“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.” A common thread linking us to the global human family can be found in the stories we personally tell of relatives affected by war, revolutions or violence. These remember lives lost or scarred across generations.
Reaching back, one family memory grieves a long lost uncle who died during the U.S. Civil War in the notorious Confederate Camp Sumter prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, in 1864. This young man had been the mainstay of his widowed mother and younger siblings. The collective history of my clan records other family members marching off to do battle in the War of 1812, the Mexican American War, the Spanish American War, the First World War, the Second World War and other conflagrations. A nephew and niece currently in uniform represent the latest in a long unbroken generational line in harm's way. This trend looks unlikely to end anytime soon.
Most of my kin survived their conflicts. However many, I am sure, suffered from the consequences of the violence they were exposed to. My father served during the Second World War as a pilot of a tiny Stinson L-5 in Burma. He primarily flew in emergency supplies to front-line forces and evacuated the wounded, one stretcher at a time, from small airstrips hacked out of dense jungle. Twice the recipient of the Air Medal and holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, his war didn't really end upon his return home. My mother told of his fit-filled sleep-deprived nights for several years following his homecoming. The way his sisters described him in his youth bore little resemblance to the post-war father I grew up knowing.
Today we have begun to recognize the plight of those experiencing the long-lasting effects of trauma especially from deep, prolonged exposure to violence. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect many individuals from first responders to residential school survivors, from the victims of constant micro-assaults due to gender identity or beliefs to refugees. With treatment now for PTSD sufferers many can be restored fully to life. A fundamental question for us, though, must be how do we eliminate the sources of this misery.
Jesus lived in a violent era too. Foreign troops occupied his homeland. Structural injustices left many impoverished and landless. Sepphoris, just six kilometers northwest of Nazareth, had been the scene of an independence uprising triggered by the death of Herod the Great. It was lead by Judas ben Hezekiah around the time Jesus was born. Roman legions swept down from Syria and cruelly repressed opposition to the new ruler of its client state.
Did Jesus smell the smoke from the burning of Sepphoris? Did he see with young eyes the rebels crucified at the crossroads or hear the cries of those sold into slavery? Were the horrific results of the crushed Zealot rebellion a contributing factor in Jesus contemplating another way to resist oppression: a fervent non-violence? Can we see his empathy as a foundation for change now?
No matter what, the destruction meted out on the people and town of Sepphoris would have had a powerful social and psychological impact on the people of Nazareth. Stories of the suffering of friends and families would have been told for generations. Jesus, some commentators believe, knew these well. They would likely have been told over and over as Jesus followed Joseph and other skilled craftsmen from Nazareth on their daily hour-and-a-quarter walk to Sepphoris where they could find work rebuilding the neighbouring city.
Restoring life can be seen as a key theme in the readings for the Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. In the chapter from Kings, the prophet Elijah pleads directly with God to let life come back into the breathless body of the widow's child. The passage from Luke's Gospel pictures Jesus, his disciples and the large crowd following them approach the city gates of Nain. A young man from there, only son of a widow, is being carried out on a pallet for burial. Jesus feels compassion for his grieving mother and restores life to the dead man.
Life can be restored in many ways. Paul in the second reading speaks of his own rebirth. He heard of his call through God given grace to break him away from his violent past of persecuting the emerging Christian church.
Our wounded world must also be raised up. Global military spending rose in 2015 to a record $1.7 trillion. We know there is the grace to change this. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International sponsored a gathering in Rome a few weeks ago. Participants at the Non-violence and Just Peace conference heard arguments that all war is immoral and “just war theory” used since the times of Augustine and Aquinas condones war rather than prevents it. The closing statement urges “that the Catholic Church develop . . . a Just Peace approach based on Gospel non-violence. A Just Peace approach offers a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict.”
Our hope is the psalmist's hope, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.