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Millennium Moment
Y2K: Have No Fear

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One Family in God
by Eileen Egan

Pope John Paul II calls on us to prepare for the new millennium by focusing on God’s unconditional love for all human beings. The example of two great women of this century can spur us to imitate God’s love for all in times of peace and even in war.

The suffering of homeless people in New York City was particularly tragic in the Depression years of the early 1930's. There were never enough shelters, and people killed themselves in despair when all doors were shut to them.

Dorothy Day told me the story of two women who used to take part in the community meal when the Catholic Worker was in its beginning stages on New York’s Lower East Side. The women were welcome at the free meal, consisting of soup and bread and whatever else people contributed. One evening the women asked if they could stay the night. Dorothy explained that the apartment, actually the home of her younger brother and his family, was absolutely filled. A few nights later, one of the women appeared for dinner, and Dorothy asked about her companion. "After we left you that night we went to the subway station," the woman replied. "My friend threw herself under the train."

With the few dollars she happened to have, Dorothy rented an apartment in a nearby basement. It was soon sheltering homeless women. It was a small beginning—but it was the forerunner of scores of Catholic Worker centers organized by laypeople nationwide. Today, volunteers continue to offer shelter and food to needy persons at more than 100 Catholic Worker houses in the United States.

Seeing Christ in disguise

For Dorothy, the homeless person was the homeless Christ, the hungry person was Christ hungering. "If we hadn’t got Christ’s word for it," she said, "it would be raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child...that my guest is Christ." Dorothy explained further, "He made heaven hinge on the way we act towards him in his disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity."

Decades later and half a world away, in another great city, Calcutta, I saw human beings carried into Mother Teresa’s Hostel for the Dying. The filth of the street was on them; they were famished and almost inconsolable in their abandonment. Yet a faint glimmer of a smile sometimes appeared as they were washed by an attendant and as a younger woman in a white sari fed them patiently, spoonful by spoonful. In answer to my query, Mother Teresa explained, "Our work calls for us to see Jesus in everyone. He has told us that he is the hungry one, the naked one, the thirsty one. He is the one without a home. Each one is Jesus in a distressing disguise."

Both Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa saw all human beings in the light of the Incarnation, brothers and sisters to the Son of God. In New York, the person who comes for help or shelter can be of any race, color or nationality. Nothing can annul the unalterable reality, the basic identity of membership in one family, the family of God. In Calcutta, the divisions among human beings are erased as they are received with the gentleness and care due to a bearer of the divine nature, due to a son or daughter of the Most High.

Both women practiced what most Christians profess to believe—that all human beings, imaging the Creator, are members of one family under God. They break through all the false barriers that divide human beings; they do it in situations wherever human beings are helpless before conditions that grind them to an almost inhuman level.

Seeing Christ even in our enemy

In wartime even Christians are tempted to see the opposition as less than human, as other than full children of God. Enemies—those people declared enemies by our nation—are the ones we can starve, maim or kill in good conscience. The most impenetrable disguise of Christ is Christ in the enemy. What leads us to the mindset that sanctions maiming and killing is nationalism. This is the exaggerated and intense adherence to a belief that our national identity is greater in value than other national identities.

Both Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day rejected war in favor of active peacemaking. In 1993, while leaders were preparing for the Persian Gulf War, Mother Teresa wrote a personal letter to Saddam Hussein and President George Bush begging them not to fight because God’s poor would be the ultimate sufferers. After she entered the Catholic Church, Dorothy Day opposed every war that occurred. At the outbreak of World War II she announced that the manifesto of the Catholic Worker would be the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus calls his followers to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors.

A great tragedy of history has been the fact that Christians have been dragooned into every side of every war. Once corralled into military obedience, Christians are expected to obey all military orders without questioning. At a recent peace meeting a Catholic posed the question: How can it be that (during World War II) Catholic Germans who may have partaken of the life-giving bread and the saving cup obeyed orders to kill French Catholics who had also been at the table of the Lord? One reason is that each side claimed it was fighting a just war. (Doesn’t every nation that declares a war assert that it is waging a just war?)

Christian soldier-citizens are urged to perform their patriotic duty without question. If they do question the means to prosecute the war, or in conscience refuse to carry them out, they may be condemned to death. In the particular case of France and Germany, in both world wars there was no provision for the right of conscientious objection to war and military service.

Vatican II and war

At the Second Vatican Council the world’s bishops specifically supported the right of conscientious objection. In addition, the calm, peaceful witness of gospel nonviolence as an alternative to war service was affirmed. The question of the means used in modern warfare was included in The Church in the Modern World: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" (article 80).

The recent photos and video of NATO strikes over Kosovo and Belgrade showing destroyed bridges, power plants, hospitals and refugee convoys reveal that those who launched the bombs or fired the missiles did not intend to strike some of those targets. The harm done to civilians and to the infrastructures of civilian life is referred to in military parlance as collateral damage. The fact is that modern war, even with the aid of computers, can end up being indiscriminate. The enormous power of the weapons available—and, in air strikes, the distance from the objective—defeats any claim to perfect accuracy.

In my work with Catholic Relief Services after the Second World War, I saw the destroyed houses, villages and towns with human remains still entombed in bombed-out homes. Compassion did not return when the fighting stopped. Human hearts had hardened. The victorious allies decided at Yalta that over 12 million people of German ethnic origin should be expelled from their homes in various areas of Eastern Europe and driven into a destroyed and truncated Western Germany. We had to increase our relief programs to meet the needs of the victims of ethnic cleansing.

Works of mercy reversed

The Church needs to assert a moral assessment of war from the teaching of Jesus. In the parable of the Last Judgment he identifies with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the imprisoned, and commends the righteous people who have come to his aid. They are surprised to find out that in helping the least of humankind, they helped the Son of Man. In like manner, others are surprised to learn that when they had refused mercy to the hungry, thirsty, unsheltered and imprisoned, they had refused Christ. Could not an enemy who was starved, who was naked and whose shelter was destroyed, be Christ? And could not Christ in the enemy who had been treated without mercy be an accusing Christ?

My work in war-affected areas in Asia as well as in Europe revealed to me that every work of mercy is reversed in war. An example is the food blockade of an enemy which directly affects the civilian population, the vulnerable old and the children, because the army gets first call on all supplies. Thirst is brought to the many, as in Germany, where—for one example—a proud achievement was the bombing of a reservoir in Frankfurt serving the city and communities around it. Factories producing clothing are destroyed in war, along with countless homes. A theology of war should take into account the reversal of the works of mercy in modern war.

The Lord’s Prayer as peace prayer

There are many people who pray that the Church will conclusively distance itself from war during the new millennium, and will support the ever greater numbers of Catholics who espouse nonviolence in the solution of all conflicts. We may come to understand the Lord’s Prayer as a peace prayer. First of all, when we dare to say "Our Father" we are daring to call him "Dad," "Abba" of all. The almost unutterable tragedy is the spectacle of Christians daring to say "our" while lining up against each other under separate banners of unrelenting nationalism.

"Your kingdom come" has profound implications for peace. The messianic kingdom is the glorious end to which Christ the redeemer pointed. "Your will be done on earth as in heaven" is the key to the kingdom and the key to peace. Our allegiance to the kingdom of God calls for a kingdom of wills turned to God. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer as a peace prayer by millions of the followers of Jesus becomes a cry to God the Father from his threatened and endangered children.

As this article is concerned, above all, with the oneness of God’s human family, it is good to keep in mind the powerful statement in the 1983 pastoral letter of the bishops of the United States, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. They wrote, "We are the first generation since Genesis with the power to virtually destroy God’s creation." Since any war in the nuclear age may, by accident or design, involve the use of nuclear weapons, should not Church leaders protect God’s creation by deciding against participation in war?

Many of the followers of Jesus, stained with the blood of so many wars, are ready for such a decision. It would call for them to place their faith not in the human power of destruction but rather in the limitless power of an all-loving God.*


Eileen Egan is a founder of Pax Christi USA and a longtime staff member of Catholic Relief Services. She has just published Peace Be With You: Justified Warfare or the Way of Nonviolence (Orbis Books).




"Pete" Peterson


When Douglas "Pete" Peterson converted to Catholicism several decades ago, he was not just dutifully embracing his wife’s faith. In the Catholic Church he found what he had long been seeking. But he had no way of knowing that his faith would be so thoroughly tested—or so soon.

Within a few years he was serving his country in Southeast Asia as a young fighter pilot and commander for the U.S. Air Force in the Vietnam War. Then, in 1966, he was shot down by antiaircraft fire while on a bombing run, his 67th mission. Captured by local militiamen, he spent the next six and a half years in various Vietnamese prisons. Daily he struggled to cope with the ordeals of imprisonment, including torture. He turned to prayer, as best he could, for strength.

Today he spends his days serving his country in Southeast Asia, now as the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam based in Hanoi. Since his 1997 appointment the former Congressman (D-Fla.) has worked to improve relations between his country and that of his former captors. He has been called "a walking billboard" for Vietnamese-American relations.

For Mr. Peterson, 64, the transition from POW to ambassador has been, literally, a matter of faith.

"To a large degree it was my faith that got me out of Vietnam alive," he told Millennium Monthly in a telephone interview. "If I’m serious about my faith, forgiveness is a major part of it." Although he acknowledges that reconciliation came slowly—"it’s not a switch on the wall you simply turn on"—he is now at peace. "What benefit is it to me to live in the past?" he reflected. "What does it add to my life if I am totally engulfed in what happened years ago?" For him, it is important to "shuck off the burden, move on and make an asset" out of his earlier life experiences.

He regularly urges groups he addresses "to attempt in their own hearts and minds to find ways to reconcile." He is also committed to using the tools of diplomacy and negotiation.

Widowed in 1995, Ambassador Peterson was remarried last year in Hanoi’s Catholic Cathedral. His bride was the Vietnamese-born Vi Le. In that moment, as in so many others before, Ambassador Peterson felt "the hand of God" on his shoulder. "God guides me to do what he wants of me. I’m not in charge, God is."*

— by Judy Ball




Y2K: Have No Fear


What is the best way for Christians to prepare for and respond to the so-called Y2K problem that may occur at the start of the year 2000, when computers presently programmed to read "99" as 1999 may incorrectly read "00" as 1900? According to experts, Y2K disruptions could have an impact on electrical power grids, water utilities, transportation, food processing, etc. Minor disruptions are assumed. Major ones are possible.

AD2K to the rescue. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has created a task force and a Web site (http://www.elca.org/dcs/ad2k/) to help its own members and any other interested persons respond to the Y2K issue in faith rather than fear. This includes trusting in the abiding presence of the God who alone knows what is ahead. "Despite all the uncertainty," AD2K officials say, "we are certain that God is sovereign. God will never leave us or forsake us."

The AD2K Web site offers concrete ideas for individual Christians and for congregations to prepare for Y2K as peacemakers at what could be a time of crisis. Also included is information to help nonprofits become Y2K-compliant, ideas about what others are doing and recommended resources.*


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