This seems like a throwaway, but so much of recent history has revolved around the need for Christians to recognize how our faith interacts with the real world–what does it mean to live Christian faith in a world where misinformation is so rampant? Where social media rules, and encourages us to be our worst selves? What does it mean to live the Gospel when we face problems of lack of respect for human dignity–from abortion through inequality of education and opportunity leading to poverty, homelessness? How does the Gospel call interact with questions of tax code and societal responsibility? With policies around immigration and race?
It’s easy to get complacent about one’s faith if that faith is totally disconnected from the real world–or if one issue overshadows all others. But Romero, in the part that lives in those ellipses, says when the Gospel is taken out of the context of the real world, it ceases to become the word of God at all.
These are the questions I wrestle–knowing always that when I get self-righteous, I’m part of the same problem.
It was a glorious and humbling moment this summer when I first encountered “Lift Every Heart And Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem. Glorious, because as a pastoral musician, it moved me for its universality and the challenge contained within. Humbling, because how did I make it to the age of forty-six as a pastoral musician and never hear it?
So I want to share this video today in honor of today’s commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a very simple version and they give you the background of the hymn before they sing it. I’ll paste the text below.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing, ‘Til earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the list’ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, ‘Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.
As I continue praying “Advent With Oscar Romero,” I find that so much of what he says resonates. In recent months, I’ve encountered a perspective that baffles me–one that argues we shouldn’t work for justice in the here and now, because the only thing that matters is Heaven. St. Oscar Romero’s words speak to this beautifully. He says, “In preaching the gospel I do not speak about a non-incarnated gospel, but one that is incarnated and that enlightens the realities of our time.”
And then, farther down, he summarizes the “virtues that the Word of God highlights: first, poverty and hunger for God; second, vigilance and faith; third, Christian presence and action in the world.”
What I read in this is a reminder that God came among us in bodily form for a reason–to demonstrate that what happens in the physical world matters to God. (Poverty, racism, injustices of all kinds.) And therefore, it should matter to us, too.
Returning to Fratelli Tutti today. This comes from a section subtitled “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders,” calls out conflicts around immigration as a violation of Christian brotherhood. “They,” in this case, refers to migrants.
This quote struck me with particular force because it encapsulates what I’ve been struggling with in arguments over race and immigration. In the abstract, we all agree that racism is bad and immigrants have human dignity, but whenever discussions of particulars arise, an almighty outcry rises in protest, saying such and such a thing is not racist, that of course they have human dignity BUT (fill in the blank). Here, Pope Francis calls that out.
One thing I found particularly interesting: the assertion that communities whose people flee are losing “their most vigorous and enterprising elements” (#38). I’d never thought about that. His point is that in addition to the right to immigrate, there’s also the right to be able to stay where you are. People flee when that right is violated. So in addition to justice for immigrants seeking new homes, responsibility also rests on those who create the dire situations that force people to flee.
As tempting as it is to read this section in light of U.S. immigration battles, we have to remember we aren’t the only ones dealing with conflicts over migration. #40 actually names Europe as particularly at risk of prioritizing its own citizens so high, it sets aside the rights of migrants.
This section ends with a heartfelt acknowledgment of the fears that cause people’s reaction to immigration, and begs us to face those fears and move beyond them, because they cause us to act in ways that are “intolerant, closed and perhaps even–without realizing it–racist.” The closing statement is just beautiful: “Fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other.”
This week, a group one of my kids is involved in pretty much gave up on pandemic-mitigating strategies. Because now the weather is cold and it’s, y’know, hard, because you can’t be outside anymore.
And for this reason, we’re going to have to say no to at least one major event this child really wanted to attend.
I had a conversation with the leadership, asking if the group would consider voluntarily taking on masking. I explained the medical history that makes our caution necessary: a child with naturally floppy airways who nearly died of RSV as a newborn, had open heart surgery at 7 months, and was intubated again at age 2 for pneumonia.
I got about the response I expected. The burden is on us to just abstain.
I expected it, but it made me angry. In fact, my reaction bordered on rage.
I totally get being tired of COVID limits. Me too, people. Me too. But masking is such a small sacrifice to make for the good of others. We want America to be a Christian nation, but when the rubber meets the road, what does that mean?
Well, Jesus was clear that the most vulnerable among us are supposed to be our priority.
To say, “Hey, if you think you’re at risk, just stay home” places the entire burden on those who already bear the heaviest burden–and to those who love them. (Like my kid.) It forces them into isolation that erodes their mental health, all so the strongest people don’t have to be bothered with small sacrifices like wearing a mask that would reduce spread and make the world safer for more vulnerable people.
Where is Jesus in that world view?
But what was most significant last night was what I learned from that hard spark of outrage: helpless, choking, impotent rage. I felt powerless against an inexorable machine that was perpetrating an injustice that stands in direct opposition to Christian values–but which the perpetrators do not recognize as such.
And for the first time, I really “got”—even if only the barest, palest shade of an echo–what it must feel like to be a person of color in the United States.
I understood why the Black community is angry. I understood at some speck of a level what it might feel like from the inside of a system that thinks itself righteous while imposing unjust burdens on entire communities. And which, when challenged, blames the victims.
The offense against me (really, my child) is ludicrously small. It barely registers on the scale. But it really clarified for me how a lifetime of micro-aggressions would cause exactly the kinds of reactions we’ve seen across the country this year in response to police violence against unarmed black men. I can’t even imagine living every day with the kind of righteous anger I was feeling last night. Let alone multiplying it exponentially.
I can’t walk a mile in the shoes of a person of color, but last night, for the first time, I felt like I kind of understood.
This entire document is full of parental tough love!
I think we would all agree with the sentiments. The question is how we put them into practice. That’s where division lies. But to me, this document is a reminder that problems that affect us all–at a society level (whether that’s local, national, or global) can’t be left to individuals. We have to act as a society.
The problem with being the center of world culture is that we tend to be really myopic–so focused on ourselves, we tune out the rest of the world. Every time I’m out and about at 2p.m., I butt up against this reality in myself. While I really enjoy listening to NPR news programs, to dig deeper into big questions, it’s excruciating to listen to the BBC News Hour. Unless, of course, they’re talking about the USA.
Three quarters of what is talked about on that program is talking about situations that are so off my radar, I can’t summon any desire to pay attention.
This is what comes to mind while reading today’s section of Fratelli Tutti (#22-28). Pope Francis points out in reality, all human rights are NOT given equal time. Some of us live in opulence and others’ rights are totally discarded. We pay lip service to women having equal dignity to men, but reality paints a different picture. Human trafficking, organ harvesting, etc. further illustrate the divide.
Where he really hits his stride, though, is in #25, where he skewers the habit of defending or dismissing assaults on human dignity, “depending on how convenient it proves.”
This feels very, very familiar. The difference in how we perceive the dignity of the unborn versus that of the refugee fleeing Central America (with or without going through “proper channels”) springs instantly to mind. If it doesn’t cost ME anything, of course I’m going to uphold human dignity. But if it has the potential, however remote, to inconvenience ME, well, then I can find all kinds of reasons why it’s not my problem, it’s theirs.
Next, he points out the tendency to build walls, both figurative and literal, separating humanity into “us” and “them.” It’s so beautiful, it’s nearly poetry. Just go read #27. And he rounds out this section by pointing out that the disenfranchisement caused by these sinful behaviors is precisely what leads to “mafias,” which I would suggest is a blanket term that includes terrorism.
So many Christian teachings have an incredibly practical element. Yes, we should treat each other as “brothers” (in the non-gender-specific meaning of the word) just because that’s God’s will. But the reality is that the failure to follow that teaching has all kinds of real-world ripple effects.
The way those ripple effects bang into each other and intensify is what made me start Intentional Catholic in the first place. Because I think an awful lot of us spend our lives totally unaware of them. That certainly was true of me until the arrival of my daughter set me on a small boat in the middle of all those ripples, and I had no choice but to recognize them because of the bumpiness of the ride.
Until then, I had compartmentalized life, thinking, “Sure, THESE issues are connected to my faith, but all THESE have nothing to do with it.” I was totally wrong. All issues are connected to faith.
So there’s an election next week. Let’s talk politics? (Yippee!)
Because I feel pretty certain that the timing of the release of the encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” was not accidental. Pope Francis released it right before the US elections for a reason.
Over the course of my life, papal documents have generally been pointed at someone else. At least, that’s how it felt. Like America was the good guy–not that we were perfect, but generally we were on the right side of the Gospel–and all those other countries were the ones getting their body parts handed to them by popes.
Fratelli Tutti doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it feels the opposite.
#15 begins a section subtitled “lacking a plan for everyone,” and ouch! does it ever capture modern American life. He calls out politics that make use of hyperbole, extremism and polarization. He talks about strategies of ridicule, suspicion and criticism. About political life being focused on marketing techniques rather than long-term efforts to better the plight of humanity. I mean, that’s a mirror for all of us, whatever our political persuasion, if I ever saw one!
In #18-21 he returns to a familiar topic of the “throwaway culture,” naming the unborn and elderly, and expanding the circle to recognize that wastefulness (like food waste) is also a symptom of the throwaway culture, one that harms the most vulnerable. Discarding people also comes in forms like corporate cost-cutting and racism, and even the declining birth rate.
This is the part where I pivot from “Here’s what the pope says” to “here’s my reflection on it.”
This list of modern problems echoes the questions that preoccupy me, the ones I gnaw over, day in and day out. Trying to understand how good people can fail to recognize bad things, and end up embracing them instead. The frustration that people will always point these kinds of examens at others, refusing to examine our own consciences for times when we, too, participate in or enable evil.
This concept of universal brotherhood is the central problem of our time. Well. Of all human history, but it seems particularly apt in this day and age.
We deal with problems in our families in a far different way than we do in matters of policy. In a family, we have our own concerns, but we also recognize the rights and needs of others, and we know we must look for solutions that serve everyone’s interest.
If we truly regarded everyone in America as members of our family, how would that change the way we look for national solutions? I think we’d have to move beyond “how does this affect ME and MY rights” and add, “How can I balance my needs against the valid needs ofthis other person with a conflicting interest?”
We need both right and left in order to keep us in balance. What we don’t need is the villifying, the mocking, the “contrast ads” and editorials and memes whose “truths” are stretched so far, they’re actually falsehoods. We wouldn’t treat our families this way. How can we, as Christians, think it’s justified in politics?
This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”
I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!
My husband and I watched the movie “Harriet” this week, and–aside from the mind-blowing music, instrumental and vocal–what struck me most was how convinced the whites of slave times were that there was “nothing to see here, move on.” I find the same attitude in a lot of talk going on around me these days, and as I wrestle with whether the arguments about violence versus peace, the way white Christians seem to be seeking excuses to disregard the movement, I wonder how history–and more importantly, God–will judge us. Are any of the things being said against BLM valid, in the long run? Or are they just excuses?
I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of Shannon Evans. As a faithful Catholic inthe broadest sense of the word and the adoptive mother of a Black child, she has a lot to say to us about race. Here’s the screen shot I grabbed last night off Instagram. Click it and it will go to her column.