Franciscan Justice: A Life of Minority

A viewing of this 1984 movie kicked off our monthly JPIC fraternal gatherings.

A viewing of this 1984 movie kicked off our monthly JPIC fraternal gatherings.

As I’ve mentioned on a few occasions, one of the defining characteristics of Franciscans (and one of the main reasons that I was drawn to this life in the first place) is our call to peace and justice in the world. Since Francis’ meeting with the sultan during the Fifth Crusade, we have been widely known as a brotherhood of peacemakers. For this reason it is the Franciscans that have been entrusted with caring for the Holy Land.

As time has passed, the world has come to realize that there is much more to peace than simply pacifism: there is a call for justice to mitigate the causes of violence. As Pope Paul VI is famously quoted in saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” In other words, people that are respected and well fed are less likely to act with violence than are people who are oppressed, abused, hungry, or dehumanized. In this way, peace will never be anything more than the lack of violence if all we do is treat the symptoms, that is, the visible flareups. True peace is achieved by recognizing the many forms of injustice all around us and treating those afflicted with dignity and respect. This is our call as Franciscans.

This is not without conversion, I must say. LIke anyone else, we as friars must be constantly called to look at our own lives and to reevaluate the ways our actions affect the world. Without careful examination and focused initiatives, it is very easy for us to lose track of what is important or to become apathetic to the issues of our world; without constant education and thoughtful action, it is very easy to come across as ineffective in our ministries or even detrimental to those around us; without a foundation in prayer and holiness, it is very easy to lose site of why we do what we do and even burn out.

For the Order of Friars Minor, that’s the role of the office for Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) and its animators, both on the provincial and house level. In our house, I’m privileged to be on the JPIC committee, and excited for the initiatives we have in store. Recognizing that we are a very large, busy, eclectic and academic bunch, we’ve decided that the best way to go about forming a corporate identity of justice was to devote each month to a different topic for education and prayer culminating in a movie, speaker, or fraternal event.

This evening was our first of these events. With Immigration as our topic, roughly fifteen of us came together to watch the movie El Norte and to have a brief discussion. (If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend it. You can see the trailer here.) Filmed in English, Spanish, and Maya, the movie depicts the lives of two Guatemalan exiles that flee oppression and violence in their village for what they believe will be the answer to all of their problems: the north. After a dangerous journey through Mexico, they realize that their idealized view of the United States is but a fantasy. Despite the affluence around them, they are no better financially than they were before. Life is difficult.

What I found most tragic about this story (a story with no happy ending, I might add) is the monologue the woman gives on her deathbed. She says,

In our own land, we have no home. They want to kill us. … In Mexico, there is only poverty. We can’t make a home there either. And here in the north, we aren’t accepted. When will we find a home, Enrique? Maybe when we die, we’ll find a home.

Can there be anything more tragic? I think about all of the people who live this reality each and every day, forced to leave behind all that is familiar for a new language, new culture, new climate, new set of relationships, and a new way of life, and it breaks my heart to think about the level of dejection they must feel. They have no home. They are strangers, outcasts of society.

When I look at my own life through this lens, it devastates me. In a material sense, look at all I have. In contrast, the characters in this movie fantasized about having a house with a toilet. But its much more than that. I can honestly say that the most dejected I have ever felt was in a language class. Here I was, a confident (even cocky), intelligent, comfortable guy reduced to speaking like an infant, unable to express myself, and feeling like an idiot because I couldn’t catch on. My whole world was reduced to nothing in those moments; I felt trapped and helpless. That was for one hour a day and it could end up ruining the rest of the day sometimes. Can I even imagine what it must feel like to do that for 24 hours a day, away from friends and family all the while living in fear of being caught without documentation. Such a level of dejection and dehumanization I will never feel.

Which brings me to the JPIC reflection for the month: how can I actually be minor when I know that people live like this minutes from my house. As a Franciscan, we are called by our General Constitutions “to have the life and condition of the little ones in society, always living among them as minors. In this social environment they are to work for the coming of the Kingdom.” (Article 66) How is this even possible? In a very real sense, the most devastating thing about this movie is that it forces me to look at my own life and to realize there there is nothing “minor” about it. The material possessions at my disposal, the social connections to guide and support me, the legal status that I possess, and the comfort I have in feeling that I am “home” in my own culture and speaking my own language ensure that I will never be as minor as those I serve. There is something about being comfortable that can never be minor.

And so I reflect. I take this with me to prayer for the rest of the month (and undoubtably longer) as I try to figure out how I can see to act justly in this world and to do so as a friar minor. Part of me knows that I will never come to the answer that is perfectly satisfying in every way, but that’s okay. As a friar minor, I am called to a life of constant conversion, a life of asking these questions and evaluating my life so to actually be the person I say that I am.

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Withholding Judgment

Nobody, even Tina Fey, wears judgment well.

Nobody, even Tina Fey, wears judgment well.

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Mt 7:1-2)

“Do not speak evil of one another, brothers. Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jas 4:11-12)

“Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.” (Rom 2:1)

Passages such as these are easy to come by in the New Testament and secular culture alike. Find me a person who has never quoted, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” or “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” or “He who has not sinned cast the first stone.” It’s nearly impossible. The admonition against judging others is so pervasive in the New Testament that its practice would seem to be intrinsic to Christianity, and thus, the Western world.

And yet, I find myself judging others on a regular basis. I don’t believe that I am alone in this. As Christians, we are a people with high ideals regarding justice, morality, and faith. We believe that we should act a certain way, and that others should act a certain way toward us.  We believe that we hold the Truth, and that God is on our side. This may in fact be the case. Unfortunately, it does not resolve the issue at hand: what do we do when the world around us, or even the world within us, does not match the world we are hoping for?

I think that we are called to get to know the world.

The problem with judging others isn’t that we are incapable of knowing the Truth. While we may not know everything that is true, God has revealed to us at least some of it, and there are at least basic things that we can assert. The problem with judgment is that it is often done without true discernment, and it unnecessarily creates divisions in the human family. When we are quick to judge, we build resentment and ruin relationships.

The fact of the matter is that each and every one of us brings to every situation a lifetime of unique experiences that has formed our conclusions about the world. Undoubtedly, some of these conclusions will be misguided and distorted. But there is a difference between condemning our neighbor outright for a wrong conclusion and entering into a discussion to understand what may have led them there and in what ways they may actual bear the Truth in a light different from our own. To believe that we or anyone else is ever COMPLETELY right or wrong, that we are without sin or blemish, is preposterous. In this way, there is a true sense that if we are ever going to grasp what is the Truth, it is going to be something we do together, open to understanding even the most condemnable people around us.

Which brings me to a resolution I have for this year.  Recognizing the resentment and condemnation I build up in myself because of failed ideals, my goal for the year is to withhold judgment of my brothers and sisters, to live comfortably in the tension between asserting the Truth I have found and being open to my understanding of that Truth changing. I wish withhold judgment as long as possible, and even when I have come to certain conclusions, I wish to remain open to God’s grace in a new way. The Bible is filled with stories of unexpected people (dumb, lame, dirty, foreign, etc.) bearing the Truth for a whole people to hear, and yet I still find myself judging people prematurely, writing them off before I am able to know them, and ultimately cutting myself off from the grace God has worked through them. I guess in the end, I hope to withhold judgment from my brothers and sisters because I’m ever thankful that God has chosen to do the same for me. If I’m still growing, learning, and failing, it seems only fitting that I be able to recognize that in my neighbor.

An Attitude of Gratitude

Francis

As a Franciscan friar, I believe that gratitude and joy are as much of our charism as poverty and fraternity.

There are a lot of good reasons to be angry today. When we look around and continue to see injustice in our government, our church, our cities, and in our homes, it is more than acceptable to get angry and to turn that anger into constructive change. To go through the world with a critical eye, a strong sense of purpose, and the perseverance to make a change is much needed.

As I get more involved with the church and the issues relevant to it, I find myself fueled by anger more and more. How can I not when I see the things I see, done to people for which I feel so passionately about? How can I stand content with so much wrong with the world around me? I can’t, I tell myself.

But this way of thinking in exhaustive and unsustainable.  Even for those most concerned with the injustices of the world, anger is a short-lived motivator that cannot sustain.  Motivated by anger alone, we end up bitter and unfulfilled because there will always be something new to get angry about. It is a road that might accomplish many good things, but alone it can only lead to bitterness and despair. (And yes, I really mean despair. When you look at the outlook of things like climate change, growing poverty statistics, government efficiency, and energy consumption, it is difficult not to throw up your hands, say, “We can’t possibly make any difference!” and give up.)

When I find myself going down this road, what always brings me back is a reminder to have an attitude of gratitude. Sure, it sounds a little cliche, but it’s much more than just a self-help/mind-over-matter gimmick: it’s a theology.

To go through the world with an attitude of gratitude, even in it’s most frustrating times, is to recognize the goodness of the God-incarnate in the world. How often do we call to mind the endless gifts we’ve been freely given without merit or entitlement? When I do, it reminds me that I’m not in control, that there is something outside of myself capable of so much more than I am. It reminds me why there are things worth getting angry over in the first place, but grounds me to know that I can’t solve the world on my own. At its best, it reminds me of how wonderful all of creation is, gives me a greater perspective on eternity, and abates my anger completely because I know that everything will work out in God’s eternity.

This absolutely does not mean I wish to slip into a state of apathy because “God will take care of it,” nor does it mean that we should work any less for the sake of justice.  Such attitudes are at best a self-therapeutic conception of God, focused entirely on the self.  No, what I mean to say is that Love is more powerful than Hate; optimism more inviting than pessimism; praise more constructive than criticism; and gratitude more life-giving than complaint.  Even when faced with life’s most challenging issues, in times when we have nothing but anger and frustration, we still have a loving and merciful God that has blessed us with abundance at every turn. Why should we believe that the future will hold anything less than the same outpouring of gifts we have already encountered, or that tomorrow’s problems will somehow be beyond the reach of God’s intercession?

As a guide, who could be better than Francis of Assisi? Surely there is no one in history that praised God more often or more completely than the little poor man from Italy, even in the harshest conditions. I believe that joy and gratitude are as central to our charism as poverty and fraternity, and it’s the model I’m trying to adopt today.

Out of the Birdbath, Into the World

St. Francis is much more than decoration for a garden. His spirituality demands conversion in our hearts and in our world.

St. Francis is much more than decoration for a garden. His spirituality demands conversion in our hearts and in our world.

In honor the the Feast of St. Francis, Franciscan Earth Corps, in collaboration with St. Camillus Church Young Adults and the Franciscan Friars, is hosting an event tomorrow about applying Franciscan spirituality to the ecological crisis. Along with being the event’s emcee, I will be giving a 2-3 minute personal talk about how I have changed something in my life for a greater care of creation. The following is an extended version of that talk.

I’ve mentioned before that the environment is a big issue for me. I feel that it is the most neglected aspect of peace and justice work despite being one of the most pressing issues of our generation. When we sit down and look at the numbers, there’s reason to panic. For instance, many scientists believe that there will be nothing left to fish from the ocean within fifty years. Can you imagine a fishless ocean? What’s even more daunting is that the United States E.P.A. estimated that more resources have been used in the last fifty years than in the rest of human history. These are just two of the many earth-shattering (literally) facts that reveal the grave condition of our earth and the imminent danger our consumption is causing others, especially the poor. Something obviously needs to be done.

Well, the first thing that needs to be done is to determine who’s to blame. The effect is pretty clear, but what, or rather who, is the cause? Many want to point the finger at multinational corporations because of their size, affluence, and history of circumventing environmental laws for the sake of higher profits. While true, multinational corporations are certainly not innocent when it comes to ecological justice, who keeps them in business? We do. Multinational corporations have enormous leverage and financial capabilities because we shop at their stores and buy their products. Not only that, we as consumers and we as American consumers, also use energy in our cars, our homes, our waste, and in our stomachs. If the information from above about the direction we’re heading concerns us, then it’s about time we looked at the problem not as something outside of ourselves, “those evil multinational corporations,” and instead something for which each and every one of us is partially responsible.

When I did some research about my own consumption, I found that the way that I ate as an American is positively unsustainable and that changes needed to be made. When you stop to think about how much grain is needed to produce a cow (6-7 pounds for every one pound of meat), how much carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia cows produce in their lives (more greenhouse gases per day than a car, including 2/3 of all ammonia in the atmosphere), and how much deforestation occurs to make more room for cow pastures, you realize that consuming beef is one of the worst possible things one can do to the environment. Pork, chicken, and wild fish (as opposed to farm-raised) are better in terms of greenhouse gases, but each bring with them a host of other problems.

So what did I do? I tried being a vegetarian. The Franciscans observe an additional Lenten fast prior to Christmas, so I decided to give up meat entirely from the feast of All Saints until Christmas Eve, and then again for the Lenten season before Easter. What I found in that time was that vegetarianism is awful. Seriously. I was hungry all the time, I lost weight, and I struggled to get anyone to take me seriously. Worst of all, I found that I was doing more than I should have been doing. Feeling so overwhelmed with the lack of worldwide progress, I felt that it was my duty to make up for everyone around me. What I actually did was to take on more than I could handle.

Did I give up then, you ask? No. I reevaluated. I identified all of the values that were at stake, i.e. environmental impact, physical health, financial concerns, and the possibility of converting others, and let them sit in tension with each other. What would happen if I just let go of my need to come up with the perfect solution that would change the world and instead just allowed my desire to be authentic to each value play itself out differently each day?

In order for that to happen, I had to accept that I could only control myself. As was a common theme during novitiate, there’s no use worrying about or judging others for what they do because there is nothing I can do to change others. The key for me was to do what I felt I needed to do in order to feel personal integrity.

In the end, I decided on two things: 1) I may eat meat once per day, of an appropriate size (3-4 ounces) and 2) for every meal that I don’t eat meat, I must find a way to replace the protein lost. There have been times since then that I have gone a week without any meat, and there have been other times when I found it best, either for my health or for the sake of those providing the food, that I have broken both of these rules. At this point, the flexibility has actually helped me keep with it because it makes the changes easier to manage.

Ultimately, the point of sharing my diet with you is to say that the ecological justice is important to me, and that I’m willing to change major aspects of my life to affect change (even on a small scale.) The way we eat is not the only way to affect change, nor is it necessarily the most effective. I hope that, if you care about the rate at which we are destroying God’s creation around us, you will take to heart my attempts to reform my daily life and make a change in your own life. Check out this checklist for possible suggestions and see how well you’re already doing. This feast of St. Francis, is there something that you could pledge to do to make a positive impact on our world?