Dear Father Francis,
I pray that this letter finds you in good health. I also pray for your forgiveness in addressing you as “Father Francis.” You have come as someone who seeks to pastor to the people, and to bring you close is to be able to speak to you. As your namesake once walked unafraid into the realm of the Sultan, you have become a powerful symbol of hope and reconciliation.
I do not wish to compare myself to a sultan. Like you, I am a faqir, a poor man, bereft of and torn asunder from the reed bed of the Divine shore. Nor do I wish you to simply be a symbol.
As you speak about the travails of the world, I fear that too many write their own hope and aspirations on to you. Your words are heard as statements about issues, and not calls to action based on deep and broad moral wisdom.
As religious people, we remember that our time is finite and miniscule. The truths that we follow are eternal. The process of justice is ongoing. The performance of mercy does not end.
Climate change and capitalism run amok are simply manifestations of a basic amnesia: the value of human life.
Once, when we found someone broken, we cherished that person. It was an opportunity to help another human being, another of God’s creation; to remember and reflect on our own brokeness; to manifest mercy and compassion in the world.
Now, when we find someone broken, we relish the opportunity to keep them broken. It is an opportunity to claim superiority; to point out that people are bad; to exhibit a love of self that is untempered by a recognition of the power of God.
It is far easier to point to someone in need and say that it is the individual’s fault, rather than live up to a commitment of there shall be no needy. We have become a society of bullies, who have become so invested in the self, that we assume everyone is as well. So an individual who fails, is a bad person, and we make a moral judgement. We do not turn to see that when everyone is out for his own self, people will lose. The moral failure may be with the “winner.”
The harder part is creating a system, based on community, that holds each other up to success. We worry about why students struggle in school, but do not seek to address educating the person, only for the job. We speak of family values, but do not create jobs that value families.
We turn to war as a first resort, rather than aiding people before war is necessary. Diplomacy and nation-building are traded for drone strikes and secret interrogation sites.
A culture that truly values lives does not focus on one act or one moment. It seeks to create a positive value of life from the cradle to the grave.
This means healthcare, education, employment: this things may seem “socialist” to some, but the Greeks and Romans – whom we valorize as the sources of our democracy – knew that is how you allowed people to achieve their full potential as human beings. Instead, we focus on please companies, as though they were people.
This, of course, is where capitalism unbounded has led us. It is the worship of the dollar over the awareness of the human. It is a religion in its own right, but it cannot be in competition with God, the Exalted, but with God’s creation. I have been privileged to speak with a Jesuit compatriot of yours on issues of poverty and usury. Consistently, we kept coming back to the ideas that our faiths call us to value the human. If we cannot value our own selves, we have no hope of valuing anything else.
At the same time, we see how capitalism also eats away at the institutions we establish. At a recent convening of American Muslims, we heard stories of how institutions could establish a connection with the congregations. In part, this was because the leadership was based on the ability to give, and not meeting the needs of the people. Newer institutions, cannot get the funding they need. Money drives people away from faith.
I have also taught at two Catholic institutions as an adjunct. The pay was barely minimum wage, and definitely not living wage. A Jesuit institution even made it difficult for me to get paid for the paltry sum they offered. It becomes difficult to teach for social justice and care for the needy, to argue for the positive role of religion, when organizations with religious mandates operate like corporations, generating poverty conditions for profit. When a school does not treat its employees like human beings, it cannot be trusted to treat their students as human beings, and it cannot be trusted to educate for a better world.
The hypocrisy present in our communities is apparent to every person in our congregations, and outside of them. It repels people, and makes them doubt the sincerity, power, and truth of our greatest teachings. The call for actions for more just, merciful, and compassionate societies are dismissed as political posturing, and single issue concerns.
At the same time, your presence can be a powerful catalyst. Your moral vision is sympathetic to the teaching of my own faith, and I believe to the faith and non-faith, of so many others, that it allows us to think beyond issues. We can organize around the deeper transformation of society that is coherent and consistent, and to move ourselves beyond the political fray of the nation.
Once more, we need to remember our own value. We should have the appearance of a lamb, but we have now either become lambs in spirit, or wolves in spirit. We should have the appearance of a lamb, and remember that we are lions in spirit.
In the words my spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, it is incumbent on us to create an environment where hope takes root.
Your brother in faith,