The divisions that trouble our country are hardly new, and certainly are not without parallel in recent US history. One of my most vivid school memories is of my fourth grade class, on Election Day in 1968, evenly divided between Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon (we took a class vote!). The next morning we learned that Mr. Nixon had actually won the election, but listened as a sober television reporter wondered how a country so divided by war and racial conflict could heal.
I don’t know if America is as divided today as it was in 1968. Social media accelerates and amplifies opinion and passion in a manner unimaginable 50 years ago. Yet, by any measure, we are a separated and encamped people. Dialogue is strained and social relations frayed. Have you felt the tension? And how did it get this bad?
St. Maximus the Confessor, the great Church Father, tells us that “love perfects human nature until it makes it appear like the very nature of God.” Literall y, love makes it possible for us to participate in divinity. St. Maximus also suggests that love of one’s neighbor is the sign of having acquired this divine character.
Everyone today seems to offer sense making explanations for our divided America. If, as St. Maximus asserts, love perfects human nature, and love of neighbor is the sign of God’s life in this world, if “believing is seeing”, what sense should Christians make of our polarized homeland and how should we respond?
Pope Francis may have something to offer as we search for answers. Consider how he shapes his pastoral ministry by going to the edges of conflict and difficulty with a compelling Christian message of hope. By working at the external boundaries of the world and the Church, where people truly struggle and languish, I believe that Pope Francis is asking us to reframe our thinking about our own forces of polarization. Who gains from the changes that partisan groups advocate for, and who is lef t behind? And does anything really improve for those who have little voice in our debates and arguments?
Love of neighbor marks us as Christians. In the margins of Pope Francis, we learn that this love demands something beyond just a platform or ideology. Love requires that we stretch hearts and minds, yes, but our own first – that we hold as we can our views, but with slightly less volume so others can also speak and that we can listen. Love requires that we work toward a lifestyle based on vulnerability, mutuality, and service, so that we might be of use to God and the healing of others. Those who advocate for the needs of immigrants and refugees should not be adversaries of those concerned about the plight of blue collar workers displaced by globalization; the burdens of racism are real and a blight on our country, as is the disgrace of legal abortion and euthanasia – both a rejection of human dignity and justice and ultimately reflect an absence of love. The neighbor we see in the person oppressed by discrimination is no different than the neighbor lost in a terminated pregnancy.
In the end, mercy is the most import gift, Pope Francis tells us, that Christians can offer to our county in this hour of need. The changes that conflicting groups advocate for, while possibly true and important, are alone inadequate to calm the waters of agitation, division and conflict. Life in God is not achieved by intellectual debate, political confrontation, or competing economic theories, but is accomplished by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit and our freedom, made possible by repentance and love of neighbor. The late Cardinal Francis George was fond of saying “you can’t evangelize someone you don’t love.” He was reminding us of the insights of St. Maximus, and the solution to our life as a divided people.
–Idaho Catholic Register, March 3-16, 2017