At last summer’s Annual meeting of the Southeast Conference of the UCC, a man named John Stewart (not THAT Jon Stewart! This John has an “h.”) led a workshop called: When Democracy Worked: Reflections on the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As an aide to Senator Hubert Humphrey, John did lots of the leg work that led to the passage of the Act.
After decades of severe discrimination against African Americans, the need for the Civil Rights Act was clear, but the political will wasn’t there. “It won’t pass in my district,” some in Congress said. “It’s too soon,” others said. “We need to move more slowly.” Many Southern representatives were adamantly opposed to the legislation. Representatives from other parts of the country wondered if things were really bad enough to warrant new legislation.
To break the impasse, here’s what Sen. Humphrey’s staff did. Some senators would vote for the Act no matter what. Others would not vote for the Act no matter what. They didn’t bother those folks.
But for those who were on the fence, or who might be swayed to support the legislation, Sen. Humphrey’s aides talked to as many religious leaders as they could in those senators’ states. If they knew a Senator was flying home, they’d make sure a clergy person the senator knew would just “happen” to be at the airport and “casually” bring up the Civil Rights Act and offer their support. In one case, the aides colluded with a senator’s wife. Every day just after the senator left for the office, a staffer would call the house and speak with the Mrs. They’d plot their next step in changing the mind of the senator, which usually involved selecting the topic of conversation for supper that night.
John Stewart told us that without the strategy of involving religious leaders in the process of swaying public opinion–or at least the opinions of a few key US senators–the Civil Rights Act would not have passed. Stewart’s assessment was this. Before the clergy became involved, the issue of what amounted to American Apartheid was a matter of opinion. When the clergy became involved, the mistreatment of African Americans became a moral issue. When it became a moral issue, the tide of public opinion shifted…because the American public now could see that not passing the Act was no longer an option. If we were going to be a just and humane nation, we had to pass the Act.
So, why am I telling you this story? Because I think something similar is happening with Pope Francis’ encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home.” Scientists have worked for decades advocating for policy changes that will slow–if not reverse—the devastating effects of climate change. To this point, though, much of the debate–especially in our country–has been opinion-based. With the Pope’s encyclical, caring for the earth has become a moral issue: If we are going to be just and humane, we have to take decisive action in caring for the earth.
Has anyone been binge-watching Pope-sightings this week? At the White House, riding down Pennsylvania Avenue in the Pope-mobile, at the World Trade Center Memorial, celebrating Mass at Madison Square Garden, celebrating Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, eschewing lunch with politicians to serve a meal to homeless folks and spend time with them?
Most of my friends are not Catholic. Many are former Catholics. A lot are adherents of other faiths or no faith. Most, of course, are Protestants. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from friends the past couple years, “I’m not Catholic, but he’s my pope.” The Pope is still Catholic, of course. There are many policies he staunchly supports with which many of us would not agree. But overall, Pope Francis’ commitment to the poor, to simplicity, to erring on the side of love…he’s radically changing the face of the papacy. And the world is taking note.
I’ve wondered many times since Francis became Pope why he’s doing this. If he loves simplicity, if he stands with the poor, if he’d rather serve lunch to the homeless than eat lunch with the powerful, why in the world did he become Pope, arguably the most powerful position on the planet? I’m not up on all the rules about these things. It could be that if you’re elected Pope, you don’t have a choice….so maybe poor Francis is just stuck.
Stuck or not, here’s the thing I find most impressive about this Pope—he’s using his position to create positive change in the world. He’s using his position to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the poor—and to how decisions of those in the developed world create hardships for those in under-developed parts of the world. For a man who, after being elected Pope, rode the bus back to his hotel, you’ve got to think that all the trappings of the papacy must annoy Francis…even so, he is using his office to raise the moral consciousness of everyone on the planet. And you know, I think it might just be working.
Today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah comes as the people are preparing to go home from what has been a decades-long exile. They lost their sovereignty, they lost their land, and they wondered for a long time if God was even there anymore.
As they begin packing up their belongings to head back to their homeland—though not with the sovereignty they once enjoyed—the prophet invites them to imagine a more hope-filled future…one where heaven and earth are like new, where cries of distress no longer are heard; a future where babies don’t die and old people live out an entire lifetime; a future where the people who build houses and plant vineyards actually get to live in those houses and eat the fruit produced by those vines; a future where the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.
I once heard environmental poet Wendell Berry say, “If I can imagine it, I can do it.” (At the time he hadn’t yet been able to imagine how to live without his pick-up truck. He was working on it.) That’s exactly what the prophet is offering the people as they head home. For a people whose future looked bleak, the prophet was inviting them to look again and imagine a more hopeful future
It sounds nutty, I know. Wolves and lambs sitting down to the same table without the wolves eating the lambs? Impossible! But the first step toward making something impossible happen is to imagine it happening…so the prophet gives the people a picture, something to work toward. Before we see an actual wolf and an actual lamb sit down together at the picnic tables outside, we’ll have to imagine it. Before we see our planet whole and flourishing, we’ll have to imagine it. Before we inhabit an actual world where cries of distress are no longer heard and where babies don’t die, we’ll have to imagine it.
When we see just how devastated our planet and its inhabits are after centuries of poor environmental practices, finding a new heaven and earth like the prophet suggests sometimes seems like our only option. Maybe life on Mars is the answer. But as we move into the future, the prophet reminds us that God is already there, working for our welfare, hoping for our wholeness. We needn’t fear what’s to come, because God is already there waiting for us so that we can work together to create a new heaven and earth in the here and now.
A good way make our way to the future God is hoping for us is to answer the Pope’s call to work together with people of all faiths across the globe to heal our common home. I don’t know that anyone or anything has done as much as Pope Francis to engage the imaginations of people around the world. A pope tooling around Rome in a little Fiat? Who would’ve imagined? A pope who prefers to live in simplicity in community rather than in the papal apartment? Who would’ve imagined? A pope who chooses to wash the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday instead of the feet of the cardinals? Who would’ve imagined?
Watching Pope Francis re-make the papacy, I’ve about decided he’s the most imaginative person alive right now. He is using the power of his position to seek the healing of the planet, to make better the lives of the poor. And he’s not preaching at us or guilting us into being good… he’s showing us how to be good; he’s calling forth the good that’s already inside each and every one of us; he’s showing us how to use the power for good each of us has to act the earth and its inhabitants into well-being.
So, let’s do a little imagining. Imagine an environmental issue, something that really has you worried, something specific—maybe it’s lack of safe drinking water for all earth’s inhabitants; maybe it’s the drought in California; maybe it’s rapidly melting polar ice caps….or perhaps what most worries you is the devastating effects on the world’s poor of unrestrained consumption in the developed world…or the equally devastating effects of deforestation on creatures who once lived in those forests….
My goal isn’t to depress you more than you already are about these issues. The invitation is to focus on one issue related to earth-care—it could even be some small thing around your house… Think of one problem that seems insurmountable—and imagine that problem solved. You don’t have to come up with the plan for getting it solved. Just imagine that whatever that problem is has been solved. What does that new world look like? Take a minute and imagine … [One minute of silence.]
Let us pray. Holy One, keep our imaginations alive and active, especially when it comes to acting creation and its inhabitants into well-being. Help us to trust in your promise of a hope-filled future by working to create it. Amen.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2015