By NANCY SCHWERIN
A hundred women and one lone brother came as seekers of justice and peace to a Chapin retreat Feb. 9. At “Women as Peacemakers and Justice Seekers,” sponsored by Women Religious in South Carolina, the truth-speaking Dominican Sister Jamie Phelps, Ph.D., shared insight to living in inner peace and being vessels of peace in the outside world.
The associate professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago began with a history lesson.
In Jesus’ time Jews were oppressed by the Roman Empire, and some saw this oppression as immoral by the laws of God. As divisions formed, zealots turned to violence, others took a stand against the oppression, and others turned away. Jesus belonged to none of these groups. In his divine goodness, he came to teach the truth, to love all and plant the seed of righteousness in all he encountered.
“He was trying to embody the image that no matter your riches or lack of riches, we’re all a child of God,” said Sister Phelps. “As I tell my students, all of us have a trace of the divine DNA.”
Jesus called for people to give up their superiority or inferiority to come to live on equal ground. But the people resisted this radical conversion of heart and mind for which Jesus called. The lowly could not see beyond their peasanthood, and the wealthy resisted because they enjoyed their privileged lifestyle.
“We are all human beings searching for the reign of God. Conversion is difficult because people don’t recognize their sinfulness; they don’t realize their superiority or inferiority,” the sister said.
So the call to conversion caused controversy. People either had to accept Jesus’ challenge or find fault with him. Being that the latter won out, the Lord held fast to the truth until his death on the cross.
If we are to follow the Lord’s path of truth today, Sister Phelps said, “we will be crucified; we will struggle.”
She referred to the Vatican II document “Lumen Gentium,” which says “we are always in need of renewal and purification.”
“So why are we so upset when we are in struggle,” asked the sister.
Accepting the struggle and constantly renewing one’s faith is part of the process to sharing the truth. We are to look for gifts in others and help them see God residing in themselves. Sister Phelps expressed the need to stand by others through their dark times as well as their good times.
We help others by being an example, by befriending God’s children whether man or woman, black or white, rich or poor.
One woman at the event asked Sister Phelps about working with homeless people. To what degree ought relationships be built? The Dominican sister said she didn’t have the answer because there are no set boundaries, but we should be committed to exploring friendships with the poor and homeless, with those with whom we don’t normally associate; we ought to explore “right relationships” based on the way of the Lord, who befriended people from all walks of life.
“We have to make God the center of our lives, if we are to be women as justice seekers and peacemakers,” she said.
In making God the center, we speak the truth compassionately in proclaiming the Word and defending against the unjust.
Sister Phelps said that analyzing, thinking about and coming to understand social justice issues along with deepening your spirituality will help the truth flow more easily.
In South Carolina, she said she is hearing stories of displacement and asked, “Who will become zealots and who will follow the way of Jesus?”
Through prayer and understanding, we will find the persuasive words to reach our brothers and sisters. If the words don’t come, be persistent, stay on course, stay with the truth and push onward.
“In Paul we read our goal is communion with God and others,” said Sister Phelps. “We can’t love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters, and they’re not just biological.”
The Dominican nun used Esther as an example from the Bible of a courageous women standing up for the truth. The king had sent for the most beautiful maiden to be his wife, and his servants returned to him the Jewess Esther. While she kept her faith quiet, she discovered that the king’s advisors had told him that they needed to get rid of the Jews.
Esther was torn; she would surely die if she stood up for her people. She chose to speak the truth and told the king about the plot to destroy the Jews, hoping he would side with her. He did. He also rid the kingdom of the nay-saying advisors who plotted the Jews’ deaths.
This example of Esther is a woman of God, willing to risk death, by courageously and compassionately revealing the truth. While usual daily situations will not come to such an extreme, we will encounter obstinacy and suffering because speaking the truth will cause controversy, but the path of the Lord has been made known.
While sometimes persuasive words will pass our lips and other times not and while we may be courageous sometimes and others fearful, we must continually look to God for strength. We must also reach out to our brothers and sisters for strength, looking toward their gifts and spreading the truth to build the kingdom of God.
“You can’t make people do things,” said the sister. “You can call to mind the consequences of their actions, but they have to open their eyes.
“The kingdom depends on us being faithful to our discipleship.”