By Rajan Philips –
The conclave of cardinals surprised most outside observers by selecting Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. There was no surprise in Geneva, however, where the US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka passed with almost the same division among UNHRC members as last year. What has been new this year is the emergence of a vicious Colombo-Delhi-Chennai triangle driven by the eruptions of extremist bigots in both Colombo and Chennai. Manifestly, the diplomatic chicaneries in Geneva, extremist eruptions in Colombo and Chennai, and constant dillydallying in Delhi and Colombo have no connection to the spiritual summit of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the new Pope’s down-to-earth pastoral emphasis, spiritual inclusiveness without hectoring, and his totally caring outlook could inspire new approaches to dealing with even intractable political issues.
A new approach is certainly needed in Colombo, Chennai and Delhi, where governments appear to be grandstanding against one another while leaving the stage open for extremists of many hues to perform their rituals of hatred and intolerance. What Harim Peiris perceptively noted about the current anti-Muslim campaign in Sri Lanka being very much “against the mainstream of the current public mood and popular sentiment”, is equally applicable to the orchestrated attacks on Sinhalese visitors in Tamil Nadu. They are despicable and beyond the pale. What is more worrisome are the actions and inactions of the three governments in Colombo, Chennai and Delhi, that are giving the social and political troublemakers “all the space and opportunity to pursue their bigoted campaign at will” – to borrow Mr. Peiris’s words for my purpose. As government actions and inactions go, it goes beyond the relatively mundane questions of law and order and the hackneyed concept of sovereignty. It goes to the more fundamental question of moral abdication, if not turpitude. World religions have complicated politics unnecessarily, but can they help when politics is desperate for a moral compass?
I am not suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church should be given the task of moralizing politics in the temporal world and there are enough people to shout that the Church must put its own spiritual house in order in the first place. Nor should it be possible, or necessary, for religious organizations to intervene in political matters. But there are times when the way religious organizations conduct themselves or claim to conduct themselves may provide inspirations for new approaches in temporal politics. ‘Do as they say, but not as they do’, Christ told his disciples against the high priests of his time, and politics might heed that advice while looking for inspiration from religion. Though a minority religion, Catholicism is part of the moral makeup of India and Sri Lanka and Cardinals from the two countries were among the Cardinals who selected the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Ares as the new Pope. Equally pertinent, the Sri Lankan parliament adopted a unanimous resolution to felicitate the retiring Pope Benedict, and Sri Lanka’s own Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was touted as a potential contender to become the new pope.
The “Herods” of History
The new Pope, Pope Francis, is old at 76, but he has brought instant newness to the seat of St. Peter. His wit and humour have come across as a refreshing trademark – for instance, he told fellow Cardinals during the dinner toast following his election: “May God forgive you for what you have done!” More importantly, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is the first Jesuit to become Pope, the first non-European in many centuries and the first from the Americas. He is also the first Pope to take the name of Francis – after Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy, and the saint of humility, of the poor, of nature. In less than two weeks, the new Pope has already put his stamp on the papacy. As a Jesuit he is an intellectual cleric, but unlike Benedict, Pope Francis is not a reserved academic but a down-to-earth pastor. He may not be quite the dramatic persona that John Paul II was, but one who captivates others by his sincerity and humility. Unlike Benedict and like John Paul II, he is not shy of crowds but loves them. On the other hand, on the issue articulating spirituality and sexuality that has been the main focus of media coverage especially in the West, Pope Francis is a doctrinaire conservative like his two predecessors. Pope Francis is a Jesuit pope, but not a liberation theologian.
The inaugural papal mass on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, was symptomatic of the man and his mission. The long standing ritual of nearly 18 centuries was much shorter and far less baroque than in recent past. The homily was scriptural, but simple, sincere, honest and inclusive without any trace of catholic triumphalism or spiritual hectoring. The theme of the homily was ‘protection’ and the Pope expertly based it on the role of Joseph as protector of the Holy Family, retraced its “prior human dimension”, and extended it to cover every person’s private and public responsibilities in every sphere of human activity and in all walks of life – one’s home, religion, as well as the political and secular world.
The Pope asked “all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” As for his role in this collective endeavor, the Pope seemed to emphasize his position as the Bishop of Rome, perhaps signifying the importance of re-establishing the collegiality of the bishops spread throughout the world rather than the hierarchy of the pope. Institutional reform and devolution of power is what is most anticipated from the new Pope and that according to many commentators seem to have been the thinking of the cardinals who elected him. His hands-on record in the reorganization of the Church in Argentina is what the new Pope is now expected to extend globally.
The homily highlighted the qualities of goodness and tenderness as pre-requisites for providing care and protection. Neither is “the virtue of the weak”, he said, “but a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion …”. Anthropological nature, if not nature itself (Marx drew the distinction between the two), would seem to have made women the more common repositories of goodness and tenderness, qualities that women could and should bring to public life in great abundance. Compared to the advances that are being made, albeit not fast enough, in the secular world, there is hardly any movement within the Church in regard to gender equality. Will the Church open up? Not likely, but the pressure will be mounting, and rightly so.
Indirectly at least, the homily seemed to address the usual detractors over the role of the official Argentinian Church and Bergoglio himself during the country’s seven year (1976-83) ‘dirty war’. That was the time the ruling military junta waged war against dissidents including intrepid priests and ‘disappearing’ them by their thousands. The hierarchy of the Argentinian Church and many members of the clergy shamefully identified themselves with the military regime. But Jorge Bergoglio, who was the Jesuit Provincial and not even a bishop during the dirty war years, was not one of them. Last year, under his leadership as Cardinal Archbishop, the Church officially apologized to the people of Argentina for the role of the Church hierarchy in supporting the ruling junta during the dirty war.
Pope Francis may have had the last figurative word on the matter when he said in his homily: “Tragically, in every period of history, there are ‘Herods’ who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.” The modern day Herods are the sovereign states that wreak havoc on human rights, and that would include, one might say, the Argentinian state during the dirty war years. Francis could not have made clearer on which side he stood then and where now stands now.
Moral and political dilemmas
Two days after the inauguration of the new Pope, the US led resolution on Sri Lanka was passed at the UNHRC in Geneva. It is one thing for religious leaders to call upon the political powers to exercise their responsibility in protecting all creation, as Pope Francis just did, but it is quite a different matter for the political world and secular society to deal with those who have committed human rights violations or face allegations of violating human rights. Is the UNHCR the best place to deal with contemporary Herods, or must each state be left to own resources to find “goodness and tenderness” within itself and deal with its own past, make amends and reconcile for the future?
For the last two years, Sri Lankan politics has been preoccupied with the UNHRC and its cycle of resolutions. The instinctive response and continuing strategy of the government has been to do everything possible to avoid, circumvent or defeat any resolution in Geneva. While these efforts have ended in failure, the government feels complacent because the resolutions have no real teeth or consequence. How long can a government remain complacent if the country is going to annually receive dishonourable mention even by a slim majority in an international forum? Apart from the embarrassment, is it moral and right for the government to persist in domestic sabre rattling and dead end diplomacy instead of genuinely committing itself to postwar reconciliation and addressing the substance of the UNHRC resolution which mostly pertains to implementing the recommendations of the government’s own LLRC Commission.
Beyond producing paper reports on the number of released detainees and the bill of quantities of infrastructure work, there has been no manifest commitment or action on the part of the government to work with the people of the north and east and their accredited representatives. Political solutions and structures can be endlessly drawn up on paper, but the ground realties in the north and east will not change until there is positive willingness within the government to change ground realities for the better. The upshot of this lack of willingness in government is the emergence of extremist communal forces in the south to open a new line of attack targeting the Muslims in postwar Sri Lanka. What is worse, there is now counter-extremism across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu, a new and unnecessary problem for which Colombo and Delhi must share proportionate responsibility.
It has often been argued that US and Western action in Geneva only helps the Sri Lankan government to reinforce its political base at home. The implication of this logic is that internal opposition to the Sri Lankan government that could potentially flourish in the absence of US and Western detractions may focus only on the economic hardships in the south and leave out of its agenda the task of achieving postwar reconciliation. Put another way, it is the responsibility of those who are critical of the government on the social and economic fronts to connect with the political task of reconciliation rather than blaming others for their interference. To that end, they could draw some encouragement from the rebuke that has been rightly expressed by Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora groups against attacks targeting Sinhalese visitors in Tamil Nadu.
Although his premises and purposes are quite different, in his inaugural homily Pope Francis uses two terms that are topical in current political discussions: protect, responsibility. It would be farfetched to suggest even a subliminal articulation of the two as ‘Responsibility to Protect’! But it would be perfectly legitimate to ask in the spirit of the papal homily that every Sri Lankan, including the Rajapaksa government, must assume the responsibility to protect one another by admitting to the past and reconciling for the future.