More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


Human Rights Reflection

Sr. Annmarie Sanders, IHM
IHM Center, Scranton, PA
December 10, 1998

The following reflection was offered at an evening of prayer celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and interceding for those areas of the world where human rights are still denied.

Nine years ago I had my first opportunity to learn what life is like when basic human rights are not protected. Nine years ago I went to live in the IHM sisters' mission in Peru -- a country that claims in word to honor human rights, but often in deed does not.

My understanding of what it meant to live without human rights came gradually during my first months in Peru and often through personal experience. For instance, I was surprised when I picked up our mail in the post office and found that envelopes had been ripped open. That's when I learned that, in spite of laws prohibiting such a thing, mail simply gets opened, its contents may be removed -- and there is nothing that one can do about it. I was surprised when I was leaving my place of work one evening and one of my co-workers stopped me from placing in my backpack for my nighttime reading a report on the torture of prisoners in Peru. "Never carry anything like this with you on a bus," he admonished me. "If your bus gets stopped by the police or army and your bag is searched (as frequently happened), you'll definitely be detained." That's when I learned that simply carrying material critical of the government could land one in jail.

I was surprised again when another co-worker asked me if I thought our sisters would be open to hosting a prayer service in our parish church for the families of persons who had disappeared. I was about to answer, "Of course, we can," when he went on to say, "You do know the risk involved in hosting this? Any gathering, even in prayer, around an issue of social justice becomes a likely target for a military or police invasion. You should know too that there could be repercussions for you long after the prayer service." That's when I learned that simply assembling with others in the pursuit of truth could lead to persecution by authorities.

It took me a while to fully grasp that many of the simple, basic rights that I had taken for granted all my life did not exist in Peru. It took me a while to fully grasp too that the types of oppression and injustice that we just heard described in the ancient Hebrew scriptures still occur not only just in Peru, but in many parts of the world today. Human rights had been a term that previously for me had seemed rather abstract. The denial of human rights in much of the world, however, is anything but abstract. Political and economic tyranny, torture, assassinations, unjust imprisonment, disappearances -- common activities in so many developing countries -- are concrete actions that tell us that human rights clearly are still being denied today. This denial results in the gross inequities and maladies that we heard described in our prayer for mercy: malnutrition, extreme poverty, exploitation, homelessness, unemployment, disease and so much more. And all of this happens against a backdrop of systems and structures that lead to the denial of the basic rights of human persons, and particularly the rights of the downtrodden peoples.

The downtrodden peoples, the poor, are clearly those who suffer most severely from the denial of human rights -- often because they are the segment of a society that is most easily ignored, passed over and considered expendable. While in Peru, I had the privilege of meeting the liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, who knows well the reality of the poor in developing nations. Gutierrez describes the poor this way:

"I think that a good way to speak of the poor is to say that the poor are the insignificant, those who do not count in society and very often in the Christian churches as well. The poor person is one who must wait a week at the hospital doors to see a doctor. A poor person is one who has no social clout to change this situation. The poor are the socially insignificant, except before God. They are always present through statistics, but they have no names."

We gather here tonight because we want to claim our part in assisting with God's plan for the world -- a plan that restores the basic rights of life and liberty to those who are regarded as insignificant and without worth.

This is, however, a formidable task. As Gustavo Gutierrez has asked over and over: "How are we to talk about a God who is revealed as love in a situation characterized by poverty and oppression? How are we to proclaim the God of life to men and women who die prematurely and unjustly? How are we to acknowledge a God of love and justice when we have before us the suffering of the innocent? What words are we to use in telling those who are not even regarded as persons that they are the daughters and sons of God?"

I would submit that by our very presence here tonight that we are people who do proclaim the love of God. We are people who wish to say with utter confidence to the poor and the oppressed -- have hope and believe in the power of God. We are people who wish to change the structures that support oppression. And we are people who wish to involve others in this mission. But how do we do it?

The work for justice is difficult and has no clear guidelines nor rules. Speaking about justice, working for justice and reminding others of our call to be people of justice demands focus and incredible persistence. How many times when advocating for a program or looking for support for victims of a disaster have we been asked questions such as: Are these costly social programs really effective? Why should our government be helping some foreign country when we have our own poor at home? Is anybody really sure that the money we send over there is used for what we send it for and not to line the pockets of corrupt politicians?

The answers to these questions and to so many others that will face us in our work for human rights may never have clear answers. But part of the pursuit of justice is keeping at it, even when we don't know what the answers are. One thing that is always clear, however, is that justice will never be brought forth if nobody cares.

The simple but profound acts of human caring can be among our most powerful contributions to the work of justice. I carry within me an image that speaks of the beauty of human caring among some of society's most battered persons. The image comes from the prayer service that our sisters did host in our parish in Lima that I mentioned earlier -- the prayer for the families of persons who had disappeared. Of the perhaps 200 people who attended that prayer service, some walking for miles to participate, the vast majority were poor campesino men and women -- people who had no resources to help them find their loved ones. Many came forward that day and gave testimony to the hardship and suffering they had endured as they searched for their husbands, wives, children and friends and begged government officials for their help. Their testimonies had a common thread -- as poor persons they were rejected and turned away over and over by the authorities who looked upon them as annoyances, who were suspicious of them or who accused their loved ones of being terrorists.

Toward the end of the service, however, a man came forward who was obviously from Peru's upper class. He too gave testimony about his own son's disappearance on the grounds of the university where he was a student. Witnesses had seen three men drive up in a car, grab his son and stuff him in the trunk of the car. The father was unable to receive any answers from police authorities about his son -- and relatively little help. He met with the same accusations -- that his son was most likely involved with a terrorist group. The man admitted that all his money, his connections and his influence in that society could not help him in the light of what he believed was an injustice against his son. And when he finished speaking and walked off the sanctuary of the church, he began to softly cry. I will never forget watching the dozens of campesino women and men who silently gathered around that man, touched him, hugged him and held his hand. They had never experienced anything like the wealth, prestige and power that this man had always had in his life, but they had experienced his pain. And in that pain, they reached out in solidarity. As this man told me later, never had he felt so understood and never had he felt such care.

Whether the support of that gathered campesino community helped this man in his search for the truth of what happened to his son is not certain. But I do believe that this sign of community and loving, human care was an important step in the process for justice. It reminds me that the work to assure the human rights of all people is at the heart of our call from God. When justice does not flourish, our human life together becomes impossible. When there is real justice, our earthly existence is at its best. That image of the gathered community in that Lima church is for me an image of our earthly existence at its best. It is an image where love and concern for one another penetrate through the barriers of race, class and culture. It is an image of global community.

So, we return to the question -- how do we do it -- how do we continue along the rocky, arduous path of working for justice? I believe we know already that actions of advocacy, education and consciousness-raising are critically and urgently needed -- and I would venture to guess that many of us are already engaged in many such actions. I would like to suggest that we remember as well, however, the words of Ecclesiastes: that "there is a time to speak as well as a time to keep silence ." I believe that in the fast-paced, noise-filled culture in which we live, we are called to be silent in order to listen well. We need to listen as we see Jesus listened in the scriptures. Jesus not only preached the good news to the poor, he listened to the poor. He listened to their stories, concerns, fears and worries. He listened so he could understand their oppression and their poverty. We too need to listen to those who are poor and oppressed today -- listen to their pain and their fear, and listen as well to their wisdom, their insights into what keeps them poor and their ideas on how to improve their situation. As Gutierrez says, "Only if we know how to be silent and involve ourselves in the suffering of the poor, will we be able to speak out of their hope."

I believe we are called to keep silence in order to listen as well to God. God speaks to us today in countless and often surprising ways, but to truly hear God's voice we must stop long enough to listen well. As lovers fall silent and simply remain in one another's presence, so God longs to be in silent, loving presence with us. In that silence we can experience the penetrating love which God has for each of us -- and for the whole human community. In that silence we can more deeply understand God's dream for a world of justice and peace for all. And in that silence we can begin to see how we can be a part of the dream.

Being part of the dream will never be easy. And for that reason I invite you to take a look around this room tonight. Look at who is here and allow their faces to remind you that you are not alone in your desire to be part of God's dream. And picture the faces of others whom you know who are committed to God's dream. In our solidarity, we have strength.

Committing ourselves to participation in God's dream may well mean commitment to a work whose results will not be seen and may not even be understood in our lifetimes. Engaging in the work of justice calls for tremendous faith to continue on despite misunderstanding and despite not seeing change. We can take heart, however, in the words of spiritual writer Joan Chittister who reminds us of the wisdom to be learned from observing the universe. She notes that:

"Quasars are ten trillion times more brilliant than ordinary stars such as the sun. They are so bright that they can be observed at distances more than 10 billion light years away from earth. Some of the ones we see, in fact, have been dead for several billion years and their light is just reaching the earth. When nothing you do seems to prosper, to take root, to grow, quasars teach us not to despair. Some light comes later, long after it first dared to gleam."