Do you ever catch yourself shouting at the radio or television when you hear something you strongly disagree with?
We seem to be at a time where public discussion is marked with anger, accusation and attack. We see it at levels and in all communities locally, regionally, nationally and globally. If we disagree with the position that another takes then in our self-righteous indignation we see it as our right and even our duty to shout that person down, or discredit him or her with distortions, half-truths and outright lies. This is especially disturbing when we see someone’s efforts to work for peace and justice thwarted because those efforts are seen as “going soft” or “giving in” instead of seen as finding common ground and understanding.
Saint Francis of Assisi wanted to be a missionary working in the Middle East during the time of the Crusades. As the founder of a religious order he spent most of his time as an administrator. He did, however, go on a mission of peace to Egypt in the year 1219 during the Fifth Crusade. The Christian forces were holding siege against Egypt’s Sultan, a nephew of the great Saladin. The leader of those Christian forces gave his reluctant approval and a stern warning to Francis. Francis and a companion crossed enemy lines.
After finally gaining an audience with the Sultan, Francis began with a greeting of peace. This immediately caught the attention of the Sultan whose own culture used the typical greeting, “as-salamu alaikum” or “Peace be upon you”. “The Qur’an even urges the benefit of the doubt for those who use a greeting of peace: ‘Say not to those who greet you with peace, “you are not a believer (Moses).”’” The Sultan had the impression that Francis and his companion wished to convert. Francis, however, made it clear that it was his intention to convert the Sultan. Francis held discussions with the Sultan and his religious advisors who were Sufis, adherents of Islam who closely mirrored the appearance and philosophy of Francis and his community.
When the Sultan offered Francis a parting gift, he only asked to share a meal with the Sultan, imitating Christ’s example of table fellowship as a way to bridge differences. Francis did not win the conversion of the Sultan, but he did win his respect. Francis and his companion were escorted unharmed to the Christian camp. Later the Sultan, no doubt influenced by his encounter with Francis, offered generous terms to the leader of the Christian forces which were sadly rejected. The leader of the Christian forces was a cardinal and the Crusades had the official endorsement of the Pope. I wonder: who was the true representative of Christ to the Sultan?
When Moses was confronted by Joshua about the “unofficial” prophets, Moses responds, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” (Num. 11:29) When Jesus is confronted by John about someone driving out demons in his name, Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:39) What are we to say as Catholic Christians when someone who is not of our “camp” is preaching the Good News? In John’s gospel Jesus says to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
Going back to Francis, there is a quote that is often attributed to him: “Preach the gospel always, use words if you have to.” This quote does not belong to Francis but his writings can be its source. “In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, ‘Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.’” (St. Anthony Messenger) This brings us to the point of the Letter of James. If we profess to be Christians and if our actions speak louder than our words, how can we allow the needs of others to go unmet, and the injustices in the world to go unaddressed?
St. Basil the Great warns us, “The shoes rotting in your closet belong the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.” (Just Faith)
Will we let the Spirit flow through us that we may live faithfully as disciples of Christ? Will we tolerate those who are not in our camp but who faithfully live out the gospel message?
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.