Francis’s personal conduct has reframed the church’s resistance to secular Western pluralism. Under Benedict, this clash was a “culture war” over sexuality and exclusive claims to truth, and an ugly contradiction between public moralizing and private protection of sexual predators. In Francis’s care, the narrative of the church has become the story of a persistent Christian community of dissent: one led by a man who tries to abide by Jesus’s commands in his own life and one that challenges income inequality on the same grounds it challenges abortion and gay marriage (all of these, Francis says, reflect “moral relativism” and the “throwaway culture” of modern capitalism).
Culture war, the right’s favorite form of engagement, is not pastoral. It does not meet people where they are, but demands they change first in order to be part of God’s work in the world. Culture war demands the world get right with God, and then tries to bend the world to its will. Because only then will God pay any positive attention to the world.
That is not how it works. God calls and gathers people first. And then they are changed. Jesus didn’t tell the fishermen to get right with him and then follow. He called them to follow, and in following, Peter, James, and Andrew (and all the rest) were changed and formed, and became the people who could do what Jesus called them to do — preach and teach and baptize.
Francis gets this. I think it’s because he understands this is an ethic from powerlessness. The ethic of the Gospel, and of most of scripture, is to a people who have little or no power. They cannot shape events, they have little say in how they live and little ability to change the conditions under which they live. They are not actors, they are acted upon. They have no will that matters. The forces of history have conquered and occupied them, sent them into exile, made them serve masters they cannot and would not choose.
We can respond to this with despair and violence. For a time, I did. Or wanted to.
Or we can respond as Jesus did, with love. A love that doesn’t demand to run the culture or the country, that doesn’t demand on a legal and political monopoly of truth, but a love that is willing to risk everything to show that the the power to which we as God’s people are subject is not the final word. It is not real power. This love proclaims itself the way, the truth, the life, but does so as it gives of itself.
Francis gets this. Because this kind of love, a power wielded from below, expresses itself not in the words so beloved of culture warriors, but in deeds. How we live far better confesses our faith than what we say, and Francis tries to live to show the way of Jesus — a God who walked among us, among the poor, dependent on grace, healing and teaching and preaching and calling and gathering.
Benedict never understood because he was a thinker and a teacher, not a pastor. Getting the ideas right was important to Benedict. There is a role for that in the church, since bad ideas can seep into the air and water and contaminate everything.
But our faith is, in the end, a practice, and not a notion. Yes, we confess that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But that is the beginning of a calling, to love and live and die and rise as Jesus did. Not sitting cozily and smugly in comfortable little communities (how many of Jesus’ disciples retired to play golf, or died of old age?) pronouncing judgment upon the world, but taking risks, going where descent and respectable people don’t go and living with people who know sin and judgment so intensely that the presence of God’s love in their midst changes their lives!
There are few figures like the pope in the world today. Maybe the only other comparable human being is the Dalai Llama. These two people become the closest things humanity has to global religious figures who can speak to our hopes and fears. That’s going to be a hit and miss task most of the time, given how big the world is and how awful most understanding of religion is. But Francis washing feet, and breaking the “rules” while he does it, is a far better testimony to the faith than any speech or confession.
Worthen, the author of the Francis piece, goes on to quote a prominent Southern Baptist:
“We need to be known more by how we care about the hurting than how we yell at them,” wrote Southern Baptist leader Ed Stetzer in a Christianity Today essay on what evangelicals can learn from the pope. “The world is often confused when they see Jesus caring for the poor and hurting while His followers, well, don’t.”
It matters what we believe. And Christians have gotten good about arguing over fine points of faith in order to condemn other Christians to outer darkness. (I’m Lutheran, I know of what I speak. We have have some of the most frightful and annoying conversations on things almost no one else cares about.) But if God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has acted to save us, then the words of our faith matters a whole lot less than our deeds of love.