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Bearing Witness to Suffering and Hope

Spotlighting Dr. William O’Neill, SJ 
Recipient of the GTU’s 2014 Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award
By Doug Davidson

from Currents Fall 2014

What does it mean to do theology as a way of bearing witness to the suffering and passion of our world?  This critical question has driven the work of Dr. William O’Neill, SJ, throughout more than a quarter century on the faculty of the GTU and the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. Dr. O’Neill’s dedication to rigorous theological scholarship that is firmly grounded in struggle and hope is a primary reason he was awarded the 2014 Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award at the GTU Commencement in May.

Bill O’Neill is associate professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology (JST) and has taught in the GTU’s doctoral program since he joined the JST faculty in 1988. His coursework and writings focus on issues of human rights, social reconciliation, refugee policy, and restorative justice. O’Neill is also a graduate of the Jesuit School of Theology, having earned his MDiv, STM, and STL degrees at JST in Berkeley, before moving on to Yale University, where he earned his doctorate.  

O’Neill’s scholarship and teaching have been sculpted by experiences around the world. He worked with refugees in Tanzania and Malawi, served with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and taught on several occasions at Hekima College, a Jesuit School in Nairobi, Kenya. In 1995, in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda, he journeyed there at the invitation of a Rwandan colleague. “Traveling throughout the country, and seeing churches there filled with bodies left as a memorial… For me, it was life-changing,” O’Neill recalls. “I began to think of my teaching as a form of bearing witness, as a testimony.” Since that initial trip, O’Neill has returned to Rwanda several times to speak on social reconciliation and genocide.

He also had the privilege of attending some of the hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where he witnessed not only the brutality of apartheid but also the possibilities that can be born from such suffering. “I think of the work of Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, and the remarkable courage and compassion they showed. But it’s not just the wisdom and courage of these great leaders but of the ordinary people. I remember hearing one South African mother confront the murderer of her child and say, ‘I can never forgive you,’ and then hearing another mother say, ‘It is my Christian duty to do so.’ How do we make sense of this? What can we say about the nature and limits of forgiveness?”

O’Neill explores questions like these in his class on The Ethics of Social Reconciliation, where he encourages students not only to master the work of others but to find their own unique voice. “I always ask students, ‘where is your passion?’” he reflects. A few years ago, one student in the class was a young Tutsi from Rwanda, a Jesuit who’d lost most of his family. “I’ll never forget hearing that student speak at the end. He said, ‘We will never have reconciliation in my country until we Tutsi can recognize the suffering of those who have committed the genocide.’ To me that’s extraordinary, and it’s not something I could orchestrate. But I try to create a space where students like that can speak, since I believe this is how the other students learn; these are the stories that they will take back. And so often, after one student says, ‘This is the practice of reconciliation in my country,’ then others will speak up about their own experiences. One of the Malagasy students, or one of the folks working in Peru, will say ‘well, in our culture these are our experiences, and this is what we have sought to accomplish.’ I feel my work is less about imparting information and knowledge than helping make these conversations possible, giving students a space where they hear one another, and find both their personal voices as well as something of a common voice.”

O’Neill believes theological scholarship needs to stay rooted in the struggle and suffering. “For theology to be theology, it must engage the hard realities of our world.” For the past thirteen years, he’s also served as the Catholic chaplain at a federal women’s prison, working mostly with poor migrant women. “Some of these women are there for life, or for fifteen years; their children are taken from them; they have become in many ways what liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls ‘nonpersons,’—those whose lives are considered unimportant failures. Again, I speak about bearing witness, but in many ways it’s the witness of their lives—how, in the midst of so much suffering, they find the courage just to survive and to endure with a measure of dignity.” He sees his work as important primarily as a part of this larger community that includes these women and others like them around the world, a way of testifying to both the struggle and the hope.

O’Neill deeply values the rich conversations that are made possible by the many faith traditions that are part of the Graduate Theological Union. “The interreligious and ecumenical nature of the GTU is so much a part of the fabric of our lives here that we can easily take it for granted,” he says. Over the years he has worked in collaboration with the Center for Jewish Studies, looking at the implications of the holocaust, or Shoah. More recently, he and Munir Jiwa, director of the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies, were both speakers in a forum at the University of California addressing the topic of torture and Abu Ghraib. O’Neill believes that interreligious dialogue “often begins with compassion, in the sense of suffering with those whom history has consigned to the status of victim.” He sees this as the common ground where different traditions can enter into deep dialogue that transcends doctrinal differences: “One of the great hallmarks of the world’s religious traditions is that summons to compassion. What does it mean to have a compassionate heart that becomes our wisdom? I think the GTU is an extraordinary place for this kind of interreligious dialogue.”

O’Neill says he is particularly honored to receive the Sarlo Excellence in Teaching Award because he recognizes the degree to which George Sarlo and his family were “deeply affected by the holocaust,” which has also shaped O’Neill’s own life and scholarly work. He also expresses his thanks to his faculty colleagues at the GTU, as well as to the “ones who make it all possible”—the students with whom he works. “At the end of the day, it’s the students I’ll remember. It’s a privilege to have our lives interwoven, even for a short time. To see students gain the wisdom and courage to speak, that for me is really the great grace of these twenty-five years of teaching.”

 

Doug Davidson is associate director of marketing and communication for the GTU.