China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2014/Nov

Cry for bread and freedom is a cry for peace on Earth

We need to eat! It is my livelihood! We want genuine elections!

During the electoral reform disputes that unfolded into the Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong, these cries have ripped society apart.

The cry for bread and the cry for freedom – are they competing rights? Indeed both cries are as old as the Old Testament.

The Israelites complained after God had freed them from slavery in Egypt: “… in Egypt… we used to sit round the flesh pots and could eat to our heart’s content! As it is, you have led us into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exodus 16:3).

The Israelites were afraid when they found themselves in a desert where food and security were by no means certain.

On the other hand, God intervened and brought his people out of Egypt, because the Israelites, “groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God. God heard their groaning” (Exodus 2:23-24).

Today, cries for freedom and for security have reached a fever pitch in Hong Kong. As members of society, Christians have a stake in the wholeness (integrity and health) of our society. The Second Vatican Council teaches us, “The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation.”

The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (No. 48) says, “We learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith, while we perform with hope in the future the work committed to us in this world by the Father.”

The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (No. 45) says, “While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it, the Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass.”

The Church, the people of God, has a pastoral duty to the world we live in. To help us discern our response and responsibility as Christians, let us look at some examples in the scriptures and Catholic social teaching.

Into the desert

Whereas the Israelites viewed the desert as a place of error (having erred, gone the wrong way) and of punishment, “Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, after which he was hungry and the tester came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to turn into loaves.’ But he replied, ‘Scripture says: human beings live not on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4: 2-4).

Jesus’ retort to the devil is well known. It is less often noted that Jesus was hungry. Fully human and fully divine, Jesus knew hunger.

Like Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) before him, Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. Hunger and deprivation can be a means of listening to God’s mission for each of us.

Do we have the courage to follow Christ into the desert, to fast from self-certainty and to discern?

The miracle of the loaves

Jesus cared about the hungry. Big crowds of men, women and children had been following Jesus for days; he asked his disciples to give them something to eat.

But there was too little, not enough, according to Andrew: “‘Here is a small boy with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that among so many?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass there and as many as 5,000 men sat down. Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks and distributed them to those who were sitting there; he then did the same with the fish, distributing as much as they wanted” (John 6:9-11).

Jesus came not only to teach and to heal, he also fed. And there were many large baskets of leftovers. But people got the wrong idea.

Someone who can feed them as much as they want – that’s the ticket to security: “They were about to come and take him by force and make him king” (John 6:15).

But Jesus’ signs were about something more. He said, “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever hunger; no one who believes in me will ever thirst” (John 6:35).

He told the people bluntly, “Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they are dead” (John 6:49).

Jesus comes to satisfy another kind of hunger. He does so by offering himself. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember Christ’s offering and receive the bread of life.

We also take part in a miracle of the loaves. But if we stop at being fed, the key transformation has not taken place.

Think of the boy who had the good sense to bring with him five loaves and two fish -if he had kept these to himself out of self-preservation, would there have been a miracle of the loaves? Manna maybe. But Jesus told us food that is perishable cannot save us.

Christ’s offering of himself – the sacrifice – is not complete until we offer something of ourselves. When that happens, we become one with the Lord. We too become the bread of life, the universal sacrament of salvation.

Peace on earth

In 1962, the world could not have been more polarised and in greater danger than when the United States of America and the Soviet Union, armed with nuclear weapons, teetered on the brink of war.

Pope John XXIII personally mediated between the two superpowers; conflagration was narrowly averted.

It was in this context of universal fear and longing for peace that Pope John released his last encyclical, Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris), published in 1963, on Holy Thursday, when Christians remember the institution of the Eucharist.

As one commentator noted, this document is striking for its tone of confident optimism! Like the Second Vatican Council that Pope John convened, Peace on Earth charts anew the Church’s mission in the modern world.

The belief “that the relationships that bind people together could only be governed by force” (4) has led to more conflicts. Christians affirm a different order:

Many people think that the laws which govern a person’s relations with the state are the same as those which regulate the blind, elemental forces of the universe. But it is not so; the laws which govern human beings are quite different. The Father of the universe has inscribed them in a person’s nature, and that is where we must look for them; there and nowhere else (6).

These laws written in the human heart are not restricted to personal morality. In fact, they govern:

.How human beings must behave toward their brethren in society;

.How the mutual relationships between the members of a state and its officials are to be conducted;

.What principles must govern the relations between states; and

.What should be the relations between individuals or states on the one hand, and the worldwide community of nations on the other.

In the 50 years since the publication of Peace on Earth, the Church has helped in dealing with many of the world’s problems such as hunger, social inequality, wars, natural disasters and environmental crises.

Reading the signs of the times, the Church is called to take on the role of prophet and peacemaker.

Peace is more than personal tranquillity. To make peace, Christians need to know both human rights and duties, and to work for the common good that binds together the human person, public authority, civil dialogue and international cooperation.

The world has been fed a wrong diet of violence, mistrust and absolute power that dehumanises the self and others.

Peace on Earth outlines a human order that is created in love and that can be restored to abundance and justice in freedom. How about sitting down with other men, women and children and tasting these samplers?

“Any well-regulated and productive association of human beings in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual is truly a person … endowed with intelligence and free will. As such the person has rights and duties … These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable” (9).

“Human beings have… a right to freedom in investigating the truth and – within the limits of the moral order and the common good – to freedom of speech and publication… One has the right, also, to be accurately informed about public events” (12).

“To claim one’s rights and ignore one’s duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other” (30).

“The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of civil authorities” (54).

“ … every civil authority must strive to promote the common good in the interest of all, without favouring any individual citizen or category of citizen… Nevertheless, considerations of justice and equity can at times demand that those in power pay more attention to the weaker members of society, since these are at a disadvantage when it comes to defending their own rights and asserting their legitimate interests” (56).

“ … any government which refused to recognise human rights or acted in violation of them, would not only fail in its duty; its decrees would be wholly lacking in binding force” (61).

“Yet peace is but an empty word, if it does not rest upon that order… founded on truth, built on justice, nurtured and animated by love and put into practice in freedom” (167).

When we hear society cry out in pain, how do we respond? Are we like Pharaoh whose heart is hardened?

What do we live on? Do we share our loaves and fish? How do we make peace on earth?