Homily by Deacon Matt Dulka at Mass for World Peace 4/28/10

Mass for World Peace / San Jose Diocese
April 28, 2010 /  St. William Church, Los Altos
Homily by Deacon Matt Dulka
First reading:   Colossians 3:12-15  / Gospel:   Matthew 5:38-48 

Almost everyone is for world peace.  The real question is how to get there, how to achieve peace.   Jesus tells us that the way to peace is by loving our enemies.  Like most people I struggle with that.  The temptation to make war against our enemies is great.

I’ve never been to war myself but I grew up in the shadow of war.  I was born in 1960 and certainly wasn't raised to be a pacifist.  When I celebrated my 5th birthday I got an army helmet and a toy gun.   I remember how excited I was and how I played war.

However, by the late sixties I became well aware of the Vietnam war.   I heard people talk about it and saw it on the news and began to live in fear of that war.   Fear that it would be still going on when I was 18 and that I’d be drafted to fight in it.   Even though I couldn’t articulate it then, I knew war wasn’t good and wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of.  Somewhere along the way I stopped playing war.

That war ended when I was in my early teens and I remember thinking that that was it.   There would be no more war to worry about.  However, in college during the 80’s I learned of the wars going on in Central America.   They didn’t make me afraid.   Perhaps because I knew the chance of my having to fight in those wars was nearly impossible.   But they made me mad.   I learned from hanging around the Newman Center on campus that those wars were unjust and that we were often backing the wrong side.

After college, as a Jesuit Volunteer in West Oakland, my attention was turned to the ongoing build up of nuclear weapons.   I was concerned not only at the possibility of the world being wiped out but could see living in the slums of West Oakland that while billions of dollars were being spent to prepare for war, nothing was being done to address the poverty and crime in my neighborhood.  So with friends, I went out to Lawrence Livermore Labs, where the bombs were being designed and knelt down in the roadway and prayed for peace.   I was rewarded with a night in jail.  I thought I was finally becoming a pacifist.   Looking back, I didn't have a clue.

If I had been overly idealistic in those years, my work with Maryknoll has sobered me to the reality of how pervasive war and violence are and how difficult and complicated peace can be.   In my travels with Maryknoll, I’ve been to a number of places devastated by war and three places in particular touched by genocide, one of most horrendous forms of war.

Last year I went to Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge systematically killed millions during the 70's.   The year before that I was in Tanzania, and sat in on the UN war crime tribunals for the genocide in Rwanda where 800,000 people were killed in three bloody months.

But the most profound experience was one I had several years before that, when I visited Guatemala shortly after the end of 30 years of civil war.   It still looked like a war zone and the wounds were fresh as human rights groups continued to uncover mass graves and tried to identify the victims.  Over 300,000 mostly poor and indigenous Mayans died there as part of a genocide by the government.   It was done under the guise of stopping  communism.  The U.S. supported that war on and off over the years.   Whole villages of peasants were rounded up and gunned down or burned alive in churches.  Our Maryknollers there witnessed it.

I will never forget one place in particular that I visited, the town of Santiago on Lake Atilan in the highlands.   It was there that Stan Rother, a parish priest and missionary from the U.S. was gunned down in his rectory after he had inquired about his catechist who had been arrested and disappeared.   As many as a thousand people from that area were "disappeared" and killed.   

Shortly after Fr. Stan was killed, one night drunken soldiers shot and killed some women on the street.  The villagers had had enough and stood up to them.  Not by taking up arms, but by peacefully resisting and marching to the garrison to demand peace and justice.   As they stood at the gates, the army opened fire and 11 men, women and children were gunned down, but the people did not give up.  They persisted nonviolently and eventually the soldiers gave into their demand to leave the area.   As I listened to the survivors and stood in the place where killing had happened, I cried and realized how much I had to learn about what it really means to be a peacemaker.

Our Catholic tradition is clear that violence is not the answer to resolving conflict.  Of course over the centuries we have struggled with that and created moral exceptions for self defense and so called just wars.   Nonetheless the ideal remains.  Rather than offering you a discourse on the importance of nonviolence in the Catholic Tradition, which is quite impressive and interesting, let me summarize it with the words of Pope John Paul II.   This is from a talk he gave when he visited Northern Ireland at the time when that country was torn by violence.  He said:

Peace cannot be established by violence; peace can never flourish in a climate of terror, intimidation and death. It is Jesus himself who said: "All who take the sword will perish by the sword"(Mt.26:52). ... [I] proclaim, with the conviction of my faith in Christ and with an awareness of my mission, that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of humanity....

Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings. Violence is a crime against humanity, for it destroys the very fabric of society... Do not believe in violence; do not support violence. It is not the Christian way. It is not the way of the Catholic church. Believe in peace and forgiveness and love; for they are of Christ. Communities who stand together in their acceptance of Jesus' supreme message of love, expressed in peace and reconciliation, and in their rejection of all violence, constitute an irresistible force for achieving what many have come to accept as impossible....

I get that.  I understand why peace is necessary.  I've seen what violence has done in places like Guatemala, Rwanda and Cambodia.   But here's my dilemma: 

One of the biggest challenges for me in being a peacemaker came last year.   It wasn’t having to make tough choices in the face of genocide.  It wasn’t about supporting a war overseas.   It happened in front of my house and involved a different kind of war, a parking war.  While it seems trivial to the point of being offensive to even think of it in light of all the war and violence around the world today, it’s helped me to see the Gospel in a new way that has to do with what goes on in our hearts.

One day my neighbor across the street decided that the parking spots on the street in front of his house were his and that I, my family and our guests should not park there.   In an effort to be a good neighbor I said that we’d do our best not to park there, but I was hesitant to make our guests go out and move their car if they happened to park in front of his house.  It is a public street after all.

Not long after that my son’s girlfriend parked there and it started what we have came to call the parking wars.   They put an offensive and threatening sign on her car.   She’s a sweet kid and was freaked out by it.   We tried talking to our neighbor about this, but they wouldn’t answer the door.   We tried with a letter that was not responded to...well they did respond.   In addition to the cars and camper they already had, they went out and got first one big pick up truck, and then another even bigger one, and began to park them right in front of my house, so that we’d have no parking spaces. 

At first my wife and I thought that this was a good teaching experience for our teen age children on how to respond to conflict.  We were clear with them that there would be no retaliation.   They and their friends had great ideas, many that involved toilet paper.

As this went on for weeks and then months, I began to notice within myself a growing resentment and frustration.   When I’d come home to find the trucks parked in front of my house I was surprised by the amount of anger I began to feel and how almost automatically I would start to fantasize about revenge and doing all sorts of violence to them and their trucks.  Where did I put that Army helmet and gun from my 5th birthday? 

How could I reconcile these growing feelings for violence with the experiences I had standing in that peace park in Guatemala or sitting in on the war crimes trials in Arusha or my opposition to the war in Iraq.   Was there a connection?   Why was it easier to oppose violence and war thousands of miles away than to live peacefully in my own neighborhood?

The answer may be in the Gospel reading.  What does it really mean to turn the other cheek, to seek non-violent, peaceful solutions to conflict.  The Gospel is the toughest teaching of Jesus.  A teaching that we tend to gloss over or ignore.   Or try to explain away.

Jesus wasn’t advocating passivity, victimization or condoning oppression; quite the opposite.   He was offering concrete examples of how to proactively break the cycles of violence and oppression.  

If someone should press you into service for one mile, go with him for two.   Roman occupation of Palestine at the time of Jesus was oppressive and violent.  Roman soldiers could force a local person to carry their pack.  Not only was this back breaking work, it was humiliating, a physical reminder of their oppression and disruptive to their ability to make their own living.   What might happen if a Roman solider yanked a farmer off his small plot to carry his pack and the peasant offered to carry it for two?   It creates the possibility that the soldier might see the peasant as a fellow human being, that the soldier might see the violence he’s doing to the person, that the solider might recognize his own inhumanity.   In other words it creates the opportunity for conversion.

The example of handing over your cloak is interesting.  For the poor the only collateral they may have to secure a loan was their clothing.   If a lender was threatening to sue to recover one of the two only pieces of clothing a poor person has, Jesus suggests giving them both.   How does that leave the debtor?   Naked or nearly naked.  For the Jewish people it would have been shameful for the viewer to witness that.   Again a radical response to an injustice that may shock the lender to think about what he’s really doing to the person and invite him to consider a more just response.

And then there’s the most famous example that deals with physical violence, turning the other cheek.  To be slapped on the right cheek was most insulting to a Jew, because it usually meant a backhanded slap.  At the time of Jesus, a backhanded slap was used to assert authority and dominance over someone of a lower class.  If a person turned the other cheek, it created  a problem for the aggressor. To slap with the open hand would be seen as a statement of equality. Turning the other cheek was in effect a demand for equality or respect.  Again it would give the aggressor pause, making him think twice about what he was doing and invite him to change.

What if these bold moves don't bring about conversion of the heart in the aggressor?  What if the person is struck a second time, pressed into service for the additional mile or left standing there naked?   At least the cycle of violence would have been broken.   To have retaliated with violence would have certainly invited further retaliation and violence.

I think of the those peasants in Guatemala who turned the other cheek.   Some died, but the cycle of violence was broken ultimately.   In doing that they were true martyrs, witnesses of God’s love and what it means to be a peace maker.

But most of us aren’t faced with those choices, thank God.   Rather we are left with parking wars, with the jerk that cut us off on the freeway or the co-worker that stabs us in the back.   The smaller things that in our hearts plant seeds of violence and feed a desire for revenge.  The things that Jesus mentions in the Gospel.

I think that there is a connection between small every day violence that can sometimes build and explode into greater violence.  When we were kids and someone would hurt us and we would want to hurt them back, many of us had moms who would say, that’s how wars are started.   There’s Gospel wisdom there. 

It begins small.  If we can't be peaceful in resolving the minor conflicts I wonder if we have much chance when it comes to bigger issues.

So peacemaking begins in our hearts.  It's not a quaint notion or a warm and fuzzy feeling.   Like love itself it is a choice.   Not just one big decision.  But many small ones.   The decision of what do when faced with conflict, no matter how trivial.   What to do when we are wronged.   What to do when are faced with violence.   It's about developing a habit of approaching conflict with love.

It is the decision to not let seeds of violence or vengeance take root in our hearts.  The decision to proactively face violence and injustice with acts of love. To turn the other cheek, to make ourselves nakedly vulnerable, to go the extra mile.

It's from that point, that integrity of peace in our own hearts, that we can then witness for peace in broader and larger circles.   To address the issues of economic injustice that lead to violence.   To confront oppression.   To oppose all violence and war.   

As FDR said:  "Peace, like charity begins at home."   So as we continue to celebrate this mass for world peace, perhaps it's good to remember and practice that old song:   Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.   

Even if it means having to park down the block.

Matt Dulka is a deacon of the Oakland Diocese assigned to full time ministry with the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers as the Regional Director for mission education and promotion in the Western U.S.  He can be reached at mdulka@maryknoll.org or through www.maryknoll.us