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Center for Action and Contemplation

Dom Helder Camara

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Healing Our Violence

Dom Helder Camara
Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist. —Dom Helder Camara

One of my nonviolent heroes, Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999), a truly saintly man, visited the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque just as the U.S. began bombing Iraq in 1991. Avis Crowe, an employee at that time, reflects on our encounter with him:

Dom Helder was described as being heartsick, and in fact had to see a doctor for physical distress resulting from the outbreak of war. The questions and concerns expressed by individuals [present that night] were fairly predictable and seemed to carry a plea for solutions that would alleviate our worry, anger and despair over seemingly insolvable global problems. For each of these, Camara essentially had one response, stated and restated: We need to use the intelligence God has given each of us to see one another as brothers and sisters. We must take the time to understand other people and not let the barriers of race and language prevent us from seeing each other as members of the same family. God embraces all human beings. The heart of faith is the call to love one another. . . .

Toward the end of the evening, the Archbishop said, “If you will live your religion, you will become different.” He gave a gleeful little laugh, as though that idea thoroughly delighted him. He went on to challenge each of us. Remarking that we were on a countdown to the beginning of the third millennium, he suggested we use these next nine years to live as we say we believe, acknowledging God everywhere, living from that place within each of us where God dwells. It was a call to be courageous and faithful. To be who we are meant to be. [1]

Dom Helder Camara was a Brazilian archbishop from 1964-1985. Under his guidance, the Catholic Church in Brazil criticized the country’s military dictatorships and worked for social change. Camara spoke and wrote against using violence to repress rebellions that resulted from injustice and poverty in other countries as well. In 1971, he published Spiral of Violence, which shows how basic structural injustice leads to escalating rebellion, which then leads to new repression. If you don’t nip this spiral in the bud, recognizing violence at its lowest structural level, it is much harder to stop it at the later stages. [2]

As evidence of his commitment to justice and to the poor, near the end of the Second Vatican Council, Camara led a group of forty bishops who celebrated Mass in the Catacombs of Domitilla outside of Rome. (The catacombs are where the early church would meet in secrecy before Christianity became the religion of the Empire under Constantine.) The bishops all signed the Pact of the Catacombs, which challenged their brother bishops to live in humble poverty, to serve the poor, and to be open to all, no matter their beliefs. Camara is the one who suggested bishops stop wearing fancy and expensive rings, and the practice largely changed at that time.

Dom Helder is a saintly example of not wasting time fighting something directly, or you will become just like it. The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Just go ahead and live positively; go to the side and do it differently. Don’t waste time with oppositional energy. In the short run, you will have to hold unresolvable tensions, symbolized by the crossbeams on which Jesus was crucified. In the long run, you will usher in something entirely new and healing. [3] This is “third force” wisdom. Even though Jesus exemplified this third force, his followers have been very slow learners.

Gateway to Silence:
Love your enemies.

[1] Avis Crowe, Radical Grace, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 1991), 6.
[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Spiral of Violence (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2005), CD, MP3 download.
[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Feister, Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety (Franciscan Media: 2001), 15.

Image credit: St. Francis embracing the leper, by Lawrence Zink, reprinted from Francis: The Journey and the Dream, copyright © 1988, Murray Bodo, St. Anthony Messenger Press, p. 13. Used with permission.
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