SAINT FRANCIS FOR PRESIDENT

The odds for the United States don’t look good right now. Distrust, disdain, and mean spiritedness are the order of the day, regularly displayed and encouraged by the new president. Greed and aggressive corporate irresponsibility rule the incoming Cabinet. The stakes could not be higher.

I can’t imagine how compassion, justice, and rational dialogue will ever make a come-back. And I don’t see how one person can make a mite of difference, no matter how much we rally and write and call and donate. I’m down.

Pondering a Saint

This morning, I made an altar on my dining table in preparation for the upcoming Lenten season.

Lenten altar

Lenten altar

While I created, I got to pondering Saint Francis of Assisi. I guess you could call Francis one of my spiritual mentors. On my altar is a plastic statue of the saint that I bought with my allowance when I was ten, an icon of the Saint Francis Prayer that my brother gave me, a tau cross that Francis used as his seal, and a sweet snail shell that I picked up at the Saint Damiano convent in Assisi where Francis felt his call from God.

I got to wondering what Saint Francis might have to teach us today.

Radically Countercultural

I recently preached a sermon about gentleness and described Saint Francis as the embodiment of gentleness and humility.

He’s also a good illustration of how one person following a simple call can make a difference in the world.

Saint Francis lived 800 ago in Italy. He grew up wealthy and privileged and became a powerful soldier and a knight. But because of some crushing circumstances that led him to Christ, he rejected all that and instead adopted a gentler way of being, a life of absolute poverty, service, and simplicity. This lifestyle was radically countercultural amidst the violence and aggression of medieval times.

Today he’s known as the patron saint of animals and the environment because he saw no dividing line between himself and the natural world. He rejected the prevailing Christian idea that things on earth were bad and ugly, and only “heavenly things up above” were holy.

He showed absolute reverence and gentleness for every creature and even inanimate things because he believed that each contained divine mystery that he couldn’t possibly understand. It was all God’s creation, all good, and all due respect.

Francis was way ahead of his time. Imagine if more people over these 800 years had adopted his gentle and respectful stance towards the earth and its inhabitants instead of giving way to our insatiable appetites. We would not be in the environmental crisis that we’re in, that’s for sure. We wouldn’t have mass extinctions, we wouldn’t be blowing the tops off mountains or spewing toxics and radioactivity into the air and water.

Radical Compassion

Francis spent his life serving people who were oppressed and neglected by society. He tenderly cared for outcast lepers, and he sold all his goods and used the money to buy food for poor people (his father briefly imprisoned him in their basement after he started selling the family’s stuff).

Francis saw no dividing lines; he embraced everyone and saw no one as “the other.” His friends said that he was willing to be martyred for the sake of unity and peace, when he traveled to Egypt during the crusades to try to negotiate a peace with the Muslims. He walked right through the bloody battleground and because of his bold but gentle courage, the Muslim Sultan welcomed him instead of killing him. He was later sent back to Italy under Muslim protective guard.

The humble feet of a servant: Detail of Saint Francis statue in Assisi

The humble feet of a servant: Detail of Saint Francis statue in Assisi

Gentleness as an Act of Resistance

Following in the radical, nonviolent footsteps of Jesus, Francis stood up to the abusive power structures of his time by showing a different path of humility, kindness, and compassion. His Franciscan order thrives to this day, still focused on simplicity and compassionate service.

Such gentleness is a powerful act of resistance these days. It’s subversive in the face of terror and outrage, as was Francis’s vulnerability towards the Muslims and his rejection of the church’s violent crusade. This may be just what America needs to beat the odds and end the cycle of distrust and fear.

Stand up, fight back. But with love.

The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

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