This morning I saw yet another Facebook meme about Pope Francis. This time Pope Francis is going out in to the streets of Rome dressed as a common priest in black garb to feed the poor and otherwise serve folks in need. In a comment, someone noted the reality that for all his good deeds and all the good things he has said, the new pope has also said the Catholic Church will not be ordaining women nor changing its teaching on homosexuality. Fair enough point. However, and this is an important however, Francis is doing what needs to be done so that eventually (hopefully sooner rather than later) the Catholic Church’ will be less misogynist and homophobic. Pope Francis seems to be doing his authentic best to reinforce for us the idea that being a Christian means doing what Jesus did, not repeatedly saying what Christianity teaches. Pope Francis is showing us that Do so is much more important than Say so.
The pope continues to come back again and again and again to feeding the poor, housing the poor, taking care of those in need, being a healing presence. Even his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel critiques the devastating realities of global capitalism run amok. Continually, the new pope brings into focus the misseo dei, the mission of God – to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the sick, take the side of the oppressed against their oppressors. This is the work Jesus is reported to have done. Jesus fed people, healed people, told people the kingdom of God was for everyone.
I welcome this focus and I am a big fan of Francis. I completely understand his imperfections. He has reiterated he will uphold the ban on women in the priesthood and doesn’t favor changing church teaching about homosexuality. It is true that for all his rhetoric and going out into the streets to feed the hungry and deciding not to live in the papal mansion, he is not ending the Catholic Church’s opposition to GLBT and women’s equality. It is probably fair to say that it would be nice to Do So in the realm of promoting equality. As one friend of mine noted on social media, let’s not forget the pope is still Catholic. True enough, but…
Francis is emphasizing parts of the Catholic tradition (and Christian tradition as a whole) that often neglected – economic oppression is unjust and political oppression is unjust, environmental oppression is unjust. He is bringing into focus the Catholicism of his namesake, Saint Francis, and of Dorothy Day and of Oscar Romero. This is important. More important than might appear on the surface.
Over the last twenty years two movements in Evangelical Christianity have grown and blossomed and continue to have an amazing impact not only on Evanglical Christianity but on all Christianity and in other communities of faith, including Unitarian Unversalism. The two movements are the Emergent Church Movement and the Missional Church movement. The Emergent Church seeks to rise above denominationalism and encourages Christians to draw from spiritual resources across the broad Christian tradition. The Missional Movement urges Christians to focus more on the mission of God (the misseo dei) -feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, kindness to the stranger, ending oppression, caring for the earth – than on arguments about doctrine and dogma. Interestingly the major voices in the missional movement don’t argue for changing Christianity’s creeds. Many proponents speak of what Brian McLaren, an early and still major emergent voice, has termed “a generous orthodoxy.” Yet over the last twenty years some major shifts have occurred. There are now people who consider themselves Evangelical Christians who do not hate gay people, accept women in leadership roles in the church, are environmentally active, and some even claim there’s no such thing as hell.
I think this is the result of focusing on the heart of the Gospel, which is the mission of God – feed the hungry, visit the sick, comfort the hurting, be an ally of the oppressed. You can’t do this work without getting deeply involved and invested in people and their stories. The more human relationships are built, the more difficult it is to see any person or group as less than fully human. The more missional one becomes, the more difficult it is to maintain a theology, a dogma or a doctrine that claims any person or group of people is inferior or somehow outside the realm of the love of God.
Are there still questions to be asked? Certainly. Missional work can easily lead to “doing for” instead of “journeying with” and care needs to be taken to not fall into thinking one knows what is best for other communities and other groups of people. A missional approach invites and encourages dialog and cooperation. Many people with many different theologies engage in the core work of making the world a more just and more compassionate place. When that work is primary, the dialog about what values and beliefs drive us to prioritize that work is more likely to be a dialog that involves real listening and trying to understand others.
When the focus turns to doing as Jesus did instead of what “Christianity teaches” then the practice of doing brings to light where Christian “teaching” and “theology” contradict how Jesus would have one behave in the world. Then the grace happens and the mind and spirit open.
This is my great hope in the phenomenon that is Pope Francis. The pope is doing what the missionalists and emergents did – trying to act as Christ did not as Christianity Teaches. Critics of both the pope and the Catholic Church have pointed out Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II reforms and Pope Paul VI’s attempt at opening up Catholic Teaching on birth control with Humanae Vitae ultimately failed, with many of the Vatican II reforms reined in or reversed through the papacies of John Paul and Benedict. However, neither of those popes had an accompanying theological movement happening over broad swaths of Protestantism at the same time. Perhaps Pope Francis comes along at the right time and his voice will become another one joining the choir calling people to the power of Do So over Say So.
I encourage my fellow liberal religionists to join the chorus. After all, Do So being more important than Say So is the foundation of liberal religion. Let’s not make the error of fundamentalists and legalists who require perfection in agreement of theology and ideology before working together with others who are engaging the difficult, imperfect tasks of bringing about the kingdom of God – what we call the beloved community.