Sunday, January 18, 2015

Our image of God influences our actions

The pen is mightier than the sword
Last week in Paris the sword was temporarily mightier than the pen when militant Islamists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people.  This was not the first time that radical Muslims targeted the publication; in 2011, its offices were fire bombed in retaliation for printing irreverent depictions of the prophet Mohammed.

The cold-blooded murder at Charlie Hebdo ignited the determined support of Parisians for the ideals of democracy. Even the deaths of three more people at a hostage taking at a kosher grocery store a few days later could not deter the French from gathering en masse.

“Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) quickly became the rallying cry, and lights projected onto the Arc de Triomphe proclaimed “Paris est Charlie.” Across France, an estimated 3.6 million people gathered to honor the victims and to show their commitment to freedom of expression and the ideals of democracy. Forty world leaders attended the rally in Paris, linking arms in a show of unity and friendship.

In a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the slain cartoonists, many stood in silent witness holding pens and pencils aloft. It was a living cartoon conveying the message, “The pen is mightier than the sword”.  And, as if to drive this message home, a political cartoonist for the Huffington Post drew a cartoon featuring a masked gunman standing in a pool of blood. The gunman is looking up at the end of a pencil as it erases the muzzle of his automatic weapon. The caption reads, “Ideas are bulletproof”.

Ideals of democracy promote the flourishing of human society
While it is relatively easy to kill individuals for expressing their views, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo tragically illustrates, it is much more difficult to kill the ideals that promote the flourishing of human society.

Following the atrocities of the Second World War, the international community agreed upon the principles that are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates these principles that arise from the inherent dignity and the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”  Freedom of speech and belief are specifically mentioned in the preamble to the Declaration.

Religious extremism gives religion a bad name
There have always been, and there will always be, individuals and groups who are intolerant of differences and who want to silence freedoms.  While Muslim extremists are not the only people guilty of intolerance, the post 9-11 world has become all to familiar with terrorist style attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. 

Religious extremists of any stripe give religion a bad name and their actions sometimes fuel anti-religious sentiment, which in itself is a form of intolerance. An intolerant view of religion, and particularly of Islam post 9-11, needs to be balanced with the acknowledgement that the majority of people of faith do no harm to others; on the contrary, many of those people are actively doing good for others.  The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights find a natural home in them because those principles accord with their view of God and of God’s desire for peace among people.

The way a person views God will determine how he acts. An individual who believes in a compassionate, merciful God of love will respond to life in a different way than someone who sees God as a harsh task master requiring strict obedience and exacting punishment for infractions.  An individual’s understanding of the character of God impacts his understanding of the sacred texts and traditions of his religion, and this influences his level of tolerance for others and their views.

Contrasting views of Islam
Last week in Paris, one of the gunmen was heard to shout “Allahu Akbar”  (“God is greater”) and “The prophet is avenged”.   He had a particular view of the character of God and the dictates of Islam. That view stands in stark contrast to this one, expressed in a January 9, 2015 letter published on the website of the Montreal Gazette.  Shafik Bhalloo wrote, “My Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and forgiveness. My Islam teaches love, concord, sympathy and tenderness to one’s fellow men – not killing people for practicing their freedom of expression or speech.”

The actions of radical Muslims who feel it necessary to battle the west, wipe out Jews, Christians or other Muslim groups perpetrate crimes against the dignity of their religion, and against the compassionate God (however one names it) who wills the well-being of all people, including irreverent cartoonists.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Pope Francis calls the Curia to a conversion of heart and mind

"...the significance of his comments should not be restricted to criticism of the Curia or to a commentary on the politics of the Vatican. The Pope’s message has implications for human conduct everywhere."

It wasn't a "have yourself a merry little Christmas" greeting
The Christmas greeting that Pope Francis delivered to members of the Roman Curia was anything but “have your self a merry little Christmas.”  Described in the press as a “blistering attack”, a “public rebuke”, and a “scathing critique” of the Curia, Francis called his brother bishops to account for fifteen “curial diseases”. 

While the Curia was the target audience for the pontiff’s address, the rest of us might think twice before we applaud this public dressing down of the “princes of the church” and shake our fingers at them; the Pope’s message is applicable to all.  

Francis catalogues fifteen "curial diseases"
Using the image of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, Francis warned that the Curia, like any body, is exposed to diseases. “A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body,” the pontiff said in describing “the disease of thinking we are immortal, immune or downright indispensable”. This was the first in the pontiff’s list of “the more common diseases” that affect the life of the Curia, which, he said is constantly called to “improve and grow in communion, holiness and wisdom”. 

Francis named another fourteen sinful attitudes and behaviors. Other “curial diseases” include “the Martha complex of excessive busyness”, “mental and spiritual petrification”, “excessive planning and functionalism”,  “poor coordination”, “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, “rivalry and vainglory”, “existential schizophrenia”, “gossiping, grumbling and back-biting”, “idolizing superiors”, “indifference to others”, “a funereal face”, “hoarding”, “closed circles” and  “worldly profit (and) forms of self-exhibition”. 

While the pontiff’s frank and unflattering appraisal of the state of the Curia will not  endear him to his detractors, Francis remains committed to reforming the culture of the Vatican. He has been leading by example, chipping away at clericalism, with its culture of superiority and privilege. With his catalogue of “curial diseases”, Francis continues to challenge the members of the Curia to reform their hearts and minds, saying that his reflections were to be “for all of us a help and a stimulus to a true examination of conscience” in preparation for the holy feast of the nativity.

While many see this as an attack that will draw the battle lines between the Pope and his opponents, it is also an invitation to conversion coming from a man who takes the need for his own conversion seriously, and who despite the title of “his holiness” refers to himself as “chief of sinners”. Francis is not asking any more of these cardinals than he asks of himself.  Individually and as a body, these men are to be exemplary servant-leaders.

After addressing the Curia, Francis met with the employees of the Vatican and their families. He is, incidentally, the first pope to do so. In his remarks to them, he referred to his speech to the Curia; he encouraged them to use it as a starting point for their own examination of conscience in preparation for Christmas and the New Year.

An invitation to reform our hearts and minds
In my view, through the public nature of these two events held on the same day, Francis invites all of us to reflect upon his comments in light of our own lives, our communities of worship, and our places of work. While the Curia was the primary audience for the Pope’s rather unusual Christmas greeting, the significance of his comments should not be restricted to criticism of the Curia or to a commentary on the politics of the Vatican. The Pope’s message has implications for human conduct everywhere.

The “curial diseases” that Francis describes are linked to self-absorption and to a preoccupation with advancing one’s self in the eyes of the world, frequently at the expense of others. They are linked to a false sense of autonomy, to forgetting that we live, move and have our being in the context of our relationships with others and with God. None of us are immune to these diseases. I know that I recognized myself in some of them.

With a New Year upon us, we might think about the ways these “curial diseases” find a home in us, and formulate our New Year’s resolutions accordingly. We may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable and exposed along with the members of the Roman Curia.

Link to the full text of Francis's speech