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Notre Dame needs greater activism

Peter Quaranto | Tuesday, September 23, 2003

One week ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu inspired hundreds of people on campus with his message of hope, family and togetherness in a world of division, hate and inequality. People all over campus were moved by this spiritual prophet, but did they really hear what he had to say?

In a daze of wonder and awe, did we truly hear Archbishop Tutu’s message that holds concrete implications for our own lives or did we, as we can so easily do, hear only what we wanted to hear? While I want to be optimistic, I fear the latter prevails.

Archbishop Tutu’s message was essentially the very message that this week’s Institute for Church Life, titled “A Call to Solidarity with Africa,” attempts to engage: the need to create solidarity with one another throughout the world. This is not a soft or easy message; rather, it is a call to social action, rooted in love. It is a call to ask the tough questions about structures, policies and systems in our society and world that create inequality and perpetuate injustice. Social action, thus, is moving beyond the service of treating social problems to asking why those problems exist.

Here at Notre Dame, we are very good at treating and addressing the problems of our world, but we are very limited in engaging in the social action that is so important. More than 80 percent of the student body does service, but a small minority participates in social action. Is this a result of a conformist culture, a product of a politically apathetic student body or just an affirmation of the laziness that exists within all of us? Most likely, a bit of all three.

Why is it that when the Progressive Student Alliance begins a campaign to promote rights for workers on campus who are limited in their right to unionize, most people could not care less? Why is it that when the Peace Coalition organized events on North Quad this Sunday for the United Nations designated International Day of Peace and featured speakers from Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Palestine, not more than 30 people came? These are efforts to begin the sort of social action that Notre Dame desperately needs, but they fall short without our support.

Heeding Archbishop Tutu’s message requires us to do more than write a paper or visit a homeless shelter; it calls us to engage ourselves, one another and our community with the issues that threaten equality, justice and peace in our world. It calls us to actively engage in dialogue and debate when our country is at war. It calls us to act for those whose voices are not heard. It calls us to dream of a better world and act to make that better world a reality.

Essentially, this call is the call of Jesus to all Christians to engage in radical, active love for the “least of my brothers and sisters”. It seems almost ironic that Notre Dame, considered by some to be the Vatican of America, is a home, at times, to complacency, conformity and conservatism. What ever happened to the idea that the Church should be a social force acting in the name of Jesus for a better world of human rights, justice and love?

Henry Fagan, a former worker for the National Institute on Church Life, once wrote, “The Church is called to be a social prophet and catalyst, protesting every injustice, offering reasons to hope and motives to serve. In every culture and political atmosphere, the Christian people, the Church of Christ, ought to be raising questions for public consideration, challenging popular assumptions, offering critiques of commonly accepted ways of acting and giving poor and powerless people reasons for hope.”

Amen, but where is the social prophet here at Notre Dame? Where is the protester or even the critic, giving hope to the poor?

People, such as Archbishop Tutu, are examples of individual people committed to social justice who, through their witness to a greater vision and their faith, are able to transform our world into a better place. Last week, Archbishop Tutu called you and I, just as Jesus did and does everyday, to be such social actors for a better world. Can we respond to that call? Are we up for the challenge of truly building the foundations of solidarity in a world of strife?

Perhaps, the key is not to think in quantitative or even qualitative terms of making a difference. The key is to act. The key is to go into the community, hear the voices of the poor, be moved and then go out to create a better world than our current war-stricken, violent, poverty-ridden, unequal one. Archbishop Tutu ended his speech with an overwhelming message of hope by exclaiming that if peace could come to South Africa, peace could come to anywhere.

Similarly, if activism can come to Notre Dame and Notre Dame students can engage the social issues of our time, it can happen anywhere. Let us be that beacon of light for the rest of the academic world.

Peter Quaranto is a sophomore political science and international peace studies major. He is involved with the Notre Dame Peace Coalition. Contact him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.