by Johnny Zokovitch
Executive Director, Pax Christi USA
Faith Leader, Everytown Interfaith Mobilization Partnership
In the midst of a presidential election that has been marred by veiled threats of violence, rhetoric aimed at dehumanizing opponents, and efforts designed to undermine trust in our democratic institutions and processes — all on top of 230,000 deaths from COVID-19 — the U.S. is in a kind of cultural crisis. Families are experiencing the hardship of unemployment and the collective stress has given rise to high consumption of alcohol and a dangerous wave of gun violence across the nation. Long-simmering racial and political issues have leapt to the fore in the past six months, and our cities and towns, neighborhoods and even communities of faith are being riven.
It is into this moment that Pope Francis has reiterated the spirit of his namesake, St. Francis, by issuing a papal encyclical and signing it in Assisi, the birthplace of the saint. In Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father warns against the use of divisive tactics by factions, even those with which we may agree. The pope points out that we too often deny our neighbors the dignity to which they are entitled. “Their share of the truth and their values are rejected,” he wrote, “and, as a result, the life of society is impoverished and subjected to the hubris of the powerful.” Pope Francis goes on to say, “In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.”
We are hurtling toward the conclusion of the 2020 general election, but it is important for us to still pause and reflect on these words. We need to resist systems that traffic in despair and discouragement. Extremism and polarization flourish when we abandon dialogue and respect for others. The common good should still guide our decisions about how to vote, and the richness of the Church’s teaching can inform how we engage — whether the issue be (im)migration or gun violence, healthcare or military spending, climate change or racial justice.
Fratelli Tutti should draw our gaze back to the life and witness of St. Francis. In his efforts to fully embody Jesus, he venerated a simple lifestyle, sought God in all of creation, expressed a deep commitment to live nonviolence, and engaged in respectful dialogue with those others considered enemies. U.S. Catholics would do well to spend more time in contemplation of St. Francis and what his witness has to teach us. Even so, the lyrics of the prayer that bears his name are well-known to most Catholics:
“Make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon…”
What do those words mean for us in this election campaign and whatever may follow? How do those words resonate in our post on social media and the conversations we have at the Thanksgiving dinner table? What do those words mean in the face of competing and oppositional visions of our common life together in this country?
In his document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, we find some guidance from Pope Francis:
“Intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood and bring an end to wars, conflicts, environmental decay and the moral and cultural decline that the world is presently experiencing.”
We are our sister’s and brother’s keeper. We must coexist so that human flourishing might be enabled for everyone. We must prioritize care for the dignity of all and for our common home, Earth. And we must find ways to extend ourselves, extend our circles, find bonds of unity while celebrating our diversity.
Our faith calls us to support a politics that offers this possibility and embraces reciprocal respect. Let us approach the ballot box this coming Tuesday with the words of Pope Francis, in the spirit of St. Francis, and with the hope for a new political landscape moving forward.