Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in TRENDS in Global Grassroots Organizing, December 2022 issue.
We live in a time of conflict and polarization — in the church in its various forms and in the world at large. In fact, our religious and secular challenges are so enmeshed as to be inseparable.
In the world at large, the planet is in crisis. From global warming to the great global insect die-off, from the impending tsunami of extinctions to multifaceted ecosystem collapse, the earth is suffering under the burden of too many people demanding too many resources while pumping out too many wastes. As Pope Francis said in Laudato Si, we are sowing filth and destruction into the earth rather than life and beauty.
The poor are also in crisis, as a tiny minority of super-rich global elites control a larger and larger percentage of power and wealth, leaving the poor farther and farther behind to survive on leftovers. Simply put: the wealth rises to the top and the troubles (what economists call “externalized costs”) trickle down to the folks at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
In addition to the crises of the planet and the poor, we face a crisis of peace. Arrogant nationalism, ignorant racism, shortsighted militarism, and post-truth propaganda empower the Putin’s of the world to bomb innocents into rubble while the NRAs of the world proliferate guns. As we pump more and more weapons of increasing kill-power into human societies, as we dump more and more carbon and other pollutants into our skies and seas, as we redistribute more and more wealth and power away from the struggling masses and toward the elite upper classes … we create a perfect recipe for misery, for us, for our children, and for generations to come.
We could wish that the leaders of our Christian faith were paying attention to these crises. A few are. But many — too many — are obsessed with preserving their power, protecting their privilege, and perpetuating their institutions. They obsess over liturgical gnats while ignoring existential threats, and we wonder why younger generations are turning away!
The young see our churches as being fueled by theologies of separation, shame, punishment, and damnation. They experience our liturgies as being obsessed with individual salvation, appeasing a demanding God so our individual souls can assure their ticket to heaven when we die. They encounter our institutions as being more concerned with their own power, privilege, and survival than with the common good. Many feel frustration and hopelessness.
Younger generations know the reality articulated early in the last century by Teilhard de Chardin: “Evolve or be annihilated.” They know the reality articulated late in the last century by Thomas Berry: “We will go into the future as a single sacred community, or we will all perish in the desert.”
When they read the gospels, they hear a resonance between Teilhard’s call to evolve and Jesus’ call to repent. And they hear a resonance between Jesus’ good news of the kingdom of God and Berry’s “single sacred community.”
When they hear or recite the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer most frequently prayed by every denomination of Christianity, they hear the words, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.” They see what so many of us miss: Jesus’ prayer is not an evacuation plan, praying to get our individual souls from earth down here to heaven up there. This prayer is a transformation plan, bringing God’s good will down here to earth from up there in heaven. The prayer asks us, “How do we join Jesus in his concern for God’s good desires to become actualized on earth?” The prayer directs us to address this world and its injustices, joining God in God’s healing work within this world.
The Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee says, “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness.” Younger generations wish they could say more in our Christian communities helping to lead the way to bring healing and hope to this “suffering wholeness.”
We have a proposal that addresses both the crises in the world at large and the crises in the Christian church: the possibility of a Franciscan Renaissance.
The first biographer of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, described Francis’ return to God as reclaiming that which would free him both from a sinful nature and from a perverted society which was Christian in name only. Thomas of Celano could just as easily be describing the state of our world and religion today.
Neither of us are professed Franciscans. Our deep love and understanding of Franciscan spirituality came from our work and relationships with Franciscan sisters and friars in the US and across the World. When we talk about a Franciscan Renaissance, we are not referring to otherworldly piety and escapist rituals or propping up the status quo of Franciscan institutions. Rather, we advocate a Franciscan Renaissance centered in the spirit of St. Clare and St. Francis, embodied in their examples, further explored in the works of brilliant Franciscan theologians like Blessed John Dun Scotus.
This renaissance is needed because dominant forms of Christianity are stuck. The Catholic Church is stuck; all the many forms of Protestantism are stuck. Whether you are Catholic, Evangelical Protestant or Mainline Protestant you’ve probably watched with horror from a distance as many of your leaders and fellow members were so easily sucked into Trumpism. It breaks your heart to see how many Christians have wandered into white supremacist backwaters, into QAnon and other conspiracy theories, where they’re in many ways ruled by nostalgia, dreaming of a mythical idyllic past when life made more sense to them.
Yes, there are beautiful pockets of light and growth and redemption in all our Christian traditions. But so many are stuck in deep ruts, hardly able to see outside. Even when they know they’re in trouble, it’s so much easier to live in denial and keep on with liturgy as usual. Along with ruts of routine, so many of us are stuck in our silos, just worried about our little group. So, Lutherans are worried about renewing Lutheranism and Presbyterians are worried about renewing their Presbyterianism, just as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox can act as if their group is the only group that matters.
Every week, more and more people, especially young people, leave the stuckness and stagnation, joining the 70 million-plus adult Americans who grew up going to Church but who no longer do. The failure of retention of younger generations brings us closer every day to what we might call a demographic cliff.
If Christianity were in trouble only because it’s stuck in ruts of routine and silos of sectarianism, that would be bad enough. But we also have to acknowledge that there are dominant forms of Christianity that have become dangerous. Too many preach that Jesus is coming soon, so we don’t need to worry about the environment. Too many preach, ‘The Bible says that the end is going to be terrible, that things are getting worse. That just tells us that we are closer to the end. And after that it is heaven and then we will all be able to party.’ Too many preach an intoxicating cocktail of Christianity and white supremacy, Christianity and nationalism, Christianity and unregulated capitalism. As a result, the earth suffers, people of color suffer, the poor suffer, and ultimately, everyone suffers.
The words of the prophet Jeremiah (8:8) echo in our ears:
“How can you say, “We are wise,
for we have the law of the Lord,”
when that law has been falsified
by the lying pen of the scribes?”
The vision of Francis and Clare are exactly what we need at this moment of peril and opportunity. Why is that legacy so precious at this moment?
First, at this time of ecological crisis, the Franciscan legacy is powerfully ecological. Living as we do at the precipice of an environmental catastrophe; we need a spiritual vision that integrates love for God and love for our neighbor with love for the earth — exactly the vision of St. Francis and St. Clare and the movements that they gave birth to.
Francis’ famous friendship with a wolf and his preaching to the birds are easily reduced to cute little tropes, birdbaths if you will. But the ecological vision of Francis was about more than birdbaths. It was about the interconnectedness of all creation, so that we see every creature as sister or brother. As Sr. Ilia Delio OSF wrote in her book, A Franciscan View of Creation, “Francis’ respect for creation was not a duty or obligation but arose out of an inner love by which creation and the source of creation were intimately united…” Francis saw himself as part of creation, as being in relationship with creation, and not having dominion over creation or even stewardship of creation.
Second, in this time of violence, this time of school shootings and war in Europe, this time when many politicians seem to believe that the more guns, we have the safer we’ll be, or the more bombs we have the safer we’ll be, we need St. Francis’ message and example of nonviolence as never before. If we follow the path of maximum armament … believing that we can never have too many guns and bombs … we will discover that this is a suicidal trajectory for our species: as Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” We need a spirituality that is deeply nonviolent not just in words but in our action.
It is difficult to preach nonviolence when so much of our religion is focused on the wrath and fear of God. In fact, to many Christians today, world salvation means being saved from an angry God. Carl Jung, one of our greatest 20th century psychologists, once said, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.” Over the centuries, many forms of Christianity have become religions of fear. But Christianity wasn’t always like that. It began as a nonviolent peace movement, a community known for love, a community gathered around a table of fellowship and reconciliation, a people armed with the basin and towel of service, not the bomb and gun of violence. A Franciscan Renaissance would invite us to become, in the language of St. Clare, not violent warriors, but nonviolent mirrors of Christ for others to see and follow.
Third, in addition to being ecological and nonviolent, the Franciscan vision is deeply economic. Today, a larger and larger percentage of wealth is being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals and families. In spite of calling ourselves democracies and free market economies, many of our nations are returning to a kind of feudal oligarchy, where a small number of powerful families exert great power over governments and collaborate with transnational crime syndicates … all while collaborating with religions that give them cover. St. Francis arose in the early stages of modern capitalism, and he saw its potential dangers. He exemplified an alternative value system where the poor, the leper, and the outcast matter more than money, luxury, and power. Our current economic model places no intrinsic value on creation, except as a source for raw materials that we consume. In so doing, it reduces us to consumers, and values us based on our productivity measured in money. A Franciscan renaissance would help us “redeem” — which means to re-assess and revalue — everything, so we rediscover the priceless beauty of the earth and its creatures, including our neighbors and ourselves.
Fourth, we live in a time of exclusion, division, classism, racism, and religious prejudice. We need the example of St. Francis and St. Clare, who clearly modeled deep inclusiveness and solidarity. In the iconic paintings of St. Francis embracing a leper, we do not see a shallow inclusiveness that says, ‘We’re elite and we’re going to bring a few of you as tokens into our exclusive club.’ No, we see in St. Francis profound solidarity with the last, the lost, and the least, with the other, the outcast, the outsider, and even the enemy. In this spirit of solidarity, I see that my life and your life are interconnected. I refuse to settle for my own happiness, because my life is in solidarity with yours as my neighbor.
The relationship between Francis and Clare modeled this: we’re all equal — male and female, rich and poor, healthy and sick, well-clothed and clothed in rags, Pope and Bishop and lay person. Francis even teaches us to refuse to discriminate between Christian and Muslim, Jew and Atheist, for we all are beloved by God. We see this interfaith solidarity when Francis ventures without weapon or threat into the Sultan’s camp in Egypt, bearing a message of peace – a heart for peace. This vision has been tragically lost in so much of our Christian faith. More than ever at this moment, we need the vision of Francis and Clare for an interfaith solidarity.
We have experienced this inclusive solidarity. Neither of us are professed Franciscans but we both have been welcomed within the Franciscan community. Not only that: in our work and travels we both have encountered Muslims, Jews, Hindus and even atheists who have a deep respect for St. Francis, his life and works. A Franciscan Renaissance will expand beyond the traditional three Franciscan orders to a fourth order — of Franciscan-hearted people.
A Franciscan Renaissance would be ecological, nonviolent, economic, and inclusive. It would also be creative theologically. Too many Christians still imagine God as a big white guy on a throne in the sky, a cosmic dictator and Zeus-like despot and who will subject people to cruelty if they don’t honor his magnificence appropriately. Looking back over the last eight centuries, it is clear that the Franciscan theological instinct was right, and we need it more than ever.
The prevalent theology during the time of St Francis was centered around the idea of substitutionary atonement. In this view, the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation was to suffer and die as a sacrifice to appease an angry God. But for Franciscans, Jesus didn’t come to appease an angry God; he came to reveal a loving God, as Sr. Ilia Delio, OSF, says in her book, Franciscan Prayer: prayer “begins and ends with the Incarnation. It begins with encountering the God of overflowing love in the person of Jesus Christ and ends with embodying that love in one’s own life, becoming a new Incarnation.” This fresh vision of God leads to a fresh vision of everything everywhere.
Thomas Berry wrote in The Dream of the Earth. “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.” We are experiencing that crisis today, in the world and in the church. A Franciscan Renaissance will not come easily; it will be costly, challenging, even disruptive. After all, if renewal were cheap, easy, and convenient, it would have happened already. If we are willing to count the cost, commit to the challenge, and persist through obstacles, we can be agents of a true Franciscan Renaissance.