I began Lent in ashes and don’t feel I have got away from them yet. The massacre of innocent people in Christchurch was not just horrific, incomprehensible and terribly sad. It was as if it happened next door, as if to my neighbour. And the pain and shock are not going away soon.
What do you say to your neighbour when the person alleged to be responsible for such an act comes from your home? The smell and taste of ash have spread across our two nations.
Jesus, we know, told a memorable story in response to the question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ In it, a man lies injured by the side of the road, ignored by the very people that those listening to the story would have expected to assist him. Instead it is a Samaritan, a foreigner, who generously responds to the man in his need.
In fact, if Jesus was repeating that story today, the Samaritan might well be a Muslim. Often in western society, those who are Muslim have been portrayed as the neighbour we don’t know and can’t trust. Muslims have frequently been stereotyped and ‘othered’ in a way that denies their basic goodness and humanity.
The first Muslims I remember meeting in this country were in Broome, descendants of those who brought camels into Australia many decades ago. I never saw them as anything but kind and friendly neighbours in that rich, multicultural, coastal town.
New Zealanders are our geographical neighbours and there is something special between us — a relationship we acknowledge at Anzac Day. We share a history not only in war but in a culture shaped by English colonialism.
Both societies are multicultural too, contending with the impacts of colonisation upon Indigenous peoples, while also being enriched by the migration of people from many parts of the world. The dead in Christchurch remind us that ‘neighbour’ is a word which we narrowly define at our peril.
It is now more than ten days since the massacre and there has been a great outpouring of emotion there and across the world. These have been days of shock, mourning and anger, yet also of heart-filled warmth, kindness and support.
I am finding this Lenten journey not quite like ones of other years. It is a reminder to allow persons who experience pain and loss to be placed front and centre before me.
If we allow ourselves to be neighbours to those who died in New Zealand, along with their friends and families, then this cannot become a once-only response but one that lingers in our hearts, attitudes and behaviour.
If this is a call to become better neighbours, to New Zealanders and to all Muslims everywhere, it is also a call to allow ourselves to become ‘good Samaritans’ in ways that those listening to Jesus’ story never imagined they would be.
Fr Brian F. McCoy SJ, Provincial
Main image: Locals lay flowers in tribute to those killed and injured in the Christchurch attack. Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images