In the wake of the recent destruction and looting that has happened in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, Archbishop Stephen Brislin shares his homily for this Sunday 18th July 2021.
In the First Reading of today’s Mass we heard these opening words from the Prophet Jeremiah: ‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ says the Lord. The leaders of Israel, to whom these words were addressed, failed the people they were meant to lead. Furthermore, they failed God who entrusted them with the responsibility of leadership.
Human life is relational – in other words, the quality and meaning of our lives is to be found in relation to other people and, of course, in relation to God. To be fully human can only be achieved when we are in harmonious and fulfilling relationships, whether it be with a significant loved one, family, friends, the community in which we live and work. In the words of Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, “man is the more himself the more he is with ‘the other’”. I cannot be my true self by myself. Jesus has also taught us that there is an inseparable link between love of neighbour and love of God. The Old Testament writers used the image of a shepherd and the flock in order to convey this truth. The shepherd is meant to guard and protect the flock, to take it to green pastures and fresh waters, he is meant to ensure its nourishment and well-being. He is meant to love the sheep and care for them, to seek out the lost, bandage the injured and ensure that the flock stays together. Leaders are meant to be like shepherds, to have the well-being of the whole flock at heart, to promote unity and togetherness. In short, to ensure that relationships with others are maintained and respected, through order and fairness.
There is a responsibility on all of us to have the heart of a shepherd. A father or a mother is meant to have the heart of a shepherd for the family, and employer for the employees, older siblings for younger ones, the influential for the marginalized, the rich for the struggling. Again, in short, if we are to reach our potential as human beings, and most certainly if we wish to live a Christian life, we must have a heart for each other – not only those we like, but for all, simply because they are human.
In the light of this, what is happening in South Africa today is appalling and destructive not only of lives, livelihoods and property. It is also destructive of the soul of our humanity. We have witnessed almost unbelievable scenes which have shocked us and left us stunned. Looters have stolen and destroyed, lives have been lost, hundreds – if not thousands – of jobs have been lost, livelihoods wiped out. Many, many have suffered, but ultimately it will inevitably be the poor who suffer the most. There are many factors which have contributed to this violence and lawlessness, primarily poverty and the enormous gap that exists in our country between the rich and the poor. We have known for many years that this stark inequality is unsustainable, it is powder keg that has been waiting for the spark to cause it to explode. The frustration of our present circumstances in terms of the Covid Pandemic, the lockdown and the hardships that so many people have experienced, has exacerbated and lent fuel to the violence we have witnessed. Corrupt leaders, over many years, have scattered their seeds of corruption widely, seemingly with impunity, which has given rise to a culture of presumed impunity. Many people, who are otherwise law-abiding, have been caught up in the mob looting. There are those who have incited and encouraged the violence and, perhaps, even some who have masterminded and orchestrated it. If there are those who masterminded it they, more than all the others who have been involved, are responsible for doing enormous damage to our fragile democracy and economy. If there are such people who have planned and executed this, they have acted selfishly presumably for their own self-preservation, with no regard for the good of the country and its people. They particularly must be called to account and punished appropriately for their actions.
Today, we pray for peace. We pray for an end to this violence and destruction. We pray that those who have hidden their faces and used and manipulated others, will be exposed and made responsible. We pray that all will develop a heart of a shepherd, a heart that cares for others, is concerned about them and which wants their wellbeing.
Today we pray for peace, but we are also aware that it is incumbent on us to work for peace. We work for peace by building a just and equitable society. In the end, the way to peace is not through arresting more and more people, building bigger prisons or meeting violence with violence. The way to a true and lasting peace is to build a society in which people have a share in the prosperity of their country, where they can work in order to support their families, a society in which their children will have opportunities for education and for a better future, a society in which there are not two parallel worlds living side by side but in which we stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with each other. A peaceful society will only be attained when people have their fair share, and so will not live in poverty and neither will they live in obscene luxury through exploitation, corruption and self-interest.
Today we pray for peace, but let us also have the heart of a shepherd to commit our lives to work for peace, knowing that we all have a responsibility for the good of our country and all its citizens. We cannot close our eyes to the needs of our neighbour – if for no other reason,to do so would be to follow a path of instability and insecurity. We know that to follow the path to true and lasting peace means a change of heart – a change of our own hearts, but also forming children and young people to have a shepherd’s heart through living ethical values. We can teach children maths, science, geography and commerce – rightly so. But learning to be human demands far more than such lessons. It demands that we are formed in moral living, of mutual respect, of knowing how to share, of solidarity, a sense of justice, truthfulness and honesty. We must help them to learn to live a life of sacrificial love and service to God and neighbour. We must question many structures of our society to assess whether they are conveying and imparting such values.
Today we pray for peace. And I invite all of you, with your families if possible, to pray the rosary today for the sake of peace. On a Sunday we pray the glorious mysteries which inspire such light and hope in our lives. Pray the rosary today and let us seek the intercession of our Patroness, Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, that the violence of destruction, the violence of malevolence, the violence of poverty and all the other forms of violence will come to an end. In this very serious situation, with humility, we turn to our Saviour, the Good Shepherd, and we ask him to bless our country, our leaders and all the people of our nation, that there may be peace. If, for some reason, you cannot pray the rosary today, please make sure that you pray it tomorrow or as soon as possible. We need the prayers of each and every one of you. May God bless you and your families, and may he keep you safe from all harm.