The powerful words of Pope Francis at the 2016 Consistory ought to give all Americas pause. Coming less than two weeks after the contentious presidential election, the Pope’s homily, based on the reading from St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, offers both a sharp condemnation to the increasing state of polarization in US Politics and the temptation to demonize, scapegoat, marginalize, and attack “the other.”
The pope begins with a reminder of the powerful message of Jesus Christ to love. This is not a love of greeting cards or fairy-tale rainbows; it is a deep and bold commitment to embody the very essence of the God, who is love, and who calls us to mercifully love everyone, including our enemies. As the Pope points out, this is not easy:
“Our first instinctive reaction in such cases is to dismiss, discredit or curse them. Often we try to “demonize” them, so as to have a “sacred” justification for dismissing them. Jesus tells us to do exactly the opposite with our enemies, those who hate us, those who curse us or slander us. We are to love them, to do good to them, to bless them and to pray for them.”
He then continues to draw particular attention to the problem of political, social and economic polarization, which is growing throughout the world, and was particularly evident in the recent US election. What is important, here, is that Francis highlights the link between polarization and the exclusion or demonization of minority groups, particularly refugees migrants and those of other faiths:
“We live at a time in which polarization and exclusion are burgeoning and considered the only way to resolve conflicts. We see, for example, how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant, or a refugee, become a threat, take on the status of an enemy. An enemy because they come from a distant country or have different customs. An enemy because of the colour of their skin, their language or their social class. An enemy because they think differently or even have a different faith.”
It does not take much to see the relevancy of his words for the US political and ecclesial context. Already, Daily Theology’s Meg Stapleton Smith has offered a powerful reflection on this challenge .
For many in the United States, there was a hope that the polarization and scapegoating of the campaign trail would give way to deal making and a more conciliatory and toned down path for the new president-elect. The recent proposed cabinet-level appointees for the new administration, however, reveal a different reality. Many of those positioned to be the most powerful advisors to the next president, have distributing histories of racism and xenophobia and there are few signs that the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric will dissipate.
So what are we to do? What can Christians, who seek to follow the words of Jesus Christ and the Gospel do in such a context. The following are a few tips that might be helpful as we seek to address both the tendencies to polarize and demonize.For Christians, prayer should be seen as something key to each step.
- Feelings matter. Listen to your own feelings, communicate them respectfully, and be open to the feelings and opinions of others. This is a minimum condition of mercy and love. Being attentive to one’s feelings is also closely connected to many Christian spiritual traditions. Prayer can help to discern what our hearts and minds are saying.
- Be careful of truthiness (Stephen Colbert). Just because it feels right does not mean it is true.
- Confront the sins of racism and extremism. While we are called to love our enemy, Christian mercy and love must never be used as a cover to accept, condone or normalize hateful attitudes or actions. In other words, the good of tolerance and inclusivity can never justify the evils xenophobia, racism, and misogyny.
- Search out the facts and truth. Get beyond the social media echo chambers and what Pope Francis described as “soap bubbles” (Pope Francs) – Mercy and reconciliation demands an acknowledgment of truth and a realization that there is more to reality than us and our experience.
- Be attentive to the experiences and needs of those on the margins. This must be a hallmark or lens of any Christian embodiment of love. The preferential option or love for the poor, which is present throughout the teachings of Jesus Christ, demands that all Christians (no matter what status or rank) pay special attention to the experiences of the poor, those who are minorities, refugees, migrants, and anyone who has been excluded for whatever reason. Rather than objects, those on the margins must be welcomed as active subjects and agents in the conversation for the future.
- Organize for social change. Love and mercy are incomplete without action. We must find ways to mobilize and organize to overcome the polarization and exclusion that threaten human dignity and the common good today. It is not enough to just say we love our enemy or love the other; we must witness to that love in our lives. Or in the words of Pope Francis to the 2015 Consistory
“The compassion of Jesus! That com-passion which made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need… Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!…Dear new Cardinals, my brothers, as we look to Jesus and our Mother, I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or say that they are atheists; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized!
Perhaps more than any other social institution, the Roman Catholic Church has the greatest potential to transform the future direction of this nation. Organizing around the sanctuary movement, as
With love and God’s grace, we can witness to mercy and love in our lives, while also organizing ourselves and our communities to overcome the tendencies of polarization and exclusion that threaten the common good today.