Pope Francis and Poverty

December 25, 2014

Pope Francis’ startling Christmas sermon to the Vatican elite has echoed across the world, bouncing from one critical listener to the next like a squash ball in a closed court. When I heard it I thought first of his courage and toughness, wondering how he would fare after the powerful and patently evil curia digested his metaphors and oblique references to their laziness and corruption. He has no fear of their power. They will fade before his visionary leadership. He had a much more ambitious goal with this humble speech to the assembled laity at St. Peter’s. He sounded the alarm to the entire world: a transformation is upon us; embrace it or get out of the way. Change is coming.

For more than a quarter century the world has needed a religious leader with the courage, moral authority and clear vision to take on the increasingly cynical power elites who have controlled political, economic, academic and theological discourse during these troubled times. When John Paul II helped to bring down the Iron Curtain Catholics cheered, but were soon disillusioned by his narrow moral vision and authoritarian tenure in Rome. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church endured its most corrosive crisis in more than a century: the cover up of priestly sexual abuses, particularly in North and South America. Reeling from this blow, Rome stumbled with Benedict, but then elected the unlikeliest candidate imaginable as his successor.

Francis, like his namesake, is a man of peace who sees the plight of the world’s poor as the inevitable result of crony capitalism, authoritarian regimes, and economic inequality. Poverty is not simply a condition of the least fortunate, but rather a pervasive moral issue for the world today. Poverty of vision, poverty of ideas, poverty of spirit, poverty of leadership. Francis called upon his flock to struggle against this pervasive abnegation in their midst. The world is listening, and his words will bring a new ethic to those who hear their truth.

Remembering Atrocities

December 24, 2014

Serf monumentThe photograph in this edition of Frozen Music comes from a remarkable archive of views of Russia taken around the turn of the 19th century. It shows a “monument to the freeing of the serfs” on a steppe somewhere in central Russia. The Russians have monuments to virtually everything political, even the murder of hundreds in the Ukraine by the Nazis at Babi Yar. When I was a tourist there in 1990, our guide assumed that all Americans would want to see the grim, horrible place where one of the war’s worst mass murders took place. I later attended a performance of the “Babi Yar” symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich in New York and was moved to tears. I will never forget that experience.

Americans don’t much like to remember horrible events, but something changed after 9/11. Now we have dozens of memorials to that tragedy throughout the land. My students in a class on architectural conservation are drawn to what is now called “negative heritage” sites like the defaced Buddhas in Afghanistan and the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. One has even worked to save a Japanese internment camp in Canada. Memorials to heroes will persist, but our attention has shifted in the 21st century.

We need to remind ourselves that the worst parts of our natures are much in evidence in the world today, and amnesia about recent acts of violence, genocide, genital mutilation, racism, and other atrocities will only lead to more outrageous transgressions. When the Russians, during the time of Tolstoy, admitted the worst to themselves, they found the courage to overturn a bankrupt political system. Where is our resolve to do something similar today?