Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Speaking Faith to Power
distributed 9/18/15 - ©2015

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Tom & Dolly Pakurar of Midlothian, Virginia. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

I'm not a morning person, but on Thursday I'll be up bright and early, strong coffee in hand, eagerly glued to a screen.

At 7:20 AM (Colorado time) Pope Francis will address a joint session of the US Congress -- the first pontiff in history to deliver an address in that setting. I'm eager to hear what this particular Pope has to say to this particular Congress, and a bit anxious about how he'll be received.

(The address will be live-streamed, and broadcast on CSPAN. On Friday, he'll address the United Nations General Assembly. I may not make it to that before-dawn (6:30 AM MDT) broadcast.)

What issues will Francis address, and what themes will take center stage in his talk?

I am hoping, of course, that he is forthright about the need for dramatic and urgent action on environmental crises -- the theme he developed so extensively in his encyclical, Laudato Si'.

How bold will he be in calling for the US to act on climate change? The encyclical did say, "Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world." (165) And, he added, "recent World Summits on the environment have not lived up to expectations because, due to lack of political will, they were unable to reach truly meaningful and effective global agreements on the environment." (166) I'll be astounded if he doesn't challenge Congress to find the honest and the will to take on this issue.

But his commitment to "integral ecology" and the common good will probably expand his comments beyond environmental issues. Perhaps, speaking to the leaders of the nation which has the world's largest military force and the most people in prison, he will lift up visions of peace and restorative justice. To our very rich nation, I have a hunch that he'll speak about the need for economic justice on a national and global scale. Then again, maybe he will chide the United States for having legalized abortion, and for our newly established marriage equality.

It will be a fascinating speech, because Francis does not fit tidily into our political boxes of conservative or liberal. That makes him a bit unpredicatable. And that's why I'll wake up early to watch on Thursday.

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A Pope speaking to Congress highlights a dynamic of faithful living that applies to all of us. There's a lesson to be learned, without regard to the specifics of Francis' speech.

Pope Francis speaks to the elected representatives in his role as a faith leader. He will not be at the Capitol as a head of state, a politician, a business person, or even as the leader of some humanitarian cause.

Unlike almost every person who speaks to Congress, he is not there to seek advantage for himself, or his political/economic tribe. To a remarkable extent, I expect Francis to be free of self-interest. He will not be disinterested at all, but the interests that he does name will be focused on others, and on the common good.

That's a challenge for all of us when we enter into conversation on today's critical issues. The shorthand term of NIMBY ("not in my backyard") reflects how often our personal and parochial concerns shape our attitudes. It is OK if some repulsive and dangerous operation happens somewhere else, but don't let it disrupt my life. And almost all of us seem to accept slow (or no) action on problems like climate change, because we're really quite comfortable with the conveniences of our fossil-fed lifestyles.

We sound very different, and we live very differently, when we reduce our self-interest, and pay heed to the interests of "the least of these." The homeless on our streets. Refugees from war and persecution. Farm workers soaked in toxic chemicals. Those who are being disrupted and displaced with the growing effects of climate chaos. Species driven to extinction. Future generations who are being deprived of a decent world.

Speaking as people of faith -- speaking in our congregations, and speaking in the public sphere -- we are true to our faith when the needs and interests of others are in the forefront. I experienced some of that during a National Council of Churches lobbying day, way back in 2001. As I reflected in an early Notes:

As church people, we brought a rather unique presence to the Hill, one that was at least tinged by the grace-filled spirit of Jesus. In that place of power and influence, where myriad groups negotiate for their own interests and benefits, our delegations came (I hope) with a less self-centered agenda. We did not come bearing campaign contributions, and asking for political favors. Rather, we brought a moral witness and a spiritual presence. We tried to give voice to the needs and interests of others.

Putting the needs of others in that position of moral and practical priority is a startling and controversial stance. When we highlight the needs and the rights of others, we're probably also challenging those who far from "the least." It brings to mind the old saying about how the church should "comfort the upset, and upset the comfortable."

A friend told me of a startling conversation this week. She was speaking to a new acquaintance, and mentioned the Pope's upcoming visit. To which the other woman replied, "The Pope hates America." After a shocked silence, Allyson managed to sputter, "Well, he will say things that are hard for us to hear ..."

The call of Francis for climate action, for intergenerational justice, for a turn from consumerism and a "throwaway" culture, for moderated forms of capitalism, for empowerment of the poor, and for living within the constraints of an ecological world -- those might sound hateful when we focus on our power and privilege. But those perspectives also are loving expressions of a faith which seeks to embody God's love and justice for all.

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I have very high hopes that Pope Francis will -- with honesty and with grace -- speak faithful truth to the US Congress and to the United Nations. I pray that he will put before them (and us) a compelling message that turns us from personal, corporate and national self-interest.

I pray that he will give us a glimpse of God's shalom for all of creation. And I pray that we all can give bold witness to the same sort of selfless message.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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