The international media was recently abuzz with “a feud” between Pope Francis and Donald Trump. Of the media’s making, the attention grabbing headlines made for some entertainment while at the same time shining a spotlight on Christianity and politics in the United States.
Building walls - "this is not the gospel"
On board the papal plane flying home from his trip to Mexico, reporters asked Francis about Trump’s plans to deport illegal immigrants and build a wall along the American-Mexican border. Francis’ reply drew the ire of Trump and his supporters; “A person who thinks only about building walls – wherever they may be – and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.” Francis went onto give Trump the benefit of the doubt.
Trump described himself as a “good Christian”, and called the Pope’s comments “disgraceful.” He carried on, rather like a petulant child threatening retribution after his parents have scolded him. When ISIS attacks the Vatican, the Pope will be sorry, said Trump. Then the Pope will wish he had listened to him and prayed for him to become President.
Trump must have forgotten that the Vatican doesn’t need a saviour; it already has one.
Online comment boards lit up with the usual amount of indignation and ignorance. When the ignorance wasn’t alarming, it was hilarious, such as this comment that compared the theological knowledge of the two men. “The pope didn’t mean to offend. He is just not as eloquent as Trump when discussing religion.”
Unlike in Canada, religion continues to play a significant role in American elections. Trump and other presidential hopefuls are courting the religious vote. To win the Pope’s endorsement would be a coup d’état. Unfortunately for the candidates, Francis has no intention of telling American Catholics how to mark their ballots. However, he has no problem talking about socio-political issues that affect the common good and do harm.
This annoys the Trump camp for which walls are more desirable than bridges. It wants a Christianity that advances protectionism and makes no demands. It is much less keen on a Gospel that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”
Francis is consistent in his messages
While the Pope’s comment about what it means to be a Christian clearly hit a nerve, it was not surprising. Francis has never been easy on Christians, particularly clerics, who pay lip service to the Gospel but fail to walk the talk.
And his comment on building walls instead of bridges is in keeping with his consistent and unequivocal support for migrants and refugees. In 2013, just after his election as pontiff, Francis visited the island of Lampedusa to commemorate the thousands of migrants who died crossing the sea from North Africa to Europe. During his visit to Mexico, he celebrated Mass in the border town of Ciudad Juárez. These symbolic actions underscore his clarion call for compassion for migrants, who are not merely numbers and statistics of a global phenomenon but individuals with names, stories and families. Governments are not to treat migrants as “pawns on the chessboard of humanity.”
Looking out for the underdog is a Biblical imperative
The Pope is not making up stuff about being Christian to irritate the Trump camp. The Christian obligation to support the underdog is a Biblical imperative that goes back to the ancient Israelites, who were to exercise compassion for the widow, the orphan and the alien. It weaves its way into the tradition of “the corporal works of mercy” based on the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned.
Francis is reminding all of us that building walls, “wherever they may be”, reinforces unjust economic and social structures. These things imprison millions of people around the globe. Building bridges, on the other hand, helps individuals live with dignity.
So while some in the Trump camp want the Pope to shut up and butt out, there is an inherently political element to the Gospel. Despite the confident assertion of evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. (a Trump supporter) that “Jesus never intended to give instruction to political leaders on how to run a country”, the Gospel does challenge the attitudes and policies of “good Christian” leaders.
Religion is not a tool for garnering votes to secure personal power or stroke one’s ego. Nor is faith a matter of expediency, but of discipleship. Sometimes, the demands of discipleship are inconvenient and irritating.