I had not known of Jacinda Ardern before the horrific news out of New Zealand last Friday. At age 38, the youngest woman leader in the world, the Prime Minister of New Zealand was thrust into the headlines because of the murderous rampage of a white supremacist gunning down scores of worshipers at Islamic mosques in Christchurch. 50 people are dead, murdered as they prayed. Once again, a community and nation reel from the appalling atrocity and the world wonders when it will end. Our hearts go out to the Muslim community in New Zealand and around the world, and we must pray for the families who lost so many loved ones so brutally.
Ardern’s leadership during the crisis has gained praise from many quarters. She comforted families, demanded change in gun laws, and condemned the white supremacist movement that is fueling so much racial and religious hatred around the world. She called on President Trump to express public support for Muslims. We’re still waiting.
Many other world leaders immediately condemned the white nationalism and Islamophobia that seemed to fuel the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Not so much, however, the president of the United States. When asked if he views the rising tide of white nationalism as a threat, he responded, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people…” His Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, put out a statement condemning the massacre, but President Trump tweeted “warmest sympathy and best wishes,” language one might use to express condolences on an elderly relative’s passing. Hardly the kind of strong, resounding condemnation of yet another gruesome attack on people because of their religion. He uses much stronger language condemning impoverished refugees fleeing oppressive regimes. He denies any association with white nationalism, and yet, in every opportunity to express moral outrage and stand for justice of people who are at risk, he demurs, waffles, goes mute. And just shortly before the news of the massacre in New Zealand, the president seemed to offer his own threat of violence by saying that “…law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump” could make it “very bad, very bad” for Democrats.
The current administration likes to make a big show of its “pro-life” politics and proclamations of religious liberty, but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to their actions. Religious leaders, if they are true to the fundamental teachings of just about all faiths, should distance themselves far away from this administration. Time and again, President Trump and those who work for him have demonstrated the most callous disregard for human life and dignity, for simple justice for the poor and suffering of this earth, whether it be the appalling actions against children and families at the border, or reductions in the social safety net especially Medicaid, or overt encouragement of police brutality while threatening those who protest. In this administration, religious liberty has become a bludgeon wielded by rightwing religious leaders against people of other faiths, particularly Muslims. Looking at you, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and that gun you proudly wave around. That’s not Christianity, that’s fearmongering.
We who are Catholic and Christian are called to uphold the dignity of all human life, including the lives of those who profess other faiths, who live on the margins, who do not have the luxuries and benefits we take for granted every day. I recently had occasion to re-read Gaudium et Spes, the document from Vatican II that speaks to the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” of people in the modern age. While written 55 years ago, the document could have been written just yesterday. The authors call upon us to read the “signs of the times” and to respond to them with the conviction of our faith in social justice. This paragraph seems particularly urgent even today:
“Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the worlds citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. Never before has man had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance. Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one man depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. For political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes still continue bitterly, and with them the peril of a war which would reduce everything to ashes. True, there is a growing exchange of ideas, but the very words by which key concepts are expressed take on quite different meanings in diverse ideological systems. Finally, man painstakingly searches for a better world, without a corresponding spiritual advancement.”
White supremacy and its ilk — neo-Nazism, Islamophobia, other forms of racial and religious hatred — are the ultimate expression of a profoundly bankrupt spirituality in the human community. Demagogues have taken over entire countries spewing hateful ideologies, enriching themselves while preaching gospels of division, hatred and authoritarian power. Evil is always with us, but the current convulsions in too many places around the world make it seem like evil is ascendant more powerfully than perhaps at any time since the 1930’s. Our grandparents fought a world war to vanquish the evil of the Holocaust and quest for world domination, but rather than eradicating those impulses, the seeds of evil only scattered for rebirth in modern times.
Evil must not, will not triumph again. We need more world leaders able and willing to stand up and proclaim the values of a good and just society, to confront and be willing to act confidently and affirmatively against those who seek corrupt domination over others. We need religious leaders who are not tools of demagogues but truly able to proclaim the tenets of faith, which are shared by most faiths — charity, hope, peace, justice. Those of us who have the privilege of education must use this gift to enlighten others, to help the people of this earth to raise our voices in solidarity against those who would do harm through violence, oppression, building arsenals and walls instead of securing the peace through understanding and hospitality to all who are searching for community.
The evil in New Zealand — like the evil in Pittsburgh, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Paris, Manchester, New York, Oklahoma City and so many other places — this evil might have been perpetrated by a lone gunman or a few working together. But in fact, the global spread of rogue terrorists is fueled and encouraged by the rhetoric of demagogues as well as the silence of others. Some philosopher once said (attributed to Edmund Burke), “The only think necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.” Silence is not an option! We must call out the evil and work together to create the changes necessary to restore a sense of moral and spiritual order to this civilization. That includes voting out the demagogues and voting for leaders who can truly set this society in a healthy new direction.