From the Francis Moment to the Francis Movement: Mercy is the Way Forward

Now that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for President and Hillary Clinton has math firmly on her side to win the Democratic nomination, the next six months of politics is going to be contentious if not outright ugly.  Not just because we’re heading into an election that no one wants, but quite simply because Trump and Clinton are the two leading candidates Americans describe as potentially “terrible” presidents: 44% of Americans think Trump would be terrible (as opposed to 10% who’d argue he’d be “great”) while 30% in the US say Clinton would be terrible (compared with 11% contending she’d be “great”).  By the evening of November 8th (or in the early hours of November 9th), a large portion of our country will be disgusted with the election results.

This is beyond the typical political polarization we keep hearing about, including the latest figures from the Pew Research Center.  A few examples: 61% of Republicans think defense spending should be increased, compared with only 20% of Democrats; 74% of Republicans are seriously concerned about the threats posed to national security by refugees from Syrian and the Middle East, while only 40% of Democrats concur; when it comes to global warming, only 26% of Republicans worry about the impact to the US,  a fraction of the 77% of Democrats; on the issue of increasing foreign aid, only 32% of Republicans offer their support, compared to 62% of Democrats.

To be sure, ideological differences are to be expected between rival political parties.  But as illustrated by these striking images, a divided Congress can bring politics to a standstill.  And I don’t just mean the Republican stonewalling of President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.  As Trent Lott and Tom Daschle have argued, the lack of compromise, chemistry, leadership, and shared vision can bring our political system to a crisis point.  The anger of the American populace has been palpable in this election cycle and certainly some of the appeal to candidates like Trump is the old “throw the bums out” angst.  As philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, underneath this anger lurks fear and helplessness, and if this continues to go unaddressed, there’s potential to unleash a “dangerous rage in a way that might do great damage to the American people in the long run.”

So what is to be done?  If so many Americans consider our political system to be so dysfunctional and find the presidential nominees so repugnant, what is the way forward?

Charlie Camosy recently argued this is perfect timing for the “Pope Francis Moment.”  Camosy’s reasoning is compelling, but as I’ve noted before, what determines the “Francis Effect” is more a matter of how Catholics receive and respond to the pope, and not just the style or substance of the current pontiff.  Francis can speak and act as much as he likes, but unless and until Catholics (and others who are inspired by the pope’s example) put these ideas into practice, it’s hard to imagine a way forward that diverges from “business as usual.”

For example, most Catholics are well aware that we are currently celebrating a Year of Mercy.  To introduce this Jubilee, Pope Francis explained:

It is the favorable time to heal wounds, a time not to be weary of meeting all those who are waiting to see and to touch with their hands the signs of the closeness of God, a time to offer everyone, everyone, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.  May the Mother of God open our eyes, so that we may comprehend the task to which we have been called; and may she obtain for us the grace to experience this Jubilee of Mercy as faithful and fruitful witnesses of Christ.

Why this emphasis on mercy?  Because, as Pope Benedict XVI reflected in a 2008 homily, mercy is “the central nucleus of the Gospel message; it is the very name of God, the Face with which he revealed himself in the Old Covenant and fully in Jesus Christ, the incarnation of creative and redemptive Love.”  In his new book, The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis defines mercy in terms of the Latin word misericordis, which means “opening one’s heart to wretchedness.”  He elaborates: “Mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive.”

But what is mercy?  In English, the term is often used interchangeably with compassion or in reference to an act of kindness.  But this pales in comparison to the richness and variety of the meaning of the word used in Scripture.

In the Old Testament, the word for mercy in Hebrew is hesed.  This word – used more than 170 times – reflects the essential character and purpose of God.  In one of the first descriptions of God’s own nature, hesed comes first: God reveals Godself as merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6-7).  Hesed speaks to God’s steadfast love, a love that is always faithful and never fails, a love marked by loyalty and tenderness – an overabundance that is hardly expressed by the popular shorthand for mercy: “loving-kindness” (Joshua 2:12; 1 Samuel 20:14-17; Isaiah 54:8-10).  It reflects God’s goodness that endures for a “thousand generations” (Exodus 20:6) and unlimited forgiveness of sin (Numbers 14:18-19; Micah 7:19) within a web of relationships as part of God’s covenant with God’s people (Leviticus 19:2, 18-18; Deuteronomy 15:4, 7; Psalm 13:6).  Indeed, hesed is the very basis for the covenant (Deuteronomy 5:2, 10; Hosea 2:16-21; Isaiah 55:3) and the manifestation of solidarity between people, as the very content of solidarity is illustrated by fidelity and obligation (2 Samuel 7:11-16).

Hesed highlights the gratuitous love of God expressed in mercy that endures forever and embraces all creation (Deuteronomy 7:7-9; Psalm 111:4, 136:1; Daniel 7:9-14).  It strikes at the core of God’s will to save humanity and restore all God’s people to the Promised Land (Psalm 25:6; Jeremiah 42:12), and importantly, hesed is not limited to the human family (Psalm 33:5, 145:9).

Hesed also defines what God wants from and for God’s people.  It defines faithfulness (Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8; see also: Matthew 12:7, 23:23) and characterizes those who love God (Ruth 1:8, 2:20, 3:10).  The Hebrew Scriptures make clear that hesed is inseparable from justice, judgment, piety, compassion, and salvation (Psalm 72:1-4, 82:3, 140:13).

Some have suggested that the word charis (grace) in the New Testament is a closer equivalent to hesed than the Greek eleos, which has been typically translated as “mercy.”  Identifying mercy with grace further sends home the message: if grace is God’s self-gift (or, as the eminent theologian Karl Rahner put it: that which the Giver and gift are one and the same), then God makes Godself known through mercy.

In the New Testament, eleos appears dozens of times to advance the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures that mercy describes God’s own being (Luke 6:36, 15:11-32; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 2:4) and how God treats God’s people (Luke 1:58; 1 Peter 2:10).  Jesus’ public teaching and healing ministry is framed in terms of mercy: it is what he teaches (Matthew 5:7) and practices (Mark 5:19).  It is the way to love one’s neighbor and inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25-42), the standard for unlimited forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35), and what makes faithfulness possible (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:1).  It is the heart of God’s desire for God’s people (Matthew 9:13, 12:7, 23:23) and linked to wisdom (James 3:17) and the reason for our hope (1 Peter 1:3).  In the end, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13); in short, mercy gets the last word.

In his efforts to encourage Christians to both know and show mercy, Francis calls us to be who God is in the world by practicing right-relationship (shalom) in the spirit of mercy.  This strikes to the core of Francis’ main themes, reiterated throughout his pontificate: the church needs to foster a “culture of encounter” in the face of the “globalization of indifference,” as the pope has diagnosed the present condition.

But this emphasis on mercy is not unique to the pontificate of Francis or the Catholic tradition.  Jewish people embrace hesed as part of their duty of tikkun olam, to “repair the world.”  In Islam, the Arabic word for mercy, rahmah, appears in the Qur’an at least 545 times.  Not only is God described as the “Most Merciful,” but as the source of all experiences of mercy.  The practice of rahmah, for Muslims, is the criterion for salvation, a strong parallel with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46.  Rahmah – which is described in terms of mother-like love – is to be directed to all people, regardless of their faith tradition.

All of this is meant to underscore the fact that Christians, Jews, and Muslims share the same belief: mercy is who God is and what God wants for God’s people.

And further, that encountering others – especially those considered other – is a prerequisite for mercy, the act of “opening one’s heart to wretchedness” as Francis has defined it.

For the “Francis Moment” to become the “Francis Movement,” people (not just individuals but groups as well as institutions, as Francis has specified) will have to adopt the practice of mercy – in all the richness and complexity described above – in their daily lives.  The philosopher Paul Ricoeur claimed that the world isn’t a better place because of a lack of moral will, but a lack of moral imagination: we fail to imagine any alternative to the present situation or wonder about what it would take to create the change we desire.

And so, staring down the gauntlet of the next six months, as fear, helplessness, and anger fester, and hurtling toward an election that no one wants (some are even calling it “the worst ever” – like Slate’s John Dickerson, back in 2014, without even considering a Trump candidacy), the question to ask is: in the spirit of mercy, what is God calling and empowering us to do?

We will not fix the dysfunction in Washington D.C. in a single election cycle (certainly not with these candidates).  But we can make progress against the partisanship and obstructionism that undermine a shared commitment to human dignity and the common good.  We can – and must – address the root causes of the fear, helplessness, and anger, and do so in a way that can foster understanding, healing, and solidarity across differences.  This is a task that’s on all our shoulders – as some pointed out in the 2012 election – and each of us has a role to play.

Some might argue that mercy is a nice idea but isn’t practical for politics.  We certainly don’t have political mercy modeled for us, which makes it all that much harder to imagine.

Mercy won’t magically be applied to the political realm without it first taking root interpersonally.  The work of mercy begins with encountering others with compassion, courage, and generosity; it begins with listening, continues through fostering empathy, and culminates in mutually respectful and responsible relationships.  And in the US today, we have work to do in our relationships.  75% of white Americans don’t have any non-white friends and almost two-thirds of African Americans don’t have any white friends.  Half of all Americans seldom or never discuss religion outside their family.  Relationships continue to be confined largely by class, meaning that inequality increases between U.S. households, as Robert Putnam has demonstrated in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.  And as Bill Bishop discussed in his 2009 book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of America is Tearing us Apart, if the trend of building “enclaves of the like-minded” continues (by Americans moving to certain parts of town or the country to be surrounded by people who look like us, think like us, and live like us) it will be much harder for us to understand – much less care about – people who appear different from ourselves.  And don’t forget about all the anger that has been simmering for years.  No wonder it seems laughable to forge consensus, collaborate on building common ground, or envision our shared well-being as interdependently connected with those we consider “other.”  When compromise is viewed as weakness and collaborating to build common ground is eschewed in favor of a political tug-of-war and zero-sum calculations, it only exacerbates the acrimony between the divisions we allow to fester.

In other words, the present political polarization is a function of how separated we’ve become from one another, the lack of appreciation and understanding of those who are different from us, an ignorance or indifference toward the beliefs and values, joys and hopes, struggles and suffering of others, as well as an unwillingness to consider the priorities or perspectives that aren’t similar to our own.

It doesn’t help that Americans are increasingly distrustful of science and are not easily persuaded by facts; in fact researchers found that presenting evidence that contradicts our beliefs only backfires (and this was before the futility of arguing with Trump supporters).  Progress will not be made through clever or compelling political ads, vigorous debates, or new heights in campaign fundraising.  It shouldn’t be surprising to see political rallies result in violence – only that so many Americans remain silent bystanders and otherwise complicit in the face of so much hate (an unacceptable moral failure, as Michael Sean Winters recently argued).

In the face of such a dearth of meaningful engagement with others, the way forward has to begin with the practice of mercy.

Mercy is how God relates with all creation, the manner in which God works to heal the relationship with humanity, broken by sin.  It is central to God calling and empowering humanity to be “repairers of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12) in the face of so much division, inequality, and injustice. It is how to live up to the standard St. Paul set for Christian discipleship: to be Christ’s ambassadors for reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

Mercy – not just compassion or loving-kindness, but in the variety and richness of the biblical tradition – involves strength and steadfastness, graciousness and gratuitousness, faithfulness and tenderness, forgiveness and responsibility, solidarity and accountability.  It is (to paraphrase St. John of the Cross) “the measure by which we shall be judged.”

Mercy is what is required to transform the “Francis Moment” to the “Francis Movement.”

Mercy keeps us from growing weary with the current state of the world or acquiescing to the status quo; it provides a way to address and treat resentment, contempt, and division; it urges us to find a new way forward and to open our imaginations, expanding the limits of what is possible.

Mercy is who God is and what God wants for God’s people.