Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo
Just weeks before she and three other North American churchwomen were brutally raped and murdered by Salvadoran security forces on December 2, 1980, Maryknoll sister Maura Clarke wrote a letter to her niece detailing the horrific violence that plagued the communities she was accompanying. She ended her letter with a powerful personal reflection: “I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I am at peace here and searching – trying to learn what the Lord is asking. At this point, I would hope to be able to go on, God willing. . . . This seems to be what he is asking of me at this moment.” The 31st anniversary of Sister Maura’s martyrdom is approaching towards the end of this first week of Advent. Each year, the confluence of the churchwomen’s anniversary and the beginning of the Advent season makes me wonder at the ability of such courageous individuals to hope and persevere, even while they witness and/or endure such terrible injustices, violence, and suffering. My wonder is both a question (how do they DO it???) and a reaction of awe at the mystery of such great love (how DO they do it?). How is it possible to live out a faith that does justice, that lives with hope, and that loves without reservation in the midst of a world order dominated by injustice, anxiety, indifference, and cruelty? I would like to suggest that a key component of compassionate living in the midst of violence and injustice is the quality which Sister Maura invokes in her letter: peace.
I first became interested in living and studying the connections between faith and justice because I was saddened and angered by the overwhelming excess of radical suffering in the world. I had never suffered much personally (still haven’t), but thanks to my Jesuit education, I was “ruined for life” by my exposure – in and outside the classroom – to the harsh realities of poverty and violence. This exposure culminated in two years spent living and working with poor communities in El Salvador, where, twenty years after the martyrdom of Maura Clarke and her companions, I encountered a people that had been to hell and back at the hands of the rich and powerful of their own country and ours. The suffering that I mournfully witnessed over the years in North Philadelphia and Camden, Appalachia and El Salvador was heartbreaking and I was furious – not at God, but at humanity, especially so-called Christians, either for deliberately inflicting such misery on their fellow human beings, or for their apathy in the face of genocide, massacres, starving babies, and battered women. I came to the academic discipline of theology to protest, from a Christian perspective, the systemic causes of suffering in the hopes of calling others to join in the protest and participate in the struggle for solidarity with the poor and powerless of the world and against the destructive forces of Empire. Sure, I was interested in peace, but insofar as it was only possible as a socio-political outcome of justice: No justice, no peace!
There is certainly a place for the indignation and prophetic denunciation of oppression with which I approached theology and justice work until recently. But such righteous anger could only sustain my living faith and faithful living for so long. For one thing, my ardent conviction that things could and would and should change (now!) gave way to a disillusioned realization that progressive social movements might succeed in small measures of reform, but that genuine, radical change would take a sustained effort that could likely exceed my lifetime. Second, the brilliant flame of passionate justice-seeking, as we all know, is wont to burn out when it lacks spiritual sustenance. Third, my anger at injustice translated quite easily into disgust at and feelings of loathing towards the wealthy and powerful. All of these factors, combined with the sheer exhaustion and relative isolation which accompany the rigorous demands of both graduate study and caring for small children, caused me to start losing my will to continue in the struggle for justice. I began to lose hope, for hope does not pair well with disillusionment, unsustainable passion, or judgmental loathing.
But hope does pair well with peace. When it comes to peace, I had always kind gagged at the idea of “let it begin with me.” Who has time for inner peace when there is so much external injustice and strife that we need to take care of . . . right now!? But without inner peace, those of us committed to solidarity and justice work will inevitably burn ourselves out OR lash out in verbal and/or physical violence towards the visible representatives and beneficiaries of oppression. For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the very Incarnation of Peace, whose advent we celebrate in these cold dark days of December. His nativity, ministry, passion and death are all empowering sources of courage and hope to manifest God’s Peace, even in the midst of social injustice, political oppression, and personal suffering. He shows us a Way to live with dignity and compassion, even when injustice, oppression and suffering seem to be victorious. When our struggles for justice fail – which they often do – this Way of Peace enables us to “go on,” as Maura Clarke did in her accompaniment of the Salvadoran people. When we are overwhelmed with anger at and judgment of the perpetrators of injustice, the Way of Peace purifies our emotions and bears fruit in love and compassion for all humanity, including the ‘oppressor.’ Far from anesthetizing us to or shielding us from suffering, Peace re-sensitizes us to tragedy and re-energizes us to respond with compassion in the face of the other’s pain.
So, this Advent season, the task I have set for myself is to begin seeking Peace. Theologically speaking, the Peace of Christ is pure gift – a grace which can come to us only through the initiative of divine love. But we do not do nothing. We must open ourselves up to the gift; we must seek it out in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and attentive love of neighbor. I have never been much of a pray-er, so this Advent, I am going to try starting with the ancient and ready-made discipline of daily prayer updated and organized so simply and powerfully in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (available as a book or at www.commonprayer.net). Also, I hope to mitigate the peace-killing chaos and consumerism of the Christmas shopping season by participating in the Advent Conspiracy, which challenges Christians to live out the true meaning of Christ’s birth as “a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.” Of course, these are just some small steps I will take to find the Peace that gave Maura Clarke the courage and compassion to incarnate God’s love, even in the midst of such grave injustices and horrific suffering. But hopefully this new beginning will set me on a path to renewed hope and sustainable commitment to manifesting God’s justice, healing, and peace in our wounded and wounding world.
What new beginning do you hope to make this Advent season?
Elizabeth Gandolfo is a Ph.D. candidate in Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.