How to be a believer amidst a hell of violence?

On trauma, healing, and freedom

The October 7th Hamas attack left a mark on the start of the 2023-2024 academic year at the College of Europe. Students and professors of international relations spent the following months trying to decipher the legal, political, military, and humanitarian aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy unfolding anew. Therefore, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa’s visit to Natolin on April 29th could be viewed as a symbolic ending of this academic year full of discoveries and debates – but also bitter feelings of powerlessness and injustice.

Cardinal Pizzaballa’s community of faith – Latin rite Catholics in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus – might well share these feelings. Despite multiple exhortations for peace, no effective solution has been implemented thus far to stop the bloodshed in the Holy Land. However, as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem talked to the students, he did not focus on the geopolitical quagmire. Instead, he spoke about the posture that religious leaders – and all people of faith – may want to develop as they face the impossible questions of our times. He encouraged believers to act prophetically – that is, not make predictions but rather articulate messages of truth, disturbing yet hope-giving, unpopular yet consoling. Try to coin a language of closeness and compassion. Find spiritual tools to overcome the legacy of trauma and break the deadly spiral of resentment.

Cardinal Pizzaballa’s remarks urge believers and theologians to further reflect on wound-healing – and to mobilise resources offered by the Christian spiritual and intellectual tradition. Christianity is definitely not a geopolitical think tank. However, it has seen generations of soldiers engaging on another battlefield: that of the human soul (cf. Ephesians 6,10-17). A combat zone where the most dangerous enemies are hatred and despair.

Here are some of Cardinal Pizzaballa’s points on healing of trauma followed by some humble reflections prompted by his talk. 

  1. The wounds cannot simply be erased or forgotten. Peace will not be accomplished if they are not healed.

The wounds are deep and open. They are engraved in the flesh of history and cannot be undone. Forgetting or tabooing these wounds will lead to infection and a new wave of pain. However, it is possible to transform wounds into scars by cleaning them, applying balm to them and protecting the victim’s body with bandages. Scars are hardly pleasant, but it is possible to live with them. They are reminders of past suffering, but also of the journey to recovery. As a believer hands over his or her suffering to God, he or she opens the door to His restoring presence. God is compassion, truth, justice and love. Moreover, He can act through women and men of good will. Moral and material solidarity, generosity of care, sincerity and transparency, investigation of crimes, impartial justice are building blocks for peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5,9 NIV).

  1. We shall embark on a path of purification of memories.

“Purification of memories” is an expression often employed in the ecumenical movement. Cardinal Pizzaballa quoting “a Lutheran Palestinian friend” comes after centuries of bloody divisions between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox. In the 20th century, a movement of Christians to overcome this history of alienation led to the mutual lifting of anathemas by the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople. In 1995, Pope John Paul II called former enemies “to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today. […] What is needed is a calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things.” How to lift from the hearts of millions of people the suffocating burdens of history? “The truth will set you free” (John 8,32 NIV).

  1. Difficulties of today are linked to wounds of yesterday, which still filter our attitudes and shape our “victim psychology”.

“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” This verse (Deuteronomy 30,15 NIV) quoted by Cardinal Pizzaballa reminds that believers have a freedom of choice. God created women and men free, but this liberty may be used for good or bad decisions. Am I defined by my trauma, my hereditary hostility, the offenses committed against my community or even in the name of my community? Am I a slave to my suffering and misery? Or am I defined by my freedom to choose good, seek justice, help my neighbour and repair damages?

However narrow our margin of decision may be, we always have the fundamental choice between despair and hope. After 27 years of imprisonment and hard labour, another spiritual man and advocate of justice, Nelson Mandela, refused to take revenge on those who had tortured him, exploited and humiliated his people. To overcome the legacy of apartheid, he chose reparation over retaliation; liberty over blind determinism.

  1. All of us are wounded in one way or another. However, wounds can be transfigured to help others and better understand their suffering. We are called to become “wounded healers”.

Suffering can make us insensitive to our neighbours – or, on the contrary, more attentive to their problems. The history of Christianity knows many sinners who became saints and lifted others out of despair (Augustine, Matthew, Paul, etc.). For Martin Luther, the condition of a Christian is fundamentally being a sinner and being forgiven at the same time (simul justus et peccator). Can a wounded patient be a doctor at the same time? What do I do out of my trauma? Does it make me harsh and cynical – or more welcoming and caring?

Believers cannot erase their own trauma, but they can embrace it – and embrace the whole world of suffering, let in enter their hearts and be soothed. “For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love” (prologue of the rule of Saint Benedict).

Indeed, Christians may find in their tradition spiritual resources to face adversity and cataclysms. However, as they watch the “sea of blood and fire”, witnessed by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, examples of saints and Bible quotations may suddenly seem theoretical and dry. This is why the most compelling lesson from Cardinal Pizzaballa’s talk at Natolin may be this brief warning: “Say what you think, but also think what you say.” The bottom line of any action for peace, religiously inspired or not, should be humility, tact, and care for the victims.

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