Last week, I talked about Christianity, politics and what I would like to see happen between the two. Today, Pope Francis has created a challenge to my views both in practicality and for my own personal journey. In this post I would like to truly reflect on what all this means to me and what it might mean practically.
Pope Francis has been vocal about his stance on immigration, especially in the American context. Today he declared that the situation many migrant children find themselves in is a humanitarian emergency. If you’re aware of American news, you’ll know that thousands of undocumented children, many of whom are unaccompanied minors, are waiting on the U.S.-Mexico border for their fates to be decided by the powers that be. Some in the U.S. want them deported back to countries where they will be exploited in horrific ways by unscrupulous adults. It will not be a happy homecoming for them, nor will it be safe. In a message sent to Mexico, the pope spoke out against what he says are “racist and xenophobic attitudes” which are currently endangering these children’s lives as well as others.
Francis has asked for this situation to end in a compassionate manner. It is an example of what he has previously named as a “throwaway culture,” in which migrants and immigrants are somehow deemed inferior and are treated with less than humane care. For the United States in particular, his message has been strong. It has also been reiterated by his bishops in equally forceful terms. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle said,
“The prospect of the United States sending vulnerable children back into the hands of violent criminals in their countries raises troubling questions about our moral character.”
Bishop Elizondo and Pope Francis, I believe, are both right on this issue.
A Personal Challenge?
For me, however, after having talked about how I would like to see the church stay out of the political arena, this news comes as something of a challenge. It seems as though I am being inconsistent with my previous statements if I approve of the pope’s involvement in this area. My immediate reaction is to try and justify the two, to bring the pope’s actions in line with my previously stated beliefs. But for the moment, I want to entertain the idea that I was wrong before. Maybe the church should be directly involved in politics.
Afterall, the pope’s influence on immigration matters could be hugely important to improving the situation. As a native Californian, I have seen firsthand the effects of the immigration debate and none of them are good. Families live in a single dwelling in terribly cramped and unsanitary quarters. Undocumented workers queue at Home Depot looking for work, often being taken advantage of in the process. People crossing signs on southern freeways are constant reminders of the unsafe conditions and the desperation some people are forced to go through in order to have a better life. Attitudes towards undocumented immigrants are overwhelmingly negative. Even good, Christian people like my parents can be heard uttering truly racist epithets at “illegals.” The fact that these are typically directed at people who are perceived as “Mexican” points to the racist nature of these attitudes. Statements like, “They should go back where they came from,” were common dinner-table talk in my home when I was growing up. I cannot speak for how these attitudes affected immigrants themselves, but they did not have a positive effect on me.
Pope Francis could help change this. He is one of the biggest moral authorities in the world. Millions of people listen to him and take his words as infallible and true. If he did not get involved in this matter, then it could continue for much longer. His effect cannot be underestimated at this point. After my previous post on politics, would I prefer he stay out of this matter? No, I would not and that is why I have to reflect seriously on this idea.
My first inclination, of course, was to launch into a justification, but I want to dial that impulse back a bit. In American politics, immigration is a truly political matter. That only represents one side of the issue, though, and it seems to be one best left to politicians. What side is Francis looking at? Well, he said it himself. This is a humanitarian crisis. So does that relieve me of my reflective burden?
Not exactly. Humanitarian crisis and politics overlap in this instance. The two are related and cannot be fully separated. Thus, I am not relieved. But I think it is important to look at Francis’ actions on the matter. He has not lobbied, voted, picketed, or protested in any political way. Instead, he has talked, he has preached, and he has lamented the situation. All he has done is ask for people to change, to examine themselves, and then act accordingly.
I think it is in this respect that I can find the most solace. Francis is speaking about an inherently moral matter, as the quote from Bishop Elizondo shows. Moral matters can sometimes be part of politics, but their morality is the church’s territory. I think a case can be made that Francis has stuck with morality and skirted the edge of politics while not engaging in it directly. Preaching is his job after all.
A Good Example
I think the case can be made pretty easily that Pope Francis’ preaching on immigration has actually exemplified my views. He has not engaged the institution of the church in politics. Instead, he has talked about the moral issues involved in political causes. He has not ordered anyone to do anything as some people do from their pulpits. Instead, he has appealed to the conscience that must be part of our involvement in politics. Any time the church engages in this kind of dialogue, I am for it.
Perhaps the best answer I can come to is held up in a quote I have used before.
“Political discourse is the Las Vegas of Christianity – the environment in which our sin is excused. Hate is winked at, fear is perpetuated and strife is applauded. Go wild, Christ-follower. Your words have no consequences here. Jesus doesn’t live in Vegas.”
For Christians, Christ is always with us. Our actions have moral implications first and political implications second. But often we forget that fact and focus only on the politics. We leave religion at the door of the political realm, but carry our politics with us into the sanctuary. We have it backwards. Francis might be giving us a way to change, not only on the issue of immigration but on our political actions in general. Ultimately, it is not our politics we will be judged on, but our “moral character,” as the good bishop referred to.
For me, this idea is an important refinement to my previous views. There is always room for improvement and Francis has given me that opportunity. I am not sad to say that my beliefs are evolving and I hope they continue to do so. That is the only way I will become the kind of person I want to be.