Archbishop John Baptist Odama: Healing the Human Family

Maria Kesic, Guest Columnist

st starting to afflict the student body, but Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Uganda, who visited John Carroll on Sept. 10, argues that we have all been sick for much longer than just flu season. 

Our illness? A lack of communion.

The symptoms? Dehumanization, exploitation and self-hatred that we inflict upon others on the interpersonal level and amongst groups.

In his talk, the archbishop explored the bonds we all share as brothers and sisters of the human family, the illness that our family is suffering and how we can restore our health and human dignity. 

Odama was appointed by Pope John Paul II in 1999, and has since served his community as chairman of the interfaith organization Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative from 2002 to 2010. ARLPI led peacebuilding efforts in Northern Uganda, mediating between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government of Uganda. He has also helped found the Sacred Heart of Gulu, a university rooted in community development that attempts to fight social problems born from the trauma of conflict, which Odama calls a “hospital for humanity.” He has also aided in peace negotiations in South Sudan.

Odama began his talk by speaking of a revelation he had one day, deep in prayer while looking down at his clasped hands. He explained that our different fingers represent the different continents from which we all come from, connected on a single hand; much like there are continents acting as moving parts connected in one world. We have two hands, like male and female, that come together in prayer. He holds up his hands, first, palms out, then he gently turns them to the other side to show us the different shades of his skin that still belong to the same body, the same humanity. 

This extended metaphor illustrates the idea that we are all members of the same human family, belonging equally to the same world. However, we do not always appreciate and act on this reality. 

Instead of coming home to tell our loved ones, “Honey, I’m home,” we often go to words of dismissal and rejection. We tell our brothers to go back to where they came from and our sisters that they are not welcome. When we try to create a hegemony in our spaces of existence, we deny the Truth that the world belongs to every human being. 

Why can’t we extend the unconditional love in our nuclear family to our wider human family? The archbishop believes that if we treated every member of our worldly family by the same Western norms that we treat our biological brothers and sisters, we would be more forgiving, more ready to reconcile and emphasize working together through love. 

While the concept of a human family sounds exclusive to the Christian thought that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, it is also a secular statement referring to the inalienable personhood and dignity of every human on Earth. In expanding the ethnocentric lens that dictates how we think about morality, ethics and values, it is easier to look at how the United States has — and continues to  — perpetuate the illness of the human family. 

The persistent othering of immigrants and those who hold hyphenated identities has contributed to a sense that we are irreconcilably different. In reality, we are more alike than different: we all value love, peace and forgiveness.

But how do we mobilize our common humanity and deactivate our more divisive identities? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. 

Perhaps, by acting as mediators to conflict, we can become a bridge for groups who believe they stand oceans apart from “the other.” During the civil war in Uganda, Odama relayed messages and mediated negotiations between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government in an attempt to end the violence. While most of us are not qualified to become international mediators for groups violating human rights, we can, in the archbishop’s own words, “do something.”

Odama recalled one morning, several years into the conflict, when he received a very early visit from an official of the Ugandan government who asked him if he had plans to meet with the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the bush. Rooted in his belief that the government should create a space for its citizens to thrive in peace and that “war is nonsense,” he answered the official saying, “For the sake of peace, I will go.”  

For the sickness being passed around our human family, I would like to prescribe a dose of empathy. Helping John Carroll students to feel like they belong should be a priority. While we herald the Jesuit acceptance around campus, we also must address the needs of the disabled, LGBTQIA+ community in addition to cultural, racial and ethnic minorities. The rest of the John Carroll community must act on behalf of their family. Take a risk. Look at the faces of your neighbors and see their humanity. Look at your brothers and sisters and acknowledge their belonging to one of the fingers on your hand.