The Challenge of Conscience in a Rather Unjust World

This month’s blog article comes from fellow Passionist, Dr. Brian Gleeson CP.

“What is conscience?” a teacher asked her class of small children: Quick as a flash, one boy piped up: “It’s what makes you tell your mother before your sister does.” St Paul the Apostle once made a startling comment about his personal struggle to follow his conscience and do the right thing: “I do not understand my own behaviour,” he wrote. “I do not act as I mean to, but I do the things that I hate” (Rom 7:15-16) Talk about true confessions! But perhaps he’s not the only one to admit that he did not always do what his conscience told him but sometimes went against its guidance. I wonder, in fact, if there’s anyone other than Jesus, who has always followed their conscience perfectly and done the most loving thing in every life-situation.

At least Paul was not trying to cover up, find excuses, or blame anyone else for his failures. Unlike the man and woman in the famous story from the Book of Genesis, chapter 3! We know them as “Adam” and “Eve”. But in this poetic and symbolic story about human nature in general, rather than a factual account of the behaviour of the first man and woman in history, they represent you and me. “Adam”, then, is Everyman, and “Eve” is Everywoman. As the Dutch Catechism puts it: “The sin of Adam and Eve is closer than we imagine. It is in our own selves.”

Let us focus on that part of the story that deals with the fall-out from their disobedience to God and God’s commands (3:7-13). They had eaten the forbidden fruit, despite God’s lavish gift to them of the whole Garden of Eden and its trees. They have refused to accept their right relationship with God as creatures of God. They have forgotten their dependence on God for their very existence. In wanting to be just like God and deciding for themselves what is right and what is wrong, they’ve simply become, as the saying goes, “too big for their boots”.

The effects of their sin are immediate. The details of the story provide a wonderful psychology of sin. Sin causes feelings of fear and shame and guilt. No longer content to be creatures and accept their human limitations, they lose their innocent, trusting relationship with God. They are now afraid to face God. Despite God being said to stroll among them in the gentleness of a cool breeze after a long hot day, the man and the woman skulk away from their Creator and hide themselves in the trees (v.8). They are ashamed, ashamed that their wrong-doing has been exposed. This is suggested by the detail that they have become ashamed of their God-given bodies, ashamed in the presence of each other, and ashamed before God, and so they try to cover up (v.7). The man attempts to blame God for the mess they are in, saying it was God who gave him the woman as his partner (v.12). His complaint also illustrates how sin tends to separate people from one another, and how it can even destroy interpersonal relationships. The woman, for her part, protests that the serpent tricked her into eating the forbidden fruit (v.13).

What is at work here is a psychology of self-justification and a refusal to take the blame for doing anything wrong. We seem to be living in an age of blunt consciences. Some drivers run over pedestrians, but instead of stopping to assist the injured, they drive on. Family peace is shattered in homes by repeated offences of abuse, disrespect and violence. The Women’s “Me too” Movement has been disclosing hundreds of instances of sexual assault and even of rape. Fraud, deceit and distrust abound. Our “Big Four” Banks and other finance agencies have been “ripping off” customers and diddling them out of their life-savings, leaving them stranded and homeless. Slavery and slave-trafficking continue here and there. We hear again and again of wage theft, of employers paying their employees far less than the award wage, and in some instances, paying nothing at all. Then there’s the desperate situation of many people in Syria, being driven from their homes and livelihoods by the scourge of constant war. Too many people in too many places feel unnoticed, unwanted and rejected. And too many rich people are getting ever richer at the expense of the poor.

That’s just a small snapshot of the sins of society today. Just as concerning are the reactions of the offenders, who exchange such lines as these: “If it feels good, do it!” “Take no responsibility!” “Shrug your shoulders and walk away!” “Blame the boss! Blame your mum! Blame your childhood!” “Admit nothing!” “It’s their word against yours! Deny it!” “Plead not guilty!” “Laugh it off! Just say ‘The devil made me do it’, or something, anything, other than that you goofed, that you did it!”

What then, is the answer to all such moral dilemmas and challenges? St Paul puts the question this way. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me [from myself], from this body doomed to death?’ His answer to his own question is this: “God [will] – thanks be to him – through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 7:24-25) Paul is saying in other words: “Salvation, or redemption, must come from God because it must come from a greater source of being and of healing power” (Monica Hellwig) than ourselves and our own resources.

This is the healing power that we experience in an ongoing personal, family and community relationship with Jesus Christ our Saviour. His role and activity as our Liberator/Saviour could hardly be better expressed than in these words from the Letter to the Colossians, words to us of comfort and hope whenever we are struggling to obey our consciences and do the right thing: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). (bgleesoncp@gmail.com)

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Building a Better Future

Two years ago, Peter Gardiner CP took a group of volunteers to Cambodia to build houses for poor families. The trip was done with the organization, “Volunteer Building Cambodia” (VBC). Peter had been keen to take a group to do something like this for some time, and after considering different options, settled on VBC who see their mission as encouraging young people to volunteer for worthwhile work in developing countries. They aim to improve the living conditions of families in need in rural areas by providing them with wells, toilets and safe, dry housing. You can view their website to find out more at www.volunteerbuildingcambodia.org.

Peter was careful to find an organization that truly helped the poor and not exploited them for tourism’s sake. The organization falls under ‘Projects Abroad,’ which is an NGO that was founded in 1992. Since its inception they have placed nearly 100,000 volunteers and interns on meaningful projects throughout the developing world.

Recently VBC sent Peter an update and impact assessment on the houses that he and his volunteer group built. Peter and the group of volunteers he took with him on that trip built 2 houses. The report for one of the houses they built on that trip reads:

“Since you built this house and helped change the life of this family, there has been a positive impact to their living standard. The observation after the house was built, the family is able to send their child to go to school and she is now in grade 8.

“The family reported during this last 6 months, they are healthier than they used to be.  Previously, they were often so sick and were not able to work hard and improve their living condition and did not have enough resource to support for the family. Receiving this house has changed their life mentally and physically. They are less worried about the house condition. The new one they’ve got is very comfortable and enjoyable enough for them not to worry about the safety of their family. The child is able to go to school every day with a good healthy life. The family has the creative ideas for themselves they put a sitting area and made the new kitchen which makes their life is easier. After the house was built, the family painted the walls and the posts and they rebuilt the new stairs to be easier for taking the motorbike up to the house. The family now requests for a cow. The main reason is the mom has time to look after it and they are also closes to the lake so it is easy to feed the cow.

“In brief, you and your team have helped change the life of this family and they are now living in happiness. The daughter is able to get education with the new life and new hopes. In the future, the family plan to make a concrete room downstairs.”

The impact assessment on the other house they built on that trip reads:

“Over years after the house was built, the family is showing a huge positive impact in their family life. They are able to send their children to go to school to get education.

The family reported during this last 6 months, a daughter in the family now gets the malaria and a son is getting stomach problems..

“Receiving the house has changed their life mentally and physically. They are less worried about the house condition. The new one they’ve got is very comfortable and enjoyable enough for them not to worry about the safety of their family. The children are able to go to school. Even though the children were getting sick, the parents are able to gain more income to support for the family and cure the illness. The father works harder and the mother look after the house and the children.

“The family has made some positive changes to their home. They put a sitting area and made the new kitchen and put in walls at the back of the house, which makes their life easier and more homely. The family requests for a water well and the main reason is to make their children easier to use the water.

“You and your team have been an important part of changing the lives of this family and, they are now much happier and more secure. The children are able to get an education with the new life and new hopes. In the future, the family plan to add the shade to the back of the house.

“On behalf of VBC we really appreciate and can’t thank you enough for your kindness, your time and your passion for volunteering with us to change and improve this family’s living conditions to make their life better.” 

Peter is organising another trip with VBC for the end of the year, though he personally won’t be able to go. He already has a group of volunteers and met with some of them this week to explain details. Through the website, anyone interested can be in touch with VBC to plan such a trip.

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Microplastics and Public Health

In September of last year I was made aware that plastic pollution of the environment is not restricted to large items such as one use plastic bags or bottles, but that an unseen form of plastic pollution may have a direct effect on our health. What I am referring to are ‘Microplastics.’ The article in THE GUARDIAN (Sat 9 Sep 2017) by Jessica Glenza reported that new studies have found microplastics in table salt from the US, Europe and China, adding to evidence that plastic pollution is pervasive in the environment.

Concerned about the health implications of our ingestion of microplastics, I did an internet search and found that in October 2017, THE LANCET produced an article expressing concern at the high content of microplastics in our drinking water. The long term health effects are as yet unknown due to lack of research, but this is a wake-up call that we have to seriously reduce our release of plastic waste into the environment. The article in THE LANCET, I believe, is an important one to read:

Microplastics come from many sources: synthetic clothing fibres, dust from tyres, road paints, and the breakdown of larger items. Orb Media’s recent investigation has brought the issue of microplastics in the environment into sharp focus. The analysis of tap water samples from around the world found that a high proportion of drinking water is contaminated with microscopic fragments of plastic (83% of samples collected worldwide, but up to 94% in the USA). Microplastic contamination seems more widespread than we perhaps knew, and they are regularly being ingested by people worldwide. Most concerning is how little is known about the effects of microplastic consumption on human health.

It is no small problem. As of 2015, 6300 million tonnes of plastic waste have been generated, around 9% of which was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% ended up in landfills or the environment. The issue of large plastic items polluting the world’s oceans is well known, leading to policies that aim to limit the production and use of plastic bags and bottles, and increase recycling. However, a key problem with plastics is that they are essentially indestructible; rather than being biodegraded, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microscopic fragments. We should no longer just be concerned with large plastic items clogging up oceans and waterways, but also more attention needs to be paid to these tiny fragments and their effects on planetary health.

The tapwater study is not the first to indicate that microplastics are being consumed by humans. A 2014 study of German beer brands found that microplastics were present in all of the samples, and a Parisian study showed microplastics not just in water but also in the air. Microplastics are also routinely ingested by fish and shellfish. But the apparent widespread presence of microplastics in tapwater is particularly concerning because it points to substantial contamination of terrestrial and freshwater—as well as marine—ecosystems.

The ubiquity of microplastic contamination can no longer be denied. To mitigate this global problem, several actions need to be taken, and quickly. First, the amount of plastic being released into the environment must be drastically reduced. Some policies have already been formulated with this goal in mind, for example, many countries have made it illegal for retailers to give away plastic bags for free, and deposit schemes for plastic bottles are in place in parts of the USA and Europe. However, progress on this front has been slow and piecemeal.

To speed up progress on reducing plastic waste, manufacturers of plastic could be forced to take responsibility for the damage wrought on the environment; this is beginning to happen through extender producer responsibility (EPR) laws, which require plastic producers to fund and manage recycling and disposal of their products. EPR laws are already being used in the USA for electronic products such as phones, televisions and batteries that contain lead, mercury, and cadmium; many states now require manufacturers of these products to support their recycling and disposal at the end of the product’s lifespan. Consumers should also be encouraged to change their behaviours to reduce the amount of plastic consumed.

Even with concerted global effort, the amount of microplastics in the environment will continue to grow, and the question remains—what impact will this have on human health? The concerning answer is that no-one knows. To date, there have been no studies of the effects of microplastic consumption by humans.

Designing robust studies to look at this issue will be difficult—observational, population-based studies will be open to confounding, while experimental studies will be impractical (ethically, if nothing else). The deleterious effect of current levels of microplastics might be small, by contrast with the known risks of industrial pollutants such as heavy metals or black carbon, so teasing out the effect at the population level will be hard, and will require a sophisticated surveillance system. If an effect exists, people living in areas of high plastic contamination will develop greater disease burdens as levels continue to rise. Disease-reporting systems need to be linked to pollution databases to ensure any effect is identified early, and action taken quickly.

Solving a problem of this magnitude will not be an easy task. Public education, product innovation, and industry leadership along with strong commitment from local, national and international governments, are urgently needed to reduce the use of microplastics and to understand the effects of these particles on both ecosystems and the human body.

(From: “Microplastics and human health – an urgent problem,” Editorial for Volume 1, No.7, e254, October 2017 issue of THE LANCET)

 

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Does the World Need Christianity?

Having just finished reading another history of Christianity, I again find myself feeling disappointment and disillusionment. Why do I read such histories? Because I believe history is one of the most important disciplines to study for the context it gives, the grounding in reality of who we are as human beings, and with that the tempering of inflated ideas of ourselves. Young people today have little interest in history due, I believe, to the fact that with their keeping up with the constant and rapid developments in technology, history appears as if it has nothing worthwhile to offer them. This worries me for, as the saying goes, “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.”

Paul Johnson’s, ‘History of Christianity,’ certainly does not paint a rosy picture, yet comes to a very interesting conclusion and one that I believe is very important for us to consider, living in a world where, at least in the West, Christianity is in decline. His conclusion asks us to consider the alternative, a world without the influence of Christianity. Given the many concerns we have for the future of our planet both from the perspective of the environment and human rights, his message is an important awareness raiser of what we stand to lose when we so hastily judge Christianity as obsolete, or worse, as the cause of all humanity’s problems.

When considering the role that Christianity has had in the development of Western society, it becomes clear from a study of its early history that its relationship to that development was not just luck. Christianity appeared at a time when there was a wide and urgent, if unformulated, need for a monotheistic religion in the Graeco-Roman world. The old beliefs with their many gods no longer provided satisfactory explanations for the cosmopolitan society of the Mediterranean, with its rising living standards and its growing intellectual pretensions; and, being unable to explain, they could not provide comfort and protection from the terrors of life. Christianity offered not only an all-powerful God, but an absolute promise of a joy filled life to come after death, and a clear explanation of how this was to be secured. Furthermore, it was disembodied from its racial and geographical origins, and endowed by its founder with a variety of insights and guidelines calculated to evoke responses from all natures. It was, from the beginning, Universalist in its scope and aim. St. Paul, by giving it an internationalist thought-structure, made it a religion of all races. Origen expanded its metaphysics into a philosophy of life, which won the respect of the intellectuals while retaining the enthusiasm of the masses, and so made Christianity classless as well as ubiquitous.

Once Christianity became the national religion of the Roman empire, it inevitably replaced the state religion. But of course it was more than a state cult – it was an institution in itself, with its own structure and cycle of growth. In the West it drained the empire of talent and purpose, and substituted its own Augustinian vision of society, in which Christian ideas penetrated every aspect of life and every political and economic arrangement. Europe was a Christian creation not only in essence but in minute detail. And therein lay Europe’s unique strength, for Christianity proved a matchless combination of spirituality and dynamism. It offered answers to metaphysical questions, it provided opportunities and frames of reference for the contemplative, the mystic and the devout; but at the same time it was a relentless gospel of work and an appeal to achievement.

But most importantly, Christianity contained its own self-correcting mechanism. The insights provided by Christ’s teaching are capable of almost infinite elaborations and explorations. The Christian matrices form a code to be translated afresh in each new situation, so that Christian history is a constant process of struggle and rebirth – a succession of crises, often accompanied by horror, bloodshed, bigotry and unreason, but evidence too of growth, vitality and increased understanding. The nature of Christianity gave Europe a flexible framework of intellectual and moral concepts, and enabled it to accommodate itself to economic and technological change, and seize each new opportunity as it arose. So Europe expanded into western-dominated society of the twentieth century.

Paul Johnson’s account of Christianity is full of failures and shortcomings, and its institutional distortions, but he admits that this is so if measured by its own stupendous claims, and its own unprecedented idealism. As an exercise in perfectionism, Christianity cannot succeed, even by its internal definitions; what it is designed to do is to set targets and standards, raise aspirations to educate, stimulate and inspire. Its strength lies in its just estimate of humanity as fallible with immortal longings. Its outstanding moral merit is to invest the individual with a conscience, and bid him follow it. This particular form of liberation is what St. Paul meant by the freedom men find in Christ. And, of course, it is the father of all other freedoms. Conscience, after all, is the enemy of tyranny and the compulsory society; and it is the Christian conscience which has destroyed the institutional tyrannies Christianity itself has created – the self-correcting mechanism at work. The notion of political and economic freedom both spring from the workings of the Christian conscience as a historical force; and it is thus no accident that all the implantations of freedom throughout the world have ultimately a Christian origin.

Of course human freedoms are imperfect and full of egocentric delussions. Here again, Christianity is an exercise in the impossible; but it is nevertheless valuable in stretching human potentialities. It lays down tremendous objectives but it insists that success is not the final measure of achievement. Indeed, the primary purpose of Christianity is not to create dynamic societies – though it has often done so – but to enable individuals to achieve liberation and maturity in a specific and moral sense. It does not accept conventional yardsticks and terrestrial judgments. As St. Paul says: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength…to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. God has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings to overthrow the existing order.” (1 Cor 1:25,27)

We must bear this in mind when we consider the future of Christianity, in the light of its past. During the past half-century there has been a rapid and uninterrupted secularization of the West, which has all but demolished the Augustinian idea of Christianity as a powerful, physical and institutional presence in the world. But of course Christianity does not depend on a single matrix: hence its durability. The Augustinian idea of public, all embracing Christianity, once so compelling, has served its purpose – perhaps, one day, to re-emerge in different forms. Instead, the temporal focus shifts to the Erasmian concept of the private Christian intelligence, and to the Pelagian stress on the power of the Christian individual to effect virtuous change. New societies are arising for Christianity to penetrate, and the decline of western predominance offers it an opportunity to escape from beneath its Europeanized shell and assume fresh identities.

Certainly, humankind without Christianity conjures up a dismal prospect. The record of humanity with Christianity is daunting enough, as history shows. The dynamism it has unleashed throughout its history has brought about massacre and torture, intolerance and destructive pride in the name of God on a huge scale. There is a cruel and pitiless nature within us which is sometimes impervious to Christian restraints and encouragements. But without these restraints, bereft of these encouragements, how much more horrific the history of these last 2,000 years would have been! Christianity has not made humanity secure or happy or even dignified. But it supplies a hope. It is a civilizing agent. It helps to cage the beast. It offers glimpses of real freedom, intimations of a calm and reasonable existence. Even as we see it, distorted by the ravages of humanity, it is not without beauty.

In the last generation, with public Christianity in headlong retreat, we have caught our fist glimpse of a de-Christianized world, and it is not encouraging. We know that Christian insistence on humanity’s potentiality for good is often disappointed; but we are also learning that our capacity for evil is almost limitless – is limited, indeed, only by our own expanding reach. The human person is imperfect with God. Without God, what are we? As Francis Bacon put it: “They that deny God destroy man’s nobility: for certainly man is a kin to the beasts by his body; and, if he be not kin to God by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.” We are less base and ignoble, in other words, by virtue of divine example and by the desire for the ideal that Christianity offers. In the dual personality of Christ we are offered a perfected image of ourselves, of what we could be. Christ is for us the eternal pace-setter for our striving. Christianity’s history over the last 2 thousand years has reflected humanity’s effort to rise above our frailties. To that extent, the chronicle of Christianity is an edifying one.

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Closer to Midnight

Finally some good news! Today’s Daily News report that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is willing to talk with the United States about giving up his nuclear weapons program is a remarkable turnaround. This announcement followed meetings between Kim and a South Korean delegation. South Korean national security chief Chung Eui-yong said the North’s leader had also agreed to refrain from conducting nuclear and missile tests while engaging in dialogue with Seoul. This thawing of tension has been a welcome relief after months of sabre rattling between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, though, the nuclear one upmanship has not ended – only shifted stage. Recent announcements between Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin have been terribly worrying.

On the 2nd of February, this year, the BBC reported on the US military proposal to diversify its nuclear arsenal and develop new, smaller atomic bombs, largely to counter Russia. The US military’s ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ (NPR) shows their concern that Moscow no longer sees US nuclear weapons as a deterrent to its expansionist ambitions, as they are too big to ever be used. Whereas developing smaller nukes would challenge that assumption. These low-yield weapons are smaller, less powerful bombs with strength below 20 kilotons.

This short-sighted mentality is alarming as these weapons would still be devastating. They would have the same explosive power as the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, which killed more than 70,000 people. And once one is used, it doesn’t matter how small it is, a domino effect would result and for the world it will be game over. This is a clear challenge of the non-proliferation agreements by the Trump administration. This doesn’t sound like good insurance but rather a step closer towards nuclear war.

To be fair, this program to modernise America’s nuclear forces actually began under the Obama Administration. However, what is new is the perceived need for a “more flexible capability to give tailored deterrence.” Such weapons could blur the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear systems and actually make a nuclear war more likely.

To add to the tension, on the 3rd of March, this year, Vladimir Putin stated, at the annual state of the nation address, that Russia has tested an array of new strategic nuclear weapons that cannot be intercepted. Mr. Putin said the weapons included a nuclear powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered underwater drone and a new hypersonic missile.

This is clearly a reply to the US military’s attempt at deterrence. A statement to the US that they have failed to contain Russia’s ambitions. Mr. Putin’s speech obviously has the March 18 re-election in its sights.

The nuclear-powered cruise missile tested last autumn was said to have high-speed manoeuvrability, allowing it to pierce any missile defence. The high-speed underwater drone had, according to Mr. Putin, an intercontinental range and was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could target both aircraft carriers and coastal facilities, and its operational depth and high speed would make it immune to enemy interception.

Mr. Putin said that the new weapons have made NATO’s US-led missile defence ‘useless,’ and meant an effective end to what he described as Western efforts to stymie Russia’s development. He also said that Moscow would be ready to use the new weapons not only in response to an attack on Russia, but also in defence of its allies.

Dana White, the Pentagon’s spokeswoman, said the weapons had been in development for ‘a very long time,’ and that the American people should rest assured that the US military was fully prepared.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, accused Moscow of violating a Cold War-era treaty which banned nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km. “President Putin has confirmed what the United States Government has known all along, which Russia has denied: Russia has been developing destabilising weapons systems for over a decade in direct violations of its treaty obligations,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

I ask myself if these leaders in government today are too far removed from the horrors of the Second World War, that they flippantly play with the lives of millions of people and the future of the planet. It is worth reviewing the words of Douglas MacArthur’s speech to the world on the occasion of the Japanese surrender, ‘Today the guns are silent,’ given aboard the USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945:

“Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — the seas bear only commerce men everywhere walk upright in the sunlight. The entire world is quietly at peace. The holy mission has been completed. And in reporting this to you, the people, I speak for the thousands of silent lips, forever stilled among the jungles and the beaches and in the deep waters of the Pacific which marked the way. I speak for the unnamed brave millions homeward bound to take up the challenge of that future which they did so much to salvage from the brink of disaster.

As I look back on the long, tortuous trail from those grim days of Bataan and Corregidor, when an entire world lived in fear, when democracy was on the defensive everywhere, when modern civilization trembled in the balance, I tank a merciful God that He has given us the faith, the courage and the power from which to mold victory. We have known the bitterness of defeat and the exultation of triumph, and from both we have learned there can be no turning back. We must go forward to preserve in peace what we won in war.

A new era is upon us. Even the lesson of victory itself brings with it profound concern, both for our future security and the survival of civilization. The destructiveness of the war potential, through progressive advances in scientific discovery, has in fact now reached a point which revises the traditional concepts of war.

Men since the beginning of time have sought peace. Various methods through the ages have attempted to devise an international process to prevent or settle disputes between nations. From the very start workable methods were found insofar as individual citizens were concerned, but the mechanics of an instrumentality of larger international scope have never been successful. Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. We have had our last chance. If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature and all material and cultural developments of the past two thousand years, It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.

We stand in Tokyo today reminiscent of our countryman, Commodore Perry, ninety-two years ago. His purpose was to bring to Japan an era of enlightenment and progress, by lifting the veil of isolation to the friendship, trade, and commerce of the world. But alas the knowledge thereby gained of western science was forged into an instrument of oppression and human enslavement. Freedom of expression, freedom of action, even freedom of thought were denied through appeal to superstition, and through the application of force. We are committed by the Potsdam Declaration of principles to see that the Japanese people are liberated from this condition of slavery. It is my purpose to implement this commitment just as rapidly as the armed forces are demobilized and other essential steps taken to neutralize the war potential.

The energy of the Japanese race, if properly directed, will enable expansion vertically rather than horizontally. If the talents of the race are turned into constructive channels, the county can lift itself from its present deplorable state into a position of dignity.

To the Pacific basin has come the vista of a new emancipated world. Today, freedom is on the offensive, democracy is on the march. Today, in Asia as well as in Europe, unshackled peoples are tasting the full sweetness of liberty, the relief from fear.

In the Philippines, America has evolved a model for this new free world of Asia. In the Philippines, America has demonstrated that peoples of the East and peoples of the West may walk side by side in mutual respect and with mutual benefit. The history of our sovereignty there has now the full confidence of the East.

And so, my fellow countrymen, today I report to you that your sons and daughters have served you well and faithfully with the calm, deliberated determined fighting spirit of the American soldier, based upon a tradition of historical truth as against the fanaticism of an enemy supported only by mythological fiction. Their spiritual strength and power has brought us through to victory. They are homeward bound—take care of them.”

Lest we forget!!!

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The Un-winnable Afghan War

The American-led war in Afghanistan, in the period from 2001 to 2014, has cost countless lives, billions of dollars and destroyed much infrastructure in an already impoverished country. Included in the losses are 41 Australian soldiers killed and 261 wounded. More than 450 British troops died in Helmand between 2001 and 2014. To what end? Is the country more stable now than it was in 2001? Are we more secure from terrorist attacks now? Were there any winners?

Theo Farrell appropriately entitled his recent book on Britain’s war in Afghanistan “Unwinnable.” US president, Donald Trump, appears to agree, given that last year he announced the US military would stay in the country indefinitely. This is worrying for us, given that the Australian government is considering a request from the US government to recommit Australian troops to Afghanistan.

Before our government agrees to such a request, let’s hope that they review the history of Afghanistan and the Taliban. After all, it was an invasion by a Western superpower that created the Taliban in the first place.

The origins of the Taliban can be traced back to the Fall of Delhi in 1857. Delhi was the seat of the Mughal Empire, which was in decline by the time that Bahadur Shah II, commonly known as Zafar, a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, became its last emperor. The Moghuls were Moslems who, at that time lived in a peaceful and harmonious state with Hindus in India. Delhi was a jewel in their crown, a centre of culture and learning. However, British Colonialism, under the driving force of the British East India Company, took more and more of the emperor’s power, finally laying plans to remove the Mughals all together.

Then one May morning in 1857, 300 Indian infantry privates and cavalrymen, in the employ of the British East India Company, mutinied and rode into Delhi… “and massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and emperor. Now Zafar was no friend of the British, who had shorn him of his patrimony, and subjected him to almost daily humiliation. Yet, Zafar was not a natural insurgent either. It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an uprising that he strongly suspected from the start was doomed.” (From: “The Last Mughal,” by William Dalrymple)

Neither side could back down, and Delhi was placed under siege by the British. Finally, on the 14th of September, 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees, assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital, and massacring a large proportion of the population.

Though the royal family surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor’s 16 sons were tried and hung, while 3 were shot in cold blood. Zafar himself was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and was exiled to Rangoon, where he died in 1862. With the loss of the Mughal court went much of the city’s reputation as a centre of culture and learning. All this exacerbated the sudden shift of power from the Muslim elite, who had dominated the city before the uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterwards.

For the British after 1857, the Indian Muslim became an almost subhuman creature, to be classified in unembarrassedly racist imperial literature alongside such other despised and subject specimens, such as Irish Catholics or ‘the Wandering Jew’.” (Dalrymple) The profound contempt that the British so openly expressed for Indian Muslim and Mughal culture proved contagious, particularly to the ascendant Hindus, who quickly hardened their attitudes to all things Islamic.

In the years that followed, as Muslim prestige and learning declined, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims grew gradually apart, as British policies of divide and conquer found willing collaborators on both sides. The rip in the fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, caused by the 1857 uprising, widened slowly into a great gash, and ultimately the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947.

Following the crushing of the Uprising and the slaughter of the Delhi court, Indian Muslims themselves also divided down two paths. One group, under the Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to the West. The other group took the approach to reject the West completely and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots. This second approach founded an influential but narrow-minded madrasa at Deoband, 100 miles north of the former Mughal capital.

One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged, “to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.” (Dalrymple)

The hardline Islamic Taliban movement swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996 after the civil war that followed the Soviet-Afghan war, and were ousted by the US-led invasion five years later. In power, they imposed a brutal version of Sharia law, such as public executions and amputations, and banned women from public life. Men had to grow beards and women to wear the all-covering burka; television, music and cinema were banned. They sheltered al-Qaeda leaders before and after being ousted – since then they have fought a bloody insurgency that continues today.

The combination of the Taliban and the country’s geography make the war in Afghanistan unwinnable. Indeed, Afghanistan has a fearful historical reputation as ‘the graveyard of empires.’ (Theo Farrell) The British invaded the country 3 times before and were kicked out 3 times. The first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42) was the result of ill-informed scheming by the British East India Company. The British invaded the country under the guise of returning the deposed Afghan King (Shah Shuja ul-Mulk) to the throne. The crass insensitivity the British forces showed to the local customs fuelled a growing Afghan hostility to the British occupiers, and a revolt that drove the British forces to a retreat, where their army was completely destroyed by the Afghani tribesmen with only a handful of British troops making it back to their base in India. It was the greatest military humiliation of a world power in the 19th century.

The second Anglo-Afghan war took place from 1879-82. It too was caused by the incompetence of British diplomacy, which gave Russia an opening to interfere in Afghanistan and triggered a British invasion to prevent further Russian encroachment. As before, the British installed a new ruler and left behind a diplomatic mission that was duly massacred by the locals. Britain suffered further humiliation when its army was thoroughly defeated by a larger Pashtun force at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880.

The third war began when Afghan forces seized a number of border posts and towns along the North-West Frontier in May 1919, due to growing Afghan agitation for full independence from Britain. British forces mobilised and drove the Afghans back across the border. By August, both sides had reached an equitable agreement: the British recognised Afghanistan as having full sovereign rights, and the Afghans recognised the (till then disputed) border between Afghanistan and British India.

It is important to note, however, that throughout the centuries and into the present time, Afghanistan was not a unified people, but rather has been a volatile and deeply divided tribal country. The only time the people put aside their differences is when a foreign power attempts to interfere. The Afghans then unite to fight the common enemy. Each time the invading force has been defeated.

The Russian defeat that ended the 1979-89 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan contained the same lesson. The Russians were determined to control the country and threw everything they had at the Afghanis. However, it ended in humiliation for the Russians and the defeat is likely to have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Is the country more stable now than it was in 2001? Months of research across the country by the BBC has found that Taliban fighters, whom the US-led forces spent billions of dollars trying to defeat, are now openly active in 70% of Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban now control or threaten much more territory than when foreign combat troops left in 2014. The BBC research also suggests that IS has become more active in Afghanistan than ever before, although it remains far less powerful than the Taliban.

The BBC study shows the Taliban are now in full control of 14 districts (that’s 4% of the country) and have an active and open physical presence in a further 263 (66%), significantly higher than previous estimates of Taliban strength. About 15 million people – half the population – are living in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban or where the Taliban are openly present and regularly mount attacks.

In the areas defined as having an active and open Taliban presence, the militants conduct frequent attacks against Afghan government positions. These range from large organised group strikes on military bases to sporadic single attacks and ambushes against military convoys and police checkpoints. Violence has soared since international combat troops left Afghanistan four years ago. More than 8,500 civilians were killed or injured in the first three-quarters of 2017, according to the UN. The vast majority of Afghans die in insurgent violence but civilians often suffer as the military, with US backing, fights back, both on the ground and from the air.

Although much of the violence goes unreported, big attacks in the cities tend to make the headlines. Such attacks are occurring with greater frequency and the Afghan security forces appear unable to stop them. During the period during which the BBC did its research, gunmen stormed the headquarters of Kabul’s Shamshad TV, leaving one staff member dead and 20 wounded. IS said it carried out the attack. There were other attacks in Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad. In the last 10 days of January three attacks left the capital reeling, with more than 130 people dead. Last May, Kabul experienced the deadliest single militant attack since 2001. At least 150 people were killed and more than 300 injured when a massive truck bomb was detonated in what was supposed to be the safest part of the city. No group has said it carried out the attack. The rising toll of violence has left the capital’s residents feeling increasingly vulnerable.

So are there any winners? Well, yes, the American armaments industry has done very well financially from the conflict.

 

(Thanks go to my friend, Tony Swords, who explained all this in detail to me and passed on to me his research into the history and current situation in Afghanistan, a country he himself has visited where he feels a great affinity for the people and the culture, along with his concern of their future given this unwinnable war.)

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Volunteering

I have spoken to you all about Peter Gardiner CP before. He is a Passionist Priest and member of our JPIC Committee, and the organizer of our immersion experiences to Vietnam and Cambodia. In these immersions, he has taken groups of up to 30 people, usually connected with us in one of our parishes or communities, to do volunteer work over seas. In Cambodia the work is in conjunction with a building project where the group participate in building housing for poor families. In Vietnam we volunteer at an orphanage for disabled children; a Buddhist run soup kitchen; as well as visit at a hospice for people dying with AIDS run by the Camillian Fathers. I have been on two of these trips myself and found it to be a truly rewarding and challenging experience.

A new venture for Peter is that now he is extending this to doing volunteer work here in Australia, in Sydney, where Peter lives. He told me about the work that he was doing and I asked him if he would share something of his work with me so I could publish it in this blog, and he agreed. This is his story:

For the last eighteen months, for a variety of reasons, I decided to get myself involved in volunteering. Sometimes these might be one off events (e.g. The Spirit of Anzac which toured Australia these last two years, ending in Sydney this last Anzac Day), to more long term events.

One such experience has been volunteering with the Exodus Foundation, at Ashfield. They provide a significant number of services to the disenfranchised and demonized, and I have become involved two days a week in the Soup Kitchen (Loaves and Fishes). Most of my duties revolved around helping prepare the meals. We also get a significant number of corporate and school volunteers, so it usually falls to me to manage those for the day.

There have been some amazing benefits for me.

Firstly, it has been meeting and working with the fellow volunteers. You work with young people, older people, male, female, people from all nations, and you just get in and work, and laugh, together. Given that they are volunteers, they are invariably good, decent people, who want to do something for the community. And people like me, mature white Australians, are in the minority. It’s the United Nations. There are significant numbers of Asian volunteers, particularly from India and China. As one volunteer mentioned to me, all the barriers fade away. I could be, one minute, talking to a young Indian volunteer about anything, and then later I think, “if I crossed that person in the street, I would think I would have nothing in common with them.” It just breaks down barriers, and is a tremendous reminder of the goodness in all people.

Secondly, to me it is truly Gospel ministry. It is truly Passionist ministry. We no longer reach out to those on the margins, we are on the margins. It is no longer just a matter of spirituality but, as someone said, it’s a matter of geography. Where do I stand? It’s a lesson for me to stand in awe at the burdens people carry, rather than stand in judgement at the way they carry them.

One thing that has changed for me is that I no longer believe that “beggars can’t be choosers.” A young volunteer taught me that lesson one day. To explain, when you are poor and disenfranchised you lose the power of having options for the most part. In the soup kitchen the usual standard procedure is to give them the meal, and for them to have as little input as possible. They are not to get too picky about which piece of meat or whatever they want. But one day, a lady pointed out to me a particular pie she wanted, and I was annoyed, thinking that she should just be happy that she’s getting anything. This young volunteer said to me later, “You know, that’s probably the only choice she gets to make each day, the only time she can speak up for herself,” and I thought, ‘she’s right.’ They can now ask me for anything they want.

As I say, it’s Gospel ministry, its Passionist ministry. One of my fellow volunteers and friends, himself a Church attending Catholic, turned to me one day and said, “This is the real Eucharist.”

Most states will have a volunteering office, advertising all sorts of options, from short term to long term, seeking specific skills or just general help. Seek.com.au also has a section for volunteering opportunities.­­

And who knows, you might even end up on the back of a bus!

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