David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

The Apostle Paul, a diaspora Jew from Tarsus (today’s Turkey), was also a Roman citizen. Perhaps that is partially why he writes to the church in Corinth, Greece, “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Rom. 13:1). Jesus too, when faced with a loaded question about paying taxes to Rome (Jews in Palestine were under Roman occupation), famously answered, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17). The apostle John, now an old man and an exile on the Island of Patmos, identifies Rome as Babylon, the quintessential evil city, because it persecutes God’s people and it has “made all the nations of the world drink the wine of her passionate immorality” (Rev. 14:8 NLT).

So human government is at the same time 1) a necessary consequence of our human calling to manage God’s creation – all aspects, including fellow humans – justly and compassionately (Gen. 1; Psalm 8); and 2) a power structure that is easily subverted into becoming a cruel instrument of oppression. That second aspect is likely behind Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, his protégé:


“I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity” (I Tim. 2:1-2, NLT).


Government must do its part

In this second half of my essay on Heather McGee’s book, The Sum of Us All, I will argue that the United States of America will never fulfill its founding pledge to provide liberty and justice for all unless its government redresses the longstanding injustices that have kept its poor from thriving, the most disadvantaged of whom are people of color. Heather McGee explains the role of government this way:


“A functioning society rests on a web of mutuality, a willingness among all involved to share enough with one another to accomplish what no one person can do alone . . . I can’t create my own electric grid, school system, internet, or healthcare system – and the most efficient way to ensure that those things are created and available to all on a fair and open basis is to fund and provide them publicly . . . For most of the twentieth century, leaders of both parties agreed on the wisdom of those investments, from Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era jobs programs to Republican president Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System to Republican Richard Nixon’s Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and people with disabilities” (21).


Yet as we saw in the first half of this post, “For most of our history, the beneficiaries of America’s free public investments were whites only. A few examples:


    • The Homestead Act of 1862 (gave 160 acres of land stolen from Indian nations to any citizen or soon-to-be citizen – people who after the 1790 Naturalization Act had to be white); an 1866 southern equivalent allowed less than 6,000 Black families to become landowners, but that’s compared to 1.6 million whites;
    • During the Great Depression the government subsidized mortgages for millions of white Americans but circled all but a handful of Black neighborhoods in red, signaling that no loans should be made to them;
    • The New Deal raised the minimum wage and overtime pay for most American workers but with pressure from Southern Democrats excluded the jobs that employed most Blacks (domestic and agriculture);
    • Then GI Bill of 1944 paid the college tuition of hundreds of thousands of veterans, catapulting a generation of men into professional careers – but few Black servicemen benefited, as local administrators funneled most Black servicemen to segregated vocational schools” (22). Result: homeownership for whites reached 3 out of 4 families; but only two out of 5 families for Blacks and Latinx families;
    • Suburbs were created by government investment in the federal highway system and subsidies for private developers; “but demanded racial covenants (‘white only’ clauses in housing contracts) to prevent Black people from buying into them”;
    • Social Security provided income to millions of elderly Americans, but by excluding certain jobs, ensured that few Blacks could benefit from it;
    • Even unions, which the New Deal favored, barred Blacks from joining them until the 1960s.


Plainly, the net effect of all this government investment in its people under the New Deal was “to ensure a large, secure, and white middle class” (22). Yet with the advent of desegregation and the Civil Rights laws, white people faced the prospect of sharing those benefits with their Black co-citizens. With such a long history of privilege, white Americans had grown accustomed to these advantages, and so much so that ‘the elevated status’ these now conferred upon them seemed 'natural and almost innate.” McGee explains,


“White society had repeatedly denied people of color economic benefits on the premise that they were inferior; those unequal benefits then reified the hierarchy, making whites actually economically superior. What would it mean to white people, both materially and psychologically, if the supposedly inferior people received the same treatment from the government? The period since integration has tested many whites’ commitment to the public, in ways big and small” (22-23).


One easy way to measure this white resentment is to follow the social science studies documenting the racist backlash in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election. Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler studied the connection between race and American attitudes toward the 2010 Affordable Care Act: “He concluded that whites with higher levels of racial resentment and more anti-Black stereotypes grew more opposed to healthcare reform after it became associated with President Obama” (52-53). Another study by Eric Knowles, Brian Lowery, and Rebecca Schaumberg at Stanford University found that the data “support the notions that racial prejudice is one factor driving opposition to Obama and his policies” (53). This is not surprising since people like Rush Limbaugh were calling the ACA “a civil rights bill … this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.”

Yet the people suffering the most from this resistance to the ACA were rural white people. McGhee points to the closure of 120 rural hospitals in the last ten years – and all of them in states that refused to expand Medicaid, as the ACA was calling for. The state leading in hospital closures is Texas (26 so far). At the beginning of the pandemic she talked to Don McBeath, who “does government relations for a Texas network of rural hospitals called TORCH” and asked him why the hospital system was in crisis mode. One big factor, he answered, is that “Texas has probably one of the narrowest Medicaid coverage programs in the country” (54). It turns out, a person making only $4,000 a year is still too rich to qualify for Medicaid! With so few people insured, it’s the state that has to pay all those unpaid medical bills. No wonder the system is failing and people are dying for lack of adequate care.

It’s the same story in other southern states like Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. But that’s not how the Affordable Care Act was designed:


“When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it expanded qualification for Medicaid to 138 percent of the poverty level for all adults (about $30,000 for a family of three in 2020) and equalized eligibility rules across all states. But in 2012, a Supreme Court majority invoked states’ rights to strike down the Medicaid expansion and make it optional. Within the year, the lines were drawn in an all-too-familiar way: almost all the states of the former Confederacy refused to expand Medicaid, while most other states did. Without Medicaid expansion, people of color in those states struggle more – they are the ones most likely to be denied health benefits on the job – but white people are still the largest share of the 4.4 million working Americans who would have Medicaid if the law had been left intact. So, a states’ rights legal theory most often touted to defend segregation struck at the heart of the first Black president’s healthcare protections for working-class people of all races” (56).


The ironic fact is that Texas, with its majority of people of color (40% Latinx, 13% Black, 5% Asian) is represented by a state legislature with a two-thirds majority of whites and a three-quarters majority of males. Governor Greg Abbott intends to keep his GOP majority by means of crude voter suppression. In September 2021 he signed a bill with seven changes that make it harder for many to vote. And most of those will be people of color.

Voter suppression is also a theme McGee highlights in her book. Though it was a regular practice in southern states since the end of the Civil War, it wasn’t until the election of America’s first Black president that this movement, spearheaded and bankrolled by a group of right-wing billionaires, spread to all the swing states.


“These same billionaires funded the lawsuit, Shelby County v. Holder, to bring a challenge to the Voting Rights Act’s most powerful provision. Decided by a 5-4 majority at the beginning of President Obama’s second term, Shelby County v. Holder lifted the federal government’s protection from citizens and states and counties with long records of discriminatory voting procedures. Immediately across the country, Republican legislatures felt free to restrict voting rights … Between the 2013 Shelby decision and the 2018 election, twenty-three states raised new barriers to voting. Although about 11 percent of the population (disproportionately low-income people, seniors, and people of color) do not have access to photo IDs, by 2020, six states still demanded them in order for people to vote, and an additional twenty-six states made voting much easier if you had an ID” (149).


The Solidarity Dividend

Stanford economist Gavin Wright’s 2013 book, Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, documents how “after the Voting Rights Act . . . southern . . . gubernatorial campaigns increasingly featured themes of economic development and education” (159). That is, they realized they couldn’t just get reelected via racist dog whistling. Increased numbers of ballots also meant that more poor folk had a chance to influence the powerful. This was a win for all the poor, Black and white, but it was mostly due to the Black leadership that all benefited from “investments in public infrastructure, including hospitals, roads, schools, and libraries that had been starved when one-party rule allowed only the southern aristocracy to set the rules” (159).

When democracy is unfettered and widened, allowing all citizens equal access to the polls and other means of political involvement, everyone wins. McGhee’s last chapter, “The Solidarity Dividend,” is the pièce de resistance, the whole point of the book. It begins with a long story of the transformation of Lewiston, Maine, from a booming and prosperous cotton mill city in the late 1800s to the dilapidated and economically depressed city it was until recently. It’s also the second largest city in a state “with the whitest and oldest population in the country,” one of the ten states ranking highest in opioid deaths. The governor, Paul LePage, “campaigned and governed on rhetoric about illegal immigrants on welfare and drug-dealing people of color” (255). He also “vetoed Medicaid expansion for the working class five times and delivered large tax cuts for the wealthy” (256). But that is not the end of the story, and certainly not for Lewiston.

McGhee spent several days walking the streets and talking to people, including the city’s deputy administrator and urban planner, Phil Nadeau, on the job there since the early 2000s. Manufacturing in Lewiston started losing in the 1970s, first to the American South where labor was cheaper, then in the 1980s to China and Southeast Asia. Young people were leaving with no one left to work the service jobs in town. As the population dwindled, Lewiston couldn’t attract new employers.

Then a miracle of sorts happened. In the early 1990s, the government gave a green light for thousands of Somali refugees to be resettled in the US. First, they were sent to the suburbs of Atlanta, Minneapolis, then to Portland, Maine, then to Lewiston. Many other African refugees came too – from Djibouti, Chad, Sudan and the Congo. With a sparkle in his eye, Nadeau told McGhee that these “new Mainers” were renting apartments that had long been empty and “filling storefronts on Lisbon Street that were vacant for a long time. They’re contributing to the economy” (258). Yes, it helped that there was “good regional planning and maintenance of the historic assets,” but a bipartisan think tank estimated that these recent African immigrants “contributed $194 million in state and local taxes in 2018” (259).

Phil Nadeau plans to retire soon and travel around the country to share his story “about how immigration can be a win-win for locals.” He was beaming, she writes. And just behind him, on the wall, was the portrait of a victorious Muhammad Ali looking down on Sonny Liston, whom he had just knocked out in Lewiston’s youth hockey rink in 1965. It was his career-defining fight. It was also when he made public his new Muslim name. Who would have guessed that so many Muslim immigrants would come to settle this city years later?

But Lewiston is far from alone in accepting refugees who then reverse the fortunes of the towns and cities that welcome them. McGhee notes, “for the past twenty years, Latinx, African, and Asian immigrants have been repopulating small towns across America” (259). The first place she mentions is 45 minutes from us, Kennett Square, PA. Arguably the mushroom capital of America, this sleepy town is now half Latinx, and these new immigrants have revitalized this traditional business (my wife’s grandfather co-owned a mushroom company in the vicinity).

This is happening across the country. One study of 2,600 rural towns since 1990 found that two-thirds of them lost population. But among those that gained population, “one in five owes the entirety of its growth to immigration” (260). By 2010, “people of color made up nearly 83 percent of the growth in rural population in America.” Though many of these longtime residents are surely tempted to feel threatened by the newcomers, “the growth and prosperity the new people bring give the lie to the zero-sum model.” As the local newspaper editor of Storm Lake, Iowa, wrote in 2018, if the local residents don’t put behind them their prejudice and work with the newly arrived to rebuild their hometowns, “there will be nobody left to turn out the lights by 2050. . . Asians and Africans and Latinos are our lifeline” (260).

But it’s not all about a growing economy. It’s also about new friendships budding and community being built. The first workers to come to Lewiston were French Canadians. One the stories that sticks with me (I did grow up in France), is that of Cécile Thornton (b. 1955) whose parents spoke French to her as a child. But like the second generation of many immigrants, she lost it over the years. While many others were offering ESL courses to help the immigrants learn English, Cécile, now retired and feeling alone because her whole family had migrated to other states, decided to visit the Franco Center downtown Lewiston to resurrect her French. But she only found a room full of elderly white people like herself who had given up trying to speak French.

But that visit was fruitful in another way. When she complained that she wasn’t going to learn any French there, one man told her, “You should go to the French Club at Hillview.” Hillview, she knew, was a “subsidized housing project.” Undeterred, she soon showed up at that French Club. To her shock, she was the only white person there. On that first visit, she hit it off with Edho who had recently come with his family from Congo. Greetings and small talk turned into the longest French conversation she had had since her childhood. She kept coming, and when she noticed that some of her new African friends were starting classes at the community college, she convinced them to attend the Franco Center, now a more convenient location for them. The result was a joy to behold: the two groups were now becoming friends – “the elderly white Mainers with halting vocabularies learning from new Black Mainers who spoke fluently” (262).

This life-changing experience gave Cécile a new lease on life. She now volunteers with asylum seekers, helping them navigate the social services and connecting them to other resources and people along the way.

Perhaps the most striking story is that of how Bruce Noddin and ZamZam became friends. Bruce, married with two kids, had owned a successful sports equipment store but then fell into drug and alcohol addiction and nearly lost everything, including his life. With his wife’s help and a good recovery program, he started to participate in a jail ministry. One day in the parking lot he met this lady who was bringing some hot food to the Muslim inmates to break their Ramadan fast. They started a conversation; she introduced herself as Zamzam and said he should “join the Maine People’s Alliance, a 32,000-member-strong grassroots group advocating for policies like Medicaid expansion, a minimum wage increase, paid sick leave, and support for home care” (263).

One thing led to another, and Bruce made a lot of new Muslim friends from Somalia and Djibouti. But he took initiative using his leadership skills, and he is today the main organizer of the yearly Community Unity Barbecue that draws hundreds of Lewiston residents. In speaking with McGhee, he expressed his deep gratitude for the turn his life had taken:


“The vision for me for this city, it’s [that we will] embrace our past, embrace our ethnicity . . . and then embrace the people that are here now that are just like those people who came here a hundred plus years ago. They’re exactly like that. But actually, they’re worse off. They didn’t always have a job. They were escaping atrocities in their country. They were escaping possibly dying or seeing their children die. And they need[ed] to work. There should be a massive amount of empathy from that next two, three, four generations down from those people that went through the same stuff as these people are going through, and saying, ‘We’re going to embrace you. You’re going to help us make this city great again’” (264).


McGhee then recounts how Ben Chin, the director of Maine People’s Alliance, helped to build a winning multiracial coalition which has begun to change the face of Maine politics. Ben, a millennial whose grandfather had emigrated from China and who himself had come to Lewiston for college and stayed, was also an Episcopalian lay minister. His community organizing over time paid off. Starting with the 2017 local elections, the Alliance won “a string of victories that begun to refill the pool of public services in Maine – and justify Ben’s faith.” McGhee explains: “Maine became the first state in the nation to expand Medicaid by ballot initiative over the governor’s repeated refusal” (269).

There was indeed a lot of race-baiting during that campaign, but Ben was adamant: what got them to the finish line was the multiracial coalition, “a broad-base of working-class people . . . not the muckety-mucks.” And for the first time, it was the immigrant-led political action committees that made the difference, including the “Somali taxi drivers who used their infrastructure of radios and vehicles to get elderly, homebound immigrant and poor Mainers to the polls safely” (269).

That is the “Solidarity Dividend,” she exclaims. The next year, these activists made possible the election of many new politicians who then “passed reforms to address the opioid epidemic and guarantee a generous paid-time-off for Maine workers.”


A transformational blueprint: TRHT

I want to end with a movement that was McGhee’s mother’s brain child (Dr. Gail Christopher). Her idea soon gained traction and in 2017 fourteen committees across the country adopted it as their project. The blueprint was called Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). By 2018, twenty-four universities had TRHT centers. Then came the George Floyd protests of 2020. In her words,


“Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a resolution urging the establishment of a U.S. TRHT Commission. The TRHT framework was developed in 2016 with input of over 175 experts convened by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. The experts learned from the forty truth-and-reconciliation processes across the globe that had helped societies process traumas – from South Africa to Chile to Sri Lanka – but they explicitly left the word reconciliation out of the name for the U.S. effort. ‘To reconcile,’ notes the TRHT materials, ‘connotes restoration of friendly relations – “reuniting” or “bringing together again after conflict,” [whereas] the U.S. needs transformation. The nation was conceived . . . on this belief in racial hierarch’” (282).


In Dallas, it was Jerry Hawkins, a middle-aged Black man, who took up the TRHT challenge. At first, it was a stretch for him to even consider this, because a Black veteran had just killed five Dallas police officers and two civilians. But that too was why community leaders were urging Hawkins to take the job. Of the many suggestions offered in the TRHT manual, two of them immediately stuck out to him as urgent. Hawkins explains it to McGhee:


“One was a community racial history . . . this historical analysis of policy and place, of race, and the people from Indigenous times to present. And second was this community visioning process . . . this was of convening [a] multiracial, multifaceted group of people together, to come up with a shared community vision of how to end this hierarchy of human value?” (284)


Over three years, Hawkins and his committee dug deeply into the history of the Dallas area and interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life. They published a report. As McGhee puts it, “In the opening pages, bold orange words bleed to the edges of a two-page spread: DALLAS IS ON STOLEN LAND. And a few pages later, again: DALLAS WAS BUILT WITH STOLEN LABOR.” She then adds, “Jerry called stolen land and stolen labor the first two public policies in Dallas” (284).

Whereas some cities in America boast multiple organizations working on racial equity, this is the only one in this conservative stronghold of Dallas. Yet it has brought about some spectacular breakthroughs in the hearts of many civic leaders already. Both the city and the Dallas school district boast offices of racial equity. Attitudes have begun to change.


Parting words

I began this second part of this essay on McGhee’s book by citing the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “pray for all people,” and especially “for kings and all who are in authority.” Why? So that we could “live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity.” The TRHT manual is right. When it comes to racial healing in America, it’s transformation we need. People of faith would add the word “repentance.” Just as white leaders (and Black ones too) confessed their crimes under the Apartheid regime in South Africa, so healing and true peace could take root. In the U.S. today, we need many more local TRHT initiatives, and we need a national one as well. Join me in praying for that!

Then, perhaps, we could find bipartisan ways to pass laws to “fill the pool” and together – whites, blacks, browns, people of all faiths and no faith, or “the sum of us all” – rebuild the physical, social, and economic infrastructure this nation needs so desperately. Government, hand in hand with business and civil society (including churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.), could help build a society “marked by godliness and dignity,” a beloved community “with liberty and justice for all.”

The three Abrahamic traditions picture a Creator God who will judge individuals and nations with perfect justice. After all, He masters all the facts of each case, and He knows the secrets of every human heart. In my last post, I pointed out the positive achievements of J. William Fulbright in sending out thousands of young Americans to create goodwill around the world, as well as his racist attitude in supporting racial segregation at home.

We read in the Qur’an, “Whoever does good does it for himself and whoever does evil does it against himself: your Lord is never unjust to His creatures” (Q. 41:46). In other words, a good God has written justice into the fabric of His universe. In the vernacular, you reap what you sow. The original saying is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:


Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. (Galatians 6:7-9, NLT)


Plainly, my country has a lot to atone for, from the near genocide of its native population to over three centuries of chattel slavery, from the Jim Crow laws and the terror of public lynchings to the red-lining and other laws designed to oppress and dispossess African Americans. But then came the civil rights era and more recently the thousands of whites flooding the streets in 2020 to protest racial injustice and call for an end to systemic racism. Repentance begins with taking stock of the evils we’ve committed. Then we decide to move in the opposite direction. I am hopeful we can change for the better … together.

This is the first of a two-part blog post on a book that came out this year, and none too soon. Heather McGhee, an African American woman (BA in American studies at Yale, JD from UC Berkeley) who has specialized in economic and social policy; additionally, she has “drafted legislation, testified before Congress, and contributed regularly to news shows including NBC’s Meet the Press.” She was president of Demos, a think tank focused on the issue of inequality and “now chairs the board of Color of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization” (from the book jacket).

The book title is straightforward: The Sum of Us All: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. There are no numbered footnotes but a running documentation based on a few short phrases on each page found in the Notes section (100 pages in all!). This is followed up by two full pages of interviews, with full names followed by month and year, and so the book is peppered with the stories of the people McGhee met during her three years of traveling for this project. This is a page turner, but the research that went into it is colossal (because of her many connections, it was a collaborative venture from the start, with grants from several foundations).


A three-year USA road trip

Heather McGhee began her work at Demos in the early 2000s researching household debt. But she discovered it wasn’t just credit card debt that was ensnaring Black and Latinx families in greater proportion to white ones; by then too, disproportionately minority households were being saddled with bankruptcies and foreclosures because of a new type of mortgage loans ominously draining the equity from their homes. These became infamous during the Great Recession: subprime loans that were “sold to investment banks who bundled them and sold shares in them to investors, creating mortgage-backed securities” (92).

At first, it was only poorer communities of color who were canvassed for this type of “refinancing scheme” (first-time owners were in the minority). These investments soon became very profitable for Wall Street firms, while at the same time the loan sharks had no vested interest in helping the homeowners manage to repay them. As she puts it, “The homeowner’s loss could be the investor’s gain.” But because these arrangements worked so well for the financial firms, the mortgage people spread their “unfair and risky practices” to the wider market, and it was white households – in greater numbers – that now fell victim to this predatory lending.

Demos had launched an ambitious study in 2003 on household debt, the most comprehensive ever done on the topic. It garnered them “newspaper editorials, meetings with banks, congressional hearings, and legislation to limit credit card rates and fees” (xiii). But two years later, Congress passed a bankruptcy bill that favored the credit industry and hammered vulnerable household owners even more than before. McGhee took note: research will only go so far in Washington. So when years later Donald Trump entered the White House, she decided to do something radical: step down as president and spend three years touring the country to find out why what she had been taught about economics did not explain the data.

Yes, she was told, race and inequality are related, but in a linear fashion: “structural racism accelerates inequality for communities of color” (xii). But again and again, since the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, white Americans dependably voted for politicians who would shrink taxes for the wealthy while cutting back government spending on education, healthcare, and infrastructure – all goods their lives depended on. And now they voted in droves for “a man whose agenda promised to wreak economic, social, and environmental havoc on them along with everyone else” (xvii)! It didn’t make any sense.

Her first clue came from a series of psychology studies:


Psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson presented white Americans with news articles about people of color becoming the majority of the population by 2042. The study authors then asked their subjects ‘to indicate their agreement with the idea that increases in racial minorities’ status will reduce white Americans’ status.’ The people who agreed most strongly that demographic change threatened whites’ status were most susceptible to shift their policy views because of it, even on ‘race-neutral policies’ like raising the minimum wage and expanding healthcare – even drilling in the Arctic. The authors concluded that ‘making the changing national racial demographics salient led white Americans (regardless of political affiliation) to endorse conservative policy positions more strongly’” (xviii).


She then realized that this idea of racial groups in competition with one another, and whites in particular feeling threatened by the progress non-whites could potentially make, was exactly the propaganda they had been fed over the last few decades by conservative media: beware, because there are “makers and takers,” “taxpayers and freeloaders,” and the liberals lavish “handouts” on those too lazy to work, be they people of color or immigrants forcing their way in. But this racism is a self-defeating trap for the whites just as much as everyone else. This zero-sum paradigm is really a lie peddled by the wealthy one percent who know that fanning the flames of racism gives them the cover they need to exploit the masses – “hoping to keep people with much in common from making common cause with one another” (xxii).


An idea rooted in our history

That zero-sum idea goes all the way back to our history of chattel slavery. The story of the United States cannot be told “without the central character of race” (7). Racial taxonomies of the 17th century aimed not just at differentiating various groups of humans, but at assigning relative worth to each of them. The resulting hierarchy – with Europeans on top – gave the master race “moral permission to exploit and enslave.” [A 2019 article in Quaternary Science Reviews argues that the death of 56 million indigenous people in the Americas after the arrival of the Europeans resulted in the increase of carbon in the atmosphere!] From the beginning, the US economy was built “on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders.” The corollary only reinforced the status quo: “that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people” (7).

Slavery enriched both South and North. Slaveowners benefited from both free land and free labor. Think about it:


Under slavery’s formative capitalist logic, an enslaved man or woman was both a worker and an appreciating asset. Recounts economic historian Caitlin Rosenthal, “Thomas Jefferson described the appreciation of slaves as a ‘silent profit’ of between 5 and 10 percent annually, and he advised friends to invest accordingly” (8).


The ongoing costs incurred by the slaveowner were minimal, and he even had an incentive to use sexual violence to increase the number of his slaves. But the benefit accrued to Northerners as well. Northern insurance companies (including some still in business today, like New York Life and Aetna) profited from policies that insured the life of slaves. Such life insurance policies would pay back owners three quarters of a slave’s market value upon death. The fortunes of many other northern corporations were tied up with slavery, which “legally persisted in the North until 1846.” Slavery was feeding all parts of the US economy.

Another way race drilled the zero-sum mentality into the white psyche was in the way it defined who was an American and who was not. Most of the Europeans emigrating to the colonies in the early period were poor and certainly not “free” – overwhelmingly, they came from the servant class. But after several mixed racial rebellions in the late 1600s, colonial governments began to enact new laws that reveal “a deliberate effort to legislate a new hierarchy between poor whites and the ‘basically uncivil, unchristian, and above all, unwhite Native and African laborers’” (10). Here, the zero-sum reality begins to sink in: only whites are given the right to own property and slaves lost that right. One law even stipulated that the proceeds from the sale of a slave’s property would be given to “the poor of the parish,” who were, of course, white.

Hence, at the dawn of the eighteenth century, whites could experience a form of freedom they never dreamed of having in the old country – but it came at the cost of Black subjugation. As McGhee puts it,


“Eternal slavery provided a new caste that even the poorest white-skinned person could hover above and define himself against. . . . You can imagine how, whether or not you owned slaves yourself, you might willingly buy into a zero-sum model to gain the sense of freedom that rises with the subordination of others” (11).


Racism drained the pool

That is the title of McGhee’s second chapter. The public swimming pool is a prime example of white Americans choosing to deny themselves a public good they’re were very much enjoying, but the fact that Black Americans were using it was enough of a reason to shut it down and fill it with concrete. From the late 1940s on, this happened all over America. Sometimes, rather than share the municipal pool with African American children, city councils leased the pool for a song to a private, whites-only association, as happened in Warren, Ohio, and Montgomery, West Virginia. Montgomery, Alabama, had a sprawling public park with a zoo, community center, and the largest pool of the area, as well as a dozen other parks in the city. But when a federal court ruled that monopolizing it for whites was unconstitutional, the city council dissolved the entire park system. That was the rule almost everywhere.

“Draining the pool” is an apt, if sad, metaphor for the way American racism drained public spending for a variety of public goods over the next decades. That it hurt more whites than people of color did not seem to factor into white voting patterns. This is what she learned all over the country from talking to people of all walks of life over three years: anti-government animus was tied to that zero-sum worldview that equates progress for people of color with loss of status and wealth for whites (by the way, Black respondents never saw it that way).

What has that done for us as a nation? Though we are the wealthiest nation on earth, our per capita government spending “is near the bottom of the list of industrial countries, below Latvia and Estonia.” She explains, “Our roads, bridges, and water systems get a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. With the exception of about forty years from the New Deal to the 1970s, the United States has had a weaker commitment to public goods, and to the public good, than every country that possess anywhere near our wealth” (17). We’ve been “draining our pool” for a good while now.

Historians and other social scientists have pinpointed exactly when white voters pulled their support for an activist government – one that, according to 65 percent of white people in 1956, “ought to guarantee a job to anyone who wanted one and to provide a minimum standard of living in the country.” Yet between 1960 when that figure was up to 70 percent and 1964 when it crashed to 35 percent, something momentous must have happened. And it did.


“In August 1963, white Americans tuned in to the March on Washington (which was for ‘Jobs and Freedom’). They saw the nation’s capital overtaken by a group of mostly Black activists demanding not just an end to discrimination, but some of the same economic ideas that had been overwhelmingly popular with whites: a jobs guarantee for all workers and a higher minimum wage” (29).


Race was clearly an issue, but not that old form of “biological racism” that put Europeans at the apex of a hierarchy of human racial groupings. No, white Americans had adapted to at least some of the narrative of the civil rights era. Instead of biological racism, it was “a new form of racial disdain” based “on perceived culture and behavior.” As professors Donald R. Kinder and Lynn Saunders’ 1996 book demonstrated (Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals, U. of Chicago Press), this new kind of anti-Black animus was more of a “racial resentment.” Their study of the American National Election Studies (ANES) survey data indicated that though whites seemed more comfortable with racial equality and integration, “their backing for policies designed to bring equality and integration about has scarcely increased at all. Indeed in some cases white support has actually declined” (30).

McGhee and a colleague dove into the 2016 ANES data and discovered that “there was a sixty-point difference in support of increased government spending based on whether you were a white person with high versus low racial resentment. Government, it turned out, had become a highly racialized character in the white story of our country” (30). She explains,


“When the people with power in a society see a portion of the populace as inferior and underserving, their definition of ‘the public’ becomes conditional. It’s often unconscious, but their perception of the Other as underserving is so important to their perception of themselves as deserving that they’ll tear apart the web that supports everyone, including them. Public goods, in other words, are only for the public we perceive to be good” (30).


This attitude, however, does not come out of thin air. McGhee shares how a 2014 book by one of her law school professors, Ian Haney López (Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class), helped her “connect the dots.” President Reagan followed his advisors’ advice by continuing “the fifty-state Southern Strategy that could focus on taxes and spending while still hitting the emotional notes of white resentment.” She then quotes him in a conversation they had about this:


“Plutocrats use dog-whistle politics to appeal to whites with a basic formula. First, fear people of color. Then, hate the government (which coddles people of color). Finally, trust the market and the 1 percent.”


Apparently, this strategy has worked very well, at least until 2020, and this discourse is not about to disappear, funded as it is by a coterie of conservative billionaires and millionaires. But it has “drained the pool” for all of us, as McGhee demonstrates throughout her book – in education (think of student debt, for instance), healthcare, the gutting of unions and workers’ rights, housing, infrastructure and environmental protection.


God’s judgment and grace

I started with the thought of dark clouds of judgment about to close in on us as a nation. The Hebrew Bible’s prophets certainly point to God’s swift judgment on nations that oppress others. Yes, he raised up Babylon, and before that, Assyria, to bring judgment upon several nations, including Israel. But they too in the end harvested destruction for the crimes against humanity they committed so wantonly.

Heather McGhee is not a religious person, she tells us. Nor was her mother, though their family included Christian and Muslim members. But she suspects that there is a transcendent being or force that somehow lies behind reality. But as you will see in the second part of this post, she is certainly hopeful. You don’t see anger or resentment as she tells the story of how racism has cursed our nation to this day. She is amazingly optimistic that a large enough interracial coalition can gather and turn this nation around.

I hope she’s right. As people of faith, as most of my readers are, I surmise, we pray that God himself will step in, lead us to repentance (I include myself, as this article makes clear), and then find ways to work together for the common good across all barriers of race, cultures of origin, and class.

We can’t escape it. We are people of our time and place. This often makes for spectacular blind spots in our worldview. For example, how can you be at the same time a politician like J. William Fulbright with an expansive vision for international cooperation after World War II and then oppose a Supreme Court decision to integrate schools in 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) and then fight civil rights legislation tooth and nail in the 1960s?

 I read an article in Foreign Affairs the other day by Charles King, Georgetown University Professor of International Affairs and Government. His title: “The Fulbright Paradox: Race and the Road to a New American Internationalism.” [I’ll be quoting from the article in the Foreign Affairs July/August 2021 issue, pp. 92-106]. I instantly agreed with him that this topic is timely. In his words,


“Fulbright’s ideas were shaped at a time of party polarization and chin-jutting demagoguery unmatched until the rise of Donald Trump. His life is therefore an object lesson about global-mindedness in an age of political rancor and distrust – but not exactly in the ways one might think” (93).


The paradox in question, or Fulbright’s blind spot, I will argue, has been dramatically exposed for a majority of white Americans today following the unprecedented protests for racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in May 2020. Most of us now recognize that racism in this country is baked into many of our institutions and laws – hence the expression, “systemic racism.”


J. William Fulbright’s globalist vision

The senator from Arkansas (1945-1974) who has served the longest as chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was no doubt one of the great American globalists of the 20th century. A great admirer of President Woodrow Wilson, he managed to found the greatest academic scholarship and exchange program, which Congress named after him. Since its inception in 1946, the Fulbright Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State has awarded a variety of grants to more than 400,000 academics from over 160 countries of the world. Every year, about 3,000 American students and scholars travel the world to do research and build greater trust and understanding all over the globe. Their motto is “Connecting People. Connecting Nations.”

In fact, Fulbright was a born leader with a lofty vision. Graduating from the George Washington Law School in 1934, he worked as an attorney in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. He then left Washington to teach law at his Alma Matter, the University of Arkansas. After just three years (1939), he was appointed president of the university. To this day, he was the youngest university president at 34. Yet from the start, his vision was global. As World War II broke out in Europe, he publicly declared that the U.S. should enter the war alongside the Allied forces. He was now feeling a pull to enter politics.

Fulbright was elected in 1942 as a Democratic representative, becoming a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He quickly became an outspoken freshman lawmaker. In particular, he drafted a resolution in 1943 that passed the House (Fulbright Resolution), which called for greater involvement in peacekeeping efforts overseas and strongly urged the U.S. to join the United Nations.

It didn’t hurt either that Fulbright had been a Rhodes scholar, meaning that he was granted that prestigious scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Oxford University. That must have been a factor in his endeavor, soon after his election to the Senate in 1944, to establish what has become by far the most important American academic exchange program.

But almost from the beginning, his globalist vision and this program in particular, put him in the crosshairs of another Senate powerhouse: Senator Joseph McCarthy who in the early 1950s had devoted his career to expose and punish any Americans of influence who were deemed to have communist sympathies. He had chaired the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for that purpose and “had upended lives and destroyed careers.” Charles King picks up the narrative at this point:


“By January 1954 . . . the committee was up for reauthorization. When senators’ names were called to approve a motion to keep it going, only one nay came from the floor: that of the junior Democratic senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright. ‘I realized that there was just no limit to what he’d say and insinuate,’ Fulbright later said of McCarthy. ‘As the hearings proceeded, it suddenly occurred to me that this fellow would do anything to deceive you to get his way.’ Within a year, Fulbright had helped persuade 66 other senators to join him in censuring McCarthy and ending his demagogic run. By the spring of 1957, McCarthy was gone for good, dead of hepatitis exacerbated by drink” (92).


McCarthy, as you might have guessed, was categorically opposed to the Fulbright program. He believed that those “scholarship recipients were America-haters who promoted communism.” Fulbright once dryly responded to his objection in a hearing, “You can put together a number of zeros and still not arrive at the figure one” (93).

In the 1960s, Fulbright took aim at the Vietnam war and “he convened a series of Senate hearings that interrogated the war’s origins, its cost in lives and prestige, and pathways to ending it. The televised hearings, which ran intermittently from 1966 to 1971, brought high-level debate about the conflict into American living rooms.” King figures that these hearings were instrumental in changing middle America’s mind on the war. President Johnson tried to persuade one TV network to play I Love Lucy reruns instead of these live debates. Within a month of hearings Johnson’s “approval ratings on the war slid from 63 percent to 49 percent.” He was right to be concerned. One 27-year-old John Kerry, for instance, came representing Vietnam Veterans Against the War and posed a question that stunned the nation, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Fulbright’s influence on this issue was heightened by his initial position of support for the war in 1964, but with Nixon in the White House in 1969, Fulbright had become “an antiwar activist.” I love this commentary by King on the constitutional role of Congress in limiting the powers of the presidency:


“The counterculture had the streets, but Fulbright had the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate hold the presidency to account, even when both institutions were controlled by the same party. It was an enactment of the founders’ vision that has never since been equaled” (96).


God’s justice and the nations

In his concluding paragraph, King writes that “Fulbright’s biography is evidence that the best of what the United States produced in the last century was inseparable from the worst – a complicated, grownup fact that ought to inform how Americans approach everything from education in international affairs to foreign-policy making” (106). And that “best” has to do with what several generations of people worldwide have experienced through the Fulbright scholarships, grants, and cultural outreach. His main point in writing this article is to argue that Fulbright, like his globalist peers, had a huge and ugly blind spot – racism; but he also founded an institution that put bright and eager Americans in touch with young leaders in many other countries, breaking down barriers and stereotypes and creating a momentum toward further constructive partnerships. But notice: this was shouldered by the U.S. government. So his final point is this:


“And to generations of people in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, Fulbright’s most enduring contribution is something that the United States now has an opportunity to bring back home: the astonishing, liberating idea that governments have a duty to help their people lose their fear of difference” (106).


That phrase “lose their fear of difference” is the very tip of a gigantic iceberg of human attitudes and behavior. We humans construct our identity from being part of a family, a tribe, a religious or political grouping, and even a nation – and all of this often in opposition to “the other,” in all of these categories and more. But it’s not just about highlighting difference and thereby polishing our own brand. It’s about power too. Minorities and weaker groups have historically suffered from exploitation, oppression – even to the point of genocide in many cases – at the hands of groups in power.

Allow me to interject some thoughts from the Hebrew prophets here. Their unanimous message is that God rules over the nations and will judge each one justly. One of the criteria for that judgment is how the weak, the poor and oppressed are treated, either within their own borders or how they treat other nations they conquer. For example, one of the four “Servant Songs” of Isaiah (songs attributed to the future Messiah) puts it this way:


“Look at my servant, whom I strengthen.
    He is my chosen one, who pleases me.
I have put my Spirit upon him.
    He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout
    or raise his voice in public.
He will not crush the weakest reed
    or put out a flickering candle.
    He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.
He will not falter or lose heart
    until justice prevails throughout the earth.
    Even distant lands beyond the sea will wait for his instruction” (Isaiah 42).


In Ezekiel, where I have been reading lately, we find a number of prophecies addressed to various nations. Several of the smaller neighbors of Israel (like Ammon, Philistia, Moab, and Edom, or the descendants of Jacob’s twin brother Esau) will be wiped out and disappear because of their “bitter revenge and long-standing contempt” for the people of Israel (Ezechiel 25). Others like the wealthy coastal city state of Tyre on the Mediterranean will be destroyed by the Babylonians, because of its arrogance, greed, and exploitation of lesser powers (chapters 26-28). Egypt promised to help the Kingdom of Judah (the last remnant of Israelite rule) when Babylon came to crush it, but in fact didn’t lift a finger. Its land will become desolate as a result, many will be killed and others will be scattered to many lands. But, unlike most of the others, God promises to restore its fortunes in the near future; however, with this warning: “It will be the lowliest of nations, never again great enough to rise above its neighbors” (Ez. 29:15; four chapters are nevertheless devoted to God’s messages to Egypt).


Fulbright, a man of his times and place (the South)

I am reading Charles King’s essay on Fulbright in light of the Hebrew prophets. Yes, he was indeed “a man of his times and his place,” as I will explain. But his views on race, especially in light of the millions of white Americans marching in our streets with their black and brown compatriots in 2020 to call for an end to systemic racism, shine a light on “America’s Original Sin,” as I explained in early 2019. The prophets’ mission was to deliver God’s message to the people and those messages were predominantly negative. God was exposing their sins so that they would repent and thereby avoid the harsh judgment against them, ominously looming on the horizon.

The parallels with “critical race theory” (CRT), this movement started in legal studies in the 1970s but mostly spearheaded by human rights activists, are obvious. As within any other movement, there is a healthy diversity of views and I certainly would not endorse all of them. But the basic intuition and direction of research in this growing subdiscipline is exactly what the Hebrew prophets would say in our day: to lay bare the assumptions of white supremacy that have guided this nation from the start and the strategies that were put in place along the way to bolster a system that favored the power of white Americans and sidelined the descendants of the slaves whose forced labor by all accounts multiplied this country’s wealth and established its power. White supremacy and the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery (see this piece about how churches are taking a stand against this) also gave rise to the idea of Manifest Destiny which was simply a justification for the ruthless dispossession, oppression, and killing of millions of Native Americans.

Even one of the central concepts of CRT, intersectionality, can be discerned within those prophetic texts. This is the concept that the rich oppressing the poor is not just about attitudes of prejudice, greed, and pride in the hearts of the rich. It is also about how justice is trampled in the courts and how laws can often be drawn up so as to increase the power and wealth of the elites at the expense of the poor. In other words, racism and exploitation of the lower classes can easily be woven into a society’s institutions and laws. Intersectionality also means that the weakest members of society all suffer from the abusive power of the dominant group – women, people of color, and the lower classes in general.

As John Dawson, the New Zealand missionary in Watts, Los Angeles, wrote in his 1994 book, Healing America’s Wounds, unless the American church (and society as a whole, I would add) openly recognizes, repents of, laments, and makes amends for the heinous crimes committed against the African slaves and the Native American peoples and their descendants (including the Jim Crow laws, the redlining of cities, and the myriad other ways the Indian nations were driven off their lands, their children put into boarding schools “to kill the Indian” in them, etc.), the nation as a whole will continue to be broken, at war with itself. This includes the dozens of new laws in Republican-majority states to disenfranchise voters of color.

As you read Dawson's book, you begin to feel that there’s an eerie “disturbance in the force,” in Star Wars parlance. Past sins of injustice fester like a cancer in the body politic, in society at large, and inhibit healing and true thriving as a nation. Ezekiel reminds us that God will also judge the United States. More likely, he has been judging it all along, but he longs for its people – starting with its leaders, including in the church – to confess and lament these sins publicly and make restoration. Then there will be healing.

That’s why I see God’s Spirit in 2020 using that tragic series of police killings of black men and women as a tipping point to send crowds of mostly white people into the streets. In God’s providence, it was a revelation for many of us white Americans. We were listening to our compatriots of color and were beginning to take in many of the injuries done to them, almost on a daily basis, and the fact that many of these indignities stem from disparities that often begin at birth in poor neighborhoods high in crime, and continue with decrepit schools and a reduced chance to go to college and succeed. We also began to shudder at “the talk” black parents have to have with their children about how to deal with the police, and especially when they begin to drive.

 But we must not stop here. The Spirit is calling us to take up the hard work of facing the racism, the injustice and the rampant inequality, and fix it in the very structures of society. Consider joining a movement like the one cosponsored by the Rev. William J. Barber II, which builds directly on the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before his assassination in 1968.

Now back to Fulbright. Charles King shows that U.S. foreign policy should not be “narrated” from New England but rather from the American South. As many historians have shown, the great wealth that came from such commodities as cotton and tobacco – both produced by slaves – ensured that southern politicians in Washington were great advocates for free trade, which requires broad international alliances and a stable world order. But the motive was not about promoting mutual respect among nations. Senator Jefferson Davis, who had been slated to become the first president of the Confederate South, had this to say about relations with Latin American countries. Spreading democracy was nowhere in his thinking, as we see in this 1858 speech:


“Among our neighbors of Central and South America we see the Caucasian mingled with the Indian and the African. They have the forms of free government, because they have copied them. To its benefits they have not attained, because that standard of civilization is above their race” (98).


King shows that these racist ideas spread after the Civil War:


“The South didn’t so much lose the Civil War as outsource it, spreading new theories and techniques of segregation beyond the region itself. Domestically, the Jim Crow system cemented the legal, economic, and political power of whites, as did the brutal counterinsurgencies against Native Americans fought by the regular military on the western plains. Places that had no association with the old Confederacy, from Indiana to California, rushed to create their own versions of apartheid, including prohibitions on interracial marriage and restrictions on voting” (99-100).

Historians have also brough to light the kind of values that motivated and undergirded American military interventions in Cuba, Hawaii, Haiti and the Philippines: “manliness, white supremacy, and faith in one’s own noble intent, even when other people experienced it as terror.” American policy, whether at home or overseas, was, in the words of diplomat and political scientist Paul Reinsch in his 1900 textbook World Politics at the End of the Nineteenth Century: “a harsh and cruel struggle for existence . . . between superior races and the stubborn aborigines” (100). This worldview makes the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII seem quite natural. As war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote from the Pacific theater at the time, “In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive, the way some people feel about cockroaches and mice” (100).

It was against this backdrop that the great black scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in the American Journal of Sociology in 1944:


“The power of the southerners arises from the suppression of the Negro and poor-white vote, which gives the rotten borough of Mississippi four times the political power of Massachussetts and enables the South through the rule of seniority to pack the committees of Congress and to dominate it” (100).


But after WWII it was the reality of decolonialism that gained the ascendancy, and the courageous stand taken by African Americans against race-based segregation and dispossession was making world headlines. This wasn’t lost on the Soviet Union. In an amicus brief to the Supreme Court by the U.S. Justice Department on the occasion of the Brown v. Board of Education case, we read that “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills and it raises doubts even among friendly nations as to the intensity of our devotion to the democratic faith” (101). The cat is out of the bag, as it were, and American leaders knew that a tarnished reputation was a huge handicap in the ideological battles of the Cold War. The same can be said today with regard to ascending world power China. But as mentioned above, today's extreme political polarization is also a welcome opportunity for Russia, Iran, and others to use the internet to divide us even more.


Parting words

Charles King has a personal connection to Fulbright: he grew up in the Ozarks of Arkansas on a property adjacent to that of the Fulbright family. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, studied at Oxford, was a Fulbright scholar, and lived for many years in Washington. But the two men are from different eras. King's latest book (2019) was a New York Times bestseller: Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. He knows that when it comes to these issues of equity and social justice, he stands on the shoulders of many who went before him, starting with many Black and women scholars.

Yet there is another way to escape from the confines of place and time, and especially in this subject of becoming good world citizens, aware of the many strong ties that bind us all together, including civil society activism for better governance, social justice and peace, and the fight against climate change. One of the best tools to strengthen and extend this movement is one’s religious faith in a Creator who loves each and every one of His creatures. In my recent book I argued that Christians, Muslims and Jews share that double mandate from God: love for Him, and love for our neighbor. The Hebrew prophets remind us that not just each person but each nation will be judged. Therefore, together with people of goodwill everywhere, whether religious or not, let’s build together on this foundation of human solidarity and dignity, practicing justice and love for the sake of all. This might just be the only way our descendants will survive and even thrive.

Pope Francis started to write his third official document before Covid-19 exploded on the global stage, but it only added more urgency to his message addressed to humanity, “We are all brothers!”

If you want to know more about Pope Francis, read my thoughts on the first document, a pastoral letter calling for the renewal of the church on the basis of mission (Evangelii Gaudium, or “Joy of the Gospel”) and on the second, an encyclical calling on humanity to care for its planet (Laudate Si, “Praise be to you”). It makes sense that Pope Francis would use his first document to address the church, his second one to call for action on climate change and his third one for a kinder, more peaceful world.


The backdrop of Fratelli Tutti

Pope Francis signed this encyclical letter in Assisi (Italy) on the feast day of St. Francis, October 4, 2020. British Catholic theologian Christopher Lamb connects this letter’s theme to the pope’s namesake, St. Francis, who in 1219 “crossed the battle lines of the Crusades to meet the Sultan of Egypt in a bid to end the conflict.” This crossing of human borders for the sake of peace dovetails nicely with the Parable of the Good Samaritan which the pope leverages in this letter to exhort people everywhere to nurture a culture of dialogue, kindness and love, so that those suffering the most find help and comfort.

A Latina theologian teaching at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago noticed another element to this letter’s backdrop. Pope Francis’ ancestors emigrated to Argentina from northern Italy. There’s an Italian connection. First, note that the title (“All Brothers”) comes from a Latin text, the Admonitions of St. Francis to his fellow friars. Changing the Latin omnes fratres into the Italian fratelli tutti is a nod to the saint and to his country of origin. Second, Professor Nanko-Fernándes points to a nineteenth-century event which nicely ties the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the action of the women of Solferino in northern Italy:


“In 1859, the carnage of war devastated the northern Italian landscape and overwhelmed the town of Castiglione delle Stiviere with thousands of casualties from the battle of Solferino and San Martino. Churches literally became field hospitals, sheltering enemies who were made vulnerable neighbors because of the suffering and space they shared. Ordinary townsfolk, many of them women and girls, cared for the wounded and offered a comforting presence for the dying. A monument near the cathedral now commemorates the sacrifice of these heroic women.”


There is yet another layer to this story. A Swiss Calvinist, Henri Dunant, happened to be in Castiglione at the time. He witnessed the selfless and compassionate work these women did, which he later documented in a book, A Memory of Solferino. Dunant wrote of “injured, mutilated, and dying soldiers from all sides, some from across the Italian peninsula as well as troops who were French, German, Austrian, Arabs, Slavs, Bohemians, Croatians, Hungarians, and Africans from lands colonized by Europeans.” Yet these women cared for all of them, because they “recognized that regardless of uniform, race, or nation, these were ‘all brothers’.”

This in itself might have nudged the pope to keep the title in Italian, but there is more. This experience led Henri Dunant and several colleagues in Geneva to found the International Red Cross (1863) and Red Crescent (1869). Among its “fundamental principles,” we read, “The Red Cross … endeavors … to alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found … to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes human understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.” The influence of St. Francis is unmistakable (see my two-part piece on him).


The Good Samaritan Parable for our times

I easily picture this parable in my mind – at least the physical landscape. We used to live on the road to Jericho behind the Mount of Olives at the entrance of what was Bethany in Jesus’ day. Jerusalem is about 2,800 feet above sea level. Jericho and the Dead Sea, about 17 miles down the road, are over 1,300 feet below sea level and the road is pretty much desert a few miles from the top. In those days, it was notorious for its lawlessness and danger. Jesus’ hearers could instantly imagine someone badly beaten, almost naked, left to die by the roadside.

A Jewish priest, and then a Levite who likely was coming home after serving his Temple shift, both crossed the road to avoid the injured man. Finally, a Samaritan man came along (from a group the Jews famously despised at the time), looked at him with compassion, treated his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. He took care of him that night and the next day, then gave money to the innkeeper as he left to make sure he got better. Jesus asked his listeners, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (Luke 10:36). The man who had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” replied Jesus.

Such a story is all the more poignant in our global village today. We are either the Samaritan or the passers-by. Yet our call is to be a neighbor, better yet, a brother or sister to the needy. Pope Francis puts it this way:


“The parable … speaks to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfilment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity” (18).


We know the robbers, he writes. “We have seen, descending on our world, the dark shadows of neglect and violence in the service of petty interests of power, gain and division. The real question is this: will we abandon the injured man and run to take refuge from the violence, or will we pursue the thieves? Will the wounded man end up being the justification for our irreconcilable divisions, our cruel indifference, our intestine conflicts?” (18). Here the Pope, as elsewhere, calls us to work as individuals to alleviate suffering and need, and calls on us as citizens to ensure that our governments are responsive to social justice. The divisions he talks about, we too are responsible for them. Christians are called to see Christ in the hurting, the broken, naked and hungry. His infinite love “confers infinite dignity” upon all people everywhere. We cannot be passers-by. We must roll up our sleeves and help the suffering in any way we can.


A political message, but beyond ideology

In essence, Pope Francis is urging us to believe that a better world is possible and that each of us can help make it that way. We need to be building societies of dialogue and friendship. Dialogue is “approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground” (50). Unfortunately, and particularly in the last decade, people have increasingly retreated to their favorite social media platforms where rather than engage in open debate they fall into “parallel monologues” that are often manipulated by powerful interest groups. This dynamic has given way to shameless aggression and the proliferation of ideologies, he laments. He adds this,


“Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices. This has now given free rein to ideologies. Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures … How can this contribute to the fraternity that our common Father asks of us?” (12).


Notice the phrase, “even by some political figures.” Writing as he does in 2020, we might guess to whom he might be referring: “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others.” Another Catholic commentator, Christine Allen, argues that Fratelli Tutti is “intensely political.” Yet this first encyclical to comment on our use of social media, and its emphasis on the plight of migrants and our treatment of immigrants is not ideological. Allen rather sees this document as “a radical blueprint for a post-coronavirus world.” She explains:


“The Pope urges us to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, to become a neighbour to those who are despised and excluded, particularly migrants and refugees. He agrees that it is challenging, not just for politicians, but for society. How can we discover the joy of a culture of encounter? Can we see the other as a gift instead of a threat? How can we love the local, our neighbourhood, our country, without closing it off to other people?"


Christopher Lamb best states the Pope’s distaste for ideology in the form of a prayer attributed to St. Francis:


“Where there is populism, Pope Francis focuses on people; where there is nationalism, he calls for reform of the United Nations; where there is individualism, he pushes for solidarity; where there is digital trolling, he asks for kindness; where there is inequality, he urges fairer distribution; when politicians hate, he recommends dialogue; when there is ideology, he calls for genuine faith.”


Solidarity tied to justice and love

In my last post on why Christians should support Fair Trade, I wrote that justice and love were both sides of the same coin in the currency of God’s kingdom: “Justice is when each person is treated according to his/her rights as a person created in God’s image and dearly loved by him. Love is doing everything I can to make sure everyone can flourish, especially the weak, the poor, the disabled.” In going over my notes on Fratelli Tutti, I was struck again that Pope Francis also believes this, though without using those terms exactly.


“Every human being has the right to live with dignity and to develop integrally; this fundamental right cannot be denied by any country” (27).


This has profound political implications. Some argue that an unfettered market will cause all boats to rise (everyone will benefit), in which case it makes no sense to invest in those who are slower or less talented than others, or even just disabled, because you would lose money. Wrong, he exclaims! “What we need in fact are states and civil institutions that are present and active, that look beyond the free and efficient working of certain economic, political or ideological systems, and are primarily concerned with individuals and the common good” (27). He continues,


“A truly human and fraternal society will be capable of ensuring in an efficient and stable way that each of its members is accompanied at every stage of life. Not only by providing for their basic needs, but by enabling them to give the best of themselves, even though their performance may be less than optimum, their pace slow or their efficiency limited” (28).


That said, the language of rights has to come under the umbrella of the common good. This is an important caveat: “Unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence.” That’s another reason to pair up justice and love. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, the goal is always the “beloved community.”


The importance of Christian-Muslim dialogue

Since the theme of this encyclical is to build a world of “human fraternity” and a culture of dialogue and kindness, it's no surprise that he refers three times to the Abu Dhabi “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which he co-wrote with Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb of Egypt (February 4, 2019, see Mohamed ‘Arafa’s excellent commentary on this from a Muslim perspective). The first instance has to do with people from different cultures listening to and learning from one another. Quoting from the document: “good relations between East and West are indisputably necessary for both.” And then this lengthier passage:


“It is important to pay attention to religious, cultural and historical differences that are a vital component in shaping the character, culture and civilization of the East. It is likewise important to reinforce the bond of fundamental human rights in order to help ensure a dignified life for all the men and women of East and West, avoiding the politics of double standards” (34).


The second passage highlights how people of different faiths can join to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, including terrorism: we must call upon “the architects of international policy and world economy to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood” (48; again on p. 71).

Finally, at the end of encyclical, he offers the “Appeal” from the joint document – eleven two or three-liner statements starting with “In the name of …” I offer here numbers one, six, seven, ten and eleven:


“In the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and

who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace; . . .

In the name of human fraternity, that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal;

In the name of this fraternity torn apart by policies of extremism and division, by systems of

unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women; . . .

In the name of all persons of goodwill present in every part of the world;

In the name of God and of everything stated thus far, [we] declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”


The terms “human fraternity” and later, “fraternity,” were in bold print in the encyclical – after all, it was in the title (“All Brothers”). Yet it’s significant that this appeal in eleven points had been jointly issued by a Christian and a Muslim leader. The leader of al-Azhar University in Cairo is de facto Egypt’s top Muslim leader. That university, arguably the oldest in the world (970), has been always been considered the most prestigious center of Islamic learning for Sunnis (about 85 percent of Muslims). Pope Francis, perhaps harkening to the groundbreaking Common Word letter of 2007, was calling attention to an important symbol. With Christians and Muslims forming over half of humanity, “[w]ithout peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.” It then adds, “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

Even the Pope’s conclusion is a nod to Christian-Muslim understanding. Leading up to it, he offers this thought, perhaps setting him off as the most ecumenical of popes: “In these pages of reflection on universal fraternity, I felt inspired particularly by Saint Francis of Assisi, but also by others of our brothers and sisters who are not Catholics: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.” Then this: “Yet I would like to conclude by mentioning another person of deep faith who, drawing upon his intense experience of God, made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all. I am speaking of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.”

That name wistfully sends me back to my nine years in Algeria and my friendship with several Little Brothers of Jesus and Little Sisters of Jesus, two Catholic religious congregations among a dozen others inspired by Charles de Foucauld. Born in 1858 into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France, he became an officer in the French cavalry, then a geographer who explored Morocco and wrote an award-winning book documenting it. He then joined the Catholic Cistercian Trappist order and lived for a while in Syria but later left the order to become a hermit seeking to live his ideal of poverty and love of others, first in Palestine and then for the remainder of his life in the Algeria Sahara. His last ten years were spent living among the nomadic Tuareg people in southern Algeria. He learned their language, identified with their Muslim faith and wrote a Tuareg-French dictionary esteemed to this day. He was “martyred” in 1916 in a tribal raid.

Pope Francis lifts up Foucauld’s quest to be “a brother to every human being” as a dream we should all ask God to fulfill in us. That dream also leads us to the injured man on the side of the Jericho road: “Yet only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all.”

May we all aspire to live out this ideal in our lives, and as we do so more and more, we will find God – I will say Jesus – in the stranger, the immigrant, the poor and suffering, and we’ll sense God’s love drawing us closer to himself.

Two nights ago I gave a very short presentation on this topic as part of an hour webinar sponsored by our Fair Trade committee in America’s First Fair Trade Town, Media, Pennsylvania.

Let me unpack that statement. Bruce Crowther, a British veterinarian and practicing Quaker, was leading a chapter of Oxfam (an anti-poverty, pro-justice NGO founded in Britain in 1942) in his small town of Garstang, Lancashire. He had begun to focus on the issue of fair trading for local farmers but also for coffee, vanilla, sugar and tea farmers worldwide. He managed to convince most of his town’s businesses to buy and sell “Fair Trade” products whenever possible, and in 2000, Garstang declared itself the world’s “first Fair Trade Town.” That was the beginning of the Fair Trade Towns Campaigns.

Meanwhile in Media, Hal Taussig had founded a travel company (Untours) centered on the idea of building relationships between people across borders and had himself travelled several times to Mexico to find ways to improve the livelihoods of coffee growers there. He and Bruce Crowthers got in touch, and in 2006, Media’s Borough Council declared Media “America’s First Fair Trade Town.” I joined the FT committee in 2008, was off of it for 6 or 7 years, but rejoined it in 2020.

By the way, Media and Garstang have become twin towns on this basis and they have adopted New Koforidua, Ghana, as a sister Fair Trade town. This is where Bruce Crowthers and others lended support to the first cooperative of cocoa farmers (many of them women) that used fair trade principles to grow their business. Founded in 1993, it wasn’t until 2008 that these several hundred farmers were able to turn a profit and use their Fair Trade premium to build a school and other amenities for their community (see this short video documenting the completion of their school; and here for a fascinating history of their Divine Chocolate brand).

Furthermore, these three sister towns intentionally form the Fair Trade Triangle, replacing the nefarious transatlantic slavery triangle from the 16th to the 19th centuries for a new model of trade built on mutual flourishing.

Back to the webinar two days ago. Our Media Fair Trade committee, among other projects, had set its sights on increasing the number of Media congregations declaring themselves “Fair Trade congregations.” So far, no one followed the Reformation Lutheran Church which did so in 2015. The other reason, of course, was to disseminate more information about Fair Trade. Our webinar theme was the title of this post and my presentation was followed by a 10-minute presentation on fair trade by another committee member, Barbara Bole, who recently got her PhD in public policy with a dissertation on Fair Trade Towns. A discussion followed.

Below is an expansion of my Powerpoint presentation for the webinar.


A Christian is someone who follows Jesus, the bearer of Good News

For three years, Jesus preached his Good News (or “gospel”) to all who would listen, but mostly in the hills around Lake Tiberias (of the “Sea of Galilee”). These were mostly poor rural folk, many of them poor day laborers or small farmers. The expression that comes up again and again when you read the gospels is “follow me.” For his twelve disciples, this meant literally eating, sleeping, and traveling with him on his mission. There were at least 70 others, and probably many more who were sent on a mission to heal the sick and preach the “good news of the kingdom.” But this also includes all who came under his teaching. He called everyone to follow his teaching and his example, as Jews who had finally met the Messiah (though Jesus did not fit the traditional expectation of the Messiah, but that’s another topic).


The Good News can be summarized like a symphony in three movements, or a story with three chapters

  • The Garden of Eden: the close and intimate relationship God has with Adam and Eve is broken by their rebellion, and they are chased from the garden, as sin, suffering, war, and death enter the world.
  • The cross and resurrection: the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). Christ’s work of redemption brings forgiveness, new birth (receiving this new nature as a gift we are “adopted” into God’s family); and one day, all of nature will be renewed. Again Paul: “But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay” (Romans 8:20).
  • The New Heavens and the New Earth: the Apostle John in exile near the end of his life is given a vision of what happens when Jesus returns: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared … And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband … I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory” (Revelation 21).


The heart of Jesus’ message was that the kingdom of God had come into the world in his person. Some of the signs of this kingdom: the lame walk, the blind see, lepers are healed and even some dead come back to life. The disciples also foreshadowed a city reconciled and healed from within: a nationalist zealot ready to kill Romans, a tax collector collaborating with the occupiers, fishermen and other working class men. But Jesus made it clear that God’s rule on earth would not come fully until he came back again and had defeated Satan, sin and death -- completely and finally.

Notice too that Act I takes place in a garden. God, humanity, and nature are all one, until sin turns all that upside down. But that’s also when God’s plan of redemption and salvation is put into motion. Notice too that it’s a holistic salvation: individuals are transformed and healed from within, but so are families, neighborhoods, and whole cities. In fact, the story that starts in a garden ends in a city (Act III), where all the nations are gathered, and not only live harmoniously, but each “king” or “nation” or ethnic group brings “their glory and honor into the city.” This means that all their cultural achievements and unique gifts are made available to all. We can only dream of such harmonious multiculturalism today!

John’s vision of this new earthly city (it came down from heaven, so it’s on the new earth!) means one simple thing:

It’s the city where all may flourish!


All of Jesus’ teachings can be summarized in two pairs:

  • The Law of Moses and the message of the prophets, declares Jesus, boil down to two commandments: a) love God with all your heart, soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4); and b) love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
  • Drawing from my recent book, I can add that the two central values of the city where God dwells are justice and love – really two sides to the same coin, and it is the currency of this city to come. Justice is when each person is treated according to his/her rights as a person created in God’s image and dearly loved by him. Love is doing everything I can to make sure everyone can flourish, especially the weak, the poor, and disabled.


Put love and justice together and you understand that a society where God has his way is one in which all can flourish. Leaders enact laws that reduce inequality as much as possible, level the playing field for those who are disadvantaged, and foster both equality (all equal before the law) and equity (the justice system works fairly for all).

There are potentially hundreds of verses in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible for our Jewish brethren). This one summarizes nicely the idea of equity and equality, and for that purpose, God’s special concern for the poor, the vulnerable and disenfranchised (as Jesus says, “the least of these”):


What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans.

(Isaiah 10:1-2)


I mentioned earlier the bonding of the three sister towns – in Ghana, Britain, and the US. This is the “Fair Trade Triangle,” as we put it. But 18th-century abolitionists were already working on this idea. The British parliamentarian William Wilberforce, a devout Christian mentored by ex-slave trader John Newton (author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”; see the film by that name) banked his whole career on abolishing the slave trade. With a growing coalition of civil society people he began his bid to outlaw this evil trade in 1787 and the abolition bill finally passed in 1807, but slavery itself was still practiced within the British Empire. Wilberforce retired from the House of Commons in 1825 but three days before he died in 1833 he was finally vindicated : the Slavery Abolition Act was passed!

One of the tools his friends used to chip away at the slave trade was the sugar boycott. Sugar, like coffee, cotton and tobacco was produced by slave labor. A pamphlet from 1791 (written by William Fox, not a Quaker) calling people to boycott sugar to end slavery took England by storm and became the most successful pamphlet of that century. As you see, leveraging trade to end human rights abuses and fairly compensate producers is not a new concept.

The picture you see above of a child in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) straining under the weight of a bag of cocoa pods raises the issue of children’s rights. Child labor, some forms of which might arguably rise to the level of slavery, is ubiquitous in the agricultural sector in many parts of the world. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), drawn up in 2015 and aiming for 2030, for the first time explicitly seek to end all forms of child labor by 2025.

The matter is particularly urgent for Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire which produce 60 percent of the world’s cocoa, as this Fair Trade article makes clear. Sadly, the US Supreme Court ruled this month in favor of Nestle in the case Nestle v. Doe (six men who had been trafficked as children from Mali to Côte d’Ivoire to work on chocolate farms), but it did raise awareness of this longstanding injustice. This is not my topic here, but surely as you can see from these articles, consumers of chocolate worldwide have an important role to play in this. Fair Trade can and does make a big difference, particularly as more and more people become conscious and intentional consumers.

If we want to follow Jesus, Fair Trade is something we should definitely embrace.*


* There is no mosque or synagogue in Media, a county seat of 5,000 people. Otherwise, I could easily have shown how compelling Fair Trade should be for a Muslim or Jew. In fact, we need to get some of those congregations in our wider area involved in the ongoing Fair Trade campaigns.

The Christian Muslim Forum in London ...

  • tackles the tough issues which divide our communities
  • challenges anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hostility
  • supports local church-mosque twinning and friendship

Established in 2006 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Christian Muslim Forum brings together Muslims and Christians from a variety of denominations and traditions to work together for the common good (see more details here).

In March 2021, I was asked to make a half-hour presentation to the CMF's core group, based on my book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love. Here is the second (mostly different) presentation to some of the church-mosque leaders in their twinning program on June 2, 2021. In both cases I was seeking to present the material in the book in a way that would deepen Christian Muslim engagement in today's society. This time, part of the backdrop was the 11 days of fighting between Hamas and Israel in May 2021. What struck me was the confluence of issues in the protests that followed: Palestinian rights, racism and colonialism at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the fact that those factors are also behind much of the Islamophobia that Muslims experience in the West.

This is the second review I have come across of my book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love. It was written by an adjunct lecturer at Coppin State University in Baltimore, MD, Sayyed Hassan Akhlaq (received his PhD in Philosophy in Iran). It was published in Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations 31:461-463 (January 2021).

14 January 2021

God and Covid-19

For over a year now, those of us living on planet Earth have not been able to escape the powerful tentacles of the coronavirus. As of this writing, about 1.9 million people have died from it, just yesterday 4,408 died of it in the US, and with at least one new strain of Covid-19 that is doubly contagious, the pandemic will be with us for a while, vaccines notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, such a widespread “natural” disaster has caused many of us to do some soul searching.

I taught Comparative Religion to two sections of thirty undergraduates at St. Joseph’s University this last semester. One of the two textbooks I use for this course is authored by four colleagues in the Religious Studies Department of a smaller Jesuit college than ours in Syracuse, NY (Le Moyne College). Introduction to the Study of Religion (by Nancy C. Ring, et al., in its 2012 second edition) defines religion as the human attempt to find meaning in this life beyond the day-to-day preoccupations of family, work and social interactions. It is also about tapping into the power of life while battling aging, disease and death. In their words,


“Religious communities grapple in their teachings and practices with the paradox of life and death. Religions express the human desire to understand and to engage the powers of life. They speak of the power of life in terms of the sacred, the holy, the transcendent, the absolute, the good, the beautiful, the true, the energy to effect change. The religious imagination gives the powers of life location and character” (41).


They then go on to provide examples like the Aztecs “looked to the heavens whence the sun and the rain sent their warmth and moisture to the earth”; “Confucianists, Shintoists, and many indigenous communities turn to the ancestors . . . to give them wisdom and strength”; “The Plains peoples of North America imagine the powers of life to be dispersed throughout nature”; Zen Buddhism advocates “living intensely in the present.”

But what about the power of death always crouching at the door, ready to pounce? Buddhism frames suffering as the central reality of a human life subject to ceaseless change and the vicious cycle of karma and reincarnations. Nirvana can only be attained through a resolute commitment to the “Eightfold Path.” In this tradition, wisdom has everything to do with non-attachment to this world of illusion. By contrast, the three theistic religions (or Abrahamic faiths) posit a good Creator God who offers a path to some kind of blissful existence after death but stumble when it comes to the reality of evil. Any theory attempting to explain the existence of evil in a world created and managed by a god who is both all-good and all-powerful is called a theodicy. Jewish, Christian, or Muslim theologians have all offered some version of why freedom of choice is crucial to the moral and religious life, and why suffering is a necessary test of our submission and obedience to God. Still, if one factors in the unspeakable suffering visited on the human race by wars and the cruelty of dictators, terrorists and abusers of all kinds on the one hand, and of natural disasters on the other, such theories fall far short of what we know and experience. Evil, whether at the hand of people or of nature, is pervasive and perplexing, to say the least.

I do not intend to solve this riddle here. Instead, I take off my religious studies scholar’s hat and explain to you why my wife and I found so much comfort in reading a little 60-page booklet written in a week this past April entitled Where is God in a Coronavirus World? The author is John C. Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and a well-known speaker defending the Christian faith on university campuses around the world. And though Muslim, Jewish, and readers of other faiths (or no faith) will disagree with some of his points, I offer this post as food for thought and a contribution to our collective soul searching in this numbing covid season. I hope this will motivate you to get your own copy, read it, and pass it on to friends.

After sharing a few facts about pandemics in historical perspective and about the dead-end of atheism when it comes to the problem of evil, I’ll summarize Lennox’s views on the Christian approach to theodicy.


We’ve been here before

What are some of the known pandemics of the past?

  • The Antonine Plague (or Plague of Galen, 165-180 C.E.): perhaps measles or smallpox, 5 million dead
  • The Plague of Justinian (541-542 C.E.): bubonic plague, i.e., spread from animals (rats) to humans, 25 million dead
  • The Black Death (1346-1353), bubonic plague, 70-100 million dead, or 20% of world population
  • Several cholera pandemics in the 19th and 20th centuries: over a million dead
  • The 1918-1920 flu pandemic: 20-50 million dead
  • Asian flu (1956-1958), 2 million dead; Hong Kong flu (1968-69), one million dead
  • HIV-AIDS pandemic (reaching its peak in 2005-2012), about 32 million

More localized, there have been recent epidemics, like SARS and Ebola. But think about people in the West before the early 1900s and how epidemics like typhus, tuberculosis, cholera and others, were seen “as part of normal life” (10).

Another aspect of this issue we need to keep in mind is that pain – both the physical sensation and the psychic pain resulting from loss and suffering in general – can have a beneficial side to it. Physical pain warns us of danger. If your hand is too close to the fire when roasting marshmallows, for instance, the pain caused by the heat warns your brain and you respond by pulling your hand further back. A second beneficial role pain plays in our lives, Lennox reminds us, is that “a certain amount of pain is involved in physical development” (18): athletics, gymnastics, contact sports, etc.

Finally, pain in a wider sense can be used to deepen our character and teach us valuable life lessons. It can build “resilience and fortitude” and allow people to develop “characters of great quality.” Lennox himself was rushed to the hospital with a massive heart attack. He was only saved because a very skilled surgeon caught it just in time. This experience changed him:


“For me, it taught me a great deal. It taught me that I was mortal and that I was vulnerable; and I now feel that my life was given back to me as a precious gift to be treasured. I brought more urgency into my sense of purpose and calling” (19).


Yet his joy at being saved was immediately tempered, because at about the same time his sister “lost her (just) married 22-year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumour.” As you can imagine, this brought to the fore the larger question of human suffering and its profound injustice on many levels.


Can atheism help?

That is the title of his third chapter. He begins by noting that in the worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism, suffering is the result of bad karma, or of bad deeds one had committed in the past. In fact, bad behavior is the cause of a seeming endless chain of reincarnations. For Hindus, moksha is the deliverance from that vicious cycle, achieved either by a life of asceticism or by devotion to particular deities. Buddhists, for their part, see this suffering as coming from a warped understanding of life. The solution is to see rightly (the Four Noble Truths) and live rightly (the Eightfold Path).

The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament, for Christians) contains the book of Job which is a protest against the common idea that one’s suffering results from sins previously committed – our own or those of our forebears. Jesus agreed. He “explicitly denied that suffering was necessarily connected with personal wrongdoing” (23). One example is in Luke’s gospel:


“There were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).


To focus on the question of who is a greater sinner worthy of harsher punishment is wrong for at least two reasons, Jesus teaches here. First, from a human perspective, we cannot know why people suffer in specific instances, either as a result of moral or natural evil. Second, no one is innocent in God’s eyes. As Paul wrote, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, Jesus calls us to repent and turn to God’s mercy and grace.

Lennox unpacks that last statement further on in his booklet. But here he is concerned with debunking the atheist’s argument. This is a task he has done very publicly, by the way. You can watch his debates on YouTube with Richard Dawkins and with the late Christopher Hitchens, both leading atheist writers and propagandists. The other popular atheist debater, Sam Harris, illustrates well how the problem of evil is their favorite (and likely most potent) argument.

Lennox quotes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1992 book, River Out of Eden:


“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. If there ever was a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”


Notice, first of all, that in a morally blind universe there is no room for categories such as good or evil. Things just are the way they are. Period. Lennox quotes Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky in his Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” But second, this theory should give us pause, in that “terrorists and the architects of genocide in the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda were simply carrying out their own inbuilt genetic programmes: likewise Stalin, Hitler and Mao in their horrific crimes against humanity” (28). The problem with such a statement is that it is hard to live by. Dawkins himself was far from consistent. He and other atheists, in their zeal to debunk all forms of religion, have spilled a good deal of ink denouncing “Islamic terrorism” as dangerous and yes, evil. If you want to be a full-blown rationalist, you cannot have it both ways!

It is not by chance that I chose God Is Not One as my second textbook for Comparative Religion. Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero’s main thesis in this book is that each major religious tradition has its own definition of the human dilemma, its own solution, its own techniques (rituals) for attaining this solution, and its own exemplars. But what does unite all these paths (which for him do NOT lead up to the same mountain summit!), is the existence of some fundamental ethical principles attached to human dignity. Hence this quote Lennox offers from one of the most influential Christian philosophers of our time, Richard Taylor:


“The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well . . . Educated people do need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion” (29).


How can there be a coronavirus if there is a loving God?

First, we have to look at human nature and reckon with how we got to a world where so much evil has corrupted the goodness with which it was created. Then Lennox talks about how the Christian message brings justice and love together in the person of the crucified and risen redeemer.


Human nature and the fall

I have dealt in detail with the qur’anic story of “the fall” in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text. One difference has been highlighted by Muslim feminist interpreters, namely that in the Qur’an Eve bears no more responsibility for the disobedience than does Adam: “But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it” (Q. 20:120-12, Abdel Halim). Another difference, quite similar to the Jewish reading of Genesis 3, is that there is no “original sin” in the sense of a curse placed on humankind banishing it from the presence of God forever. Put otherwise, there is no need for divine redemption.

The words of God to Satan in the Qur’an are similar to the Genesis account, at least the promise of hostility between him and the woman’s offspring. But the next phrase is not picked up by the Qur’an and becomes central in the Christian reading of this passage. Speaking of the woman’s offspring using a masculine singular, God announces: “He will strike your head, and you (the serpent) will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). For Christians this is a prophecy of the Messiah Jesus Christ who will be crucified as a result of Satan inciting the crowd against Jesus (“Crucify him! Crucify him!”). It also states that this victory of Satan is completely overshadowed by the complete and final victory achieved by Messiah’s cross and resurrection. In his obsession to destroy God’s incarnate Son, Satan unwittingly signed his own death warrant. More on that below.


Creation and the fall

The physical world as well was directly affected by Adam and Eve’s sin: “Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (Gen. 3: 17-18, NIV). Paul, the rabbi who met Jesus in a dramatic vision while on the way to Damascus in a mission to persecute followers of Jesus, writes that “creation was subjected [by God] to ineffectiveness, not through its own fault, but because of him who subjected it” (Romans 8:20). The Greek word (mataiotes) translated here by “ineffectiveness,” says Lennox, means something that does not reach the goal for which it was designed.

On the one hand, we cannot deny that humanity has developed impressive ways of managing and developing the natural world for its benefit. On the other hand, “Over and over again, nature has fractured and impeded human progress with thorns and thistles, backbreaking labour, pests, disease, epidemics, droughts, famines, earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on – coupled, sadly, with the destructive forces unleashed by selfishness, greed and moral corruption” (40).


We are all part of the problem

None of us can pretend we have no part in the moral evil that is at the root of this broken world. Lennox offers this moving quote from the Russian writer who spent years in Stalin’s Siberian gulag camps:


“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being . . . But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil” (40-41).


What if the Good News Jesus and his followers preached is true?

Here I diverge a bit from Lennox’s book to offer some common ground between the Abrahamic faiths. All three (though not all Jewish branches subscribe to this) teach that God will preside over a final judgment in the Hereafter. This is a very relevant point to our discussion: there will be justice in the end, and our despair over the abuse, torture, and killing of so many victims over the centuries will turn to resolution and comfort. In this scenario too we will presumably find closure in witnessing untold millions of children who were killed by abortion, disease and natural disasters finding peace and a beautiful life in God’s presence.

But justice by itself doesn’t take us very far – for two reasons. First, Judgment Day isn’t just for the serial killers, or human traffickers, or brilliant white-collar criminals. It’s for you and me too. As mentioned above, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). Many Christians wrongly believe God will give them a pass based partly on their good deeds and partly on his mercy – a view shared by most Muslims in my experience (good deeds include obedience to the Five Pillars, while hoping for the Prophet’s intercession on the Last Day).

The Good News (or “gospel”), however, is that “God is love,” as John puts it in his first epistle. John records in his gospel that Jesus explained it this way: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT). Jesus, the only sinless human being, sacrifices himself to fulfill the justice that was coming to all of us (“You must not eat [of the tree] or even touch it; if you do, you will die,” Gen. 3:3) and demonstrate God’s boundless, infinite love for humankind.

Lennox explains that for Christianity, the solution to an unbridgeable chasm between God and humanity lies in the cross and resurrection of Jesus:


“These events do not simply give us a way into the problem of evil and pain, and a resolution to the problem of justice. They show us what the name ‘Jesus’ means – ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, those who repent of (which means ‘turn away from’) their own evil and their own contribution to human pain and suffering – those who trust Jesus as their Lord – receive forgiveness; peace with the personal God who created and upholds the universe; a new life with new powers; and the promise of a world where suffering will be no more” (47).


Parting words

Lennox’s last chapter is “The Difference God Makes.” Here we come back together as members of the Abrahamic family, but too as people of faith in general and people of no religious persuasion. We are all suffering together through a pandemic most of us never imagined was even possible anymore. In bullet form, I offer his last thoughts for your consideration:

  • Heed advice: follow the health and safety protocols issued by the authorities. So much medical research has already been done globally. Get vaccinated as soon as possible!
  • Maintain perspective: we’ve been through this and much worse before as a human family; we will get through this!
  • Love your neighbor: Lennox quotes from a March 13, 2020 Foreign Policy “argument” piece by Lutheran researcher Lyman Stone, “Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2000 years.” The church grew the fastest during the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century and the Cyprian Plague of the next century, because people saw how sacrificial Christians were in caring for the sick and in providing “a spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.”Millions of people, including healthcare workers, so-called essential workers,and many others, have demonstrated selfless and sacrificial care. Unfortunately, there have been many Christians -- many American evangelicals in particular -- who have flouted wearing masks, ignored social distancing, and have bought into destructive conspiracy theories. That is NOT loving one's neighbor!
  • Remember eternity: if you believe and wholeheartedly trust in God’s gracious provision through Jesus, you can experience the peace Jesus promised his disciples in the upper room the night when he was arrested:


“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NLT).

Katherine Bullock teaches political science and Islamics at the University of Toronto Mississauga. This is the first review I have seen of my new book, Muslims and Christians Debate Justice and Love (Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2020). It was published in The American Journal of Islam and Society (37:3-4, 2020). I emailed her to thank her for a review that is both "fair and encouraging." I hope that as you read this review, you will also want to read the book and make up your own opinion about it. I can certainly think of several weaknesses in my work, but I also firmly believe that it is an important and timely contribution to a very timely conversation between Muslims, Christians, and all people who want to see and help bring about a more just and peaceful world.

The author I use most in this book to frame and define the idea of justice and how it relates to love from a Christian perspective is Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. His commendation was late because of family issues and so did not appear on the book's jacket. I paste it here (it's also on the Equinox page for the book):


"David Johnston sets himself two important, interconnected, projects in this book, and brings them off superbly. One is to show that both love and justice are fundamental in both Christianity and Islam, contrary to the common stereotype that Christianity is all about love and Islam is all about justice. The other is to show that love and justice are not in tension with each other, as is commonly assumed, but, when rightly understood, are in harmony. I anticipate that the eyes of many readers will be opened, as were the eye of this reader, to Johnston’s demonstration of this fundamental affinity between Christianity and Islam. A valuable feature of Johnston’s presentation is that each chapter opens with a description of systemic injustice in some part of the world. The scholarship is impressive; but this is not just about scholarly texts, it’s about the real world."

—Nicholas Wolterstorff

   Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University

   Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia

In the first installment, I told the story of how St. Francis of Assisi was able to cross enemy lines in the Fifth Crusade in order to share his faith with Egypt’s ruler, Malik al-Kamil. In fact, the latter graciously received him and his fellow monk, Illuminatio, for three or four days. This sultan was in the habit of meeting with Islamic scholars, including some spiritual masters (or Sufi shaykhs, in Islam’s mystical tradition), so he invited them for an extended interfaith conversation with the two monks. From various sources, I concluded with Paul Moses (The Saint and Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace) that they separated as friends, both remaining in their respective faith traditions, yet enriched spiritually by the other.

Did Francis go with the intent to preach to Sultan al-Kamil so that he would embrace the message of Jesus and receive God’s eternal salvation? There is no doubt about that. But Paul Moses main objective is to trace the spiritual pilgrimage of St. Francis from a nobleman’s son who fights in a couple of battles, yet whose religious conversion transforms him into an indefatigable advocate of Jesus’ way of peace and nonviolent resistance to evil. Francis of Assisi very likely deplored the notion of bringing war to the “Muslim enemy.” Clearly, for him to seek a meeting with al-Kamil was a stunning act of love for enemy since he was risking his life, and, as it turned out, he too was blessed and changed by that encounter. There must be reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, Francis felt God saying, and this was indeed a mission of peace.

For obvious reasons, in an age when the vested interests of popes and European Christian kings were in pursuing crusades, this is not a message that the powers-that-be could tolerate. After his death at age 44 (1226), therefore, direct pressure was put on official biographers to delete any reference to his message of peace and reconciliation with Muslims. That is the subject of this post.

Part III of Paul Moses’ account of this historic encounter, “Uncovering the Story,” opens with this illuminating paragraph:


“The true story of Francis, the sultan, and their peaceful exchange was buried. It did not serve the purposes of popes who continued to drum up support for a string of ill-fated Crusades. Nor did it fit the needs of Francis’s order at the time when it had to fight off a heresy scandal. As the story was retold in the Christian world, Francis’s thirst of peace and the sultan’s noble treatment of the Crusaders at the close of the Fifth Crusade were downplayed and then forgotten; Francis was turned into a soldier who used the gospel as a weapon. The sultan became a malevolent foe” (197).


Specifically, there were two main phases of biographical writing that shaped the image of St. Francis until the modern period. To these we now turn. I will end with some remarks on the contemporary period.


Thomas of Celano’s two biographical works

Cardinal Ugolino was elected as Pope Gregory IX in 1227. A hardliner by any account, he is remembered for putting the Inquisition into overdrive. Those the Church deemed “heretics” were hunted down, summarily tried, imprisoned and/or executed. He waged another Crusade against Muslims, and, like his predecessors, he led battles against Emperor Frederick II to recover lands in Italy he considered his own. Not under his watch was any biographer going to portray St Francis (canonized in 1228) as a friar seeking peaceful relations with Muslims.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Franciscan he charged with writing the biography of his order’s founder, Thomas of Celano, dutifully excised from his text any reference to the friar’s desire to live peacefully among Muslims or even to “Francis’s vision for a life of radical poverty lived in strict adherence to the gospel” (200). Gregory from the beginning had forcefully imposed on the Friars Minor (what Franciscans were called at that time) the duty to recruit for his Crusade. As a corollary, he encouraged them to send missionaries into Muslim lands, stating in a 1338 document that “converting Muslims by preaching was akin to subduing them with weapons” (199).

Meanwhile, the order of the Friars Minor was multiplying exponentially, with members in the tens of thousands by the 1240s. Pope Gregory died in 1241, but the order’s leader at that time (“minister general”), Brother Crescentius, was very much in agreement with his perspective on St. Francis. Still, he had to deal with a vocal minority faction, known as the “Spirituals,” who from the beginning wanted the Friars Minor to return to their founder’s original vision for the movement. Yet when in 1244 the order asked Thomas of Celano to write a new biography, leaning much more this time on the treasure trove of anecdotes recalled by the brothers who had accompanied him from the beginning, Celano still had some choppy political waters to navigate.

That tome, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, completed three years later, brought to light for the first time the story of Francis’s fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia and his subsequent imprisonment. It recounted as well the dream he had on the way to fight in southern Italy and how he subsequently returned, gave up military service, sold all his wealth to the poor, “and tried to establish Jesus Christ dwelling within himself” (201). That was the beginning of his conversion. Still, in the story of the looming great battle between the Crusaders and Sultan al-Kamil, Celano writes carefully that Francis’s prophecy about the Crusaders’ defeat and his insistence that they forgo the battle was not an indictment of the Crusade as such. This is  likely Celano bowing to his superior’s direction. We know from so many other early documents that Francis loathed the use of war to further Christ’s purposes.


Bonaventure’s landmark biography

The year 1247 saw two events that impacted the future direction of St. Francis’s legacy. The first was Brother Crescentius’s stepping down from his minister general role. The second was the publishing of Celano’s second biography of St. Francis. That book at least had the merit of showing Francis of Assisi turning his back on the trappings of the nobility he was born into – wealth and military service. That was particularly significant in a year when King Louis IX of France was organizing another crusade, this time targeting Damietta, where Francis had met with Malik al-Kamil. Yet Crescentius’s departure provoked a chain of events that eventually all but buried Celano’s work.

In fact, the leadership transition that ensued poured fuel on the embers of dissent within the young order, because the man chosen to replace Crescentius, John of Parma, despite being a “gentle, articulate, and pious man who was a learned theologian but lived in simplicity” (202), was also an avid follower of mystic, monk and theologian Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202). On the one hand, Joachim was seen by popes and kings of his time as “gifted with divine illumination” and the founder of a small monastic movement in Italy. On the other hand, he was branded as a heretic by many others, and in particular because of his commentary on the book of Revelation in which he prophesied that after the Age of the Father (Old Testament) and the Age of the Son (New Testament), the new Age of the Spirit was about to break forth. This view in particular was one of the factors that led to the spectacular growth of both Dominican and Franciscan orders after his death.

In the late 1240s, however, John of Parma’s ties to Joachim of Fiore’s apocalyptic teachings spelled trouble for the order. Worse than that, around this time a treatise, Super Hieremiam, was circulating under the pen name of Joachim of Fiore (though it was a forgery), roundly criticizing the popes for their crusades. The “Spirituals” faction, which was at this stage growing exponentially, were reading this treatise with great enthusiasm. As Paul Moses has it,


“Some friars came to believe that Saint Francis was the angelic herald of the new age of the Spirit, his arrival foretold in Revelation 7. It was thought to be the time of peace the prophet Isaiah predicted, when swords would be beaten into plowshares . . . Salimbene [a Franciscan chronicler of the time] wrote that two fellow friars who followed Joachim had predicted to him in 1247 that the Crusade of Louis IX in Egypt would end in disaster, as it did three years later when Muslim forces captured Saint Louis and much of the French nobility and massacred many soldiers” (203).


These issues, meanwhile, were hotly debated at the University of Paris and turning a growing number of church leaders against the Franciscans and Dominicans, and they even called on the pope to dissolve them. This is when Brother Bonaventure, a respected Franciscan friar and professor at the university, took on the task of defending his order. His colleague and friend, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, stood with him in the defense of their orders. Bonaventure (yes, the future St. Bonaventure), who had just been named minister general of the Friars Minor, succeeded in rehabilitating his order’s reputation through two spectacular moves. Now as judge of his predecessor, John of Parma, he proceeded to convict him of heresy. Fortunately for the latter, his life sentence was overturned by two cardinals who arranged for him to spend the rest of his life in a hermitage.

Bonaventure’s other action was to write a new biography of St. Francis, The Major Legend of Saint Francis. It was in fact mostly taken from previous accounts, but he added his own theological insights, spiritual meditations, and his own solutions to what he saw as his order’s political divisions. Beautifully crafted, it was nevertheless a text that “virtually wiped out Francis’s activities as a peacemaker who challenged the powers of his day to forsake violence. It did not even hint at the cheeky friar who warned ‘the rulers of all the people’ to shape up or face damnation” (206). Bonaventure’s The Major Legend in fact became the classic reference book on the life of St. Francis until the 20th century.


The trial by fire legend

Of the encounter between the Sultan and the friar, Celano highlighted Francis’s unadorned preaching, adding that the sultan “was deeply moved by his words and he listened to him very willingly” (144). This account, as you know, was by the first Franciscan tasked with writing their founder’s biography.

By contrast, even in the early text (a decade after the Fifth Crusade) of The Chronicle of Ernoul, the scene is fraught with tension. Francis from the beginning claims that if his arguments against the validity of Islamic law are not convincing, “then you can have our heads cut off” (132). In fact, this is exactly what the Islamic scholars declared upon discovering Francis preaching to their ruler: “We command you, in the name of God and the law, that you have their heads cut off immediately, as the law demands.”

It is likely, then, that by the 1260s when Bonaventure writes his account, multiple stories had been circulating about this encounter, all of them painting in one way or another a confrontational scene between saint and sultan. Bonaventure seized on one of them. As he tells the story, Francis asked the ruler to build a large fire and then declared, “I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy” (132). The sultan answered that his priests would do no such thing. Then “Francis supposedly offered to walk into the fire himself if the sultan and his people converted to Christianity, but the sultan refused that as well.”

That of course is the scene depicted in the above image, which inspired dozens of paintings and accounts in the following centuries. But it has no basis in fact. First, argues Paul Moses, Celano and the other early chroniclers would have mentioned this incident if it had actually happened. Second, we know that since his conversion Francis was deeply marked by Jesus’s command, “Love your enemies,” so much so that he quotes it five times in his writings. This legend of the trial by fire goes against everything Francis stood for in his mission of peace. Finally, Francis would have known and respected the edict of the Fourth Lateran Council that all trials by ordeal were forbidden.


Contemporary echoes of the saint and sultan

Charles de Foucauld (d. 1916) was a Frenchman whose life paralleled that of St. Francis. From a wealthy family in Strasbourg, he served in the French military in Algeria where he was impressed with the people’s Islamic spirituality. He later returned to North Africa as an explorer, during which time he experienced a deep spiritual conversion. He joined a Trappist monastery in the Holy Land, became a priest, and later came back to live to Algeria as a hermit among the Tuaregs in the Sahara. He learned their language and culture and engaged in religious dialog. Sadly, he was killed while witnessing a confrontation between some tribesmen and the French. Paul Moses touches just the surface of Foucauld’s profound influence on so many people, including myself during my nine-year stay in Algeria:


“Foucauld’s dream of brotherhood between Muslims and Christians did not die with him. Today eight spiritual associations and eleven religious orders trace back to him, including the Little Sisters of Jesus. Moreover, his legacy was kept alive by Louis Massignon, often described as the most prominent Western scholar of Islam. Foucauld was a mentor to Massignon, who was born in Nogent-sur-Marne, France, in 1883” (218-19).


I have so many wonderful memories of sitting in the simple apartments of the Little Brothers of Jesus having a meal or drinking tea or coffee with them, often with Algerian Muslims. I also got to know some Little Sisters of Jesus, because of activities we had in common, including some retreats sponsored by the Catholic Charismatic renewal movement. If you read my second blog post on Cardinal Duval, you will understand how deeply we, a handful of Protestant clergymen, were involved with our Catholic colleagues. I can testify that the influence of Charles de Foucauld is still pervasive in the lives and ministries of these Catholic brothers and sisters, starting with the late Cardinal Duval and the now elderly archbishop Henry Teissier.

Paul Moses draws out in great detail all the high-level, high-visibility initiatives by recent popes reaching out to Muslims in various settings (see also my friend Mohamed Arafa’s post just before this one, “The Imam and the Pope”). But I would like to end with the Franciscans, who in Damietta, Egypt in 1969 celebrated the 750th anniversary of St. Francis’s visit there by holding a joint prayer service with Muslims, first in a Catholic church, then in the city’s ancient mosque. In the next decade, Father GianMaria Polidoro founded Assisi Pax, a peace organization best known for its attempt to reconcile the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1984, they met Ronald Reagan in Washington and Mikhail Gorbachev while he was visiting Italy.

Two years later Pope John Paul II called for a World Day of Prayer for Peace to be held in Assisi, the occasion when he coined the phrase “the spirit of Assisi”:


“Representatives from twelve religions visited Assisi’s many sanctuaries to pray for peace, then gathered to pray side by side in the piazza outside the basilica of St. Francis. A blustery fall wind and chilling drizzle blew through the town, which was warmed with the colors borne by a multitude of religious leaders, from feather-bedecked Native American shamans to African witch doctors to saffron-robed Buddhists” (222).


In the online Catholic journal Crux in September 2016, the editor anticipates Pope Francis’s visit to Assisi in order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s first World Day of Prayer for Peace, which he then repeated in 1993 and 2002. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI did the same in 2011. I must also mention the Community of Sant’Egidio, founded by Andrea Riccardi in Rome in 1968 on the heels of the Vatican II council. It is now a network of 70 communities worldwide committed to interfaith dialog, care for the poor and active conflict resolution. They have organized yearly meetings “in the spirit of Assisi,” ever since the historic 1986 global prayer gathering.

It was not surprising that Pope Francis, whose devotion to St. Francis and his spiritual ideals are well known, would use this platform now organized by the Sant’Egidio community to mingle with religious leaders from around the world and join with them in praying for peace. True peace, he declared, are not the result of “negotiations, political compromises or economic bargaining, but the result of prayer.” He also emphasized that “Violence in all its forms does not represent the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction.” To the contrary, religious leaders “are duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace.”

Paul Moses, then, rightly closes his book with these observations. It is true, he wrote, that the story of Francis and the sultan “was buried ever deeper in successive biographies of Francis and the artwork they inspired.” He goes on:


“The church Francis served is now cultivating the political implications in the long-buried story of his nonviolence and radical love. Francis continues to return Christians to their roots, nudging them to reject violence and to approach enemies with love. Though he is dead for close to eight centuries, the story of his encounter with the sultan is blossoming” (228).