For the Christian attuned to Christ’s passion for the poor and struggling, the leadership direction of President Donald Trump has been deeply disturbing. Where God calls the faithful to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17), and Jesus taught us to treat all races and cultures as “neighbors” (Luke 10:25-37), the current administration doubles down on the oppressed and seeks to evict our non-white neighbors. As Jim Wallis has said, we find ourselves in an era when what is at risk is our "national soul."
The most depressing aspect of where our president's leadership is that much of the American church is marching in lock-step behind him. Not only was Trump elected because of the support of white Christian evangelicals, but many of these evangelicals continue to support his dangerous, racist, and oppressive policies. The result is that we are presented with nothing less than a crisis in both the church and our country.
History tells us that the bigger the crisis, the more inspired the leaders God sends us.
At the low point of Israel’s history, their enslavement in Egypt, God sent Moses to set his people free. When Herod was oppressing his own people, and the people of Israel despaired under the heel of Rome, God sent his Son to deliver them. Similarly, over 800 years ago, when the church had descended perhaps to its lowest ebb, God sent St. Frances of Assisi and told him to “repair my church.” The fourth crusade was initiated by Pope Innocent III, and the church supported war rather than peace. Rather than supporting the poor, the church sided with the wealthy. The purchasing of forgiveness by indulgences eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. Even positions of spiritual authority in the church were bought and sold. In the church, as well as in the world, money was power. So in many respects, the church of the 13th Century and the American Christian Evangelical Church of today are twins across time — supporting war-like leaders, favoring the rich over the poor, and more concerned with defending doctrine than loving people.
Into this 13th Century world, God sent St. Francis of Assisi. At first he was part of the elite — the son of a wealthy merchant and the biggest “party-boy” in Assisi. But then, through a series of divine interventions, God called him to repair God’s church. Francis did so not by self-righteous rhetoric, but by setting an example. He renounced wealth and took on the garb of the poor. He preached repentance, not through somber-faced asceticism, but through a joyful divorce from the power of wealth. He taught people about the joy of life apart from material possession. He taught them about treasuring the natural world and humanity’s relationship to all of life. And people listened. They rallied to him all across Italy. His popularity made him a saint just two years after his death.
One day after celebrating the Feast of St. Fransis of Assisi, we are reminded that we need to hear the call Francis heard to repair Christ’s church. God has blessed the world today with some great leaders. Pope Francis has shown he truly understands the legacy of his namesake. He has chosen a simpler, less ostentatious lifestyle than previous popes, and he has spoken out strongly for the poor and for peace. He is pointing the church, Catholic and non-Catholic, in the right direction. But he can’t do it on his own. St. Francis didn’t. There were strong leaders in this era as well as their devoted followers. That’s what we need now. Reforming the American church of today will take people who are willing to speak up for justice, both human and environmental. It will take people who will value a loving, dynamic fellowship over a stifled, silent one, afraid to “make waves”. It will take people ready to joyously and lovingly embody the values of Christ, as did Francis of Assisi.
If the American church is to be what Christ calls us to be, then, we need to hear the call St. Francis heard, and we need to respond to it now.