A dear monk friend of mine from the Midwest, once told me the defining characteristic of Christians in the heartland. “Be nice to others,” he said, “and they will be nice to you.” If that’s all there is to being a Christian, talk about “salt losing its saltiness!”
This week belongs to Pope Francis. More than any predecessor, you simply never know what’s going to come out of his mouth. And you never know what kind of t-shirt he’ll be wearing when he says it – a “Stop Global Warning,” or a “I’m one of the 99%.” Here are a few of his gems:
- It’s not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. Traditional religion is outdated – you CAN be spiritual and not religious.
- I believe in God, not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God.
- All religions are true. Proselytism is solemn nonsense.
- The internet is truly a… gift from God.
- One day we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is for all creatures.
- Evolution and big bang theory are right – God’s not a magician with a magic wand.
Since his election, Francis has an opinion on everything, and they’re mostly surprises. We each have our favorites. Personally I’d like a few more related to women, and to human sexuality, but no one can deny he’s been a breath of fresh air.
Francis’ words today are as radical as Jesus’ were in his time, a time when life was all about sect and tribe, who you belonged to. So when his disciples say someone’s healing in Jesus’ name, but is “not one of us,” they expect Jesus to retaliate and condemn these amateurs. But Jesus understands the complexity of faith AND the political realities of his day. “Don’t stop him,” Jesus says. The world desperately needs good works; don’t stop him.
But Jesus goes on, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.” This practical politician, knows how divided the world will soon become over his mission. He wants to gather as much company around his beloved friends as he can.
Within all the hoopla, somehow I find Pope Francis’ words on economics and politics most courageous. To those who say priests shouldn’t meddle in politics, Francis responds:
Politics is an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the common good… a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” He sees politics as sacred, in that they are the major vehicle for promoting God’s dream of shalom in this weary and troubled world. “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person,” he concludes, “it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and to finance.” Cleverly, rather than condemn both politics and economics, he says a new politics is responsible for building a new economic order.
This was a bad week for those who believe in the impenetrable firewall between religion and politics. One prominent journalist quipped, “I guess that means that if he could vote, Pope Francis would choose Bernie Sanders.”
What struck me most about Francis’ words was the rare combination of faith, political and economic sophistication, the same that we heard in Jesus’ words today. Listen:
- “We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise, in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”
- “While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies of the absolute autonomy of markets and of financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to states which are themselves charged with the providing for the common good. Such an economy kills… our souls and lays waste to the lives of the poor… This inequality is the source of most violence in the world today.”
- “Some people continue to defend trickle down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting. We can no longer trust in these unseen forces and in the invisible hand of the market. We must attack the structural biases of inequality in society.”
The Pope’s words grate against the conventional wisdom about what is possible, against the paralysis and polarization that has become our national political scene, and they are easy to dismiss as unrealistic, unattainable, too contrary to our own varieties of self – interest.
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus suggests in his hyperbole about cutting off our hands and feet, and plucking out our eyes – that we need to cast away those parts of ourselves that separate us from God and from our neighbors.
Which is why I am so deeply grateful that we have ECY. As the letter of James suggests, we cannot do any part of this business of following Jesus, of being disciples, in the absence of a community like ECY, where we create a safe space – without shame or blame – to grapple with the meaning of the gospel and how to live it out in each of our very different lives. “I need a community,” Pope Francis says. And so do we.
By daring to embrace a community which cares about our faith – as diverse as it is; which cares about our world’s problems, though we have a hundred different perspectives on what ought to be done about them; which cares about all of God’s beloved children, even when we often feel clueless about how to help them. It is in community, that we fulfill Jesus’ essential mandatum – to learn how to love. First to love ourselves, in spite of everything we may have been told to the contrary, then slowly but surely to dare to love others, so that our hearts, nourished by the most extraordinary gift God has to offer, begins to overflow so abundantly that we can’t help but share that love with the rest of the world.
“Go,” says Pope Francis, “Go forth and love.”