CSC Events

"If you want peace, work for justice": remarks by Fr. Peter Henriot, S.J.

October 5, 2017

Fr. Peter Henriot, S.J. recently spoke during a Peace Meals Lunch Discussion at the center on the subject of Pope Paul VI’s statement “if you want peace, work for justice.” Here are his remarks.

“If you want peace, work for justice!”

Fr. Peter Henriot, S.J.

I appreciate very much the invitation to be here this afternoon, since it brings back many wonderful memories. Almost fifty years ago I went to work at a new organisation called the Center of Concern in Washington, D.C. Founded by the United States Catholic Bishops and the international Jesuit Order, the Center undertook a task of research, education, and advocacy to promote the Church’s social teaching in the political and economic, cultural and religious structures at both national and international levels. It was an exciting time and a challenging task—today I suppose I would call it “awesome” (not a word I’m used to in Africa!). 

Surely one of our many successes at the Center of Concern was an imitation or repetition of sorts begun here on the campus of the University of Notre Dame—this well-developed and rightly recognised Center for Social Concerns. It was a privilege for me over the many years before I moved to Africa to collaborate in a variety of ways with a good friend, the founding director of the center, Fr. Don McNeill, and the vibrant and well-trained staff and students here. As you might imagine, I’m so very sorry to miss being with Don now during my return visit here to Notre Dame.

During my first year in Washington, D.C. at the Center of Concern, Pope Paul VI included in his Message for the Celebration of the Day of Peace (January 1, 1972) a sentence that would become famous in the annals of the church’s social teaching. That sentence captured both political truth and practical urgency—and became a popular saying included in artwork, bumper stickers, and song. “If you want peace, work for justice.”

“If you want peace, work for justice.” As many reflections and speeches have been offered, as many articles and books have been written, and as many programmes and institutions have been established—all stirred by this simple sentence—I don’t believe its full meaning and consequences have been understood, appreciated, or acted upon.     

Peace, we have been told many times, is not simply the absence of war and conflict, but the presence of harmony and fairness. Indeed, the presence of justice. It is not attitudinal as much as it is structural. And so when you here at the Center for Social Concerns have chosen “Living the Challenge of Peace” as your theme this year, you have opened up discussion much wider, much deeper, than might often prevail in a lot of political discussions today.

For my own contribution here on “Living the Challenge of Peace,” let me explore not so much the richness of the Church’s social teaching on this topic (yes, it may still be in too many places, but not here at Notre Dame, “our best kept secret”). Rather, let me speak more experientially about situations I have experienced that cry out for structural responses—for justice, if there is ever to be peace.

I speak from an African experience—surely limited in terms of time, places, involvements. Yes, 28 years in Zambia and Malawi: pastorally as a Jesuit Catholic priest, professionally as a development and political worker, personally as a learner of many new things. But it was enough of an experience, an enlightenment and a conversion, to make me saddened and angry last week to hear the President of my country unashamedly and unapologetically mispronounce the name of an African country and then go on unabashedly and unacceptably to praise his many friends who go to Africa “trying to get rich,” “spending a lot of money.” 

Sadly, the official policy of the Trump administration has been largely to ignore the continent of Africa with its 54 countries and 1.2 billion people, other than to shut out some of those people coming here to the US as immigrants and refugees (surprisingly, including Chad in the announcement at the start of this week), to postpone ambassadorial and State Department appointments to Africa, to propose cuts in successful aid programs such as PEPFAR, to discourage beneficial trade arrangements, and to send troops to Somalia and sell weapons to Nigeria. 

But, in my brief remarks here this afternoon, I don’t intend to probe the Africa policy of the Government in office now in Washington, D.C. I want to turn attention or fine tune our thought about what “living the challenge of peace” means, especially as we take seriously the call: “If you want peace, work for justice!”

In a necessarily brief fashion, I turn my attention now to seven key instances of injustice occurring on the continent of Africa, violations of justice which undermine the possibilities, now and in the future, of peace. Remember, if you want peace, work for justice. I hope that in the discussion to follow my short presentation, you can challenge what I have to say or push my conclusions even further.

What are the challenges to justice on the continent, absences of political, economic, social, and cultural structures that are supportive of human dignity and progress?

Hunger—This is the situation most publicized and most tragic in its human consequences—well known right now in northeastern Nigeria, in Yemen, in South Sudan, in Somalia, in Ethiopia. (Perhaps less well known, but nonetheless a very real situation one year ago in the country I have recently come from, Malawi.) On the continent, an estimated 30 million people currently are experiencing alarming hunger, surviving only on what little they can find to eat. Much of the suffering is war-related or war-provoking; much is compounded by climatic conditions of both drought and flood.

To promote and preserve conditions of peace, the food crisis must be addressed. But is a policy of food aid and agricultural assistance justice-oriented? Yes, I believe it is, but only if it programmatically moves beyond charity to development. (To repeat that well-known phrase, “a hand up, not a hand out!”). That is justice-promoting, and that is peace-encouraging.

Demographic—People are Arica’s richest resource, but population pressures are creating more problems than helping to solve problems. Malawi, for example, is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. The 3% annual growth rate is very high. By 2050, the population is expected to hit 45 million, triple the current population, with a birthrate of five to six children per woman. 

Statistics like this are true in most African countries and this accounts for the findings in a recent United Nations report that by 2050 around 2.2 billion people could be added to the global population total and more than half of that growth will occur in Africa. There can be no peace in Africa if population stability is not worked for. And that requires justice in terms of treatment of women, education of youth, promotion of jobs, etc. And, I don’t hesitate to add, it requires a more honest and relevant pastoral approach to population issues that the Catholic Church currently demonstrates.

Climate Change—Within days of his inauguration, the administration of Donald Trump removed all mention of climate change from the White house website. And in the months since then, legislative and operational efforts to promote environmental protection of major and of minor detail has been systematically removed from U.S. governmental policies. I fear that this will remove environmental concerns from foreign policy concerns, from the concerns of international relations.

And this will have consequences on future peace in Africa. Why? Ecological justice in development terms requires hard policies relating to carbon emission, land and water programs, urbanization plans. Decisions taken today have consequences for tomorrow. No peace in our “common home” to use the simple but meaningful phrase of Pope Francis.

I have seen the consequences of climate change in Malawi in recent years, with the impact of drought mixed with flood, and consequent food shortages. Some of Malawi’s climate change is caused locally by deforestation, but much of it is caused by foreign carbon production. Sadly, one report comments: “It is a bitter irony that the countries that have done the least to cause climate change are going to suffer the most. Countries that have minuscule carbon footprints are going to be the first to suffer the consequences of flooding, drought, and displacement.”  

Refugees—Here with this topic I am tempted to turn upside-down the key phrase of my presentation, that wonderful quote of Pope Paul VI. We should say: “If you want justice, work for peace!” The UN Refugee Agency reports that almost 66 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016—that’s a total bigger than the population of the United Kingdom. Over 12 million Africans are currently counted as internally displaced refugees, moving around in search of safety in their own countries. And more are moving to the Libyan shore and into the Mediterranean in hopes of a European home. (That photo of a small boy washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean shocked so many of us—he was Syrian, but he could easily have been Nigerian or Somalian, or Sudanese).

Over the years, I have worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in UNHCR camps in Zambia and Malawi. And recently I have even met African refugees as I serve as a chaplain in the huge detention center run by ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—in my home town of Tacoma. Refugees flee violence, refugees look for safety—peace and justice are intimately connected.

Trafficking—Closely related to the refugee issue but often with distinct drivers of economic promotion is the humanely degrading problem of trafficking. Young people, mostly women, are hoodwinked into believing a good job opportunity awaits them if they follow the lead, the luring invitation, of people with “connections” who offer education and jobs. Sadly, they become slaves, truly slaves, often hooked into sexual exploitation.

For a thorough discussion of this problem and its effect in Africa, with the justice and peace issues closely revealed, I recommend the powerful article by Ben Traub in the April 13 issue of The New Yorker. A tragic account of a young girl moved from the poverty of Benin City, Nigeria to the Italian prostitution business.

Politics—Is “democracy” an African way? President-for-Life Kamuzu Banda of Malawi believed that a dictator who listened to some opinions could be more democratic than leaders chosen in so-called popular elections. We see these very days in so many places in Africa what a denial of electoral justice means for a destruction of peaceful situations. 

Surely the biggest challenge for this political justice and peace is how to secure democratic elections that can honestly facilitate transitions to new leaders. When President Obama addressed a meeting of the leaders of the African Union two years ago, he mischievously asked why African presidents needed so many terms to achieve their tasks. And Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (now “serving” his country for 37 years, since 1980) criticized Nelson Mandela of South Africa for being a terrible African leader who set the bad example of resigning after serving only one term in office.

Terrorism—The tragic linking of fundamentalist religious thought with politically and economically motivated military groups has brought great disruption and fear in many parts of Africa: Al Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya; Boko Haram in Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon; al Qaeda in Mali. I mention it here for our reflection because such terrorism is an immediate threat to both peace and justice. Many of you may know more than I do about this challenge to justice and peace.

For me, a moment of profound ministry for peace and for justice came last year when Pope Francis visited the war-torn Central African Republic and spent prayerful time in the besieged Muslim mosque in the center of the capital. He exposed himself to both physical risk and political criticism. In the event, he taught a widely watching world that indeed, if you want peace you must work for justice.

Well, there are surely many other items that link peace and justice in Africa today, in our own U.S. and in our wider world. With the seven issues I’ve briefly touched on here, I wanted to give some broader perspective and encourage some deeper thought. Personally, I must admit that I am a bit disappointed, if not ashamed, that I have lifted up primarily negative, problematic issues from the contemporary African scene. Africa is much more than negative issues. The strong energy for better development, the creative cultural dimensions, the positive growth of local church—so much more.  But the seven topics I’ve spoken about may hopefully stimulate some reflection, some commitment toward peace and justice. 

Peace issues surely fill our news and frighten us with irresponsible tweets. Justice issues challenge us to probe the meaning of sitting or kneeling or standing during the singing of our national Anthem.

You, my friends here at this Center for Social Concerns event, are fortunate to have an excellent academic and action center to stimulate wider reflection on the theme “Living the Challenge of Peace.” As you make that reflection, please keep in mind and heart the issues of Africa that may help you see the relevancy of the challenge: “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Thank you!


Peter Henriot, S.J. is a Jesuit educator, speaker and writer on social justice, social teaching of the Church and Africa. He worked in Zambia and Malawi since 1989, serving as director of the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection (JCTR) in Lusaka from 1990 to 2010. JCTR assisted the local church and other groups in matters of political, economic and social justice concerns, through research, education, advocacy and consultation. Its work focused on constitutional reform, good governance, poverty eradication, debt cancellation, education for justice, theological reflection. Since 2011, Henriot has served as Director of Development of Loyola Jesuit Secondary School, Malawi, a co-educational boarding school in a poor rural area.