Sewers and Sanctity
Christ comes to the persecuted and to the free
A saint is someone who lets the light shine in — the light of Christ, Lumen Christi. And the light can become a blaze. The joyous Easter Exsultet announces, “This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.”
For now, of course, contradictions abound and the devil, like a roaring lion, seeks whom he might devour. Consider, if you will, a single study in contradiction.
In Pakistan Christians are often victims of both caste discrimination and their minority status. There is a job, though, that is wide open to them: “sewer sweeping.” Recently the Pakistani military placed ads for sweepers, specifying that only Christians should apply.
The job title, though, is a euphemism. Workers rely on their hands more than brooms. A New York Times story (May 5, page A15) reports that in Karachi the sweepers maintain the sewers “using their bare hands to unclog crumbling drainpipes” and do so in a city whose 20 million people produce 1,750 liters of waste daily. Protective equipment is rare, and the job often proves lethal.
Still, the light shines in, even despite the pandemic. In Karachi, a group of priests visit Christian neighborhoods. They bring the Blessed Sacrament with them to bless the people. Agenzia Fides quotes one priest: “Four priests of the parish decided to go to the areas of our Christian community to distribute Holy Communion. Taking the necessary precautions, we visited people door to door to distribute the Eucharist: it was a powerful sign of God who comes to visit his people…Following the rules and social distancing we would like to distribute Holy Communion once a month to our parishioners.”
What are we to make of such a contradiction? Of a light that pierces darkness?
Some reflections are deeply sobering, and two of them take the form of further contradictions. Here is the first: Muslims in the West know persecution, and they rightly protest it. We need only check statistics on hate crimes. But the persecution of Christians in Muslim Pakistan is of another order altogether. Nowhere in the West are Muslims relegated to sewer sweeping. Nowhere are Muslims subject to the anti-blasphemy laws that put Christians in Pakistan at risk. (Recall the only recently settled case of Asia Bibi).
Authentic Christian-Muslim dialogue dare not ignore this contradiction. To be sure, dialogue is better than diatribe. But dialogue demands truth-telling or else it becomes little more than the exchange of empty words.
Now for the second contradiction: Pakistan’s politics are notoriously volatile. Still, Pakistan seems, for the most part, far away. It does not seem to be an “existential” threat. From time to time we even forget that Pakistan is a nuclear power. But when we do remember, we are at least momentarily aghast.
Yet should not we be even more aghast that we are the first among nuclear powers? We have enough nuclear bombs to destroy both West and East many times over. We can hardly forget this fact, but we strenuously ignore it. In terms of mainstream public debate, our nuclear arsenal remains an afterthought. (So, too, is the deliberate post-Roe destruction of over 60 million preborn babies.)
Nonetheless, there is a third and saving reflection. In both Pakistan and the United States, and everywhere, Christ is risen and comes among us. Truth is stronger than falsehood, and life is stronger than death. Easter shows us this. And on Pentecost this is what the Spirit proclaims, with tongues of fire from which we light the candles that can pierce any darkness.
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