Recently, Pope Francis and Rush Limbaugh have been in the news for a fracas in which one (Limbaugh) called the other (Francis) a “Marxist,” for speaking out about the injustices that exist in the global capitalist economy. Pope Francis famously said when he was elevated to his post that he would like to see a “poor church for the poor,” echoing, to some extent, the words of Liberation theologians, who have long said that God has an affinity for poor people. In response to the controversy created by his comments, Pope Francis said that he is not a Marxist, but that he does know some good people who have happened to be Marxists, and that his comments have stemmed from a radical obedience to Christ’s call to lvoe and serve the poor, rather than from a particular political ideology.
As an outsider reading this controversy (I am neither a Republican nor a Roman Catholic), I am intrigued by Pope Francis’s willingness to be open about political issues in a way that is neither partisan nor ideological, but pastoral. The Pope (and particularly this Pope) is first and foremost a bishop–a pastoral leader–called to oversee the flock known by the name of the Catholic Church. As such, his primary concern is not with political agendas, or with winning points in the political arena. Though some of his predecessors in the Chair of Peter have used the position to political gain (Medici family, anyone?), this Pope seems most concerned with his pastoral role, and with serving his people with simple dignity.
All of this leads me to ask the question–is it appropriate for pastors (particularly prominent leaders like Pope Francis) to speak on political matters? Well, to answer that, I would have to look to the Source–Jesus Christ. Was Jesus political? Absolutely! He said and did things that made the political leaders of his day quake in their boots. That’s part of what got him killed off, after all. Even a cursory glance at the gospels shows that Jesus was not afraid to speak up when he needed to, even if he said something that was unpopular or uncomfortable to the leaders of his time. Had a figure like Rush Limbaugh existed at Jesus’ time, he might have labeled Jesus a “radical,” “zealot,” or any number of incendiary names. Sure, Jesus was political. But he wasn’t partisan.
That’s what I’m hearing from Pope Francis right now. Not the words of a partisan, but of a pastor. He inspires me to take a good, hard look at my own political opinions and actions, and evaluate them in light of the gospel truth of Christ’s love. For some time now, I’ve been struggling with my own political affiliation. I’ve grown tired of partisan politics as usual in the U.S.A. today. I recognize that the particular part of the flock that Christ has called me to consists of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and every other shade of politics that exist. If I am to speak the truth to those with whom I am in ministry, I cannot, I will not, I must not be partisan. But that will not stop me speaking what I know to be true, with whatever conviction I can muster, and allowing God to take care of the rest. So, as I reflect on this position, I boldly declare:
Jesus is my party.
Jesus is my guide.
Jesus is my politics.
The rest is just periphery.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for leading the way. May Christians everywhere follow suit.