‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
As you may know from Johnny Cash or Good Friday services in years past, this is a recurring line in an evocative Christian spiritual. And Mother Olga Yaqob, foundress of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, who was born and raised in Iraq, says that, yes, she was there. She explains in a recent book on mercy that she “met Jesus in his Calvary through many works of mercy.”
She writes about “merciful hope” and says that she encountered it while doing works of mercy: giving food to the hungry; visiting the sick; welcoming the stranger. She discovered that these “were not only a service to others but also a much deeper encounter, in which Jesus invited his followers to see him in those whom they served.” She did see God in those who suffered terribly, unjustly, alone. “In the midst of the darkness of violence, hatred, bloodshed, and deaths of both civilians and military personnel, faith in God became my anchor in the face of such a storm.”
Mother Olga would bury unclaimed bloody bodies, carrying them in her arms. “They were very difficult times in my life. I had to take responsibility for bringing their bodies to our convent to wash them according to the custom of the culture in order to prepare them for burial.” For her model, she looked to Mary, “who stood at the foot of the cross when they took down the body of her only Son and laid him in her arms, that precious body, beaten, pierced, and covered with blood.”
One of the most difficult and painful aspects of her Calvary, she explains, “was being at the foot of the cross and witnessing the most critical wounds in the final hours of individuals’ lives, both those who were sentenced to death in underground prisons for political reasons and those who died in the street because they had no one left after the many wars that took the lives of their families and loved ones.”
Terror reigns in that region today, and it has driven so many Christians from their homes. A new report from the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians documents some of what’s going on in the lives of those targeted by ISIS. Among images that jump off of the near 300 pages: A Christian man from Mosul who committed suicide after ISIS fighters “brutally raped his wife and daughter in front of him.” Or the woman who “was victimized so often that she resorted to defecating on herself to make herself less desirable, and had to be trained to use the bathroom again after she escaped.” Or the buying and selling of sex slaves, including children. According to the report, “ISIS is estimated to have taken over 1,500 Yazidi and Christian girls as sex slaves. They are bought and sold on an open slave market, and are often raped in rapid succession by a number of fighters in a single night.” [Their petition to “Stop the Christian Genocide” to the State Department is here.]
And these are just some of the things we know.
The U.S. government faces a decision about whether or not it is going to recognize what is happening in the Middle East as the genocide it is.
Here at home, the U.S. government faces a decision about whether or not it is going to recognize what is happening in the Middle East as the genocide it is, following in the footsteps of the European Parliament, among others. The question is not whether the U.S. will stick its neck out and be a moral leader, but whether it will avoid standing in the way of what would otherwise be something of a global consensus, one that Pope Francis has been begging the world to see for some time now.
Donald Trump’s campaign rallies are characterized by anger and even, in recent days, some violence. He didn’t start the fire, but he sure manages to fan the flames around the rallying cry of making America great again. A basic problem with the show we’re currently watching is that America’s greatness is rooted in something more than ourselves, greater than ourselves. American exceptionalism can be a boast, but it can also be a humble and confident prayer — a prayer that we will continue to give thanks for the freedoms we have and for a virtuous citizenry who look out for neighbors and strangers alike and who contribute to the common good. As I listened to the crowd at a Trump victory party one recent Tuesday, I thought they seemed more spectators at a sporting event than people who were serious about the hard work of restoring virtue — which brings with it the sanity that Trump voters with the best of intentions seek.
In a conversation with his good friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka before becoming pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said, “Participating in political life is a way of honoring democracy.” When we don’t take that as seriously as we ought, democracy ceases to honor us. Some of the radical social experiments codified by the U.S. judiciary in recent decades certainly contributed to the unraveling of what healthy social order there was — including the hopes and expectations we had for ourselves and one another.
I keep hearing how America is a religious nation. If that’s going to continue to mean anything, now is the time for people of faith to humble ourselves, examine our conscience, and see if our civic lives are getting from us the best we can give. And this can start with doing something for someone you don’t have any legal or familial obligation to help. Remembering the forgotten, the lonely. Visiting the sick. Learning from a girl in a war-torn country who is looking for hope and meaning. Remembering who we are, and who we want to be.