A country whose vast province is being invaded by rebels supported by a neighbouring country... Where, after two decades of continuous presence, the Blue Helmets are powerless and content to count the dead... A country where Islamist militias openly referring to Daesh are being deployed, recruiting unemployed young people to turn them into fighters and send them back to cut the heads off civilians... Conference launching the Peace and Justice for Butembo initiative.
A country as vast as Western Europe and threatened with implosion... A country where the ruling class 'eats' 68% of the state budget with impunity and is unable to pay the military or teachers on a regular basis... A country with 100 million inhabitants that has been described, depending on the time and the speaker, as a 'geological scandal', the 'lung of the planet', or a 'solution country', but which is being methodically or anarchically plundered by multinationals, by voracious neighbours, by adventurers of all kinds, and by its own elected politicians who are now standing for election again...
In another age, we would protest against the rape of women, we would reject the fate of children in the mines, we would boycott the minerals whose savage exploitation poisons fields and rivers, we would refuse visas to corrupt politicians, we would question these rules forbidding the honest citizens of these countries to have bank accounts, while we turn a blind eye to the passage of diplomatic bags full of greenbacks.
In another era, a century earlier, or even at the end of the last century, we would be campaigning for the Congo, we would be taking to the streets to denounce the brutality of the current plundering, we would be demonstrating so that wars and predations of all kinds would stop... But there is Ukraine, there is the price of gas and oil, inflation, the climate, the big trials... When it comes to looking away, there are always good reasons. We are living in the time of enquiry commissions ending up in a fishbowl, of lobbyists who, in the name of good causes to defend, 'consume' considerable sums of money that would have deserved better use... (Colette Braeckman, Ah oui, le Congo…, Le Soir 09.01.2023).
One would like to applaud these words if it were not that the article does not mention the Congolese. What are the Congolese doing to solve their problems?
"When you come to present yourselves before me, stop bringing vain offerings: I hate smoke! Sabbath, assembly... I am fed up with your festivals. When you stretch out your hands, I cover my eyes; no matter how many times you pray, I do not listen: your hands are full of blood. Purify yourselves. Stop doing evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, subdue the wrongdoer, give justice to the fatherless, defend the widow" (Isaiah 1:17).
In Isaiah's day, religion flourished, focused on offerings and sacrifices in the Temple. It was presided over by the priests, who enjoyed the largesse of the rich and powerful. Power and influence were almost entirely in the king and the priests hands’, none of whom, for much of this historical period, stood up for the victims of oppression and injustice. Isaiah attempts to awaken the people's conscience to reality. Instead of honouring religiosity as a blessing, he sees it as a festering sore and a sacrilege before the Almighty. There is injustice and inequality and so he denounces the political, social and religious structures, and the hypocrisy of offering sacrifices while leaving the poor to suffer, and he speaks out strongly against corrupt leaders and takes a stand for the disadvantaged.
God is the only source of righteousness and justice. And this God demands righteousness and justice from all of us, at all times and in all areas of life. This justice and righteousness comes from God's deep love for each of us, it is at the very heart of the divine life and it is the way the Lord expects us to behave towards each other. His will to create a new humanity "from every nation, tribe, people and language" calls us to peace, justice and all creation’s unity.
"Stop bringing vain offerings”. Here in Butembo, oppression is not of one group giving itself rights over others. Instead of recognising the dignity of every human being, even people who claim to be of God, too often get themselves involved in sinning actions: slavery, colonisation, segregation, apartheid and insecurity.
The prophet Isaiah shows us how to heal ourselves from these evils. Cleanse yourselves, put away from among you every evil doing, and stop doing evil. Learn to do good. This is all it requires from us a standing decision to commit ourselves. Praying together is good because it allows us to reflect on what unites us, but it requires us to commit ourselves to fight against all kind of oppression.
The prophet Micah had already told us what God requires from us: "Nothing else but doing right, loving faithfulness and walking with God" (6:8). Behaving justly means that all persons are respected. Justice requires a truly just society. Walking humbly with God involves repentance, reparation, reconciliation.
God expects us to take together the responsibility of working for a just society for all. Isaiah calls for the pursuit of justice, which means acknowledging the existence of injustice and oppression in society. He implores the people to overturn this status quo. Seeking justice requires us to confront those who do harm to others. This is not an easy task as it can lead to conflict, but we know that without standing up for social justice oppression will continue. We must recognise the oppression that exists and stand up to free ourselves from these sins.
Our commitment to each other requires that we engage in mishpat, the Hebrew word for restorative justice, by advocating for those whose voices have not been heard, by dismantling the structures creating and sustaining injustice, and by building new ones ensuring that everyone receives fair treatment and has access to due rights. This commitment should be extended beyond friends, family and communities to the whole of our society and humanity.
All believers are called to reach out and listen to the cries of those who suffer, for better understanding and response to their suffering. As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, "a riot is the language of the unheard". When protests and unrest occur in a population, it is often because the voices of those in revolt are not heard. If the churches raise their voices with the oppressed ones, the cry for justice and liberation would be amplified and perhaps heard. We serve and love God and our neighbour by serving and loving one another in unity and justice.
Isaiah exhorts us to learn to do good together, to seek justice together, and to help the oppressed together. A challenge that concerns us all today.
How can we live in unity as people of faith and responding to the injustice and insecurity of our time? How can we engage in dialogue, increasing the awareness and understanding in common actions? We all belong to the one God. Through our open-hearted encounters we can find, individually and collectively, the answer.
We have the right to dream. We have a duty to dream. Out of dreams, there is no hope and no future. Michel Kayoya, a priest from Burundi used to say: 'Our dreams generate hope and our hopes become the road to that future no racial pride or arms’ violence can ever destroy, even if death traps us at every moment'. A few weeks later, he was a victim of the Tutsis: it was May 1972.
"At a time when other peoples are preparing to enter the third millennium with creativity, solidarity, fraternity fighting for human dignity, negative forces, both local and foreign, are plunging us into nameless misery. Our development initiatives are paralysed; our resources are sold off and plundered; insecurity is widespread; commercial life is destabilised; terrorism, violence, hatred and criminality are fostered; lawlessness and arbitrariness have reached an intolerable level; entire villages are destroyed and innocent people massacred; girls and women are raped with impunity; entire peoples are driven from their lands and become refugees on their own soil," wrote our Bishop Sikuli already in the year 2000.
"Our daily life is far from joy and freedom. We are crushed by oppression. Foreign powers, with the collaboration of our Congolese brothers, organise wars with the resources of our country. These resources, which should be used for our development, for the education of our children, to heal our sick, so that we can live in a more human way, are used to kill us" had even before denounced his predecessor Monsignor Kataliko. And this is still our reality.
What to do to face it?
We are called to recover our dignity of free persons.
- Let us become aware of our bonds of servitude! Let us recognise our share of responsibility in the situation that overwhelms us! Let us take the risk of liberation’s path.
- Our message as believers is a message of hope. God is in solidarity with our human condition. Christ, as we Christians know, did not shy away even when facing death.
- We are called to proclaim life, to resist evil in all its forms, to denounce what degrades the dignity of the person. We cannot betray hope.
We must believe that this dream is possible.
"Today, in the night in which we find ourselves, we must boldly affirm our faith for the future of our people. We must refuse to believe that our present circumstances make us incapable of making our society better.
- We must refuse to believe that our neighbours are so captive in their selfishness and war obscurity that the dawn of peace and brotherhood will never become a reality.
- Instead, we believe that truth and love will have the last word, and that life, in distress today, is always stronger than death. Even in the midst of exploding shells and thundering cannons, there is still hope for a bright morning.”
Butembo has already lived through the thrilling experience of this struggle for the respect and defence of every person in the 1st International Symposium for Peace in Africa: we saw then that we can build justice in truth by denouncing the lie of a Congo “Democratic Republic”. For what have the powers being doing to the Congolese? The Congolese people are chained, flogged, tortured. They are despised, deprived of the elementary rights to live, to work, to know, to think, to express themselves, to love. Put aside, silenced, behind a mask of freedom that its authorities display at the UN: a democracy imposed by arms, a justice defined in the Rwandan or Ugandan interest!
Where are these enslaved Congolese? They are at our doorstep: in the women who have been raped; in the survivors of Goma, Maboya and Eringeti; in the nights of terror imposed on us by the May-May and the military, in the poverty the occupation produced, in the hospitals without medicines.
In our hearts, resound the questions challenging us: What are you doing with your brother? What are you doing for your brother? "I am not afraid of the cries of the violent ", said Luther King, "but of the silence of the just". A man standing before God’s judgment said proudly, 'Lord, look at my hands, they are clean, without sin.’ ‘Indeed, said the Lord with a bitter smile, ‘they are clean and...Empty too!’
Believers, we know that there will never be a feast until every crucified person on earth is restored to the dignity that society too often denies him or her; the dignity that each one of us receives at birth. This dignity that each of us, in a collective burst of solidarity, must build or revive in order that the whole mankind is truly regarded the image of the God in whom we believe.
This surge of solidarity is found in every faith and in all religions. ‘O David, says the Qur'an, we have made you a caliph over the earth. So judge fairly among the people and do not follow passion: otherwise it will lead you astray from Allah’s path’.
The Bible echoes the words of Yahweh to Moses: "I have heard the cry of my people, I have seen their misery, yes, I know their suffering, and I have come down to free them" (Ex 3:7). It is written: "The Spirit of Yahweh is upon me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to the captives and deliverance to the prisoners". The cry of the people, not of an individual. This powerful cry of the whole people of Butembo-Beni must be heard and must reach not only God but also all the political, social and even military authorities. The events in Kasindi have filled the pages of the newspapers; the Pope has spoken about them. This has to be done in a systematic and continuous way so that tired of listening to our cries the world powers responsible for our sufferings would wake up and decide to change their behaviour towards us.
In our churches and organisations, there are structures that seek justice and peace. The initiative we are starting today does not want to replace them, but to join them and move forward with them seeking unity, understanding and a common consciousness. We don't just want to cry together, we want to share the same vision, the same objectives for our common actions, the same instruments of struggle so that what we are already doing becomes effective taking us to the goal.
We need a non-violent moral and social revolution. This is what we are called to today; this is what with this meeting we want to start together today.