Once, long ago, a woman named Hope became pregnant with twins. Her belly grew round and heavy, and she moved through her days with slow deliberation. On a dark night, she gave birth to two daughters. The first baby slipped into the world, skin slick with blood and meconium. The tiny girl-child howled to the sky. Her mother called her Anger for the way things were. After a pause for breath and strength, Hope grunted and pushed. Her second daughter was born with her eyes open, so she was named Courage to see that things do not remain the way they are.
So goes the story first told by Saint Augustine centuries ago, and retold today from the church pulpit as our country erupts in protest and dissent. The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” The joyous pain of my own childbirth labors spring to mind. Simultaneously my body released and reached for the new human, still foreign, yet already desperately loved. Another’s words merge with my memories, and old emotions are fresh again, felt not for a child this time, but for the country I cherish and and values I cradle.
Recently, I gathered with people of faith; I gathered with artists, with activists. Again and again, I asked and was asked: what do you fear, what do you hope for, what will you do next?
I fear the corrosion of compassion, for humanity and the world in which we inhabit.
A neighbor knocked at nine o’clock at night. “I saw that your light was on,” he said. “I need someone to talk to.” A series of large and necessary home repairs confronted him, and without close friends, a partner, or family nearby to discuss the options, he was overwhelmed by the decisions he had to make.
My husband, Marcel, and I made tea and reheated dinner because he had not eaten. Then we listened for two hours as he talked of the repairs and then his loneliness and then his childhood and then returned to the repairs. “I probably should’ve married some of the women I’ve loved,” he said. “You two are lucky to have each other.”
My neighbor is courageous.
By exposing vulnerability he embodied Saint Augustine’s words, and things are not the way they were. He is no longer my neighbor, but a friend who knows a knock will be welcomed with an invitation to enter.
I hope that community will save us because I know connection, particularly face-to-face, affirms life and grounds one in reality. I force myself to push the limits of my comfort, to expand my bubble to include the other, to leave, as Pope Francis described it, the ideological cave.
“From an economic point of view, these days the middle class increasingly tends to vanish, and there is the risk that we will take shelter in our ideological caves,” Pope Francis said in an interview with the newspaper El Pais the day Donald Trump took office. “One is always more at ease in the ideological system that he built for himself, because it is abstract. … They are shelters that prevent you from connecting with reality.”
I learned about the pope’s remarks when the husband of a Reno friend shared Breitbart’s condensed version of the interview on Facebook. Aware of Breitbart’s reputation as a platform for alt-right and white supremacy, I had not read it. Now I clicked the link and stepped into another’s ideological cave.
Breitbart’s reporting highlighted Pope Francis’ remarks that every country has a right to control its border, particularly countries at risk of terrorism. The article included partial quotes that spoke to the risk of exploitation and the challenge of integration the immigrant faces. And it included the pope’s caution that no country should prevent its citizens from communicating with their neighbors.
From Breitbart, I clicked the link to the original report from El Pais, searched and found the English version, and fact-checked. The pope’s comments were accurately reported, but their meaning became simplified without context. Curious, now, I searched Breitbart for its reporting on the portion of the interview where the pope said he would not judge Trump prematurely, but wait for him to act. Again fact-checked. Again found reporting accurate, but bereft of the compassion and thoughtfulness of the original.
Here are the original questions by El Pais reporters Antonio Cano and Pablo Ordaz, and Pope Francis’ response:
Q. Both in Europe and in America, the repercussions of the crisis that never ends, the growing inequalities, the absence of strong leadership, are giving way to political groups that reflect on the citizens’ malaise. Some of them — the so-called antisystem or populists — capitalize on the fears of an uncertain future in order to form a message full of xenophobia and hatred toward foreigners. Trump’s case is the most noteworthy, but there are others such as Austria or Switzerland. Are you worried about this trend?”
A. That is what they call populism here. It is an equivocal term, because in Latin America populism has another meaning. In Latin America, it means that the people —for instance, people’s movements— are the protagonists. They are self-organized. When I started to hear about populism in Europe I didn’t know what to make of it, until I realized that it had different meanings. Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of populism in the European sense of the word is Germany in 1933. After [Paul von] Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, it needs a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler who says: “I can, I can.” And Germans vote for Hitler. Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk. In times of crisis we lack judgment, and that is a constant reference for me. Let’s look for a savior who gives us back our identity and let us defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other people who may rob us of our identity. And that is a very serious thing. That is why I always try to say: talk among yourselves, talk to one another. But the case of Germany in 1933 is typical, a people who were immersed in a crisis, who were searching for their identity until this charismatic leader came and promised to give their identity back, and he gave them a distorted identity, and we all know what happened. Where there is no conversation … Can borders be controlled? Yes, each country has the right to control its borders, who comes in and who goes out, and those countries at risk —from terrorism or such things— have even more of a right to control them, but no country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility to talk with their neighbors. …
Q. Your Holiness, going back to the global problems you just mentioned, Donald Trump is just now being sworn in as president of the United States, and the whole world is tense because of it. What do you make of it?
A. I think that we must wait and see. I don’t like to get ahead of myself, nor to judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will form an opinion. But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise. It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not come to pass. We will see what he does and will judge accordingly. Always work with the specific. Christianity is either specific or it is not Christianity.
It is interesting that the first heresy in the Church took place just after the death of Jesus Christ: the gnostic heresy, condemned by the apostle John. Which was what I call a spray-paint religiousness, a non-specific religiousness … nothing concrete. No, no way. We need specifics. And from the specific we can draw consequences. We are losing our sense of the concrete. The other day, a thinker was telling me that this world is so upside down that it needs a fixed point. And those fixed points stem from concrete actions. What did you do, what did you decide, what moves did you make? That is why I prefer to wait and see.
Q. Aren’t you worried about the things we have heard up until now?
A. I’m still waiting. God waited so long for me, with all my sins…
All ask, what will you do?
I tapped into a network of artists questioning whether there is a place for their work in the new political landscape. I spent an evening with activists learning how to lobby my legislator for climate legislation. I broke bread and barriers with strangers in a church. I played a game of cards with my neighbor.
“We won’t die secret deaths anymore,” playwright Tony Kushner wrote in “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” “The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one of you. And I bless you: More life. The Great Work Begins.”
Kushner’s words inspired the night spent celebrating the potentially bloody, beautiful intersection of art and politics, which filled me with gratitude to live in a city asking itself: What will we do? But I believe Seattle is not alone. Conversations are springing up near you. Silence yourself. Listen. Then do Great Work.
- Saint Augustine of Hippo.
- University Unitarian Church Jan. 29, 2017 sermon.
- Mary Oliver reads The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac in an On Being interview.
- El Pais article “Pope Francis: ‘The danger is that in times of crisis we look for a savior,'” Jan. 22, 2017.
- Breitbart’s reporting of the El Pais interview with Pope Francis. The articles focused on border control and reluctance to judge Trump prematurely, both published Jan. 22, 2017.
- The pope’s letter to Trump, Jan. 20, 2017.
- National Public Radio interviews Tony Kushner on “Angels in America, 20 years later,” Sept. 13, 2011.