A panel discussion in Rome at the Sant Egidio Conference “the Courage to Hope - religion and cultures in dialogue”
St. Francis Day
I am writing this article on St. Francis of Assisi Day (Oct. 4) and Pope Francis has chosen this day to visit the beautiful hillside village home of his favorite saint two hours north of Rome.
The Pope has just spent most of this week with his inner cabinet of eight Cardinals looking at reforming the church beginning with the Papacy and Vatican. He recently gave an astonishing interview with a leading Italian atheist, Eugenio Scalifari, where he named the issues he intends to address in the coming months:
“Heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the Papacy.”
The Pope’s vision of the church (hence his important symbolic return to Assisi where he will reframe the church’s leadership) is very different as “a community of people, priests and bishops who are at the service of the people of God, especially the poor, the old and the young crushed by unemployment.”
Earlier this week the Pope addressed the San Egidio leadership and made it clear there was no room in religion for the justification of violence in whatever way it was expressed. Representatives of St. Paul’s Foundation sat in on a subsequent panel discussion on terrorism, with a distinguished panel of experts leading our discussion. The room was half full of young people younger than 20 years old. Some were doing extraordinary peace-making and community building across Muslim-Jewish-Christian divides.
Takir is a young Muslim leader recently moved to Italy from Virginia where he is leading an educational campaign. “Some of the people we are working with are illiterate, so they are easy prey to extremists. … We cannot control what is preached in every mosque at Friday prayers, but we can educate Muslims on what the Quran says about violence – when someone sheds another’s blood it is as if they have killed all of humanity.”
Cardinal Jean-Luis Tauran has spent his life building bridges between differing religious communities and is president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He opened the debate with this observation: “Armed violence is the synthesis of all evil.”
Sudheedra Kulkarni is an intellectual and writer from India and focused his contribution on the concept of “having God on our side.” He referred to the recent suicide bombing of an Anglican church in Pakistan when 80 people were killed while attending worship. India has 20,000 dead because of sectarian violence since 1988 while Pakistan has double this figure. “Religious identity is the strongest human identity this is why it is so vulnerable to terrorism and violence.” He noted the need to subdivide God and his followers,i.e. Sunni and Shia in Islam or different forms of castes in his country. He quoted Gandhi’s antidote to this subdivision: “We are all one in God. Ahimsa (peace/wellbeing) is my God. Truth is my God. Truth and Ahimsa are one.”
The Chief Rabbi of Florence spoke of the historic balance of Divine revelation with humility. To merely claim to know the mind of god or to say God told us to do this must be grounded in justice and mercy. If there is no humility, justice and mercy, there can be no validation that the claim to new revelation is authentic. Recognizing no religious organization has been exempt from engaging in terrorism and intolerance at some point in our history, we need to be very careful with our claims to being “right” and knowing God’s mind and will.
A terror audit
The most helpful framework for dealing with religious violence came from Mennonite leader Larry Miller from the Global Christian Forum in the USA. He talked about a four-point roadmap to combat religious based terrorism and violence:
1. Conduct a terror audit of one’s own religion. Be self-critical of one’s own complicity in violence, which can lead to confession and repairing “It is imperative Christians do this and not just expect Muslims to do it.”
2. Refuse to participate in or sanctioning “Holy War” – even against terrorism. He was critical of the term “War on Terror.” He said “Holy War is a mirror of Holy Terror.”
3. Actively engage in “Just Peacemaking” where the root causes of conflict are avoided-poverty, ignorance, joblessness.
4. Replace belief systems that claim to promote a selective appropriation of key texts that lead to violence. We must challenge every text and justification of what is wrongly termed a “just violence.”
Spiritual terrorism against LGBT people
This particular framework is helpful in the dialogue needed between the faith community and the LGBT community.
Maxensia Nakibuuka is a Catholic lay leader in Uganda who was representing St. Paul’s Foundation at the conference and she spoke powerfully from the floor about her experience as a woman living with HIV in Uganda and how church and state were supporting laws to criminalize and stigmatize her. She described this as “spiritual terrorism.” The soul is eroded and destroyed by the word and attitudes of another.
She then went on to speak of her experience in working with the LGBT community in Uganda who were equally subjected to this spiritual terrorism from the churches. The dehumanizing and misinformation resulted in the same effects of physical terrorism-people are injured and some have been killed through mob violence or die of neglect when they cannot access health services like HIV testing and prevention. She noted the immorality of supporting legislation criminalizing HIV people or LGBT people as they have been trying to do in Uganda. “This chases people away that the church needs to reach out to so they can receive counseling, testing and services. We need to end this spiritual terrorism.”
The spirit of St. Francis of Assisi is alive today. A young military man living in the turmoil of the 12th century meets an outcast leper on the road and offers him his clothing. He has a different vision of humanity and he because of this is forced to reject his family to acknowledge he belonged to another bigger family and God is his bigger father. There is a wonderful fresco in the church that holds his venerated remains where the Pope prayed on Friday. It was the world’s first Renaissance nude painted by Giotto where Francis is depicted removing his brocaded clothes and gives them to his business-minded dad – a local cloth merchant symbolizing his renunciation of the culture and religion of his day … and even his family. The story attempts to bring the institutional church back into alignment with the values it is supposed to celebrate with the marginalized.
Institutional rejection and marginalization
Within a few years of founding this new community within the larger church, his own Franciscan community is now having a hard time with holy poverty , one of Francis’s values and the larger community reject it and him. It is humbling to see how institutional calcification can happen so quickly and the noble principles of a founder can even be rejected in their own lifetime.
Francis ended up moving away from Assisi to a little community down the hill called Porziuncola where there was a little Benedictine church, a tiny stone building where he would pray and feel close to God when he wasn’t out there saving the world from poverty and violence. It was within this little church he died on this day. He asked to be buried on the rubbish dump up the hill in fashionable Assisi – a place of execution and it was so terrible they called it “Hell’s Hill.” Within two years, the institutional church had made him a saint and began building a basilica on Hell’s Hill. They also enveloped his original chapel with an additional huge basilica that it has become difficult to recognize the simple values that inspired his life and love of God’s creation.
In many ways, the Pope’s visit to these holy places today is an attempt to place the larger institutional edifice of Basilicas and the huge bureaucracy of the church (Vatican) in a much more simplistic Franciscan framework. There could not be a more dramatic setting for the Pope to outline his reforms than this one. Francis of Assisi is, undoubtedly, the world’s most popular saint, even though his experience of the church in his own lifetime was quite traumatic and one of marginalization. HERE is today’s report of this important and symbolic visit by an instrument of God’s Peace.
RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.