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Yesterday’s address to Congress by Pope Francis may have been an historic first, but the analysis of his speech followed an all-too-predictable pattern. I listened on NPR during my morning commute and was saddened that such a gentle and generous speech was immediately torn to pieces before the applause had even died down. The headline for that analysis on npr.org reflects the frustration felt by reporters: “For Pope at Congress, A Historic Speech That’s Hard to Pigeonhole”.  The Huffpo headline is even more revealing: “Pope Francis’ Speech To Congress Didn’t Mention Abortion, Gay Marriage By Name.” It’s almost as though the media can only identify that:

“Pope” = “religion” = “moral issues” = “disagreement/debate/rage/flamewars/pageviews” = “profit”

A very simplistic reading of the process might suggest that commentators couldn’t find the actual, specific words they wanted and were frustrated by the necessity of inferring that “all stages of life” is code for “anti-choice”, and any oblique reference to marriage could only have been an attack on gays. There might even be a sinister dimension to this kind of analysis: “Why doesn’t the pope have the courage to say what he means?” Never mind that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church’s defense of traditional views should surprise no one; the real problem here, to me anyway, is that what a man of good will did say was ignored in favor of what he did not.

This same process is reflective of how we use the Bible to speak of God today. Imagine how the headlines would have described certain seminal moments in Jesus’ ministry, if only there’d been Buzzfeed in Galilee:

  • “Popular Preacher Caught With Prostitutes” (Luke 7:36-50)
  • “Jewish Leader Waffles on Rome, Won’t Take a Position on Foreign Taxation” (Mark 12:17)
  • “Jesus Flip Flops on Marriage: Won’t Allow Divorce, Permits Adultery” (Matthew 19:8) (John 8:1-11)

Such “headlines” point to known stories, but in a skewed manner. If you allow for the possibility that the stories could have appeared in the tabloids under these headings, then you see what is absurd about how Francis’ address was covered today: we knew what we wanted to hear, so what he said didn’t matter at all.

In contrast comes the wisdom from a wonderful resource that Mockingbird has referenced, Anne Long’s book Listening. One of her key insights is that “listening” is a way of life that we can embrace in order to love both God and our neighbor by striving to hear what is said rather than simply gleaning what we want from what others’ offering. Her text understands listening in much the same manner that many of us have learned to practice meditation: we should approach everything in life with openness, refusing to safely put away what we encounter within our pre-existing (and safe!) categories, but rather allowing for the possibility that something might unsettle us and alter who we are or how we approach the world. We are not truly listening unless what we hear might change us.

Commentators wiser than I should reflect on the depths of Francis’ words, but I want to draw attention to a few key points. First, he approached us with remarkable humility, declining to stand on the moral authority of his office but rather speaking as merely a son of immigrants. He reminded us that almost every American descended from someone who was once displaced as we consider the plight of immigrants and refugees.

Furthermore, he went to phenomenal lengths to use American heroes and stories to make his points. Because we see the world as Americans, we forget that the world is not America and therefore our vantage point is unique and particular. Had Francis lectured about obscure Catholic saints, we would have surely noticed the absence of what was assuredly present yesterday. Instead, he used our national saints, like Lincoln and MLK. This is the same generosity Paul demonstrated when he spoke to the Athenians about their altar “to an unknown god”, and it is why Jesus used boats and seeds to teach fishermen and farmers about the Kingdom of God. After all, one of the central insights of the Gospel is that God comes to us where we are. By mentioning “the land of the free and the home of the brave” in the first moments of his address, the pope was undoubtedly striving to meet us in the middle of our (admittedly sometimes problematic) patriotism. I never realized how peculiar the phrase “God Bless America” had become until I heard Pope Francis say the words again as a real and true prayer for this nation.

Finally, I hope I can remember to approach his words as Anne Long would advise, not by struggling to find how I can fit him into my existing political categories, but by rather seeing his refusal to be merely a lightning rod as a humble attempt to meet modern Americans at a place where discourse is still possible. Is “all stages of life” really nothing more than a veiled reference to abortion? Does the phrase not also encompass the isolated elderly or the overwhelmed young? Is “strengthening marriage” only a comment on homosexuality when 30 million men had Ashley Madison accounts, the divorce rate hovers at 50%, most children are raised by single parents, and fewer and fewer people are getting married at all? Why do we strive to hide at the impasse when much exists that can be done? Do our disagreements truly justify inaction were agreement is possible?

Jesus knew that our most problematic instinct is to sort others into categories of good or evil. Jesus also knew that when God sends messengers who challenge that instinct, we immediately become murderously indignant. We would generally rather shoot God’s messengers than hear their message. But if we accept the possibility that Francis’ indirect words were not obfuscation but invitation, perhaps we might hear a way forward for us all, sheep and goats, liberals and conservatives alike. Stranger things have happened.