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11/05/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Kissing the Political or Theological Hand That Makes You Shudder: A Challenge From Saint Francis

That Awkward Conversation

You've probably been there as many times as I have.

You're sitting among a group of friends when someone casually mouths off about their political or religious "other" (i.e. opponent). Their tone ices over and they roll their eyes almost out of their head, as if anyone two notches up or down the political or theological spectrum is completely unadmirable and also invalid (if not the very spawn of the devil).

How We React

  • Perhaps you enthusiastically join in the bashing.
  • Or perhaps, even though you internally agree, you fidget uncomfortably with your coffee cup because you know such outright disdain is not supposed to be spoken aloud.
  • Or perhaps you -- like me -- feel sick, not at the grossness of "the other" in question, but at the hate we allow to creep into our speech when we're talking about those we so adamantly disagree with.

A Sad Irony

Perhaps you too have noticed an awkward sort of irony in the faith arena. How in the majority of situations, Christians on both sides are often quick to lobby around kindness. How we on both poles loudly advocate for all those Sermon-on-the-Mount virtues like turning the other cheek or going two miles instead of one... especially when these kindnesses are directed at attenders of our church, others in our denomination, or the often anonymous "poor."

This sort of give-your-shirt-and-cloak kindness is running on all six cylinders with these A-list groups.

But ironically, have you noticed...

  • How easy it is to hold this "love your enemies" value with one hand, while creating some "special" category of people we exempt from that standard of kindness with the other?
  • How easy it is to file these people away in a special mental closet reserved for exceptions: people who grate us so much that we hold them to be undeserving of graciousness or well-mannered speech?
  • How easy it is to silently cross this group off the list of people to whom "Love Your Neighbor as Yourself" or the Sermon on the Mount applies?

Confessions of a Drunken Party

I confess, at various times in life, I have been the person speaking recklessly in these conversations. And equally sadly, I have also been the person listening as those I love are spoken about with recklessness.

I liken such situations to a party gone bad. The participants become drunk on our own self-righteousness, we lose our inhibitions, and we feel snarkily released to not only unload our disagreement but to speak of other human beings as if they are totally void of any intellect or soul or heart.

These tipsy conversations often remind me of a story told about Francis of Assisi, which the church often revisits when thinking about the poor.

The story goes like this:

One day while Francis prayed, he reported being given direction. God told him, Francis said, that if he wanted to know the will of God, he must give up all he was trying to possess and achieve and that when he did so, "all that formerly made you shudder will bring you sweetness . . ."

The thing that made Francis shudder was leprosy. He had been so averse to lepers, in fact, that he would not even look at them. Even if he donated alms for them, he would turn his head away and hold his nose.

But moved by what he felt was God's direction that day, when Francis went out riding, he met a leper. But rather than otherize this man, he conquered his revulsion by climbing down from his horse and intentionally forcing himself to kiss the diseased man's hand. The leper in return gave him the kiss of peace.

Of course, we all likely know the end of the story. That Francis devoted his entire life to the poor and socially discarded, even spurring an order of people who would follow in his footsteps.

How noble of Francis, we think! How beautiful that he set aside his human pride and communed with the least of these!

That he set aside his distaste for the flaws of another human being who offended him and disciplined himself to act in love.

Yes, how noble of Francis indeed.

And what ramifications it had for the poor!

The Ramifications For Us

But could we not also use this story to cast vision toward our opponents? What might happen, for example, if we respected his example by naming the "enemy others" we've made exceptions to our own standards of kindness? What if we took the hands of those political and theological others who make us shudder and kissed them with love in our hearts?

What ramifications might that have for our world? (Not to mention the condition of our hearts!)

In Our Own Self-Defense

Hate is not an easy thing to let go of though. We are often at our most brilliant -- the Johnnie Cochranes of lawyers -- when trying to justify our own bad behavior!

So perhaps our heart cries out in defense: But the actions of these political and theological others relegates them to the lowest class of people! They are, in my opinion, the bacteria that feeds off the scum of the earth! Spreaders of falsehood! The least of the least!

Fair enough. Perhaps they are.

And so we must disagree with them faithfully time and time again. We must speak and live what we believe to be true and right.

But as we disagree, one might wonder then...

  • Why we do not treat this scum as we would if Jesus had claimed that the way we treat "the least of these" is the way we would treat him.
  • Why we do not treat them like we would if Jesus' Good Samaritan story was about a man caring for someone unlike himself.
  • Why we do not treat them as if Jesus said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
  • Why we do not treat them as if they were a much loved lost coin, the one stray sheep worth leaving the flock to find, the Prodigal Son who has wasted his fortune, or the worker who arrived late and still got fully paid.
  • Why we do not treat them as if Jesus said he came for the sick and not the healthy.

One might wonder how these awkward conversations happen at all since all of the above examples are central to the faith we've inherited.

In light of this, I am anxious to believe Saint Francis' life holds a challenge for all of us:
To see what sort of transcendent peace God might stir if we stopped infusing our hearts with hate and learned to kiss the hand of our political and theological others.

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This post was modified from content found in Sarah Cunningham's new book, The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good (Moody, October 2013).

The Well Balanced World Changer is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold. You can also find great shareable content like the graphic below at her book's Pinterest page. And you can contribute your own life lessons to an online collection of wisdom using the hashtag #worldchangerbook.