The following homily was delivered by Fr. Kevin Crisostomo during the anticipated mass for the Feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz and for Peace and Unity of the High School unit last 22 September 2016.
In the past few days, the Philippines has been making its rounds in world news. This is not because of athletes, awards or feats, but because of the “war on drugs” that the government has waged in the past several months.
According to a TIME Magazine article published in September 5, 2016, more than 2,400 alleged drug users and dealers have been killed in our country since this campaign against illegal drugs started. According to the article, an average of 37 people are killed every day in extrajudicial fashion: no due process on courts, just swift justice. Despite pleas from international leaders and human rights groups, the death toll steadily rises day after day.
We live in a dark, merciless, and violent world. But we need not to look farther to see how dark, merciless, and violent the world has actually become.
The Internet has become a venue of such mercilessness, from trolls to haters to bashers in social media websites. This merciless-ness, if such a word even exists, is expressed in the way we look at and judge people. We live in a world where people look at fellow persons as disposable commodities that can be thrown away when they are no longer useful. The world we live in is full of hate, anguish, and pain.
The world tells us there are two options in the face of violence: either fight or flight.
The Torah, the Jewish written law, tried to regulate fair punishment so that any punishment to be imposed would not exceed the injury inflicted. In Exodus 21:23-25, we can find the Lex Talionis, the oldest recorded law in the world. It states that, “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” This is the first option: to fight violence with violence, to fight fire with fire.
The second option might just be the most convenient of all: take flight, run away, and do nothing. Just let the oppressors oppress, bashers bash, trolls troll, and haters hate. On one’s part, just bear the pain inside, lick one’s wounds, and move on with life. This seems to be what our Gospel reading suggests to us, when Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek, hand over the cloak when someone asks for our tunic, or walk the extra mile.
However, if we study the text closely, Jesus is actually offering us a “third way” in the face of violence: not to fight, not to take flight, but to be free.
Jesus wants us to break the downward cycle of violence neither by retaliating with further violence nor blindly submitting to injustice and abuse. Rather, a follower of Christ must lead the other person to a change of heart: to win that person over to the truth, to stop the violence, and to help that person discover God’s reign of love and peace.
To “turn the other cheek” is not about letting the oppressor hurt us twice. In the Jewish context, one strikes the person with the left back hand to assert one’s superiority over another. By turning the other cheek, the oppressor has no choice but to use the right hand, a symbol of equality. It actually puts the oppressed on equal footing with the oppressor by asserting his dignity, equality, and humanity.
To “hand the cloak to someone who gets your tunic” does not mean permitting oneself to be oppressed all the more. By handing over both tunic and cloak as collateral for a debt, the debtor becomes naked, which violates Jewish law on debts and loans. Thus, the creditor who demands too much learns to respect every person, especially the poor.
To “walk the extra mile” does not mean being helpless in the face of the oppressor. Roman soldiers may force their constituents to carry their packs for them only for one mile. Going beyond a mile is punishable under Roman law. Therefore, doing so awakens the conscience of the person to avoid abusing one’s power.
Not fight. Not flight. But free: to be free from hatred and injustice, to be free to do the right thing, and to be free to love. In fact, the next few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew will reveal one of Jesus’ most controversial yet important teachings: the command to love our enemies.
Going back to the situation presented earlier, we ask ourselves: What made this world such a nasty place? What led us to this very sorry state of affairs of violence and hatred?
Perhaps, it is because we have forgotten the virtue of kindness.
This quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate might have been lost in our consciousness and values system. In the past, kindness is equated to goodness of the heart. Now, kindness has become synonymous with weakness of character. People easily take advantage when someone puts other people’s needs before that of one’s own. Dependability has become an avenue for abuse. Instead of being kind, we have resorted to self-preservation, or worse, violence.
Our Gospel teaches us the “third way”: Free. Free from hate. Free to love. Free to forgive. Free to be merciful and compassionate. To use a term we are very familiar with, to be free means to kill: “kill them with kindness.”
The world can be a nasty place. Yes it is. And the way to restore our faith to humanity is to rise above hate and violence with mercy and kindness.
St. Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint whom we commemorate today in this mass, chose the way of freedom. Some say that he was an “accidental martyr-saint” because he never really intended to end up in Japan and die for the faith. He was actually “taking flight” from a false accusation in Manila and ended up being arrested together with the Dominican missionaries upon arrival in Japan. Here, he could have taken the easy way out by claiming that he was not a real missionary like his companions. He could have fought back in the face of horrendous and inhumane torture. Worse, he could have just submitted to such an intense trial and denounced his faith. But he chose the way of freedom: he chose to do the right thing – to remain faithful to God – even if it meant pain and ultimately, death.
My dear Xaverians, the Gospel challenges all of us to choose the way of freedom:
• to choose to see the goodness in every person,
• to promote peace in our community,
• to work for unity and not for divisive competition,
• to strive to be excellent not only in learning but also to be excellent in giving and forgiving,
• to say “no” to hate and violence especially bullying,
• to be compassionate not only to those we love but also to the unlovable,
• to be extra merciful to those who make our lives comfortable like our parents, our helpers and drivers, our teachers and non-academic staff at school,
• to “turn the other cheek” and correct those who wrong us in a non-violent manner,
• to “hand over our tunic” to those who receive the cold shoulder of hate in the community,
• to “walk the extra mile” with someone who feels lost and distressed,
• to be kind to one another, and to pay forward every act of kindness that we receive everyday.
Let us conclude this reflection with a video that perhaps you have already seen in social media, entitled “Kindness Boomerang.” Indeed, the first step towards peace and unity is kindness. Let us choose the path of freedom, stop the hate, and kill them with kindness.