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Brother John of Taize

One More Missed Opportunity?

Over two years ago, a few days after the tragedy of September 11th, I was asked to say some words in the Church of Reconciliation in Taizé to the thousands of young adults from throughout the world who were spending a week there for a time of prayer and sharing with others. This is what came to my mind:

This week the population of our planet has lived through some days of great gravity, and as always in such cases, whether in personal or collective life, there is a before and an after.

It is undoubtedly too early to grasp the true significance of what has happened, but believers, for their part, are called to try and interpret events in the light of the Word of God and the life of Christ.

The first thing of which our faith assures us is that God neither causes nor wishes suffering and death, but is rather on the side of the victims of the tragedy and those who try to assist them.

At the same time, every event of this order in our lives is a call to what the New Testament refers to as a metanoia, a call to change our outlook to welcome the God who is knocking at our door by means of what occurs. What metanoia can we discern in this week’s tragedy?

We can realize that an evil act inevitably gives rise to more evil, as a kind of reaction, unless there is a spiritual attentiveness and an explicit effort to break the cycle of hatred and violence. People of faith draw this attention and this effort from their relationship with God, in prayer. Prayer helps us to distinguish between the thirst for justice and the desire for revenge, following the steps of Christ who, "when he was threatened, did not threaten in return" (1 Peter 2,23).

But the most striking thing these days is the worldwide solidarity we have experienced, made possible in part by new forms of technology. It is as if the entire planet was vibrating in unison while living the very same events. Here in Taizé we received a great many messages of solidarity from all over, from Mexico to Cameroon, from Finland to Romania.

So many people felt—and still feel—the need to make a concrete gesture to express their closeness and their conviction that violence will not have the last word. In very many places in the United States and elsewhere, Christians from different denominations joined Jews and Muslims in a prayer for peace.

Is all this not a foreshadowing of the new world we long for, where the only barrier that remains is the one in the human heart, when people refuse to welcome others as their brothers or sisters?

Can we say that these days we have received a call to live more explicitly than ever before this universal solidarity, beginning in the local situation in which each of us lives, drawing from prayer the energies to be women and men of reconciliation and peace?

Alone, none of us can do much, but in fact we are not alone. These days we have sensed that more than ever before.

Seen from the vantage point of the present, my words sound far too optimistic. For a few days, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, it indeed seemed plausible that enlightened leadership would use what had happened to nudge us farther down the road towards mutual understanding, to invest in a world where violence no longer ruled, by making use of the energies of solidarity that were released in the aftermath of the tragedy. Should I have realized that, instead, the forces of division would quickly gain the upper hand, and that togetherness would be subverted by an "us-versus-them" mentality that conceivably acted as a cover for partisan interests? True strength and unity flows from confidence and mutual trust; fear inevitably isolates and paralyzes, even if it is accompanied by a surface show of bravado. The world in 2004 is certainly a more fearful and divided place than it was before September 11th, 2001, and all of us are the worse for it.

Looking back, one has the impression of an enormous wasted opportunity for which we may pay the price for years to come. And yet, regret is one of the least fruitful of emotions. The road to wisdom consists rather in learning from our mistakes so that the next time the circle comes round we are ready to respond. This may well be a time for living the values we believe in—solidarity, compassion, openness, hospitality—beginning in the simplest events of our daily lives, trusting that, in the final analysis, the future is not prepared by the "movers and shakers" who occupy the foreground of our TV screens, but rather by the hidden multitudes who work humbly and tirelessly for what they believe in.

The Christian Bible ends with a tale of two cities: Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Unlike their counterparts in the Hebrew Scriptures, these are not geographical locations separated by physical space. Like it or not, we are all residents of Babylon. But at the heart of Sin City there are many whose true home is God’s City. Our task then is to live as citizens of that other city, even if that means being mocked as idealists, rejected as troublemakers, or persecuted as disturbers of the peace. For despite appearances, we trust that Babylon’s victories are short-lived, that what will in fact prevail is that other "well-founded city, designed and built by God" (Hebrews 10:11). Short-term prospects may indeed seem dim, but that is not a call to lose heart. A missed opportunity can act as a stimulus to search more deeply, to grow in realism without losing ideals, and so to be ready when another historical moment arises that calls for a creative and life-giving response.

Brother John of Taizé is a member of the Taize Community in the small village of Taizé in the Burgundy region of France. Founded by Brother Roger as a "parable of community" in the darkest days of the world wars of the last century, today the Taizé Community is made up of over a hundred brothers, Catholics and from various Protestant backgrounds, coming from more than twenty-five nations. By its very existence, the community is thus a concrete sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and separated peoples. The brothers live by their own work. They do not accept gifts or donations for themselves, not even their own personal inheritances, which are given by the community to the poor. You may visit the Taizé Community’s web site at (Ed.)

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