Casting a vote beyond the political haze

For most of my adult life I have been incredibly fascinated with the interaction of politics and faith.

I was ecstatic when Pope Francis spoke to U.S. Congress last fall. I loved lobbying on behalf of the Catholic bishops in Iowa—and all the Catholic concerns for the entire state—when I interned with the Iowa Catholic Conference in 2004. And, I am a big fan of organizations like Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, who empower people of faith to advocate for justice.

Most of the time I am pleased with what I observe in the dance between politics and faith because I believe the actions of those of us who are religious—including our political actions—must be directed by our faith.

Many would agree that our religion must influence how we raise our voices, what we stand up for, whom we stand with and how—or whether—we vote. For those of us who are Christians, this means we aim to imitate Jesus Christ, who demonstrated that nothing was worth killing for and that real love makes everyone worth dying for, even in the political sphere. We are guided by Jesus’ most demanding teachings like “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) and “if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:15).”

As a Catholic Christian, I am grateful my bishops insist that every person has a responsibility to inform their conscience and follow it in the voting booth. I love this Church document and I appreciate media like this that summarizes the document and highlights the complexity of voting:

Certainly, it is complex to weed through the issues and options and arrive at a decision, to prayerfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the voting booth.

I also keep in mind that no politician will ever save us from all our problems.

Unsatisfied with every party and politician, a lot of what Shane Claiborne wrote in his book Jesus for President makes sense to me. This article from the 2012 election especially resonates:

No party feels like home. No candidate seems to value the things we see Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount. Federal budget cuts have begun to look like the anti-thesis of the beatitudes where Jesus blesses the poor and hungry rather than the rich and wealthy. You get the sense that if Mary proclaimed her famous “Magnificat” in Luke’s Gospel today — where “God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty” — she’d be accused of promoting class warfare. As one theologian said, “Our money says in God we trust … but our economy looks like the seven deadly sins.” What would America look like if Jesus were in charge?

There just isn’t much talk in the debates about caring for the poor and loving enemies, the stuff Jesus was on fire about. It’s hard to imagine a candidate with a consistent ethic of life, a candidate who is pro-life from the womb to the tomb. Many of us have grown tired of death, and share a faith that speaks of resurrection and proclaims the triumph of life over death and love over hatred. We want life—fewer abortions, an end to the death penalty, hospitality to immigrants, an end to extreme poverty, fewer bombs and wars and other ugly things.

~  From “Jesus for President 2012” by Shane Claiborne, Huffington Post

With such writings in his past I was amused, then, when Shane Claiborne tweeted that he will vote for president during this election:

 

Alternatives also fascinate me. Guided by their religious convictions, some folks have found other ways to participate in democracy and help promote God’s reign wherein all life is protected and peace and justice are triumphant.

I’m intrigued by those who choose not to vote, such as Christian anarchists. I can understand, somewhat, why they take that approach to help create social change. (Jesus for President is a good book to read to understand.) Personally, it is a big challenge to me that one of my heroines, Dorothy Day, never voted and was a suffragette. It is equally interesting for me to learn about those who will not vote this year, even though they voted a lot in the past.

I have never been convinced that the two-party system we have in the United States is the most fair or helpful: we are too diverse as a people to be divided into two camps. Related, I was excited to learn about the American Solidarity Party this election year and the presidential candidate Mike Maturen, whose platform is completely in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church. (I am not sure I’ll vote for him though.)

I am also fascinated by and well aware that, for many people of faith, political choices aren’t actually influenced by one’s faith but rather it’s the other way around—what they believe and accept as true is often influenced by where they sit on the political spectrum. This, of course, isn’t supposed to be the way it works. We are called to put our faith in Jesus before any political candidate, party, or nation. The Bible tells us repeatedly that to put anything before God is idolatry.

No matter how one decides to act, it is certainly complex and challenging for people of faith to participate in democracy. It takes a ton of study and prayer—and faith that God can make something good come out of anything.

Yet, people of faith are called to even more; we must move beyond the voting booth. Now, especially, we are needed to step to the front of the political haze and be healers and servants to a nation in need.

Such servant leadership requires communal prayer and discernment. Together we can create societal transformation by asking broad, visionary questions—questions that move us forward and beyond the violence, hate, and division that has wounded our nation, our communities. We must tend to those who are feeling left out, ignored, marginalized, neglected; those whose anger and pain has disturbed what we once thought of as normal. (Visionary questions and the need to care for the neglected are discussed in this in this On Being episode.)

With God’s grace, we will manifest hope, joy and reconciliation to people in need of freedom and peace. Following in the footprints of Jesus Christ we can be ones who show others that—really, yes—”blessed are the peacemakers” indeed.

By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas - Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213
By Jay Phagan from Taft, Texas – Vote Here Sign, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52568213

Gleanings from “The Francis Factor”

 

Question from the audience:

I am a rich Christian. What should I do?

Shane Claiborne (smiling hugely):

Ha! If only Jesus had said something about that!

Sometimes I feel that if only Jesus had left some concrete teachings, a pattern of life to follow and a community of believers to hold on to, it would all be easier. I want him to tell me what to do today in this messy life and my attempts to be a Franciscan sister in a world that feels like it is disintegrating. But the truth is that he did. Today, in the 21st century, as we look around us at problems the planet has never seen before, we see the shining witness of Jesus as lived out in surprising ways.

Last weekend I attended The Francis Factor: How St. Francis and Pope Francis are changing the world, a conference looking at the contemporary implications of St. Francis and Pope Francis. We were over 1,000 people lead in contemplative reflection by a mystic, a scientist, and an activist: Father Richard Rohr, Sister Ilia Delio, and Shane. What would the little brother from Assisi tell us today? How does Pope Francis call us to be an authentic people of mercy and love?

"Dancing Francis" by FSPA
Dancing Francis courtesy of FSPA

Shane gently suggested that Jesus gives many different models of how to live faithfully, either from privilege or without it. Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor …” (Mathew 19:21).  Zacchaeus, instead, gives away half of what he has and then repays those he has cheated four-fold (Luke 19:8). Mary, Joanna, Susanna and other women contributed to the support of Jesus and his disciples “out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3). After the resurrection followers shared all in common, were of one mind in the Temple and broke bread together (Acts 2:43-47). The Bible has a plethora of practical examples of what to do—as a Christian—with access to financial resources.

Pope-Francis-WavingAs we reflected more we realized that maybe our true poverty is in the quality of our relationships. Pope Francis and St. Francis, by their examples, break us out of the same-old same-old mold of complacency and individuality. Here are some suggestions from The Francis Factor:

  • Pray consciously for the gift to trust more. Let prayer fester inside of you, slowly changing all you do from the inside out.
  • Surround yourself with people who change your idea of what it means to be normal. Listen to the children, the dreamers and the riskers.
  • Change the patterns of your daily life so that instead of insulating from suffering, you embrace the Gospel call, cross and all.
  • Start to build communities of trust. When violence in our neighborhoods is on the nightly news, how do we reach out beyond our fear to genuinely find each other?
  • Become like the one we spend time with in prayer so we leave the fragrance of Jesus in the world everywhere we go.
  • Fascinate the world with God’s love.
  • Live from a theology of “enoughness,” where there’s enough for everybody’s need and not for everybody’s greed.

Yes, there is definitely a Francis factor going on. I can feel it in the air as the United States prepares for the pope’s visit. Something is afoot and it sure does looks like Jesus in modern clothes.

A Visit to The Simple Way

Earlier this summer I was fortunate to be able to make a pilgrimage-of-sorts to The Simple Way, a Christian community in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia described as “a web of subversive friends conspiring to spread the vision of ‘Loving God, Loving People, and Following Jesus’ in our neighborhoods and in our world.”

Like many thousands of Christian millenials, I have been interested in The Simple Way community ever since I first devoured this book about eight years ago.

 

In The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, Shane Claiborne describes an inspiring type of Christian living: a dedicated, communal, prayerful, life of radical simplicity and activism inflamed and inspired by the Gospel.

Some time after first reading his book I remember writing Shane Claiborne a letter thanking him for his work and sharing with him how it impacted me. At the time I was new to my Franciscan community and feeling confused while I discerned commitment. I was starting to become aware of the community’s shadow sides as my idealized sense of who we are waned away. I felt uncertain whether staying with my Franciscan community would free to me to live the way I felt called to live. Plus, I was struggling with generational challenges and the impact of joining a group with a long history. Honestly, I was tempted to leave religious life and instead join a movement with the freshness and ecumenical energy like The Simple Way community that Shane describes in his book.

I must have written my thoughts all out in my letter to Shane because I still remain thankful for the gift of his response as his encouragement to be Franciscan ultimately contributed to my decision to stay with FSPA (and propelled me toward my perpetual profession of vows five weeks ago!). Here is an excerpt from the letter I still treasure and pray with:

“I admire your hope and your discontentment–and certainly the Church needs both—it is a beautiful thing to hear in your words the fiery passion of Francis and Clare—and the humility to submit and seek the wisdom of elders … Our communities and ‘new monasticism’ has its charm and fresh charism but it also has this challenge and vulnerabilities … I certainly will keep you in my prayers as you continue the work of Francis and Clare and ‘repairing the ruins of the Church.’  You are a gift to the FSPA …”

Since that first correspondence, I have remained a fan and follower of Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way. I have heard Shane speak in person a couple of times and I continue to be inspired and influenced by his writing and passion for being a neighbor and disciple of Jesus. I have tried to keep up with all the happenings in The Simple Way, but never before made it there for a visit.

So when a wedding brought me to Philadelphia at the end of June, I reached out to The Simple Way community to see if I could stop by. I didn’t expect to actually see or spend any time with Shane (he’s kind-of famous) but I was really interested in the current state of The Simple Way and how God was working with and through their presence in the Kensington neighborhood.

I was so excited when I found The Simple Way in Philadelphia! I really felt like I was arriving on Holy Ground, a place of faith and wonder.

 

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

There, I was hosted by Caz Tod-Pearson (the director of the organization) who had recently returned from maternity leave.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

She and I had a deep conversation about The Simple Way story. She told me about the ups and downs of community life and the ways that she is working hard to help the community stay rooted and find a healthy focus.

As Caz explained in an email to me prior to my visit:

Right now we do not have an intentional community house, or a large amount of service projects, or programs going on as we have in the past (as the stories in the book written 10 years ago speak of).

Over the past year and a half we’ve gone through some major transition, and taken a lot of logs off our fire, that had got pretty saturated, to get the flame burning again. So what happens here on a weekly basis is pretty small and simple, and has begun to look a little different as indigenous neighbors take on more leadership and volunteer roles in the work that had been done by our residents. We’ve had to say no to a lot of good people wanting to come in and help as we’ve listened and made way for neighborhood leaders to take ownership for what our neighbors need and want.

We do still have a couple of families and friends who’ve relocated intentionally, are living and working alongside us, and are sharing life in simple ways. We do still have some rhythms of prayer, shared meals and work, but to a different degree than before. We really have stripped everything back and are ‘starting again’ in a way. It’s been a difficult, yet beautiful season that we know the Spirit will continue to guide us through.”

I love the simple beauty of the main common room where we had our conversation.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Caz spoke about how fame and fire impacted The Simple Way community. In 2006 The Irresistible Revolution and The Simple Way community was put into the national spotlight. During that time Krista Tippet interviewed Shane on Speaking of Faith (now On Being). Then, on June 20, 2007, a seven-alarm fire destroyed several properties in Kensington, including the house where Shane was living.

The effect of these two events occurring so close together was an explosion of financial support, organization, projects, collaborations, associations, press and visitors. The initial grass-roots, intentional-community flavor of The Simple Way shifted some. It is still an intentional community, but it’s not of the same type as when it was founded. The Simple Way has essentially remained in a state of discernment and transition since 2007, while still serving the neighborhood and being faithful to the Gospel.

Here is the lot that remains empty since the fire.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

The Simple Way is now committed to being a loving presence in Kensington, building relationships of mutuality and establishing sustainability.

And in a place hurting from poverty and its impacts, they offer tremendous beauty and love to the neighborhood by cleaning up spaces and sponsoring artists who paint murals.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

They also have a few garden projects.

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

What I encountered during my visit to The Simple Way was inspiring and exciting for God clearly is actively influencing the life of community. What was especially fascinating, though, were the indicators that the members of this new form of religious life are dealing with similar questions as those of us who are newer to Catholic religious life. In different corners of the country, living different forms of religious life, we all seem to be riding the same wind that the Spirit is blowing throughout God’s people who are eager to build God’s reign of peace and justice.

Just like the peers of my generation in Catholic sisterhood, The Simple Way is grappling with questions of identity and call and how to respond to the signs of these times. They are trying to discern who God needs them to be now, as they stay open to the Spirit’s work and revere the legacy of their founders. They are trying to establish relationships of mutuality with those on the margins of society and build bridges across lines of culture, class and creed (and I have also heard some of my Catholic Worker friends of my generation express the same sort of desires).

Clearly, God is up to many great things through Shane and Caz and their friends and neighbors, who are working hard to help Christ’s peace and love be known in our hurting and troubled world. Thanks be to God for how they offer themselves as true instruments of peace. Let us pray for them and support them in all the ways we are able.

They—like many other Christian millenials—are challenged by the Spirit and the signs of these times. We desire to help God’s peace and justice be known by all people, in every broken place of the world.

No matter what type of Christian community we belong to and whether we are joining a new movement of the Spirit or a 800-year-old tradition, all of us are eager to build deep relationships of mutuality and strong communities. Together we are on this journey of building hope and proclaiming peace. So, let’s pray, discern and follow the Spirit together, now matter how messy, mysterious or confusing doing God’s good work may be! AMEN!

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

 

Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You (part two)

Guest blogger, Amy Nee, part two of two (here’s part one)

I caught that train and took it to Cermak-Chinatown. The Congress on Urban Ministry had converged on the Hyatt at McCormick Place (a hotel and convention center the size of a neighborhood) and was hosting free “Words and Worship” services in the evenings. That night Shane Claiborne was scheduled to speak. He is an author and activist and part of “The Simple Way,” a community that calls for a way that is both simple and profound. The residents recognize people around them as neighbors—whether those people are gang members, prostitutes, school children, investment bankers or Iraqi citizens on the other side of the world. Shane is a representative of people who take seriously Jesus’ advocacy of neighbor-love, and enemy-love. He talked that night about grace as the backdrop for peace.  Grace, he said, is seeing the same things, the same people, with new eyes; it is seeing beyond surface and assumptions.

Closing his talk, Shane shared a video clip filmed during his time in India working with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. The camera holds closely the image of a child shaking with terror from an accident he has just survived. Malnourished, the boy’s skin is stretched tightly over his bones. His head appears too large for his birdlike body which convulses in the arms of a Catholic sister who is leaning over his railed bed. She firmly but gently rubs his fragile frame, over and over. Her hands transfer compassion and healing and gradually his tremors still. The boy’s body becomes loose and limp, his angular head tips toward the sister. His eyes, deep, dark pools, meet hers. The hospital is crowded with children no doubt in equal need, but she holds him.  Infinity in their gaze. A look of recognition.

My heart stirs, a desire rising. I want to go to India, to be her, to hold him. But there is something beyond this want. I desire that type of engagement—with the afflicted, with my Mom, with the woman behind the cash register, with the man asking me for change and the prisoner I can’t see—awareness, presence, compassion. I want to recognize people and to give people the opportunity to recognize each other. If not to see Christ in the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, the loved and the unlovely; to see ourselves.

How can we “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” when we move through life like casually skipped stones, skimming the surface, making occasional, brief contact—splish, what they seem to want—splash, what we think they need—plunk, deep, drinking desire.  We are awestruck out of our element there.  It is a scary thing to sink into the unknown.  I can say that I am called to this as a Christian, and I am.  But I want to clarify that I think Jesus’ mission was not to make a Church but to teach us to be whole humans, to restore the earth and its residents to life.  Thus, whatever my religion, I am called to this as a living being.  Waking life requires it.