Faithful Discipleship: Beyond Resistance to President Trump

A few weeks ago, a CNN poll showed that 85% of Americans reported the country is more divided now than in recent years.  More than half said they are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in our country.  January 20, 2017 will be a microcosm of our divided nation: millions of Americans will be celebrating today’s Inauguration of Donald Trump, cheering on his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC (which has been undermined by his Cabinet appointments) and vow to “make American great again” (whatever that means, given the fact that war, economic uncertainty, and rising social inequalities marked most of the 20th century).  Alternatively—and especially given his record low approval rating to start his presidency—millions more Americans will be lamenting today’s transfer of power.  After all, this is a man who has a habit of making outrageous, offensive, inflammatory, and patently false statements.  (His Politifact scorecard rates his claims as true only 4% of the time.)  He has insulted patriots and heroes including, most recently, Congressman John Lewis, a key leader in the Civil Rights movement. He has bragged about sexually assaulting women and being unfaithful to his marital vows.  He has disparaged countless individuals and groups, and in particular, people of color, immigrants, and Muslims, among others.  His tweets and offhand remarks have destabilized companies’ stock, raised questions about his willingness to deploy nuclear weapons, and threatened foreign relations and global security.  He has endorsed violence against protestors at his political rallies, earned the support of the KKK, and in the wake of his election, there have been more than 1,000 acts of hate or intimidation targeting minority groups.  His cabinet picks are not only controversial and extraordinarily wealthy, they are among the most inexperienced nominees in recent history.  His ties to Russia and the possibility of Russian interference in the election raise serious concerns.  He is not the successful businessman he claims to be and his philanthropy falls well short of what he boasts.  Although he professes to be a devout Christian and says the Bible is his favorite book, he had difficulty naming his favorite verse.  Even more troublingly (at least from a Christian standpoint), he’s never asked God for forgiveness—not even before he receives “my little wine” and “my little cracker” at communion.  There are pressing ethical questions about how he will divide his business interests from his political responsibilities, and Americans will be footing the sizable bill to protect his interests and security, including his properties around the globe. He has shown himself to be unpredictable if not unstable, possessing very thin skin and a penchant for bullying.  There is a litany of reasons why parents should be uncomfortable thinking of President Trump as a role model for their children and to feel dread about how to talk about his antics with their kids. It’s one thing to address the “divided states of America” in terms of political polarization; it’s another to confront the staggering anger, terror, and widespread despair so many Americans feel at the prospect of a Trump presidency.

We cannot accept any of the above to become the new “normal” for our country.

Some have suggested Trump won’t last long.  Others—including President Obama—insist that we should give Trump a chance.  A few have sagely noted that it is counterproductive if not dangerous to denounce Trump and scapegoat his supporters.  It is worth reflecting further on how Trump won the Catholic vote (despite his racist, misogynist, nativist, and Islamophobic record) and why Catholics should not expect Trump to deliver on his pro-life promises.  More to the point, it is imperative to identify what “faithful discipleship” should look like during a Trump presidency.

Faithful citizenship,” as the US Catholic Bishops write, is about informing consciences to defend the dignity of life and take responsibility for the common good as civically-engaged people of faith.  I use the phrase “faithful discipleship” as a reminder that Christians are called to be faithful to the Gospel (and to the person of Jesus Christ) before any other allegiance, including nationality or party affiliation.

In this regard, it may be helpful to remember that Jesus wrestled with an unjust social order and condemned abuses of power.  As John Pavlovitz writes, Jesus was a peacemaker with an activist heart.  He was a shepherd for the marginalized and oppressed, the nonpersons of his day.  But to the “wolves” who preyed on the socially insignificant of his day, Jesus “was the holy fury of an outraged God who refused to tolerate the mistreatment of those made in God’s image.”

This is the same outrage we hear in the prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah who warned:

“Woe to those who turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness to the ground, they hate those who reprove at the gate and abhor those who speak with integrity; therefore, because you tax the destitute and exact from them levies of grain, though you have built houses of hewn stone, you shall not live in them; though you have planted choice vineyards, you shall not drink their wine.  Yes, I know how many are your crimes, how grievous your sins: oppressing the just, accepting bribes, turning away the needy at the gate …” (Amos 5:7-12).

God reveals God’s character and purpose throughout Scripture as taking the side of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.  As Bible scholar Fr. John Donahue, S.J., writes, “This concern for the defenseless in society is not a command designed simply to promote social harmony, but is rooted in the nature of Yahweh himself who is defender of the oppressed.”  (See, for example, Deuteronomy 10:18 and Psalm 103:6.)  This means “the knowing of Yahweh is taking the cause of the poor and the needy.  Here there is no division,” Donahue explains, “between faith and the doing of justice.  Justice is concrete.  It combines non-exploitation of the poor and taking their cause.  The doing of justice is not the application of religious faith, but its substance; without it, God remains unknown.”

In other words, Christians cannot be spectators in the political arena.  Neither can they leave those in Washington to do the work of politics.  It is the responsibility of every disciple—as individuals and as members of faith communities called by the Gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit—to live a faith that does justice.  Otherwise we risk being complicit in an unjust social order that betrays who God is and what God wants.

The biblical vision of justice is one that overcomes self-interest to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable members of society (this is the principle of the “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social teaching).  The poor and needy are the very people Trump calls “losers” (among other insults, now numbered at least 289 times on Twitter).  Faithful discipleship requires resisting the kinds of political rhetoric and exercise of power that demonize, denigrate, and divide.  It demands that Christians cultivate the prayer life, prophetic imagination, courageous advocacy, inclusive dialogue and relationship-building, as well as community-organizing and collective action that delivers justice for the neediest members of our society.

I agree with Stephen Pope, who argues that this is “not the time for reconciliation.”  Pope writes:

“Jesus was clear that those who follow him should expect strife. When they stand in tension, fidelity is prior to reconciliation—and even its necessary condition. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing are central to the Gospel, but they are corrupted when not coordinated with fidelity, justice, and truth. All of us must be willing to support reasonable compromises that advance useful public policies, but only within the bounds of what is consistent with universal human dignity. We must try to understand everyone, but not turn a blind eye to bigotry. We must will the good to offenders, but not reconcile with unrepentant racists. Instead, we must struggle against injustice and those who promote or countenance it. As John Paul II insisted, wrongdoing “must be acknowledged and as far as possible corrected … [because an] essential requirement for forgiveness and reconciliation is justice.” We are light years away from justice.”

What does a commitment to justice look like with Trump as president?  I have alluded above to a five-point-plan that goes beyond resistance.  While I agree with Rev. Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners) that resistance is patriotic and Christian, it may also exacerbate social divisions and political gridlock.  Prophetic leadership is most effective when it combines denunciation (of what should not be) with annunciation (of what should be).  Toward this end, our objective should be more than resisting Trump, the demagogue; we should be working to build the just social order that celebrates human dignity and fosters the common good.  (Mother Teresa might remind us, “God does not require that we be successful, only faithful.”)

I propose the following five steps for practicing fidelity to Jesus who is, as Donahue asserts, “the sacrament of God’s justice in the world.”

1. Cultivating prayer for shalom. Shalom, a word usually translated as “peace” is better understood as the wholeness and fullness of life in right, loving, and just relationship between God, humanity, and all creation.  This is God’s hope and it should be the end to which we order our deepest desires and heartfelt prayers.  The problem is, too often prayer is conceived as time spent bringing our problems to God in order to ask for God’s help to fix them.  Sometimes, we just want God to fix our problems for us.  (Notice how the prayer of the faithful are written at your parish; when we pray for the hungry, sick, poor, and those subject to violence, war, and ecological degradation, are we suggesting that these are God’s problems to solve or ours?)  The point of prayer is to commune with God and to be transformed in God’s love.  We pray not for God to change the world, but so we can be changed, as Fr. Richard Rohr describes.  The first step in faithful discipleship is to commit to a life of prayer, to grow in becoming “contemplatives in action” as St. Ignatius of Loyola saw it.  According to Jesuit priest Walter Burghardt, this process begins by taking “a long loving look at the real.”  By trying to see the world (including ourselves and others) as God does, we can see the good in us and around us as well as the divisions and wounds that need to be healed.  We pray so that we might act in fidelity to God’s hope for creation, to realize the “reign of God” at the core of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (which is shalom).

Dorothy Day is an exemplar of this commitment to being a “contemplative in action.”  Lauded by Pope Francis in his address to Congress in September 2015, Dorothy Day’s discipleship was dedicated to prayer and piety as much as a commitment to justice for the poor and nonviolence in our world.  Her life is a testament to the power of prayer and the personal responsibilities of a faith that does justice.  I imagine Dorothy with a rosary in one hand and a protest sign in the other.  In December 1948 she reflected, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”  Dorothy Day prayed continuously to grow in love—love for God and love for those in need, and those hardest for her to love—knowing that love would give her the energy to humbly yet tirelessly commit to the work of justice in the world.  (She also relied on the sacramental life of her Catholic faith; she wrote “Without the sacraments of the church, I certainly do not think that I could go on.)  With Peter Maurin, she co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper and dedicated her life to practicing the social mission of the church.  She was a staunch advocate for the poor, hungry, and homeless; the houses of hospitality she started in the 1930s now number over one hundred across the globe.  She opposed war and promoted nonviolence and called for a revolution of the heart to a greater love open to all—even enemies.  “If I have achieved anything in my life,” she once said, “it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy reminds us what it means to be a “contemplative in action,” especially one shaped so deeply by love and justice.

2. Practicing prophetic imagination. It is easy to look at the state of the world, our political system, our cities and schools, and lose hope.  But hope—trust that God makes good on God’s promises—is what leads us into the future.  Hope fights the twin temptations of presumption (that God will take care of everything for us) and despair (that all is lost).  Hope is closely linked to the imagination: it expands what we imagine to be possible and refuses to domesticate or “fence in” the work of the Holy Spirit.  Hope generates creativity and advances freedom.  It helps us to better recognize and partner with God who is present and at work in the world.  Hope reminds us that we do not have to accept the world as it is; we can and should practice a prophetic imagination that explores what it would take to bring about the shalom God desires for all creation.

Walter Brueggemann is a theologian who specializes in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  He understands the prophetic tradition in terms of a “prophetic imagination,” which he envisions as closely related to poetry, the artful use of language meant to convey wisdom and impart courage.  The prophetic imagination creates conflict: from a critical distance, it critiques an unjust status quo and confronts those responsible for it.  But as mentioned above, this extends beyond denunciation to annunciation: the goal is not to carve out a contrary position as much as it is to effect change in social perspectives and policies.  Practicing a prophetic imagination constructs a visionary awareness of what is real and what more is possible.  It critiques the exercise of power that subdues, marginalizes, and causes suffering—that is, the structural evil the Catholic tradition calls “social sin.”  It provokes and interrogates, seeking to root out fear, complacency, and blind obedience.  As Brueggemann describes, the prophetic imagination is profoundly countercultural because it “dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion.”  It does more than resist or denounce the darkness in the world; it releases the energy of God who stands with those at the underside of empire in order to liberate those who are deprived freedom and equality.  The prophetic imagination calls forth wonder, awe, and appreciation in people to, as Brueggemann sees it, “engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”  In short, the prophetic imagination combats complacency and despair by reminding us to look for ways to practice hope, courage, and boundless creativity to nourish and sustain work to make new life and new forms of community possible.

3. Growing in advocacy. The sociologist Alan Wolfe has found that most Americans prefer what he calls “modest virtues.”  Basically that boils down to tolerance and non-judgmentalism.  (In fact, Wolfe opines that if Americans were to vote on adding an 11th Commandment, it would be “Thou Shalt Not Judge.”)  But the problem with tolerance is that merely tolerating the existence of others falls short of what is required to solve complex social problems (like sexism, racism, or poverty, for example).  A prophetic imagination generates hope, courage, and creativity and it needs to urge people beyond tolerance to take shape through social responsibility.  The way to do this is by growing in advocacy: developing the courage to show up and speak out against the structural evil and personal suffering caused by injustice.  It keeps us from saying, “Who am I to say or do anything about this?”  Our silence will not save others and it will not save ourselves (as Martin Niemöller famously alluded).

Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the best examples we have of a Christian disciple who took his citizenship seriously enough to become an advocate for the dignity and rights of his fellow citizens.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine another non-president who has effected the same measure of change to our American democracy.  Even though King had his fair share of moral shortcomings, his example reminds us that moral heroes need not be flawless individuals (which, of course, would be impossible, given the reality of sin).  It is also easy to romanticize King and forget the struggles he faced.  In 1966, 72% of Americans had an unfavorable view of King (which changed dramatically by 1987, when 76% reported a favorable view).  Even though opposition to King was related to his stance against the Vietnam War, King wasn’t always the popular figure we imagine today.  In fact, some claim that only 13% of black churches supported King during his work for the Poor People’s Campaign.  This is worth mentioning not to discredit King, but to pay tribute to his courage and resilience in the face of such little support.

To grow in advocacy like King requires that people who are comfortable risk becoming uncomfortable for the sake of love and justice.  In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” he laments the laxity of the church.  He explains, “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.  But, oh!  How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists” and continues, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.  So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

As true as this might have been in 1963, this critique is eerily prescient for today. 40% of Americans say churches contribute “not much” or “nothing” to solving important social problems.  The US Catholic Church has been mostly quiet about Trump’s shameful behavior; Archbishop Kurtz congratulated Trump for his victory and said the USCCB looks forward to working with him as president.  In the face of increasing inequality in our country, growing racial tension, police shootings of unarmed black men and women, and other troubling trends, US bishops have been largely silent. (The USCCB’s last statement on racism was in 1979.)

King urged Christians to shirk the label of “moderate” to be “extremists for love” just as Jesus was (Luke 6:35).  He called on disciples to be “creatively maladjusted” to a country marked by sinful social structures that exclude and oppress.  To be an advocate is to use one’s voice to disrupt an unjust status quo, combat complacency and despair, and encourage folks to continue to be resilient in the pursuit of shalom.  He insisted that we are measured by where we stand not in moments of comfort or convenience, but challenge and controversy.  He reminded us “silence is betrayal” (and also: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”).  We all have a voice; the question is whether and how we use it to promote love and justice for all.


4. Initiating inclusive dialogue and relationships. Much has been made of fake news and the ideological echo chambers created by social media.  We may have a preference to associate and interact with people who look like us, think like us, and act like us, but this fails to reflect the complexity and diversity of reality.  No one possesses the fullness of truth; no one is free from blind spots or biases (which need to be filled in and corrected).  It is impossible to cultivate empathy, understanding, or a shared commitment to the common good if we don’t first grow into the “culture of encounter” Pope Francis has been championing throughout his papacy.  A “culture of encounter” requires that we step outside of our comfort zone, welcome the “other” and listen to what that other has to teach us.

A prime exemplar of this practice is Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk also highlighted in Pope Francis’ address to Congress in September 2015.  Merton was deeply committed to peace and interfaith understanding and echoed many of the concerns raised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Merton wrote “Letters to a White Liberal” in response to King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963, in which he called for white atonement to acknowledge the unmerited privilege white people enjoy in American society as well as commitment to reform the systems and structures that create such unjust inequalities across the color line.  In addition to his commitment to racial reconciliation, Merton also prioritized interreligious dialogue.  In particular, he fostered a close relationship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (even though they met only once, in 1966), whom he called “my brother.”  It is remarkable that Pope Francis lifted up Merton as an example during his visit to the US, given that Merton was often dismissed by his contemporaries as “too radical.”

Perhaps the pope lifted up Merton’s example of inclusive welcome, free and open inquiry, and engagement with pluralism and diversity because it remains a much-needed standard for Christian discipleship today.  In a socio-cultural context marked by ideological differences and divides based on class, race, and creed, Merton’s reverence for the natural world, the uniqueness of each individual, and an incarnational spirituality that fosters global solidarity challenges us to be ever more inclusive with our conversation partners and collaborators.  There is so much to learn and appreciate; faithful discipleship implies a willingness to go to the frontiers (as Pope Francis described his own aspirations) and to go beyond what is already familiar, comfortable, and similar.  This means expanding our social circles, making friendships across boundaries that divide, and listening to voices that speak from perspectives different from our own.  Put simply, it means being better about listening to others (especially those we might consider to be “other”), casting a wider net in whom we follow (and what we share) online, and forging partnerships and coalitions that defend human dignity and promote the common good.

5. Participating in community organizing and collective action. In the face of so many people who feel helpless and powerless, faithful discipleship requires that we exercise agency in meaningful and effective ways.  In Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity instructs that we take action at the lowest effective level.  This means exercising our rights and responsibilities and not waiting for our elected officials to effect the change we hope to see (even though one-third of Congress is Catholic and this would seem a peak opportunity to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on our national policies).  Faithful discipleship is, at bottom, about right, loving, and just relationships; this relational anthropology reminds us that not only do we belong to each other, but we are accountable to each other.  Community organizing and collective action can provide “structures of grace” that confront, resist, and transform the structural evils waged by personal and social sin.  Faithful discipleship implies having some “skin in the game” and not just being a bystander who observes, judges, or resists what many believe to be a broken political system.  If the system is indeed not just flawed but broken, it will be necessary for more Christians (and others of good will with similar aims to advance human dignity and the common good) to go from spectators to participants in the political system, just as President Obama urged in his farewell speech in Chicago.  President Obama insisted:

“For all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen … that’s what our democracy demands.  It needs you.  Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime … If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  Show up.  Dive in.  Stay at it.”

An exemplar for this practice of faithful discipleship is Cesar Chavez.  Chavez is perhaps best known for his organizing work with Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans, and later the United Farm Workers, the first successful farm worker union in US history.  Chavez was inspired—both in faith and organizing—by Fr. Donald McDonnell, who encouraged his work to defend human rights and the dignity of labor.  Also motivated by the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Chavez embraced nonviolence, leveraged the power of strikes and boycotts, and delivered protections for farm workers who previously had no real power in the produce industry.  Chavez brings to life a form of liberating theology that has its roots in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which reads, “Everyone’s first duty is to protect the workers from the greed of speculators who use human beings as instruments to provide themselves with money.”  In explaining the strikes and boycotts he organized, Chavez observed, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”

Chavez was committed to grassroots organizing as a form of cultivating a sense of belonging, of fellowship, and solidarity.  He also recognized it as necessary to effect social change.  Social change is a process that follows collective movement by creating momentum; Chavez contends, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.  You cannot uneducate a person who has learned to read.  You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.  You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.  We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”

Community organizing is the rent we pay for this future.  Collective action is the down payment we owe to have some “skin in the game.”  We are stronger together, which means that whatever the cause that is close to our hearts—whether combating racism, mass incarceration, immigration, human trafficking, child abuse and neglect, mental illness, sexual assault, domestic violence, hunger, homelessness, violence and war, capital punishment, environmental degradation, the dignity of life in all forms, or poverty in all its intersecting issues, in the US and globally among so many other issues—there are countless responsible and effective organizations that will help you get involved.   There’s even a “shy person’s guide to advocacy” to equip and empower the most timid among us.  As Chavez would often chant: “Si se puede!” Together, we can.

St. Augustine wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.  Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”  Anger is often directed at a perceived injustice.  There are faith leaders marshaling that anger and leading resistance (see, for example, the “100 Days of Justice” organized by Faith in Public Life).  But as anger might fade or give way to weariness, I would argue that what we need now more than ever is courage.  The virtue of courage eschews the twin extremes of cowardice and brazen foolishness; with prudence it seeks to do what is good, right, true, and just even when it is risky.  Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would remind us that there is no “cheap grace” in faithful discipleship, only the costly grace that delivers us through suffering to joy when we share life in Christ.  Faithful discipleship always implies some risk and this is certainly no time to run from it.

These five practices—cultivating prayer for shalom, practicing prophetic imagination, growing in advocacy, initiating inclusive dialogue and relationships, and participating in community organizing and collective action—are concrete avenues to be faithful to the demands of discipleship.  As we enter the era of President Trump, the world needs our witness to these shared beliefs, values, habits, relationships, practices, responsibility and accountability.  God is calling and empowering us to share in and spread the shalom that reflects who God is and what God wants for all creation.  It is up to us to be faithful to this call by doing what we can wherever we are—as disciples, as churches, as citizens, as a country.  If the country is divided, if our leaders are bigoted, dishonest, or corrupt, if apathy and anger have taken control, then we must roll up our sleeves and get to work.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Millennial of the Year 2016: Nadia Murad

For her commitment to justice for the victims of genocide, mass atrocities, sexual violence, and human trafficking, along with her calls for action to protect the innocent from ISIS, our 2016 Millennial of the Year is Nadia Murad.

A Yazidi, living in Iraq at the time, Nadia was kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS in 2014. Her mother and six brothers were killed. Nadia managed to escape. Since that time, she has become a champion of the Yazidi people and human rights. Nadia has been named Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking by the UN and started an organization to help “women and children victimized by genocide, mass atrocities, and human trafficking heal and re-build their lives and communities.”

This is her message:

Being a survivor of genocide comes with great responsibility –for I am the lucky one. Having lost my brothers, mother and many more family members and friends it is a responsibility I embrace fully and take very seriously.  My role as an activist is not just about my suffering—it is about a collective suffering. Telling my story and reliving the horrors I encountered is no easy task, but the world must know. The world must feel a moral responsibility to act and if my story can influence world leaders to act then it must be told.

After the Holocaust, the world decried, “never again” but yet Genocide occurs with haunting frequency.  What’s puzzling to me is that it occurs in full view of the world community.  When ISIS trapped the Yazidi community on Sinjar Mountains, the world watched and world leaders chose not to act.  In fact, we still find ourselves begging the United Nations to act – to stop ISIS – to hold ISIS accountable for all the horrific crimes committed. A fundamental goal for me is to fight impunity for crimes committed against all margined communities devastated by global terrorism.

I am committed to leading a campaign to prompt peace through de-radicalization. I will focus my power to deliver a message to the Muslim world to condemn extremism, particularly against children and women, carried out in the name of Islam.  We must work together to counter terrorism and deter the youth  from joining or supporting radical groups and united to teach all youth the importance of tolerance towards the beliefs of others.

Recent terrorism brought sufferings beyond our any understanding, and women and children have become the population mostly affected, notable, human trafficking and mass  enslavement have become a tool used by terrorists to humiliate societies and humanity at large, I am committed to fight human trafficking and mass enslavement.

We cannot depend solely on the actions of the United Nations and world leaders.  Individuals can contribute to the fight as well.  If we all do our small part, in every corner of the world, I believe we can end genocide and mass atrocities against women and children.  If we have the courage to stand up and fight for those we don’t know – who live thousands of miles away – we can make a difference.   The world is one community and we need to act as such.

I ask you as a survivor and a friend, to join my Initiative and help all victims in the conflict zones, especially those targeted for their identify.  ISIS must be stopped.  Please contribute to this important cause, for we all humans that deserve to live peacefully.

In defending the Responsibility to Protect, universal human rights, religious freedom, and the rights and dignity of women and children, Nadia has championed principles that are critical to progressing toward the global common good. Her honesty and courage are a testament to her character. For these reasons, we are proud to announce that she is our 2016 Millennial of the Year.

A Humble, Transformative Life Remembered


This past week I buried my father-in-law. It was a hard week but also beautiful, and it reaffirmed my conviction about what I had written a few days before.

In a Christmas Day post, I recollected how throughout history God has used seemingly insignificant people and events to bring about the most wondrous transformations–liberation from powerful oppressors, smashing social barriers, redeeming a lost humanity. I suggested that this should give us hope and encourage us to work for the transformation of our society, even in a time when a vitriolic political climate and boiling racial tensions make things seem hopeless.

The life and legacy my father-in-law has left behind stands as proof that such hope is not pie-in-sky, that meaningful change is really possible in the modern world. Denis Bouffard was not a major political player. He did not have a fortune to throw at global problems like malaria or water scarcity as might a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. He did not even have an especially big personality. His demeanor, like his stature, was humble. And yet, to quote the words spoken by his son in his eulogy, “Who knew a size 8½ could leave such a big footprint?”

From almost the moment his wake began, the line was out the door. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 people waited an hour in line–including a time outside in the freezing cold–to pay their last respects. Former students, fellow volunteers, and droves of friends and family all filed through. People drove for hours and flew in from around the country. Messages and prayers poured in from places as distant as Ireland, Ukraine, and Australia. Why all this for a former high school religion teacher and part-time wedding photographer?

The reasons for the large showing became apparent as people approached the family to offer their condolences. Many former students spoke of the love and respect Mr. Bouffard showed them, even when they were not at their best. A family who had struggled to find housing spoke of his (and his wife’s) compassion and hospitality in opening their home to them. His children spoke of his persistence in hope in the face of tragedy, sickness, and death, with which his family was unfortunately well-acquainted. None of these virtues is the stuff of headlines or viral sensations. Yet it was abundantly clear to anyone in (or outside) the funeral home that night that this man had, little by little, transformed a community.

The next day when everyone gathered for the funeral service in St. Gregory the Great Church where Denis had worn the kneelers down over years of faithful prayer, the presider, a friend of more than 40 years, shed light on the secret of this humble man’s surprisingly transformative life. Denis Bouffard, through a lifetime of modest gestures, was able to make an inestimable impact upon countless lives because he always sought first and foremost to serve God. If he was remarkable in any sense, it is that he seemed so utterly unconcerned with promoting himself or tending his own ego. In that respect, he was much like Saint André Bessette, a modern saint to whom Denis had a special devotion. Saint André was a brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross who, because of his lack of education and professional skills, worked as a porter for 40 years. Yet in spite of his humble origins and position, he became known as the “miracle man of Montreal” for the many healings he worked through the invocation of St. Joseph for those who came to him. Shortly after Denis’s death, another Holy Cross priest-friend remarked that Saint André would surely be there to open the door when his devotee approached the pearly gates.

Denis’s death, like most of his life, was not glamorous. (He fell down the stairs while removing the baby gate he had put up to safeguard his grandchildren during their holiday visits.) But there is something fitting about his time on earth ending in this way, for he devoted so much of his life to caring for and opening the door to others. This is true in both a literal and spiritual sense. Through innumerable acts and kindnesses that most would consider hardly worth mentioning, he opened to the door to God for countless people.

Few people would look at the details of Denis’s life and think this is the stuff that heroes are made of. But he is a hero to me, and I would argue that he is exactly the kind of hero this world needs. I work in a profession where I am constantly tempted and even encouraged to promote myself and amass awards and recognition. It seems to me that this is largely true of our culture as a whole, which tends to reward efficient and ostentatious performance over efforts for deep, meaningful change. However, when we look back at the history of God’s dealings with humanity, we see that salvation does not come at the hands of the proud and the strong. God prefers to work not through people who would make themselves great but rather through those who humbly serve God and neighbor. We Christians call these people saints, and Denis Bouffard is surely one of them.

How Should We Respond to the Age of Fake News?

The means of communication are the builders of a society. In and of themselves, they are made to build, to interchange, to fraternize, to make us think, to educate.Pope Francis

I don’t know if you heard, but prior to the 2016 presidential election, Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump. Citing the FBI’s refusal to prosecute Hillary Clinton, the statement from Pope Francis concludes with: “For this primary reason I ask, not as the Holy Father, but as a concerned citizen of the world that Americans vote for Donald Trump for President of the United States.”

This endorsement was certainly a surprise, as Pope Francis and Donald Trump infamously clashed over immigration prior to the election.

Of course, the thing is, the above endorsement is actually fake. But that didn’t stop it from spreading like wildfire across social media. In fact, just one website’s post on this fake story (and there were numerous copycats) received nearly a million engagements on Facebook. If one searched the story on Twitter, one would quickly see how countless Trump supporters, some of whom have tens thousands of followers, shared the fake endorsement with followers.

We will likely never know if the hundreds of thousands of people who shared this fake endorsement on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets willingly knew the story was fake or if they purposely spread this fake story to incite confusion among Catholics and generate more votes for their favored candidate.

Truth be told, the common impulse to exclusively blame Russia and other creators of fake news is an easy out. The real danger our Republic faces doesn’t just come from the outside but from within.

In January, when Pope Francis met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Pope Francis correctly stated, “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”

People tend to forget the internet is simply a tool. Our minds, on the other hand, require the proper use of this tool, if we are going to develop our prudence and understanding of complex social and political issues. The pursuit of truth requires a willingness to put in the effort to discern what information is legitimate and useful versus that which is dishonest and distorted.

In a recent interview, Pope Francis said the media has a great responsibility to not spread disinformation. The problem is that traditional media outlets are now competing with both legitimate and irresponsible media sites that are products of the internet age. More than half of those between the ages of 18 and 49 get their news primarily through the internet. And it is increasingly clear that many are struggling to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate sources, either due to ignorance or indifference. When fake news is increasingly dominating the internet and outpacing traditional news outlets in engagement, the problems with this new reality are obvious.

But it is not just a technology problem. Fake news and the confusion it spreads are symptoms of a far more severe problem. America’s basic understanding of how our government works and the political realities we are facing as a country are eroding.

A poll conducted by the Civics Renewal Network in 2014 found that fewer than a third of the respondents could name all three branches of the US government and only a quarter knew it takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto.

Not knowing or understanding the structure or mechanics of government is one thing, but when it relates to policy issues, the level of misunderstanding is perhaps even more worrisome. This is especially true when uniformed citizens cast a vote based on serious policy issues without any factual understanding of the issues whatsoever.

This is true of both domestic and foreign policy issues. To name just one example, in 2013 a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that while 41% of Republicans felt Benghazi was the biggest political scandal in American history, 39% of couldn’t find it on a map. If you don’t know in which country the supposed biggest scandal in American history took place, perhaps some level of humility would be in order. But bravado and reckless claims are far more common. Can the Republic remain healthy with so many acting this way?

Perhaps the most effective long-term way to combat fake news and the disinformation it spreads is to heavily invest in civic education. Schools are already teaching K-12 students how to use the computer and internet. Now may be the time to update educational standards on civics as well, along with the intersection of civics and technology. Instead of trying to memorize names and dates year after year, as if historical and political events were equations or theories, the youth of America should be openly debating each other in the classroom and taking time to gather credible sources of information to back up such debates.

If nothing is done, our Republic may fatally succumb to the ignorance and irresponsibility promoted in the darkest corners of the internet. Let’s commit to being more careful consumers of internet content. Let’s encourage the people we know to do the same and helpfully correct them when they stumble. And let’s prepare a new generation of American citizens with the skills to be responsible citizens in the age of fake news.

Stephen Seufert is the state director of Keystone Catholics, an online social justice organization dedicated to promoting the common good.

The Wise Men Went Another Way and So Must We to Protect Creation

As Christians around the world observe the feast of the Epiphany, we recall the day that the Magi, following a star by faith, arrived in Bethlehem to honor the newborn Savior. This year, however, I find myself reflecting more on their return journey, specifically the wisdom that lead them to go back a different way after being warned to do so in a dream. Because the truth is that we have ventured down a dangerous path in our relationship to Creation and to rectify this, we need a new way forward.

Seeking to honor one much greater than themselves, the Magi were present and reverent to the newborn king, sharing spiritual gifts, as well as the more obvious and tangible offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Likewise, each of us has also been entrusted with gifts by God. The gifts of our time, talent, treasure, and testimony are things that can inform our vocations and allow us to provide for the needs of others. The material gifts the Magi brought were fitting for a worldly king. Jesus, however, makes it clear to us in the New Testament that we are not called  to prize power or material possessions, but rather to serve the “least of these.” In Laudato Si, Pope Francis reminds us that the “gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest,” and that humans are called to steward and love not just human “others,” but animals, plants, and all of Creation. We are called to use our gifts to protect God’s Creation.

The magi exemplify this mentality, paying great attention to nature. Looking to the rhythms of the stars as they journeyed, they were guided to the savior by a deep relationship with God’s Creation. Referred to as the “Book of Nature” by medieval Catholic theologians, God’s Creation was not only intended to sustain us, but also to reflect the love of our Creator and teach us about Him. As we deal with increasing climate chaos and what Pope Francis refers to as the “ethical, cultural, and spiritual crisis” at its root, how many of us can point to native edible plants in our neighborhoods and give thanks for them? Or notice if migratory birds are returning earlier in the spring? If we don’t marvel at the sparrows, we risk losing sight of God’s promised provision for them and for us, even as our sinful overconsumption of resources alters the composition of the atmosphere and our climate. Called to be witnesses to and stewards of Creation, we cannot protect that which we do not know and love.

The Magi’s choice to depart and travel home by “another way” infuriated Herod. Their act of civil disobedience against a violent and oppressive ruler was not without great risk but it allowed the Holy Family to escape to safety in Egypt. As the realities of disease, poverty, famine, and violent conflict become evermore common and severe due to climate change, it is clear that we must depart from our sinful ways, returning to a healthy relationship with our common home.

To do so, we must not ignore the testimony of God’s own Creation any longer, allowing the observed changes in carbon concentrations, temperature, rainfall, and sea level to guide us to respond courageously, just as the star guided the Magi. With climate change deniers coming into the White House, industrial polluters resisting the call to ecological stewardship, and the widespread materialism that impacts our spiritual lives and our planet, we seem to need, like the Magi, to go by a different way. To do so will require an ecological conversion, for which a great deal of wisdom and a deepening of faith will be necessary.

The Magi were called by God to protect Christ and the Holy Family. Scripture and tradition make it clear that all of us are called to care for Creation, taking steps to live more responsibly as individuals and working in community to protect it from those that would do it harm. As daunting as it may seem, Pope Francis offers encouragement:

All is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.

This year, I pray that the example of the wise men will motivate us to pursue wisdom in our own lives.  As we deepen our relationships with God, others, and our common home, may we root ourselves in a faith that inspires action; in relationships that give life; and in holy service and sacred stewardship. May we grow in wonder and gratitude as we reflect on the mysteries of the incarnation of the true king, our Creator, and all of Creation.

Catherine Goggins is a faith-based climate organizer with Interfaith Power & Light who lives in Washington D.C.

Still Need a New Year’s Resolution? Love More, Better

Social isolation has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. And it’s killing us—quite literally:

Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.

Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.

Pope Francis has called for a revolution in tenderness and continually called on us to go the peripheries and encounter those who are marginalized, alienated, and vulnerable. The lonely certainly qualify. And this means bursting our secure bubbles and engaging with those whose very existence is often ignored—whether they are homeless or disabled or elderly, those often separated by societal and even physical barriers. A new year offers a new opportunity to challenge ourselves to break from our past lethargy and revive our commitment to living the radical way of Christ.

But the epidemic of loneliness and isolation is also about the breakdown of relationships in what should be our most intimate spheres—romantic relationships and among close friends. The atomization of our lives seems to be accelerating. Many romantic relationships and close friendships are fraying in the face of this radical individualism, others are more distant and superficial. And even those of us who recognize the risks of both individualism and isolation are not immune from perpetuating and deepening them.

The new year offers the perfect time to reflect on the ways you share and receive love:

  • How can you love the people you love even more?
  • Do you have relationships of trust and affection that can grow stronger? How can such relationships be deepened?
  • Do you allow others to love you or do you put up barriers that undermine love, friendship, and intimacy?

An excellent resolution for the new year is to challenge ourselves to love more genuinely and deeply. It might not be easy. It requires vulnerability. If you’ve been burned in past relationships, it might seem safer to keep a comfortable distance. And it’s also true that some have personality types that make the deepening of many relationships exceedingly difficult.

So it’s a challenge, perhaps a difficult challenge, just like many other New Year’s resolutions. But as Pope Francis explains, this is also a great opportunity: “When we experience disappointment or betrayal in important relationships, we come to realize how vulnerable and defenseless we are.  The temptation to become self-absorbed grows stronger, and we risk losing life’s greatest opportunity: to love in spite of everything!”

If you wish to accept this challenge “to love in spite of everything,” here are five aspects of love that you might think about:

  1. Intimacy- Are you learning about each other at the deepest level? Are you willing to share your most important thoughts and emotions? Do you maintain this intimacy despite the pressures of daily life or if you are physically distant?
  2. Presence- Do you take the time to see the other person? To talk to them? Do you think about them and how they are doing? Are your lives intertwined in any way, or are you each trying to maximize your freedom of action and autonomy?
  3. Authenticity- Do you play games with the other person or consider power dynamics? Are you projecting an image or living as your authentic self in their presence? Do you accept them for who they are at their core, affirming their goodness, moving beyond their flaws, and finding joy in their existence?
  4. Empathy- Do you consider the thoughts and feelings of the other person? Are you able to put yourself in their place and understand their actions through this prism? Do you overreact to real mistakes or slights, or even invent slights by assuming the other person is selfish or indifferent to you?
  5. Kindness- Can you be more thoughtful, caring, encouraging, forgiving, gentle, helpful?  Can you do more to seek the good of the other person that you love?

An Important Step: the Catholic Church’s Apology over Role in Rwandan Genocide

My father and I heard on the radio the unexpected news that Rwanda’s Catholic bishops apologized for the Church’s complicity in the planning, aiding, and abetting of the 1994 genocide that claimed more than a million lives. This initiative, however, drew strong criticism from the government who found the apology “profoundly inadequate” and called instead for an official apology from the Vatican. Although this comes over two decades late, I welcome this as an initial step. As a Rwandan and a Catholic, I also urge the Church’s leadership, at home and abroad, to heed these criticisms and promote efforts aimed at justice and reconciliation.

The statement released on November 20 read, “We apologize for all the wrongs the church committed. We apologize on behalf of all Christians for all forms of wrongs we committed. We regret that church members violated (their) oath of allegiance to God’s commandments. Forgive us for the crime of hate in the country to the extent of also hating our colleagues because of their ethnicity. We didn’t show that we are one family but instead killed each other.”

The Rwandan government welcomed the bishops’ initiative as an “individual expression of remorse” but criticized its “profound inadequacy [that] only serves to highlight how far the Catholic Church still remains from a full and honest reckoning with its moral and legal responsibilities.” In the government’s view, the apology is a failed attempt by Rwandan bishops to “exonerate the Catholic Church as a whole for any culpability in connection with the Genocide” and stressed that there is “ample justification” for an apology from the Vatican in the context of the severity of crimes committed. There were also reports of the failure of some “priests to read the bishop’s message to parishioners as intended” during mass on Sunday.

The historical role of the Catholic Church from the colonial era to the genocide offers a backdrop to the significant backlash against the bishops’ initiative. Without delving into too many details, the 2000 report by the Organization for the Unity of Africa (OUA) titled “Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide” provides some relevant insights. With Belgian colonial endorsement, the first missionaries in Rwanda, also known as the White Fathers, institutionalized rigid ethnic identities for political purposes through indoctrination in schools and at churches. In per-colonial Rwanda, the terms Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa described social class rather than ethnicity, as these groups shared a common language, culture, and land.

The shift from economic class to ethnic group rested on pseudo-science rooted in racial ranking theories of the time, culminating in the policy of including ethnic groups on national identity cards, formalizing and exacerbating societal cleavages. These identity cards would later prove a death sentence for many during the genocide. Since then, national identity cards no longer display ethnic affiliation, in an effort to foster reconciliation and unity.

The separation of church and state barely existed during the post-independence period, the OUA report argues. The church leadership remained “a firm and reliable bulwark” of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime in fueling ethnic discrimination and hatred. Instead of being sanctuaries, churches became primary killing sites. The very first massacre on the morning of April 7 occurred at Centre Christus in Kigali, a place where I attended mass on Christmas day last year. Church leaders did nothing to discourage the killings and “the close association of church leaders with the leaders of the genocide [was interpreted] as a message that genocide was consistent with church teachings.”  Priests committed heinous acts and often members of the congregation conducted the killing. At least 55,000 are reported to have perished in churches across the country.

The timing of the apology, 22 years following the end of the genocide, also raised important questions. According to the Bishop Phillipe Rukamba, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Rwanda, the “statement was timed to coincide with the formal end Sunday of the Holy Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis to encourage greater reconciliation and forgiveness in his church and in the world.” Moreover, the local church and the Vatican have maintained that “while individual clergy were guilty of terrible crimes, the church as an institution bears no responsibility.”

Given the historical context—the scale of crimes committed during the genocide—the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Rwanda can and should play a decisive role in promoting reconciliation and justice. We owe as much to brave priests, nuns, and parishioners who stood for their faith and paid the heaviest price.

The inspirational, spiritual, political, and revolutionary leadership of Pope Francis offers optimism in this regard. In March 2014, the Holy See decided to set up a commission to “advise the church on the best policies to protect children, train church personnel and keep abusers out of the clergy,” and repair the Church’s reputational damage. The late Pope John Paul II acknowledged Catholic involvement in the persecution of the Jews in 2000, noting “the burden of guilt” that Christians bore “for the murder of the Jewish people.” Moreover, he made “a historic trip to Jerusalem, where he honored the victims of the Holocaust with a visit to Yad Vashem and prayed at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.” Therefore, an apology from the Vatican is a continuation of past and present commendable initiatives and would contribute significantly to reconciling the Catholic Church to Rwandans, particularly those who profess other faiths.

On the matter of promoting justice, Church leadership at the local and international level should encourage priests alleged to have committed crimes to face justice and at the very least revoke their right to exercise their priestly duty.

This is true of Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka:

Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka was notorious during the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis for wearing a gun on his hip and colluding with the Hutu militia that murdered hundreds of people sheltering in his church. A Rwandan court convicted the priest of genocide and sentenced him in absentia to life in prison. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda spent years trying to bring him to trial.  But the Catholic church in France does not see any of this as a bar to serving as a priest and has gone out of its way to defend Munyeshyaka.

Then there is Father Athanase Seromba, who “ordered the bulldozing of his church with 2,000 Tutsis inside and had the survivors shot.”

Catholic monks helped him get to Italy, change his name and become a parish priest in Florence.

After Seromba was exposed, the international tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, accused the Vatican of obstructing his extradition to face trial. The Holy See told her the priest was “doing good works” in Italy.

I will conclude by evoking the eternal words spoken by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ while on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” to testify that forgiveness is at the core of our faith. I know of many Rwandans who have forgiven neighbors who killed their family members during the genocide. These brave efforts are the cornerstone of reconciliation efforts in Rwanda. As a Catholic and a Rwandan, the Church’s leadership at home and abroad has a moral obligation to wholeheartedly apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the genocide and contribute to efforts aimed at bringing its perpetrators to justice.