Suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost miraculously, the values of simplicity, humility, welcome, and the priority of the poor have burst on to the international stage. A new pope named Francis is reminding us that love is also a verb — choosing the name Francis because of his commitment to the poor, to peace, and creation in sharp contrast to the values of Washington, D.C.
Last week the House of Representatives voted to cut food stamps. The previous week marked the 5th anniversary of the financial collapse, and showed more American inequality than before the recession. And now we face a threatened shutdown of the government unless the health care promised to tens of millions of uninsured people is repealed.
Pondering all that, I saw the interview with Pope Francis in America magazine and his profile in the new issue of Sojourners. And from every direction, things that the new pope was saying were breaking through the political news cycle. Even my students at Georgetown were telling me that their young friends, Christians or not, were putting Francis quotes up on their Facebook pages.
I read this in the Jesuit journal’s interview:
“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind……In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy.”
Don’t act like “bureaucrats or government officials.” The roles of the church and clergy are certainly different, but Francis has tweeted (that’s right, tweeted) about how a society or country should be judged by all of us: “The measure of the greatness of a society is found in the way it treats those most in need, those who have nothing apart from their poverty.” That’s also what the biblical prophets said and held political leaders accountable to. In another tweet, Francis said: “God will judge us upon how we have treated the most needy.”
Is there a word that more needs to be heard in Washington today than that one? I couldn’t think of any.
The indifference of last week’s House vote to cutting food stamps is still weighing on me. Who is winning and who is losing in politics is the never-changing focus of the media here — but not who is struggling and suffering. Then I heard Francis going deeper to what is behind our indifference.
"The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”
What the news is and isn’t in Washington, DC., is also at the heart of the problem. Francis says to our media pundits: "Today, and it breaks my heart to say it, finding a homeless person who has died of cold, is not news. Today, the news is scandals, that is news, but the many children who don't have food - that's not news. This is grave. We can't rest easy while things are this way."
The story that should have been big news was the 5th anniversary of the financial meltdown. I was reading the statistics of whose incomes have grown and whose have not. Since the recession ended, the top 1 percent has captured about 95 percent of income gains. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans saw their income increase by 31.4 percent from 2009-2012. By contrast, the bottom 99 percent saw their income increase by just 0.4 percent. Behind the statistics, there are always faces — faces that the decision makers in Washington almost never see. The four biggest financial institutions in the country are now 30 percent bigger than they were in 2008 — the same banks that helped to cause the financial meltdown that led to the Great Recession.
Where are the moral voices against this, I lamented. Then I read, in the National Catholic Reporter, the pope saying:
“While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules.”
And to the banks, said Pope Francis, “Money has to serve, not rule!”
Big corporations are flush with cash, but are not providing jobs or jobs with a living family income. The pope says, “Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!"
The economic numbers on Wall Street continue to rise, while they continue to stagnate on Main Street, and the poverty rate climbs to the highest in 50 years. What should we say? What should the church say? Pope Francis answered, “If investments in banks fall, it is a tragedy and people say 'what are we going to do?' but if people die of hunger, have nothing to eat or suffer from poor health, that's nothing. This is our crisis today. A Church that is poor and for the poor has to fight this mentality.”
This week we look at a looming government shutdown, and watch a demagogue from Texas talk all night long about himself. Who will talk about what political leaders ought to be?
How do our politicians learn what their public service role ought to look like? They could listen to Francis: “…. every man, every woman who has to take up the service of government, must ask themselves two questions: ‘Do I love my people in order to serve them better? Am I humble and do I listen to everybody, to diverse opinions in order to choose the best path.’ If you don’t ask those questions, your governance will not be good. The man of woman who governs — who loves his people is a humble man or woman."
Wow. Those words should bring Washington to a quiet standstill. Let’s call a retreat for our members of Congress and Senators just to give them some time to read these words of Pope Francis and have some quiet time to think about them.
Better yet, Pope Francis, could you please come to Washington, D.C.? We really need you here.
You can send Pope Francis a thank you note for his recent statements about protecting the poor and vulnerable by clicking here.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.