Pope Francis recently gave an address to the Fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements, an address which has garnered a certain amount of attention, in part due to his remarks about the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. The Pope’s many political opponents have used this as a chance to score a point by implying that he is in favor of violence and destruction. Pope Francis, of course, has a much more nuanced and balanced view, and is perfectly capable of distinguishing between the protests and the destructive acts which unfortunately accompanied them. As he said in his General Audience on June 3rd, 2020:
Dear brothers and sisters in the United States, I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd. My friends, we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that “the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost”. Today I join the Church in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and in the entire United States, in praying for the repose of the soul of George Floyd and of all those others who have lost their lives as a result of the sin of racism.
This focus on scoring cheap political points is unfortunate, not least because it may obscure the beauty and prophetic nature of the Pope’s address. There is a lot to reflect on in his words, but I’d like to focus here on just one detail: his use of the term “poets” to describe those working for social justice. He says:
Brothers, sisters, dear social poets,
This is what I like to call you: social poets. You are social poets, because you have the ability and the courage to create hope where there appears to be only waste and exclusion. Poetry means creativity, and you create hope. With your hands you know how to shape the dignity of each person, of families and of society as a whole, with land, housing, work, care, and community
I want to thank you because you have felt the pain of others as your own. You know how to show the face of true humanity, the humanity that is not built by turning your back on the suffering of those around you, but in the patient, committed and often even sorrowful recognition that the other person is my brother or sister and that his or her joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties are also mine. To ignore those who have fallen is to ignore our own humanity that cries out in every brother and sister of ours.
Sisters and brothers, let us dream together. And so, as I ask all of this with you as well as of you, I want to add some reflections on the future that we must dream and build. Although I say reflections, perhaps I ought to say dreams, because right now our brains and hands are not enough, we also need our hearts and our imagination; we need to dream so that we do not go backwards. We need to use that sublime human faculty which is the imagination, that place where intelligence, intuition, experience and historical memory come together to create, compose, venture and risk.
Why would the Pope connect the struggle for justice to a poetic, imaginative outlook on the world? In the most basic sense, we need imagination to see how things could be different than they currently are. In a deeper sense, however, a poetic spirit is necessary for a truly Christian response to injustice.
The virtue of meekness could be seen as the antithesis of a search for justice, and yet this is a flawed understanding. In reality, the meek do inherit the earth, and meekness is meant to inform a proper response to the injustice and sin in the world. According to Fr. Simon Tugwell, this meekness is closely connected with a poetic outlook. In his book The Beatitudes, Soundings in Christian Traditions, he writes:
Since the fall, our human lordship has been exercised chiefly in exploitation and manipulation. But the essential lordship of Adam is seen in naming. According to St. Ephrem, Adam, in naming the animals, is truly sharing in God’s creativity. In Christ we, who share in his Holy Spirit, become once more the namers in his world, and as such help each creature into the fullness of its own being.
So, if we are to inherit the earth, we must learn to recognize, to name, to liberate things into themselves, instead of constantly trying to organize things and make something of them for ourselves.
And this is something we must do for one another, too. It is a pity that we have come to think so much in terms of helping people to solve their problems. Almost inevitably this leads us to think in terms of diagnosing their problems, and diagnosis means fitting their unique situations to clinical abstractions. It involves naming only in the sense of finding the appropriate ready-made label.
But the way of Adam is not to diagnose, not to fit things to ready-made labels, it is to recognize, or better … to cognize each creature, each situation in its uniqueness, in its own unique way of expressing the likeness of God.
It is when we are finally stumped, when we can think of nothing more that we can do, that we can most easily—though even then it is not, simply, easy—appreciate that problems are not just things calling for solutions. A problem is, more essentially, a unique situation calling for expression. It calls for a poet, a painter, or composer. Each individual situation in our world is an artistic, rather than an administrative, challenge. If we would inherit the earth, it must be, not by competent administration, but by something much more like artistic sensitivity and creativity.
It is surely the meek, those whose instinct is not to rush out and do something, but rather to look, helpless, passive before reality, and then, in union with God’s Word, to be, to speak, the word which releases each creature into itself, it is they who can enjoy a proper lordship in the earth. So do not get heated because of the wicked, there is no future in them or in your fury. Rather rejoice hugely in the Lord and be content to rest in his truthfulness and to gaze in wonder upon the world of his making, and, with the eye of faith and hope, to see that world in the making even in the despair and helplessness of the world of everyday experience. (pp. 46-47)
Pope Francis has often spoken on these themes of discernment, of not rushing to action or a decision, of waiting for inspiration, and of not labeling others but rather seeing them as the unique individuals they really are. In Let Us Dream, he writes:
There is a principle worth remembering in these times: ideas are debated, but reality is discerned. This is a difficult thing for those of a more impatient disposition, who believe that to every problem there must be a technical solution, as if it were merely a question of finding the right switch. Many religious people, too, struggle with discernment, especially those who are allergic to uncertainty and want to reduce everything to black and white. And it is quite impossible for ideologues, fundamentalists, and anyone else who is held back by a rigid mindset. But discernment is vital if we want to create a better future.
Discernment … allows us to navigate changing contexts and specific situations as we seek the truth. Truth reveals itself to the one who opens herself to it…. Opening ourselves to this kind of certainty calls for humility in our own thinking, to leave space for this gentle encounter with the good, the true, and the beautiful.
If you don’t open up, you can’t discern. Hence my allergy to moralisms and other -isms that try to resolve all problems with prescriptions, equations, and rules. (pp. 54-56)
In a speech Pope Francis gave during his trip to Bulgaria in 2019, he directly refers to the problem of labeling others and the way this closes the heart to discernment. He said:
In that Caritas Centre are many Christians who have learned to see with God’s own eyes. God is not worried about labels, but seeks out and awaits each person with a Father’s eyes. But do you know something? We have to be careful! We have fallen into the culture of labels: “this person is like that, that one like this, this one like that…”. This is not what God wants. He or she is a person, made in God’s image. No labels! Let’s leave labels up to God; we just give love, to every person. … We must move from the culture of labelling things to the reality of naming persons. Seeing with the eyes of faith is a summons not to spend your life pinning labels, classifying those who are worthy of love and those who are not, but trying to create conditions in which every person can feel loved, especially those who feel forgotten by God because they are forgotten by their brothers and sisters.
Image: By Jan Brueghel the Younger – http://www.hampel-auctions.com/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7227231