In this third discussion of Pope Francis’ new encyclical on global social fraternity, I want to evoke briefly his emphasis on social friendship across ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries. And, of course, his awareness of fear and even violence across those same boundaries.
I note that Francis, while clearly concerned about all racial and ethnic differences, writes from a European perspective where “the other” in European countries are immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslims with Arab or Black African ethnicity and race. Yet our major “other” remains African Americans.
I will briefly discuss the relevance of Francis’ writing to our racial divide, but briefly since there has been so much good writing and thinking (and acting) of late about our “American” racisms many forms.
The Pope’s letter begins by recalling how St. Francis, one very tough Medieval Italian, crossed active battle lines to visit the Sultan in Egypt and seek peace during one of the Crusades. Then he notes a modern parallel in his own 2019 visit with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi. Their serious discussions led to a joint Muslim-Christian declaration on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”
Francis is a real and hopefully, at least in the long term, very effective diplomat reaching to the world to preach the vision for peace he writes about in this letter. (I’ve previously noted his many diplomatic travels and talks.)
His letter is a major addition to the series of encyclical letters and the like from recent Popes and Councils – typically referred to in their entirety as “Catholic Social Teaching.” (A friend is writing a book which focuses on “the dynamite” for social reform contained in this tradition of social teachings were it only known and lived.)
Yet it is different in style and tone from so many of those prior documents. It draws on many sources, but one hears the unique voice of this pope behind every line. It is not content with a scholastic style (in the negative sense of the word) but takes up its focus on the reform needed for a recovery and nurturing of “social friendship,” not as some abstraction but as embodied on the streets of our cities, in workplaces and throughout our economic lives, in our political and cultural lives, and in our churches. In other words, in all of the corporate and civic structures which constitute the framework for daily civic life.
While Francis cites many sources, even a line from a Brazillian samba, to give flesh to his ideas, I suspect most readers need to stop often and to think about or imagine (as I’ve been trying to do with my LoDo vignettes) the meaning of what he’s saying.
So, whether you walk a dog or not, the basic question we all need to ask continually is how we each experience our own city or town? How might you think, as you read this or take a walk after reading, of your neighborhood? Imagining the many forms of social friendship which really are evidence of our living together, and also the forms of fragmentation and separation which are evident, though often hidden.
Racial and ethic divisions have (I suspect) always characterized human societies. Such boundaries are one of the major ways we maintain our identities and our special cohesion with those of our race and ethnicity. At best they are porous boundaries which enable us to learn from and cooperate in friendship with other cultures.
I’ve already mentioned the many Hispanic construction workers in LoDo. Yet the station’s traffic gives evidence of Asians aplenty and Blacks in increasing numbers — some Africans, some Muslims, most residents of our relatively decent but still mostly segregated Black neighborhoods.
I really don’t have significant and regular contact with many African Americans. Yet there are occasional and seemingly accidental meetings.
Some years back, waiting for a tire to be repaired in Aurora (Denver’s sprawling eastern suburb) and needing a haircut, I entered a shop across the street which immediately revealed itself as not only the local Black men’s barbershop/hangout, but as a Black Muslim place. I was politely invited to sit and await the next open chair. Then my barber confirmed that he was Muslim so I was able to say the standard greeting “Salaam alaikum,” to which he gracefully responded. 25 minutes later, and $ 25 bucks shorter, I returned to the tire place a much happier man than I’d been when miffed at how long the tire would take. Shows to go you.
And we too in Denver were blessed with several weekends of Black Lives Matter protests – which, despite some violence from mainly (???) white “antifas,” were both remarkably non-violent and very interracial.
Yet we know too well that relations across racial and ethnic lines are frequently fragile and often deeply discriminatory and violent.
Again, because there has been so much good writing about racism in our country, historically and still today, I will refrain from further comment.
Other than to say that the kind of careful and even prayerful reading of the Pope’s letter will illuminate our country’s racial and ethnic divisions and open paths to healing, just as it will open paths for European and African, Asian and Australian and South American readers.
And to again recommend my good friend and Regis colleague Chris Pramuk’s increasingly important book Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line (2013) as well as it’s with its accompanying and regularly updated blog of the same name.