Today (October 4) Christians around the world celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the bright lights of the Church and one of the most venerated religious figures in history.
The life and witness of Francis is as relevant to the world we live in today as it was 900 years ago. He was one of the first critics of capitalism, one of the earliest Christian environmentalists, a sassy reformer of the Church, and one of the classic conscientious objectors to war.
Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, born into a society where the gap between rich and the poor was increasingly unacceptable. It was an age of religious crusades, where Christians and Muslims were killing each other in the name of God. Sound familiar?
Francis did something simple and wonderful. He read the Gospels where Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, “consider the lilies and the sparrows and do not worry about tomorrow”, “Love your enemies” — And he decided to live as if Jesus meant the stuff he said.
Francis turned his back on the materialism and militarism of his world, and said yes to Jesus.
One of the quotes attributed to Francis is a simple and poignant critique of our world, just as it was to his: “The more stuff we have the more clubs we need to protect it.” It does make you wonder if he’d be on Wall Street protesting today.
With a childlike innocence, Francis literally stripped naked and walked out of Assisi butt-naked to live like the lilies and the sparrows (and to become the patron saint for the flower children). He lived close to the earth, and like Jesus became a friend of the birds and creatures, whom he fondly called “brother” and “sister”. In light of that, many Christians brought their pets to Church yesterday for an special all-pets-allowed service, an annual tribute to Francis. And many a bird-bath dones his iconic image. But it’s easy to turn our best movements into monuments. His life was a powerful critique of the demons of his day, which are very similar to the demons of our day.
One of my favorite stories of Francis, was when he decided to meet with the Muslim sultan, during the 5th Crusade. It was a tumultuous time. War had become a necessity and a habit, and was baptized by much of the Church. Francis was sent off as a soldier, but he could not reconcile the violence of war with the grace of Christ… and so he got off his warhorse, and put down the sword. He pleaded with the military commander, Cardinal Pelagius, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused. Instead, Pelagius broke off all diplomatic relations with the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. The sultan in turn decreed that anyone who brought him the head of a Christian would be rewarded with a Byzantine gold piece. Francis, however, pursued his vision in steadfast faith, surmounting all dangers in a journey to see the sultan. He traveled through fierce fighting in Syria and inevitably was met by soldiers of the sultan’s army, who beat him savagely and put him in chains, dragging him before the sultan himself. Francis spoke to the sultan of God’s love and grace. The sultan listened intensely and was so moved that he offered Francis gifts and money. Francis of course had no desire for the money, but he gladly accepted one gift, an ivory horn used in the Muslim call to prayer. He took it back with him and used it to summon his own community for prayer. Both Francis and the sultan were transformed by that encounter.
In an age of religious extremists, Francis offers us an alternative. We have seen religious extremists of all stripes, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, distort the best that our faiths have to offer and hijack the headlines with stories of hatred. We’ve seen Christian extremists burn the Koran, blow up abortion clinics, bless bombs, baptize Wall Street, and hold signs that say “God hates fags”. But Francis invites us to become extremists for grace, extremists for love.
Although the Church is prone to forget his witness or to make a monument of his movement, there is a whole world remembering his radical witness today. We celebrate his critique of an economy that left masses of people in poverty so that a handful of people can live as they wish. We rejoice in his love for the earth as we work to end the ravaging of our world. We remember his witness that there is a better way to bring peace than with a sword. And we remember the whisper he heard from God, “Repair the Church which is in ruins.”
Let us do a little something today as a tribute to old Francis. Maybe we can get rid of some of our stuff or spend some time with a homeless person. Maybe we can laugh at advertisements today that try to convince us that happiness can be purchased. Maybe we can hang out in the woods and spend some time with the lilies and sparrows. Maybe we can take an enemy out for dinner.
These are the words of the famous prayer of Francis. May the inspire us to become better people and to build a better world:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker, activist, and founding member of the Simple Way. He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a new resource to unite people in prayer and action. Shane is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders which creates opportunities for folks to come together and work together for justice from around the world.