Can’t we see parallels in leadership today, both in the Church and in society, where it can easily get more enmeshed in its own self-importance and self-interest, than in the rights and the good of the ordinary people, whom they are meant to serve, rather than command, control and oppress. Leadership by example, in service and humility, sounds nice, but it is not so simple to practise in reality, is it, as we face up to Remembrance Day and what it might mean for us today?
Well, we might think the poor widow could have at least kept one coin to look after herself, but Jesus likes to wake us up with the comparison, where here he takes a final big swipe at the self-important, showy and hypocritical scribes, some of whom think they know it all, and even moreso to tell others what they should do. The contrast is striking, as the poor widow has virtually no rights in Jewish society at that time, and is at the mercy of others, hopefully with family to give her some support, but without obligation. Meanwhile, the religious leaders love telling such people what they should be giving to support the Temple and uphold the religious traditions of the day. In the face of unrelenting opposition from the upper levels of his society, Jesus calls for empathy, compassion and self-giving love to the needy, silencing the religious leaders, who obstruct the way to God because of their own pre-occupations with ritual, rubrics and rules over the needs and the general good of the people.
The National Catholic Reporter has a current powerful editorial which is scathing of the lack of proper leadership by the American bishops, (the same could well apply to the Australian bishops!) calling for them to act in humility and openness to acknowledge their radical failure to address the issues of sexual abuse over many decades, with victims not heard and appearances kept up to ‘protect’ the Church, but missing the point that the Church is the whole People of God.
In any structured organization, we can see parallels, of abuse of power, undue emphasis on details and ritual, and a natural tendency to self-aggrandize. At this time we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, when World War I ended, abhorrently also known as the Great War, ironically between so-called Christian countries, with 3 emperor cousins (King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Alexander), also called the “war to end all wars” (perhaps better called the “Dirty Trade War”, with us in it to help keep Australia “White” , and keep the collapsing Empire going). And it only officially ended, after 4 years and 4 months, initially hoped to be over by the first Christmas, when the story of the ceasefire and German and English and French soldiers, all ultimately machine gun fodder, played soccer and exchanged Christmas cake and sausage in no man’s land, thinking of their families back home and wishing the horror was over! As the mindless carnage resumed, by the end 9 million combatants, (including a mind-boggling over 60,000 Australian young men!), and 7 million civilians were dead, not to underestimate the more than twice as many wounded and even more psychologically damaged for life by shell shock, war neurosis now known as PTSD, and the resulting suicides and enduring social and family problems.
And, as in the black satirical humour of “Blackadder Goes Forth”, the generals were back in their chateaus, wondering how far the drinks cabinets might have moved, until they ordered their boys to go over the top, if they hadn’t already been poison gassed in the mud, in the stench of the trenches! The poor soldiers were just helpless, suffering pawns in a military and economic power game.
Then along came the inevitability of World War II, only 21 years later, largely precipitated by the injustices of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, but at least there was justification for the evil forces of Nazism, Fascism and anti-Semitism, to be confronted and stopped, but with over another 60 million killed, not to think of the even greater numbers of soldiers and civilians wounded physically or psychologically. Just this week was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, in 1938, in Germany, when Jewish businesses were sacked by rampaging Nazis, and Goering quoted as saying: “They should have killed more Jews and broken less glass” – ominous and evil words portending a dark future! I like Mahatma Gandhi’s response when asked what he thought of European civilization: “It would be a very good idea!”. When will we learn from the futility and evil of war? “War is hell!”
Then, for us, came the Vietnam War, or, as the Vietnamese call it, “The American War”, with over 500 Australian soldiers dying, and over 3,000 wounded, not to imagine the psychological long term toll on so many and their families. The Vietnam memorial in Washington DC is a haunting, disturbing and moving reminder of the human cost of war, with the names of every one of the nearly 60,000 American soldier killed, engraved all along its black marble walls. And let’s not forget the 2 million Vietnamese civilians estimated to have died, along with 1.3 million North and South Vietnamese fighters.
Let us remember the words of Jesus: “Happy/blessed are the peacemakers.” Peace starts at home, with you and me, and our willingness to engage with others in an attitude of acceptance and forgiveness, as we live in his love and reflect it in our lives, to contribute to peace in a troubled and conflicted world. And we pay tribute to those who gave their lives for what was seen as a just cause at the time, with all the moral complexities and madness, in retrospect. “Lest we forget.”
Based on a homily given at St Therese’s Parish Essendon www.stthereses.org.au for 32nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (Mark 12.38-44), Remembrance Day 11/11/2018
John Hannon BSc(Hons) BTh DCL Dip Ed, ordained 19/08/1978, is Parish Priest of St Therese’s Parish Essendon