Last week there was a bit of an “exchange” between Pope Francis/ Vatican and Donald Trump/his campaign team. Someone asked me what I thought about it all. I had nothing to offer since it is my experience that the press accurately quotes the Pope but then again, any text without a context is generally a pretext for what one wanted to say in the first place. What did the Pope say, in context? The context was following the celebration of Mass at the US-Mexican border while returning to Rome. Keep in mind, this Pope has built his pastoral response to the world around the model of St. Francis’ compassion for the poor, suffering, or marginalized. His response should not have been too surprising. Pope Francis said, a “person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
To be fair, I suspect Mr. Trump was given the sound bite version: the pope says you’re not a Christian. Never shy about his words, the enjoinder was, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful…No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” The other candidates chose to stay out of any potential cross fire.
Jim Harnish, the retired pastor of United Methodist – Hyde Park, had some thoughts about the exchange. With credit to Rev. Harnish, what follows is largely his thoughts with some editing to fit the column space.
“No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” Really? I thought it was the job description of a religious leader, pastor, or teacher to question, challenge, inspire, or guide the spiritual growth of his/her followers. I think that’s what a Pope is supposed to do. Jeb Bush, the only Catholic running for President, responded with a widely-accepted understanding of what it means to be a Christian: “I think his Christianity is between him and his creator…I don’t think we need to discuss that.” Really?
The assumption that being a Christian is solely a matter of a personal relationship with God that makes no observable difference in a person’s behavior is a uniquely American religious idea that is deeply rooted in our tradition of individualism but has no basis in scripture or Christian tradition.
Read the gospels. When Jesus called people to be his disciples, he was inviting them into a process of training by which their lives would be reoriented around his vision of the Kingdom of God becoming a reality in this world through their actions.
Read the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. Jesus calls his followers to a radically different way of living, to observable behaviors, not merely to intellectual agreement with a set of beliefs or to an inner spirituality that does not transform external behavior.
Read the epistles. While Paul, as teacher and theologian, proclaims the content of the Christian faith, as a faithful pastor he questions, challenges, guides, and models for his people the specific behaviors that bear witness to faith in Christ.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews defined faith as “the reality [‘substance’] of what we hope for, the proof [‘evidence’] of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1) The writer describes faith with active verbs, beginning with Abraham, who “obeyed when he was called… [and] went out without knowing where he was going.”
Throughout scripture, faith is not so much intellectual assent to doctrinal affirmations or mystical experiences of personal spirituality (though it includes both of those) as it is active obedience to and participation in the will and way of God. Being a Christian is about the way the Spirit of God is at work to shape our lives around observable behaviors that demonstrate a growing consistency with the way, words, and will of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
Rev. Harnish ends his thoughts with the challenge to each person: does the demonstration of your life lived in the public square give testimony to Christ? To that I would add, it is the challenge of each Christian community to continue to remind each of us that while faith is highly personal, it is never private. Religious leaders, pastors, and the faithful of a believing community all have the responsibility to question who we say we are. That is part of being Christian.