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Building Bridges, not Walls, for the Future

As most readers of the Forum know, the Third International Conference of Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC) took place in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina from July 26-29, 2018. I was elated that about 500 Moral Theologians from across the globe would convene there together to pray, to reflect, to present papers, to examine ethical topics, and to interrogate overall the conference title “A Critical Time for Bridge-Building: Catholic Theological Ethics Today.”  I am grateful for the honor of presenting my thoughts on North American initiatives of networking for social impact at the conference’s sixth international plenary panel, here my reflections emerge and capture the symbolic and timely theme of ‘Bridge-Building.’

Given the perpetual international news cycles that report an exponential increase in the numbers of border walls or fences that are constructed or have been constructed over the years, these structures have numerous implications among which are those that willfully divide and ignore conditions adversely affecting the human family, including environmental degradation. Whereas the erection of border walls and barbed-wire fences are purported to be a way in which governments prevent security threats, they remind many of us instead of the refusal of government officials to help and to support immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who struggle for safe spaces and places to live and work and play. These officials champion the vitriolic language of inhospitality that “you are not welcome here,” of rejection of the seemingly other, of hegemonic and destructive acts against poor, vulnerable, and marginalized people, of the disposability and lack of reverence and respect for human life. For example, as a USA citizen, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I am mindful of the horrendous and pathetic situation at the US/Mexican border, where this vitriol plays out daily: refugees and immigrants are accused of breaking the law and are taken into custody while fleeing from threats to their lives. As news outlets report, thousands of children at the border were separated from their parents/guardians and many, even among those seeking asylum, have been convicted and deported to their countries of origin –some with, others without their children. Children have been misplaced or lost, while others have suffered injury and/or died in US Custody. Although a physical barrier might not have kept immigrants and refugees from crossing the US/Mexican border, federal and local courts imply a wall of separation between those who are citizens of the United States and those who are not in place of bridges that could accommodate encounter.

Thus, rather than focus on divisive structures intended to separate the human family and/or to provoke chaos and confusion, I want to raise the ‘Bridge-Building’ at the CTEWC Conference in Sarajevo that both facilitated and demonstrated the personal and scholarly connections between us. Moral theologians from vastly diverse backgrounds of geographic, language, ethnic, racial, class, gender and employment overcame what could have divided us ideologically or otherwise to accommodate and engage difference.

With a specific focus in mind about ‘Bridge-Building,’ those gathered were well-aware that an urgent need persists for a more robust global ethics that speaks to the urgency of social justice and social transformation. Such an ethics can emerge with concerted collaborative efforts among us that engage social justice in innovative ways through networks of and for change amidst the moans, groans, and cries of the earth and all its peoples.

The 2018 CTEWC conference planners were deliberate and intentional in focusing on the Southern Hemisphere, giving priority to moral theologians from Africa, Central and South America, and Asia as registered participants and paper presenters. With this priority and cognizant of the fact that North American and Western European voices often dominate theological academies and conferences, the conference offered an example of ‘Bridge-Building’ between scholars from the Global South and their neighbors in North America and Europe.

Another creative way of ‘Bridge-Building’ was modeled with showcasing the voices and research interests of new and junior scholars from the Global South, as many both attended their first CTEWC meeting and some had their first-time opportunity to deliver papers at an international conference.

Another opportunity of ‘Bridge-Building’ involved the intentional informal/conversational engagement between scholars during the poster presentation sessions. Dedicated time for those sessions allowed all conference attendees to participate. There senior and junior scholars had opportunities to convey their scholarly interests, research perspectives, results, and insights to interested interlocutors, who posed questions, offered commentaries, and engaged in healthy debates.

As with the conference overall, an agenda of developing interest in global collaborations among those present was key. Clearly, the notion of ‘Bridge-Building’ and the examples I shared do not happen by chance. As most things are, Bridge-Building, too, is a really slow and arduous process that will take more than my life time to come to fruition. In both the Church and society, we have spent an exponentially longer amount of time—centuries—constructing walls to separate and divide us on an enormous host of ideas and thoughts, behaviors and acts, than time we have spent or deliberately engaged global processes of ‘Bridge-Building.’ But, what better way to engage this process than at an international ethics conference engaging a theme with implications for the future? A four day gathering in Sarajevo brought 500 Moral Theologians together to grapple with Bridge-Building: “to appreciate the challenge of pluralism; to dialogue from and beyond local culture; and to interconnect within a world church not dominated solely by a nort