Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Mea Culpa

This year, I missed Ash Wednesday. I unconsciously avoided watching television or reading the newspapers. I didn’t call my family or friends. I felt it helped me stay slightly removed from the madness of military victories and resultant casualties or indiscriminate violence and the bitterness it left in its wake.

I was only reminded that the season of Lent had begun when I received an email from a friend on how to make self-denial more meaningful than mere fasts and prayers.

This time of the year usually brings back memories of crowded churches I attended as a child, and the people lining up to kiss the feet of the statue of the crucified Christ.

However, for the last year or so, my memories have been of a service I attended in a church in Colombo. A member of the congregation spoke of Jesus’ long walk to Calvary bearing a 110 pound beam on which he was going to be nailed and left to die. Beaten and tortured, he staggered and fell. Fearing he would not make it to the place where he was to be crucified, the Roman soldiers compelled an unwitting passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who had just come in from the country, to help him.

The speaker explained how crucifixion was the worst form of punishment given to criminals and the shame and humiliation attached to such a fate. It was also believed that anyone who touched the cross would be defiled and could not take part in the Passover.

Imagine what Simon must have felt like when he was asked to share in this fate. To stand next to a man who was already half dead having been taken from trial to trial and beaten and humiliated. To walk with him amid the jeers and taunts. Carrying the sign of shame.

I couldn’t begin to imagine what it must have been like. Then the speaker compared this incident to all the many times we are called upon not only to witness the humiliation of someone else but to share in it. The example he used was his own experience in Jaffna long before the legendary “83 Riots”.

I can still remember him standing up there, telling us of an incident he witnessed while visiting Jaffna in the early ‘80s. He told us he saw a member of the Sri Lankan military reach down from the back of the truck he was travelling in and knock down a cyclist with the butt of his gun as he drove by.

Seeing the military behave like an occupying force in a foreign land, he said he had felt then that we were headed down a very dangerous path. How long could this go on? He said the letters he wrote to the various newspapers never made it past the censor.

Several decades later, as we begin the season of Lent, I am reminded again of this man who dared speak of what many of us choose to ignore. I wasn’t too sure what ethnic group he belonged to. But I was aware that he cared enough to stand up in front of the crowd and talk about something which most of us would consider “controversial”.

Protected by censorship and fed by propaganda, we choose to be happily ignorant of what goes on in the “war-torn areas”. Even when are own streets are torn apart by the war which is no longer confined to these areas, or our neighbours are pulled out of their homes and taken away, we choose to happily sigh and pass on by.

We choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the many who stagger under their crosses of hopelessness, violence, harassment, fear, poverty, starvation, coercion, injury, grief, loss and death.

We choose not to care. We choose to let others do what they do because they have the authority to do so. We choose to ignore the injustice and the wrongs. We choose the crucified plaster statue to the real thing.

We can endure blood as long as it comes out of a tin and doesn’t soil our hands.

And so as yet another brother falls and his mother wails, we must pray Mea Culpa… Mea Culpa… Mea Culpa…