Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Message, A Martyr and the Media

The following piece was written Angela Ann Zukowski as a reflecyion on the killing of Sr Dorothy Stang in Brazil. In it she raises important questions about the role of the media. Though the piece is directed to a specific group of Catholic educators it may stir reflections and action among a wider group of people.

A Message, A Martyr and the Media


A Moral Imperative: A Martyr and the Media

Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, D.Min.

The evening before the bullets vibrated through her body and crescendos around the world Sr. Dorothy Stang, SND de Namur, 74 years old, spoke enthusiastically and passionately with her brother David concerning her mission the following day. For over 38 years Sr. Stang dedicated her life to the Amazon people located in Anapu, Brazil speaking out for the sustainable development of the region. She understood fully and deeply the pain, oppression, despair, anguish, joy, love and desire for a quality life that daily embraced the Amazon people. Committed to human dignity and the rights of the poor, Stang faced loggers and land speculators in the region over new land-use and ownership regulations that was leaving the indigenous people homeless, destitute and often dead. Daily she embraced the moral imperative of the social gospel.

I was startled by the news: “An American nun and environmental activist was shot to death in the Amazon jungle on Saturday, heightening tensions between land speculators and peasant settlers in the region and bringing a government pledge to crack down on lawlessness.” (NYT 2/14/05). Members of the Stang family have been my friends for over 35 years. The escapades of Sr. Stang frequented our meals and her occasional presence further animated our imaginations about a faith filled, bold and passionate missionary endeavors. Stunned I embraced the news of another woman who was courageous enough to be a prophetic voice among her people not fearing for her own life. For years Sr. Stang had been protesting the logging industries destruction of the rainforest and the negative impact on the environment, agriculture and the lives of the indigenous people. She strove to capture the local, national and international governments and media attention to these issues and concerns.

A month before her death, responding to new government regulations of land use and ownership, loggers blocked highways and rivers, burned buses, threatened to pollute rivers with chemicals and warned that “blood will flow” if the government did not suspend decrees they fond objectionable.

Over ten years ago she became a Brazilian citizen weaving herself in the fabric of her Amazon family. We speak and teach about the importance for an option for the poor, being advocates for the oppressed, putting one’s life on the line and all these Sr. Stang embraced with a conviction that was contagious for all those who met her. She was an animated medium of the Gospel’s moral imperative (message).

She strove to call the attention of the Brazilian, United Nations, US President and government officials and copious other groups to the reality being created by their lack of conscientization in the support of human dignity and ecological issues and concerns. The government’s vision and focus concentrated on the economy and wealth of the few versus the common good of the many never lost its impact on her. What does it take to raise the universal consciousness of the world for an alternative way of thinking, believing and living that benefits all?

Saturday morning dawned and with her cloth bag that contained important papers documenting her consistent advocacy initiatives including the names of persons who disappeared or were killed, as well as names of those who were perpetuators of the violence in the region, she left her village and joined the local farmers to protest again. While the day may have been like any ordinary day in her life – if any day could be considered ordinary in the life of Stang – the car she and farmers were driving was ambushed. The passengers are forced out of the car. As Sr. Stang steps out a witness hears someone shout: “There she is!” We do not have a record of what passed through her mind and heart at that moment. We know she had already been alerted to the reality that she was marked for possible assassination. How does a disciple of Jesus live knowing there is a price on their head because they embrace the moral imperative of the gospel?

In December 2004 she received the “Honorary Citizenship of the State” award for her environmental work from the Brazilian government and appeared on Brazilian television. This event itself may have set in motion the count down of Sr. Stang’s life. The media event that surrounded this award only jettisoned her into a dangerous position. Yet, through the media of the moment her message was released into the fabric of the Brazilian culture throughout the country. The Brazilian Order of Layers, a nationwide lawyers group by now had included Stang on a list of human rights workers who faced possible assassination. Less than two months later she faced her assassins. As in every such past situation, she pulls out of her satchel ‘her weapon’ – the scriptures and proclaims the Good News. A witness reports that these were final words” “This is the Word of the Lord!” In the next instant shots rang out and a martyr was born!

Today we are reminded of so many other documented and undocumented martyrs in our time. You may wonder why I am sharing this story with you in this column? I do not want us to forget what her life meant to the Amazon people, or, the meaning and message of her life for us today. She is a martyr. She has witnessed to us what is the ultimate reality for one who responds to the call of discipleship in the 21st century. How willing are we to accept and embrace this call to discipleship? How do we prepare our students to possibly face the ultimate moral imperative?

< Furthermore, I share this story because it was through the tragic giving of her life that the media finally determined to tell her story – if even slightly colored to protect their interests. In a matter of hours the Internet, newspapers and some television and radio stations began communicating her assassination. Once media personnel began asking the question: “What were the circumstances of this tragic death?” her advocacy efforts burst upon the world. It took her death to capture the imagination of the media and governments around the world. Yet, for how long a time would this imagination be held captive for action and change?

Media has the power to focus our attention and call us to action. It can be sensational for the moment and then as quickly as it appeared fade into the background of history; however, Catholic educators cannot allow this to happen. We need to educate our students to be alert to the realities of contemporary martyrs and ask the question: “What does this mean for being a disciple of Jesus?” Would the slaying of an American Catholic Sister, who devoted her life to human dignity and the rights of the poor, galvanize action and world opinion? What is the role you and I have for incarnating and advancing her message to a new level within the lives of our students? How we can teach our students to use the media to advance the moral imperative of the social gospel?

This is a teachable moment for Catholic educators. We need to embrace, ground and actualize her message in a concrete and practical way in our lives. There is no better time for us to wake up and face the call of the social gospel – the call to discipleship. One immediate way to begin is to engage our students in monitoring the media researching the moral imperative Stang’s life and death represented. Media questions we need consider are: What and where do we discover information that expresses the reality of her commitment? Who communicated the stories? Who avoided he stories? Why? What specific actions have occurred by Brazilian, US or world governments to respond to the tragedy and address the moral issue? What action can we take to challenge the powers that be not to ignore but to advance the causes she gave her life? What steps might we use through our local media to communicate our advocacy research and commitment to work for the oppressed in the world. I don’t think I need to tell our readers how to go about this task. You have the tools and the skills! It is up to us to make a difference to write the next chapter with our own lives.

Sr. Dorothy Stang’s life is not simply a brief shooting star that passed through our lives for a single moment with the bullets of her assassin. Her life can have meaning for so many others if we are willing to utilize the opportunities we have to speak out through all forms of media: letters, storytelling, media classroom or school events, engagement with advocacy groups and raising our own consciousness to a new world order.

I have been amazed at how many and yet how few media accounts or stories have embraced the assassination of Sr. Stang, or, expanded upon the message for which she gave her life. We cannot be silent! We cannot allow the media world to focus on those factors that uphold our ‘so called patriotic values’ at the expense of the Gospel’s moral imperative. I encourage you to explore Amnesty International, Social Justice and other information websites for engaging in proactive advocacy Here are a few to begin with: http://www.greenpeace.org/international_en/news/details, http://www.amazonia.org.br/english/guiadetalhes.cfm, htttp://www.lcwr.org, http://www.sndohio.org/dotstang.htm, or go to Google and type in Dorothy Stang. You are encouraged to take action by contacting the following persons expressing your voice concerning this terrible act of brutality and the issues for which Sr. Stang gave her life:

President George W. Bush

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

Comment line: 202-456-1111

Fax: 202-456-2461

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

President of the Republic of Brazil

Palacio do Planalto, Praca dos 3 Poders

Brasilia – DF – Brasil


Secretary of State Condeleza Rice

U.S.Departmant of State

2201 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20520


Brazil Desk at the US Department of State

US Ambassador to Brazil,

The Honorable John Danilovick

Fax 011-55-61-312-7676


Brazilian Ambassador to the US

The Honorable Roberto Abenur

3006 Massachusetts Avenue

NW Washington, DC 20008-3634

Acting Representative of the US to the United Nations

Ambassador Anne W. Patterson