In the 12th century, in the time of the Crusades, St. Francis went to Egypt to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. It was a hard and dangerous journey, but St. Francis undertook it anyway, for the sake of love. He told his disciples:
if they found themselves “among the Saracens and other nonbelievers,” without renouncing their own identity they were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake.” In the context of the times, this was an extraordinary recommendation.
I’m quoting here from the latest encyclical by Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship. He’s quoting from from St. Francis. It’s a remarkable, a wonderful document, issued in Assisi on October 3rd of this year, on the Vigil of the Feast of St. Francis, and though it’s been lost sight of in all the feeling and stress of our election, it has everything to say about the election. It’s a guide to our response to it as Christians.
“We are impressed,” the pope says, “that some eight hundred years ago Saint Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal ‘subjection’ be shown to those who did not share his faith.”
This is the call: to humility.
In fact, the pope tells us that he was particularly encouraged in his thinking for the encyclical by the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, whom he met in Abu Dhabi, where together they declared that “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.”
This is the call: to live together.
Even with the 73 million people who voted for President Trump.
Even with the 79 million people who voted for Joe Biden.
The other day I was Zooming with a friend, a good and faithful man, and he was saying that the consolation he’s been feeling in prayer lately starts to dissolve whenever he thinks about all the many people in the country who voted for candidate he believes was the wrong one. He’s just really disturbed—as I know many of us are, as I am—by the idea that so many people could make the wrong choice. He just doesn’t understand it.
But first, I think it’s always dangerous in our prayer life to move too quickly from the concrete to the abstract, from the personal to the political or the intellectual—and then to assume as we always do that the concrete and the personal are less important, that the moment is less real than the grand forces that move us, too. No. Stay in the moment. Trust the moment. Don’t believe that the outer life is more important than the inner life—watch for that slide, that shift, in your thinking, and pull back from it in prayer.
We still need to think, of course, and reason, and abstract, but that’s for later, and it’s important always to see it as secondary, as in support of the moment, not an exceeding of it. We reason so that we can return to Joy.
What the angels announced above the stable in Bethlehem, as George Dennis O’Brien puts it, was not a “topic for conversation”—and in fact this is what doctrine and dogma really are—a proclaiming of something beyond them, a singing with the angels above that miraculous stable.
“Dogma” has come to stand for all inflexible thinking, for all black and white thinking, for all judgmentalism, but really, it means exactly the opposite.
“Dogma is a gateway to mystery,” Flannery O’Connor says.
So how should we respond to the people we don’t agree with? Dogmatically, which is to say, as Christians, which is to say as followers of Christ, which is to say in the way of St. Francis on his journey to the Sultan, which is to say in the way of Pope Francis as he kneeled in the chapel of the Tomb of St. Francis at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi on October 3rd, 2020, in the midst of all the vitriol, in the midst of all the violence and injustice, in the midst of the pandemic.
The mystery is within us, too, within all of us. We don’t know what was in the hears of people when they voted. To be a Christian is to be nuanced. To be a Christian is to embrace reality, the bad with the good but also the good with the bad. To be a Christian is to leave the judgments to God anyway. To be a Christian is to assume that the moments we feel in prayer are the moments others feel, too, even Republicans. Even Democrats. To be a Christian is to always keep in mind that we are not the only people loved by God.
“Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at impossible doctrines,” Pope Francis says; “he simply spread the love of God.”
He understood that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16).
This isn’t soft. This isn’t fuzzy. It’s a discipline, and it’s ours.
Our dogma is love.