You never know what you’re going to get during the dinner table family roundup of the day’s events. Our kindergartner recently told us: “The king and queen of England used to be really mean. They made everybody go to one church. They wouldn’t let people go to other churches. It got really crowded in there. People were really smooshed. So people came to America to get out of that one church and to have other churches.” Except for conflating a religious community with a physical building, he concisely described much of the drive for religious freedom at America’s founding.
Our third grader is captivated by all things Native American, particularly our newest saint, Kateri Tekakwitha, patroness of ecology and nature. But she bristles at the injustices St. Kateri suffered, rejected by many of her Native American contemporaries yet also wronged by the Christian colonizers, who eventually took away Algonquin and Mohawk tribal lands.
Our pre-schooler is not interested in either conversation. She is hungry and concerned that we’ve run out of macaroni and cheese. She is drawing out the few remaining bites, putting a tubular noodle around each tine of the fork. “What are you doing?” I ask sharply. She doesn’t like the cold turn the weather has taken and informs me, “I’m giving the fork slippers.”
Our family dinner table is much like the dinner table of our church. Some are concerned with religious freedom. Others are animated by social injustices. Others are hungry and cold and just trying to stretch out the last box of macaroni and cheese. None of them are wrong; all are being honest about their concerns; and all are children of God.
How do we navigate these fault lines, overcome the sharpness and divisions and come together as one family around the table?
Our president talks often of “the difficult, frustrating and necessary work of self-government.” He rightly points out that our government is not some external monster to be slain. Our government is us—each teacher, tax collector and vote counter, all of us neighbors and citizens working together to build a good community.
The same is true of our church. We are more than the priests and bishops sentenced in court rooms because of sexual misconduct and more than the Nuns on a Bus. We are mothers and teachers, nurses and preachers, all working to be signs and wonders, witnesses and practitioners of God’s love on earth.
We know how to bridge the gap of sharp words and frayed bonds. We need to apply the practices of Catholic peacebuilding here at home, practices of reconciliation and participation. Principles and practices of Catholic peacebuilding have been learned at great cost in conflicts around the world, from the Philippines to Colombia. Ideas prominent in Catholic peacebuilding—participation, reconciliation, right relationship and a long-term time horizon—stem from the principle of the sanctity of human life and dignity. To build peace, we have to be able, as John Paul Lederach, a scholar of peacebuildng at the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, notes, “to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies.”
Emmanuel Ntakarutimana, O.P., a Catholic peacebuilder who is the chairman of the Burundi Human Rights Commission, lectured at Catholic University recently and asked why Americans believe peacebuilding applies abroad but not here at home. Peace-building can help bring together a country and church divided. The Catholic moral and religious imagination, our sacraments of Communion and reconciliation, offer many ways to rebuild bonds in divided communities.
We have miles of practical experience in peacebuilding, practiced at every family and holiday dinner we have ever shared. We don’t talk and judge too much. We listen with love. We don’t shout or vilify, look for or savor fault, hoard the goodies or walk away. We speak with kindness and respect, even when we don’t feel like it. We hold each other’s hands and hurts, pray together and always serve the least ones first.
Peace on earth may not descend instantly, but we follow the hymn’s direction and repeat, repeat, repeat. And in this simple breaking of the bread, we are transformed.