Of Love, Of Selfishness And A World – OpEd
By Ramu Damodaran*
It was in the final weeks of 2020, during the annually familiar, even at times festive, reaffirmation and celebration of faith, from Eid-e-Milad to Gurpurab, Diwali to Hanukkah, Christmas to Kwanzaa, that I heard a conversation between two religious peacemakers in South Sudan, themselves distinguished scholars.
Bishop Isaiah Majok Dau, presiding bishop of the Sudan Pentecostal Church, whose thesis at Stellenbosch University was on the “problem of suffering” spoke of the irony of individuals fighting over the name of a place in which they do not live and of the definition of “peace” as not what we do, but who we are. And Canon Joseph Zebedayo Bilal Kenyi, acting Vice Chancellor at the Episcopal University in South Sudan, reflected upon the essentiality of sustainability in peace negotiations, not allowing spontaneous whims of moment to light welcome, but ephemeral, flames.
And both made reference to the dramatic and wholly unexpected gesture of Pope Francis at a meeting at the Vatican the previous April (2022), where he knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders, giving life to the truth he had once shared, that if there is no humility, love remains blocked and you cannot govern without loving the people.
It was a message that resonated, as the Pope visited South Sudan and spoke at an open-air mass in Juba on February 5 about the “venom of hatred” that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in a civil war now in its tenth year.
His imaginative inclusion in his delegation of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland marked the first time in Christian history that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions conducted a joint foreign visit, and that to a nation where each of the denominations is strongly represented.
But the estimated 100,000 women, children and men who gathered to listen to the pontiff could not have been unaware of how little of their story, and often how late, is known to the world outside, evidence of what the Pope had once described as the “globalization of indifference.”
In his address to the 2015 session of the United Nations General Assembly, he had warned “it must never be forgotten that political and economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.”
The humanization of the concept of justice, in the restoration, preservation and enhancement of the rights of “real men and women” is threatened by actions within and beyond the power of individuals in a morally as much as meteorologically perilous world.
Just last week (January 30), Charlotte Hallqvist, a spokesperson for the UN High Commission for Refugees, speaking from Juba, said the country was “technically entering the dry season now, but water levels have increased again. The water extent seems to have increased by 3,000 kilometres in the past week—it is out of the ordinary. The water from the previous floods is not disappearing before the next rains come down.”
A factor which will only exacerbate hunger and malnutrition, already “on the rise across the flood, drought, and conflict-affected areas of South Sudan, with some communities likely to face starvation if humanitarian assistance is not sustained and climate adaptation measures are not scaled-up” as the United Nations Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), released in November indicated with a projection of about two-thirds of the South Sudanese population (7.76 million people) likely to face acute food insecurity during the April-July 2023 lean season while 1.4 million children will be malnourished.
Love and selfishness, two words the pontiff has used without the self consciousness that inhibits other statesmen from so doing, are the factors that govern the lives of “real men and women”, govern in their exercise or their denial, no longer subtle or implicit but all too often raw and violent.
And the Pope remains the one national leader with the power to persuade , to vanquish the venom of hate of which he spoke at Juba, a reference that brought to mind the biblical mention of “their venom (being) like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be.”
His Holiness’s skills may yet surprise us all. As his address in Juba drew to its close, I was having a mellow cup of coffee with my friend Francesco Lapenta, founding Director of the John Cabot Institute of Future and Innovation Studies, visiting New York from Rome. He described to me, with his gentle eloquence, the papal apartments in the Vatican, which Pope Francis has opened to public access, and where the small, immeasurably modest bedroom where Popes would sleep opened directly onto a large chapel of elegance and beauty.
And yet, you were never in that chapel alone, for its integrity and wholeness depended upon the context of the small room the open door led to. Which may well be the metaphor for the church Pope Francis leads, a church whose pride and identity continues to be shaped by the solitary reflections of the person alone next door, a person fully cognizant of his capacity to exercise and extend love, to censor and squelch selfishness, to globalize compassion. And to persuade the cobra to unstop its ears.
The author is the first Director of UN Academic Impact and a Senior Fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP).