Pope Francis is arguably the most compelling leader in the world today. Unless you’re one of those hyperventilating Fox News pundits or a certain American cardinal pining for the good old days of pray-pay-and-obey Catholicism, chances are you stand in awe of how quickly Francis has resuscitated an ancient institution nearly on life support after decades of clergy abuse scandals and the first resignation of a pope in six centuries.
The pope isn’t a traditional politician, but he is a savvy global leader who understands optics and the art of diplomacy. Simply put, this is a man with political and moral capital to burn. His decisive role in helping President Barack Obama strike a historic rapprochement with Cuba was the latest signal that the Vatican is back as a formidable geopolitical player. The Catholic church, of course, began navigating political currents, both secular and ecclesiastical, centuries before our American republic was a glimmer in the eye of Thomas Jefferson and Co. In traditional Catholic teaching, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops explains. Or, as Pope Francis phrased it a bit more colorfully in one morning homily: “A good Catholic meddles in politics.”
As Obama prepares to give his State of the Union address tonight, I can’t help wondering what Pope Francis would say to Congress and the American people if handed the microphone. The idea is not as crazy as it might sound. House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, both Catholics, invited the pope to address a joint session of Congress during his visit to the United States in September. If Francis accepts the offer, which news reports this week suggest he will, it would be a first for a pope. Aware of the obvious chutzpah needed to try and channel this enigmatic and eloquent pope, here’s my take on what Francis might say to a polarized Congress and a nation in desperate need of moral vision.
I ask that you forgive my English. I know some of you speak Spanish, so if I have trouble, perhaps I even mix up my fútbol with your football, I will revert to my mother tongue, no? I am filled with joy to be in this beautiful country, a nation born of hope and ideals. All men are created equal! Through the fire of a civil war, your country held to that promise first given in faith by God and shed blood to overcome the sin of slavery. I think of the hands worn down by chains that built this magnificent Capitol building. Could those slaves have imagined someone with their skin color as president? The American story is about striving and struggle, of being lost and then finding a way through darkness. This is our human story. We are all on a journey. God gives us a destination and affirms our sacred dignity — even when we doubt it.
My brothers and sisters, our world is broken. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to listen knows this. We sometimes prefer to be blind and deaf to this reality. So many people discarded, thrown away into vast oceans of indifference. We no longer weep! On my drive here tonight, I saw men and women — also children — bundled in the cold. The sidewalk is their bed. The same is true in Rome. In Buenos Aires. In Bombay. A homeless woman dies in the gutter. Do we stop? The stock market moves an inch, and that is front-page news. These upside-down priorities tell us our culture is sick. How do we heal the wounds of loneliness, alienation and injustice? All of us in this chamber tonight are privileged. Let us use whatever power we have not to glorify ourselves or weave cocoons of comfort around our lives, but risk going out to the margins, to the peripheries where there is pain, anger, disillusion. It is good to be made uncomfortable.
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,” the prophet reminds us. Please do not forget the migrant who crosses the desert. She has a family and holds tight to dreams. Do not abandon the unborn in the womb. Justice and human rights are not served by defacing the image of God. Do not discard the elderly or think the dying are served by the false mercy of euthanasia. I beg you to use the great influence and wealth found in this mighty nation to serve the common good. Say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. Building a culture of life is impossible if workers can’t earn a living wage, pregnant women are denied the support they need, and families lack good health care. Some expect that wealth in the hands of the few will trickle down. This is a fantasy. The poor are still waiting! The market must serve human beings, not the other way around. The moral measure of your nation, any nation, is not judged by the stock value of corporations or the billions spent on weapons of war. Wealth is a gift, and that can be a good, but not when profit is made a god.
I ask you with special urgency: Do all that you can to protect the gift of creation! Human beings are destroying our environment. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2010 World Day of Peace message, said: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers …” The growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees,” he said, must awaken our conscience and lead us to take action. We often speak today of rights. What about our responsibilities to each other? So many worship at the altar of individualism that we forget that human beings only flourish in community. Solidarity is a good word to remember. Listen again to one of your American prophets, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
As I leave you, I give my sincere appreciation for your commitment to public service. This is a true vocation. I pray that you will live up to its noble calling.
This essay originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter on Jan. 20, 2015
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“Scripture tells us, we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”
For years, faith leaders across the country have invoked words such as these in the effort to reform our broken immigration system. Last night, President Obama spoke them in the East Wing of the White House as he announced his executive action plan that will provide as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants with relief from the threat of deportation.
Our movement is succeeding. While comprehensive, common-sense federal legislation is still needed, this is a moment to rejoice. The yoke of constant fear has been lifted from millions of families, workers and students.
Church World Service, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, PICO National Network, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Bend the Arc, key evangelical clergy and many other faith leaders who have led the fight for immigration reform commended President Obama’s action and renewed the call for Congress to pass bipartisan reform.
That will be difficult. This morning, Speaker Boehner (who has personally blocked the bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill for a year and a half) condemned the president’s move in the strongest terms, and in recent days conservatives have called for responses ranging from a government shutdown to impeachment.
Absent from their political rhetoric is acknowledgement of the dignity of immigrants who are trapped in the shadows and the sanctity of immigrant families. We must remind anti-immigrant leaders of the human impact of this debate.
If your congregation is helping mixed-status families find out if they qualify for the new protections and safely navigate the application process, please check out iAmerica.org — a streamlined online resource sponsored by FPL, allied faith groups, labor leaders and immigrant-rights organizations.
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The election results are in, and underlying the tales of victory and defeat is a darker story about the mood of our nation. Many Americans feel neither political party speaks to their increasing struggle to make ends meet.
The exit polls paint a bleak picture. Almost half of voters reported that they expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse. This pessimistic view is at the highest point since pollsters began asking this question in 1996. And 63% said our economic system favors of the wealthy. More than 70% fear a major terrorist attack.
While voters might have little faith in their elected leaders’ ability to improve our nation’s future, I wouldn’t interpret their disaffection as indifference toward the common good. Voters approved numerous ballot measures on Tuesday that will immediately help struggling workers and families –minimum wage increases in four states and two major cities, as well as four paid sick leave ballot initiatives.
The faith community is uniquely positioned to connect with people’s positive values and shape a new moral vision for our economy and politics. I saw many examples with my own eyes during this election cycle and heard inspiring stories from FPL staff working in numerous states.
In Georgia, which was saturated with negative ads, FPL lifted the civil discourse by enabling politically, religiously and racially diverse religious leaders to challenge the gubernatorial candidates to implement a common good agenda — and broadcast that vision statewide. In a state marred by a massive voter suppression effort, our organizers mounted a “Faithful Voter” mobilization program that equipped 150 clergy in African-American communities with best practices to encourage their church members to vote. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 30% of Georgia voters on Tuesday were African-American.
FPL’s communications team spent much of the campaign season on the road providing strategic media support for the Nuns on the Bus tour. Over their journey across dozens of communities in 11 states, thousands of Americans — clergy, lay leaders and concerned citizens — came out to hear the Sisters’ message about the importance and power of voting in an era when megadonors seek to buy elections. I was especially proud to see Sr. Simone Campbell and fellow Sisters delivering this call on local television, newspaper and radio in city after city. Even jaded reporters were moved by Nuns on the Bus’s hopeful message.
There’s no denying that fear and anger are coursing through the American electorate right now, but it’s not the whole story. Addressing this problem will take time, effort, resources and organizing. But faith leaders are already taking steps in the right direction, and it gives me hope.
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When it comes to political campaigns, what voters need and what they’re given are often very different things. The constant stream of negative ads, dishonesty on the campaign trail, and the outsized influence of big money drown out substantive discussion of the issues that affect us all.
However, faith leaders have a unique ability to offer a positive alternative and a better values debate that emphasizes justice, compassion and the common good. I saw it firsthand last week in Atlanta, Georgia, where clergy from across the state held the Georgia Faith Forum with Governor Nathan Deal (R) and his Democratic challenger, State Senator Jason Carter. Organized by Faith in Public Life and held in the beautiful sanctuary of Trinity Presbyterian Church and produced for broadcast by Atlanta’s WSB-TV, the forum featured 14 diverse faith leaders asking the candidates in-depth questions on issues ranging from healthcare to immigration policy to gun violence to criminal justice reform. These are issues that faith leaders are uniting to address — a values agenda for a new era in faith and politics.
But the first question asked of each candidate delved deeper: “You and your opponent both share the same faith, but you hold very different policy positions; how does your faith, as opposed to your political ideology, shape your views?” From then on, both candidates wove together their values and their policy positions in a way that voters don’t often hear.
I spoke with many clergy members of the Georgia Faith Forum board after the event, and while none agreed with every last thing they heard from the candidates, they remarked at how illuminating and unique the discussion was.
You can watch the Forum in its entirety here, or a brief overview of what it was all about here.
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“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
The tear gas has cleared from the streets of Ferguson, the National Guard has withdrawn, and Michael Brown has been laid to rest. But building true peace will take a long time.
Faith leaders began this process during the protests. Members of Clergy United, a 200-person St. Louis-area interfaith coalition, helped keep demonstrations nonviolent, counseled many outraged young residents, and provided a channel of communication between law enforcement and protesters.
Leaders from the PICO National Network, the Christian Community Development Association, Sojourners and numerous other groups went to Ferguson and helped the community channel heartbreak into constructive action. FPL organized an open letter from more than 300 faith leaders to the town’s police, mayor and citizens. The National African-American Clergy Network coalition released a powerful statement and set up a fund for Brown’s family.
It will take sustained effort and substantive change to achieve true peace. Independent, transparent investigations of both Brown’s killing and Ferguson law enforcement practices are necessary. Residents must become politically empowered to ensure real reform. Congregations must continue to organize disenfranchised residents and heal the wounds of racism. All of that will take a lot of work, but the leadership the faith community has already shown gives me hope.
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