We sat down with Dr. Obery Hendricks, The Opportunity Agenda’s Senior Fellow for Faith and Opportunity, to talk about the Pope’s historical visit to the United States and what social justice advocates can take away from his messages on many of the issues—such as poverty, immigration, criminal justice, climate change—that we work on each day.
Hendricks tells us that the visit is historically significant because the presence of the Pope and his incisive pronouncements highlight crucial issues of social justice such as America’s unconscionably high rate of poverty, its vast income inequality, increasingly dangerous climate change that is wreaking havoc in much of the world, and the nation’s wrenching immigration controversy. By raising these key issues, he gives those of us who are concerned about justice, love, reconciliation, and the health and wholeness of all humanity, stronger moral ground to stand on and an opportunity to engage with a broader audience.
We’ve seen the Pope be very effective by leading with values in his messages. What are the values he’s emphasizing most frequently and how do they relate to the moral and ethical principals in the Bible?
Values are a cornerstone of the Pope’s statements, from compassion and caring for the least among us to civility and respect for those whose views differ from our own.
The ethical value that is woven through nearly all of his messages is justice, which has powerful doctrinal roots. The most oft-used term in the Bible is the Hebrew word, mishpat, which we translate as justice. This reflects how foundational the concept of justice is in the Bible’s constellation of social ethics. Its conceptual meaning is egalitarian justice--meaning all people are made equal in the sight of God—and that entails equal justice for all, equal rights. Related to that is a term we translate as righteousness, but it really means doing right or putting justice into action. Attached to that is the concept of the common good, that we have responsibility to each other and to the community, as in the scriptural admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves.
He also emphasizes how biblical justice goes beyond the social and political to say there can be no true justice without economic justice: equal access to economic opportunity and to those things necessary for a decent life. The Bible is permeated by instructions and demands for generosity toward those in need. But it even more pointedly calls for narrowing the gap between the rich and poor, for doing justice to those on the underbelly of the political economy. This is not simply a call for individual action; it is also a call for collective action. It is a call to change structures and institutions that cause poverty and perpetuate it.
The Pope speaks extensively about injustices of society; what do you think he’ll say with regard to how the Bible can serve as a guide or kind of a pathway to address some of these societal issues?
I think the Pope is going to make a difference by bringing to light contradictions in the way things are done now.
When one listens to the Pope talk about immigration, some overriding themes become clear. One is that these are human beings; they might be undocumented, but they’re human beings who are in need. The Bible is very, very clear that those who are in a position to have a responsibly to offer as much hospitality as is needed to satisfy the basic needs of immigrant strangers, which is a that term we see used throughout the Bible. It's one of the most basic concepts in the Bible and that’s because doing so brings out the depth of our humanity and helps society to be much healthier. Those who demonize immigrants, those who want to send them back where they came from without even considering what the circumstance might be, that's a Biblical sin against humanity. The Pope will not offer specifics in terms of policy, but he will offer a perspective about respect for human beings and the egalitarian ethic of the Bible that all people are equal in the sight of God.
Another impact the Pope can have is catalyzing a shift in values. We really need that because it's now chic and accepted to talk badly about immigrants and refer to them in ugly and dehumanizing ways. If the Pope has the kind of impact we're hoping for, that will be less acceptable in our public discourse. And hopefully he'll indict people so that it will be clear that if you demonize people as some people are doing now that you're really on the wrong side.
When it comes to criminal justice, the Pope has called for treating prisoners humanely and also abolishing the death penalty. The Bible talks about number of different things when it comes to imprisonment and punishment for crimes, including forgiveness. When the Pope talks about forgiveness with regard to prisoners, he's not saying let people who have committed crimes go, but rather urging us to keep in mind that they are human beings and that we should see them as our brothers and sisters who need to be treated humanely and with love. He’s questioning how we treat people convicted of crimes, and his point will likely be that if they must be kept away, it doesn’t mean that they have to be stuck in stinking holes and fed terrible food and tortured and exposed to sexual abuse.
What would you say to people who minimize the importance of the Pope’s visit, because this country has so many different religious and faith traditions, and so many people who are not religious? Can he speak meaningfully to all of these audiences?
One way Pope Francis avoids what could be doctrinal handcuffs is to speak to our humanity. What he talks about more than anything else is ethics, which is a more universal framework for discussing the issues close to his heart.
He also talks in very practical, ethical, moral ways, much in the way that Jesus spoke. Instead of focusing on doctrine and what you should believe, his primary concern is how to treat one another and the planet.
The way the Pope connect arguments to universal values that we all care about is also very important. That’s part of why his messages have resonated so well, even well beyond the religious sphere.
The way the Pope connect arguments to universal values that we all care about is also very important. That’s part of why his messages have resonated so well, even well beyond the religious sphere. I think that's how he reaches people--because they know he's sincere and empathizes.
The Pope links issues of immigration, poverty, climate, and criminal justice, but some critics say he should stick to doctrine. Are there really Biblical foundations and concepts around collective responsibility and the intersection of these issues?
The idea that we are interconnected and all in this together is fundamental to the Pope’s teachings—it’s a key underpinning of nearly all faiths. The perspective of the Bible is collective responsibility through and through. Throughout the gospels and the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), it's unassailable. It's not about individualism. In fact,—there isn’t a word for individual in the Hebrew Bible.
In terms of immigration, poverty, and equality, climate change, and prison reform, the way they intersect and are related is tied to our collective responsibility, especially the way the Pope approaches them. He emphasizes that there is one humanity, and that all humanity has the same value in the eyesight of God. That being the case, we have a collective responsibility to take care of the poor. We have a responsibility to take care of our climate. We have a responsibly to take care of the immigrant stranger. With prison reform, it comes down to the belief that all people are human beings. The Bible talks about punishment, but we still have to remember that these are human beings and should be treated in a way that respects and values their basic humanity. When we mistreat people, we're acting as less than human—and that violates our values. I think that’s a part of the Pope’s message as well.
Is it really the role of a Pope to visit Congress and engage with policy makers?
I jump for joy he's going to Congress, it's very courageous because he's not going to change his message--he's going to challenge them quite a bit. I think members of Congress will learn something about systemic injustice and economic injustice. And that’s important because those who are in positions of authority in our government have a responsibility to look out for what Jesus calls the least of these, those who are in need. From the biblical perspective, that is supposed to be the first responsibility of those in positions of governance – to take care of the poorest and the most vulnerable. Then they have a responsibility to craft policies that do not marginalize and disadvantage or give too much advantage to a particular interest group.
The 72nd Psalm, which is an inaugural Psalm for a king, talks about the responsibilities of a king and thus, by extension, the responsibilities of every ruler and ruling body. The first responsibly it talks about is fighting for justice for the poor and the vulnerable and making sure that they’re taken care of. Although we don’t have a king, this directive for those in positions of power should guide our country’s government as well. Pope Francis has made clear that the Bible requires justice of every individual, but especially those in positions of authority, power, and governance.
What about the life of the planet? What specifically is it that the Pope is calling for?
One of the criticisms that the Pope has of trickle-down economics is that it has no respect of the environment. He makes the point that our economy not only created economic injustices and economic violence toward people, but also that it treats the climate and the natural environment and the planet quite violently by valuing wealth and accumulation of wealth as the most important consideration. He has talked about how we’re poisoning our Earth because of our misplaced priorities. If we listen to the Pope, not only would we interrogate the systems and economic violence against people, but also the violence entailed in the way we run our economy and what that does to the environment.
What would you say to social justice advocates, people of faith, and others who are active on social justice issues but have disagreements with the Pope and the Vatican’s positions on some issues?
I think the Pope brings with him a pervasive air of reconciliation. Although advocates might not agree with all of the Vatican’s positions, we can start by stressing what we do agree on fundamentally—the dignity of all humanity—and then we can go from there. We're going to have to accept that there are some things that we're not going to be able to get together on. But if accept the dignity of all people, we will not demonize each other. We'll say, “Well, we see this differently and let's see if we can work this out.” In the meantime, let's feed some hungry people. The Pope’s value-based messages speak across divides and can act as a bridge, providing an opening for conversation.
We encourage you to borrow some of the Pope’s words and messages when communicating about key issues. Catholics and other people of faith may find themselves surprised to learn that they’re social justice advocates.