Miracles of Great Silence: Christmas, Francis, Right and Left

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Christmas story to me is how quietly it begins. It isn’t difficult to imagine a start with greater fanfare, one that portends the eventual destiny of the story’s hero: consider the sea-faring of Theseus’ mother Aethra, all crashing surf and craggy rocks, or the gleaming shower of gold pouring into the open air prison-courtyard of Danaë that then gave rise to Perseus. Both conception stories account for the divine origins of their heroes, and imagine in some sense the extraordinary events that will mark the remainder of their narratives.

And then there is the Gospel of Matthew, which in its early chapters emphasizes above all else the silence that characterizes the conception of Christ. (Even in Luke, where we get the lovely dialogue between Mary and the angel Gabriel, the conception itself is described in terms of a shadow falling over Mary.) We, the readers, find out that Mary is pregnant only when her betrothed husband Joseph does, and at that same time come to the knowledge that he, being a kind man, wants to divorce her quietly rather than shame her in public. But God intervenes, confirming with Joseph in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy is an act of divine will. Joseph wakes and the marriage goes off without a hitch, kicking off the heading-to-Bethlehem story we all know.

From the very start, all major events we concern ourselves with are profoundly silent and internal. There’s no swim in the roaring wine-dark sea or inexplicable shower of gold. God wills that Mary become pregnant, and she simply does, with no more fuss than that with which a shadow falls. Joseph’s conflict over what to do about it arises within, between his desire to act by the law and his desire to act mercifully toward Mary. And the resolution to his troubles comes in the privacy of a dream, experienced in the silence of sleep by no one but himself.

A lot of the early action of what will develop into the salvation of humanity is, in other words, internal. It begins with acts of generation, healing, and reconciliation within the bodies and hearts and minds of people. These are the humble and quiet motions that, taken together, constitute the foundation of all the beauty that follows: silent changes, inside people.

Which gives us some occasion to meditate upon what those sorts of changes in people, quiet and personal as they may be, are capable of giving rise to. The question then is: how do we best facilitate motions of healing and generation and reconciliation within people?

Whatever the answer may be, I’m pretty sure that we don’t go about it the way some supporters of Pope Francis recently have.

I’ll always be first in line to praise Pope Francis; based on what we’ve seen and read of him, I think he’s an exemplary Christian and an excellent shepherd. But since some of his positions have unsettled American conservatives, the ‘Pope Francis is right and the right wing is wrong and nya-nya’ narrative has been rather lucrative for media outlets. Thus we find rather click-baity, comment-war-encouraging headlining going on otherwise conciliatory articles. More troubling yet is the sheer plenitude of articles that amount to little more than ball-spiking, name-calling, and/or gloating. I mean, seriously — claiming that Republicans specifically will ‘hate‘ that Pope Francis prefers homeless people not be homeless? Needlessly incendiary. Nobody wants anyone to be without a home.

It may well be the case that many of those who oppose Francis’ anti-poverty and political messages are perhaps more attached to their politics than their theology, or that some amount of resistance to his anti-poverty thrust arises from a certain personal interest in maintaining wealth. But the former is a symptom of a culture steeped in team politics and political tribalism, and the latter is a spiritual struggle that is not unlike the various struggles we all deal with, the sort which call for spiritual care rather than vicious public shaming. Whatever the source, the solution surely isn’t the sort of nose-rubbing featuring Francis as a prop that many on the left have had fun with over the last few months.

The reality is that the aggressive told-you-so technique of thinking through Francis’ message in Christian discourse is the opposite of the kind of evangelism he proposes, and it scarcely seems to be in good faith. It also elides quite smoothly into misrepresenting the totality of his example for political purposes. If we’re motivated to scoreboard politically based on Francis’ example, then we’re guilty of no less political tribalism than that which binds up much of the evangelical right. Evangelism begins in the home, and the Christian community writ large does have some serious problems to solve internally. But I don’t think we’ll do that by turning one of our finest examples of lived Christianity into a political cudgel.

Instead, in the new year, I hope we can focus on discussing Francis’ example and message in the context of our life as a church. To come closer together in that mission, it seems sensible to me to encourage the small, quiet miracles that go on inside people every day: miracles of compassion, understanding, generosity, change. It is possible to build a Christian church that is wholesale devoted to the care of this earth and all its people, especially its poorest, as we’re commanded. But a church of that character won’t arise out of bludgeoning one another toward the advancement of particular parties or ideologies; it will arise out of reconciliation, healing, and love: and the fulfillment of the law is love.

Merry Christmas, with all my love.

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15 thoughts on “Miracles of Great Silence: Christmas, Francis, Right and Left

  1. Years ago, J. Budziszewski wrote a couple of articles, The Problem with Liberalism and The Problem with Conservatism, in which he identified a total of sixteen errors of faith. I highly recommend those articles, and they might still be available on the net. I’ll list those errors at the bottom here when I’m done blabbing.

    Some are able to see the church only as a political institution. That’s a deficiency in the seer.
    Likewise, there are those who believe faith-based institutions should follow the dictates of secular institutions. I like that idea.
    The reason is because my own faith prohibits seeking political office or acceptance of political appointment. Discussion of issues is fair game, and we do that all the time; partisanship is expressly prohibited.
    But if it came to choice between the two, either faith or government, that one of them has to go, I would prefer it to be the splintered nations where men separate themselves by artificial means.

    Merry Christmas, Ms. Stoker.
    I sincerely hope you find all those things you describe, and in abundance, throughout the coming year.

    Eight Moral Errors of Liberalism:
    Propitiationism
    Expropriationism
    Solipsism
    Absolutionism
    Perfectionism
    Universalism
    Neutralism
    Collectivism

    Eight Moral Errors of Conservatism:
    Civil religionism
    Instrumentalism
    Moralism
    Caesarism
    Traditionalism
    Neutralism
    Mammonism
    Meritism

    I realize the value is limited without a description of the terms and their use; but there it is.

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    • … my own faith prohibits seeking political office or acceptance of political appointment. Discussion of issues is fair game, and we do that all the time; partisanship is expressly prohibited.

      Holy cow! I’ve been creeping on y’all, like, forever. Yet, I never knew this about you, Will. I genuinely appreciate the insight.

      (You call it “faith”, but such a specific stricture sounds like religion to me.)

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      • The early founders of the faith were noblemen who gave up title & wealth to follow after God.
        I’ve heard it said often that we seek to achieve very liberal goals through very conservative means. Maybe not exactly, but not too far off.

        Two reasons I don’t speak about my faith with much specificity:
        1) To protect other members of the faith.
        There are still certain parts of the world where there is a great deal of persecution, and it is conceivable the authorities might seize on what I say here as representative of all members of the faith to justify greater persecution.
        2) The views I express are my own. Nonetheless, some may be seen as apostasy by other members of the faith. It is conceivable that I could be shunned for that.

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  2. Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

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    • Didn’t Jesus latter rebuke his disciples for criticizing him for accepting a pricely gift from somebody? “The poor you will always have…” or something like that.

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  3. Needlessly incendiary. Nobody wants anyone to be without a home.

    That no one actively *wants* anyone else to be homeless is not the same thing as actively working toward ending the plight of homelessness. Just saying.

    To come closer together in that mission, it seems sensible to me to encourage the small, quiet miracles that go on inside people every day: miracles of compassion, understanding, generosity, change.

    If only I had a nickle for every time I heard this shit. It rarely manages to translate into responsible public policy, so as much as I feel it, I’ve no use for it.

    It is possible to build a Christian church that is wholesale devoted to the care of this earth and all its people, especially its poorest, as we’re commanded.

    Y’all have had the better part of 2000 years to do just that. Yet, you haven’t. Surely you understand why some of us are skeptical that you can.

    If the Reagan-inspired political influence of the RR magically disappeared, what kind of world would Religious Lefties be working toward? I’m not entirely convinced that the Religious Left, in a place of real political power, would treat atheists much different than the RR has. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Belief, in all its various aspects, is a part of the human condition. Which explains why I am not an anti-theist.

    In terms of modern day US public policy, Protestant Christianism, especially the various fundamentalist varieties, seem way more problematic than anything the Catholic church belches up. So far, I like Pope Francis as much as I liked JP II and as much as I disliked Benedict XVI. But since I’m a staunch secularist, it doesn’t much matter what I think. The only thing that matters is what non-secularists, of whatever ilk, think.

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    • If you received a nickel every time you heard that “shit”, you could make a fortune going to conferences on ecumenicism. If you read the sentence directly preceding that one, you’ll see I’m talking about coming together as a corporate body of Christ, not “responsible public policy.” But I appreciate the token secularist slam anyway — no discussion of religious communities would be complete without it, here on the good ol’ internet.

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    • Nevertheless, I am convinced that Belief, in all its various aspects, is a part of the human condition. Which explains why I am not an anti-theist.

      I’m inclined to agree that Belief, in all its various aspects, is a part of the human condition, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. There are a lot of bad things that are part of the human condition. Even if we can’t eliminate faith entirely, we can at least attenuate its influence.

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    • That no one actively *wants* anyone else to be homeless is not the same thing as actively working toward ending the plight of homelessness. Just saying.

      But neither is it true that not wanting the government to force people to spend their hard-earned money bailing out the homeless is the same as wanting people to be homeless. If you can’t give the devil his due and still make your case, your case isn’t as strong as you think.

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  4. “But a church of that character won’t arise out of bludgeoning one another toward the advancement of particular parties or ideologies; ”

    True that!

    But what makes you think the secular left wants to build a church?
    Maybe they just want to win elections and move policy.

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    • I’m referring to the Christian left here, as they’ve been pretty amenable to the analysis put forward by general leftwing media outlets so far. (Not that there haven’t been pockets of unease, mind.)

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      • Yes- My takeaway isn’t so much a matter of how seemly or not it is to be in the face of the other side, so much as striving to avoid making their mistakes.
        I think it would be heartbreaking to see the religious left in 20 years time create their own Ralph Reeds who fed our version of Karl Rove.

        I’m actually all for rough and tumble political battles a la Alinsky, but I think the religious left would be wise to hold the secular at arms length. Religion works best when its a detached critic rather than a team player.
        Which may have been your point to begin with.

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      • Not to disagree, but to act as counterpoint; because I believe this is an interesting statement viewed in historical context:
        I think the religious left would be wise to hold the secular at arms length.

        As I remember it, the last time the Left had a truly robust religious wing was with MLK. I remember more of the late 70’s, and the tensions between Jackson & the King estate; the Rainbow Coalition, etc.
        Now, when King mobilized his religious left, it was toward equal treatment for minorities, unionization, etc. Maybe those were the hot-button issues of his day; but I see engagement with secular aims as where the religious left might prove most effective.

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