12/02/2013 07:43 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2014

Pope Francis and Learning to Take Jesus Seriously

Scrolling through my Twitter feed last week, I ran across a quote that punched me right in the mouth: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

Pope Francis is at it again, kicking over lemonade stands. The article in which the quote appeared announced the release of Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), an 84 page encyclical that attacks “unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny,’ urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality.”

I read that and immediately a whole bunch of questions popped into my mind:

  • Under what set of conditions acceptable to Christianity does it make either economic or moral sense to encourage a political climate that abides the continued accumulation of wealth by the rich at the expense of the poor?
  • How exactly does that “trickle-down” view of economics square with Jesus, who spent most of his time getting sideways with the rich precisely because he kept hanging out at the local pub with the poor?
  • How can some forms of popular Christianity defend a system that protects the rich as models for the poor to emulate or as benevolent “job creators” -- and not be perceived as merely justifying selfishness?
  • In what world where Jesus is the center of gravity is it sufficiently a good thing to create a culture in which poverty is a character defect and avoiding paying taxes is a virtue?
  • Is it possible to read the Gospels and come away with the impression that “poverty and growing inequality” are things that … you know … Jesus is cool with?

All these questions -- not “liberal-ignore-the-Bible” questions, but “liberal-take-the-Bible-seriously” questions.

It was at this point, though, that I read Pope Francis serve up the real ecclesiastical smack down: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Let’s be honest, the church has a bad reputation for “clinging to its own security.” And one of the chief methods for achieving this security is seeking to ensure orthodoxy.

Historically, a large premium has been placed on believing the right stuff. We should have been singing, “They will know we are Christians not by our love … but by our ability to produce the right answers even before the question gets asked.”

As Mike Breen has pointed out, we’ve burned people at the stake for not believing the right stuff, but never for failing to love the poor.

But not only have we wanted to make certain of the purity of our beliefs among other Christians, we’ve insisted that the rest of the culture conform to those beliefs. The imposition of which beliefs is bad enough when speaking about Jesus’ position on things he never even addressed -- for example, prayer in schools, the war on Christmas, same gender attraction, etc.

However, as Pope Francis rightly observes, a colossal disconnect occurs when Christianity desires to transform the culture into the opposite of what Jesus actually spoke a great deal about -- the rich and the poor. When Christians defend a system that perpetuates disparities in wealth, they look like they haven’t even read their own book.

Christians claim to believe in a Jesus who spent a great deal of time reaching out to, speaking out for, advocating on behalf of “the least of these” -- a Jesus who cared more about embodying a new vision of the world in which the needs of those on fringes are more important than being right. And when his followers don’t follow suit … who can blame the onlookers for questioning the whole enterprise?

“If they can’t listen to their own guy any better than that, why should we take anything else they say seriously?”

I suspect that any hope Christians have of being taken seriously is going to have to come from being “bruised, hurt and dirty” from being out on the streets.

I sure hope this whole Pope Francis thing works out. We need somebody to help Christians take Jesus seriously.

Believe me, I know he’s got a ways to go on women, married priests, same gender marriage, etc. Baby steps.