare, and the very survival. Statistics do alarm us when they say that more than 50,000 people die every day all over the world, due to starvation. When we keep in mind that often such starvation is not induced by natural processes such as disasters, floods and droughts, but by sheer human error in the distribution of the world’s wealth, our human responsibility becomes even more alarmingly greater. Moreover, socio-political scientists also tell us that a serious cause for most of the violence and war in different parts of the world is also the degrading poverty and the nasty consequences that ensue from it. It is precisely here that one needs to detect the link between poverty and violence. People who suffer such degradation and neglect due to their poverty, have limits to their patience, and one should not be surprised when such peoples rise up against the status quo of a given society, violently. In fact, some forty years ago, Pope Paul VI of revered memory, did recognize this fact when he wrote in his celebrated encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967) that certain long-standing, unjust situations do tempt peoples to rise up against them, with violence. But the same Pope immediately cautioned that such violent uprisings often if not always cause more violence, and so, he warned against any easy resort to violent means to change unjust degrading situations. His point here was that no matter how ‘just’ the cause may appear to be, there cannot in reality be any ‘just cause’, as such, for violence. The Popes thereafter have repeatedly upheld this point of view. In fact, Pope John Paul II, the personalist philosopher he was, went on to show the emptiness of those who claim that at times there are so-called "just causes" for violence, when he said:

I proclaim with the conviction of my faith in Christ and with an awareness of my mission, that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable, as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.

The collection of the official social teachings of the Catholic Church which was published in 2004 by Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, under the title, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clearly endorsed the above teaching of Pope John Paul II and claimed it as "the conviction of faith" of the Church (No:496). Moreover, the same Compendium makes no mincing of words when it denounces clearly all forms of terrorism:

Terrorism is one of the most brutal forms of violence traumatizing the international community today; it sows hatred, death and an urge for revenge and reprisal (No:513).

Terrorism is to be condemned in the most absolute terms. It shows complete contempt for human life and can never be justified, since the human person is always an end and never a means. (No:514)

While the Compendium acknowledges the right and the duty of each and every government to defend its citizens against terrorism, it also stresses the need for any "war against terrorism" to be conducted within the accepted moral and legal norms (No:514). It is precisely the above basic tenets of the Church teachings that some sections of our Sri Lankan society seem to have never understood.

On the one hand, there are some vociferous groups such as some paid NGO people and even some religious leaders who defend terrorism in Sri Lanka. Their main argument seems to be that those involved in terrorism in our country have no other alternative, that it is ‘a last resort’, and at times, they even go to the extent of saying that those terrorists have a so-called ‘just cause’. For some of them (who claim to be Catholics!), they are never to be called "terrorists" though the official Catholic teachings make no mincing of words in this regard! It is precisely such naive, flimsy arguments that the official Catholic Church teaching firmly reject as we have shown above. On the other hand, there are some extreme groups (including some religious leaders) who seem to advocate and beckon the Sri Lankan government to just go ahead and destroy all terrorists by waging an all out war, without any sense of discrimination of combatants and non-combatants, without any regard for moral and legal norms. Such attitudes, too, are vehemently condemned by the Church, as we showed above. What the official Church teachings advocate in a situation of acute terrorism and war, as in our case in Sri Lanka, is given in the last part of No:514 of the Compendium when it goes on to talk of terrorism:

Nor must we overlook the causes that can lead to such unacceptable forms of making demands. The fight against terrorism presupposes the moral duty to help create those conditions that will prevent it from arising or developing.

That is to say that while the official Church teaching acknowledges the right and duty of a government to fight terrorism within the accepted legal and moral norms, it also highlights the need to address the root causes that gave rise to such terrorist movements. It is here that we in Sri Lanka need to persuade our rulers to address whatever unjust situations that are prevailing in our country, especially in the North and the East. A mere military victory against terrorism is not going to bring peace to our country. Way back in 2001, when the writer in his capacity as the then President of the Conference of the Major Religious Superiors (CMRS) led a peace delegation to Kilinochchi to meet some members of the LTTE hierarchy, one of the main points they highlighted as needing immediate attention was the gap in development between the Northern-Eastern Provinces and the rest of the country. They pointed out the unjust situations, the misery and poverty, prevalent in those areas, and rhetorically asked us what other means such peoples had other than resorting to violence. Of course, no right thinking person could deny the glaring facts of disparity and also the degrading situations existing there. Perhaps, here is one of the causes for terrorism in those parts of the country, though no such cause could ever justify resorting to terrorism that brings intimidation and death to others (especially the innocent civilians). Any peace effort could not possibly ignore this fact of the lived round reality. This year’s Papal message has this to say about the link between peace and growth/development:

In today’s globalized world, it is increasingly evident that peace can be built only if everyone is assured the possibility of reasonable growth: sooner or later, the distortions produced by unjust systems have to be paid for by everyone. It is utterly foolish to build a luxury home in the midst of desert or decay.

Consequently, no section or part or Province of our country can be left undeveloped or discriminated against. All citizens of our country, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Malay, or any other, have a right to have equal opportunities for their growth and development. It is in this sense that one could agree in theory with the present government when it promised to develop the East during the Provincial Council elections there recently. If only the government puts into practice what it promised then, and what it really initiated in the East (i.e., massive development projects) during the election campaign, surely we are on the right track to peace. The same holds good for the North. A military victory against LTTE terrorism needs to be necessarily coupled with a visible government involvement in the authentic development of the North and the East, if only we are to achieve a long-lasting peace in our country. It is only this way, that the government can even win the credibility of the Tamils in general, in its peace efforts. That is to say that a war against poverty and degradation, especially in the North and the East, is also a must to bring peace to Sri Lanka.

In addition to the violence that is so conspicuous in terrorism and war in our country today, violence also seems to be the presumed "solution" for anything and everything, in other areas of our life, too. During elections, violence seems to be the norm adopted by almost all the main political parties in our country, whether they are in government or in opposition. Moreover, disagreements, not only in the political field, but also private disputes and family rivalries seem to be ‘solved’ by getting rid of the opponents, either by hiring underworld gangs or by getting involved directly in violence. They seem to just ignore the fact that violence not only begets violence, but is also detrimental to civil society, simply because it kills and intimidates the innocents not only in wars, but also in bomb-blasts, suicide attacks,…etc. Wherever violence reigns, human dignity is at stake, a fact no conscientious person could ignore. Human life is sacred not only in the war field, but also outside of it. This, is a given fact of life which unfortunately, even some influential people and those who have appointed themselves as ‘agents of peace’ in our country seem to forget. Violence, whoever the perpetrator be, cannot be condoned by any conscientious person, and needs to be called by its name ‘violence’ and condemned anywhere and everywhere. We Sri Lankans badly need to learn this in our efforts towards peace.

In the above mentioned encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI also stated that "the new name for peace is development". However, he was hasty to add that ‘true development’ is not mere material development but the integral development of the whole human person. Applying the same concept to our contemporary world, Pope Benedict XVI says in this year’s Peace Message:

If it were material poverty alone, then the social sciences, which enable us to measure phenomena on the basis of mainly qualitative data, would be sufficient to illustrate its principle characteristics. Yet we know that other, non-material forms of poverty exist which are not the direct and automatic consequence of material deprivation. For example, in advanced wealthy societies, there is evidence of marginalization, as well as affective, moral and spiritual poverty, seen in people whose interior lives are disoriented and who experience various forms of malaise despite their economic prosperity. On the one hand, I have in mind what is known as "moral underdevelopment", and on the other hand, the negative consequences of "superdevelpment".

These words of the Pontiff are very relevant to us in Sri Lanka today. The moral decadence we witness everywhere, be it in the higher echelons of politics (no principles and no respect for common good, corruption, bribery), business world (manipulation of the weak and the exploitation of the poor), public and private sector (corruption and bribery) or even on roads (gross violations of traffic rules), are some of the clear witnesses to what the Pope calls "moral underdevelopment" or ‘poverty in our morals’. It is precisely such a poverty in our morals which has made most of us a people who have no ‘civic sense’ in our country, a people who are individualistic and egoistic. Overcoming such ‘moral underdevelopment’ or ‘poverty in our morals’, too, is an essential in achieving peace in our country.

While the majority of the world leaders today are obsessed with what they call "the war against terrorism" (meaning by that only certain brands of terrorism, as if the victims of those different brands have different values or diverse human dignities!), Pope Benedict XVI in his Peace Day message for 2009 calls for a "fight against poverty" which we may rightly call a "war against poverty". In fact, already in his very first Peace Day message in 2006, he did call for an elimination of terrorism if we are to build peace in the world. Now, he seems to be drawing our attention to the equally important fight or war against poverty. Common sense coupled with our own Sri Lankan experience, also tells us that the simple truth is that we need both "wars" if we are to achieve peace, a war against terrorism and a war against poverty. This is because both terrorism and degrading poverty, are not only an insult to our human dignity, but also because both do cause suffering, pain and death to our human family. True, both can at times, feed (and even cause) each other, and destroy peace, as is the case in our country. Both are surely man-made evils that we need to overcome if we are to live decent, peaceful lives in our Sri Lankan society. That is why this year’s World Day of Peace message of the Pope has so much of relevance to us in Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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