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Thinking Out Loud

The Name of God is Mercy

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 01, 2016

The Name of God is MercyPope Francis has been in the news again. But I'm not going to talk about that. Well, not right away.

Recently, the pope was in Mexico, where he spoke to a large gathering (it filled a soccer stadium) of young people in Morelia. I listened to his sermon on television and was struck by his words to these young people, some of whom live in desperate poverty: "You are the wealth of Mexico," Francis said again and again throughout his sermon. He told them he was not saying this to flatter them, but to help them understand what it means to walk with Jesus. Then he warned them not to become "mercenaries of other people's ambition."

In the midst of an age when financial considerations seem to provide the clinching argument in so many disputes, the pope broadened the meaning of “economics.” He reminded us that the church has long used the word, "economics," in ways that call into question the reductionism of so many contemporary discussions. Traditionally, the Christian Faith has used phrases like "God's economy" or "the economy of God's redemption" to speak comprehensively of the working-out of God's ultimate purposes for all creation.

The Greek word from which we derive the term economics, oikos, denoted the basic social group in the ancient Greek political world. The word made its way into Christian theology through the Greek New Testament, where it meant a human dwelling place, a house, or a home. Thus, by extension, “economics” refers theologically to the ordering of the "dwelling place" and of the living relations of human society according to the way of Jesus Christ.

The pope’s comments reminded me of something Professor James Torrance, a Reformed theologian and pastor, once said. Torrance observed that the fundamental mistake of Capitalism, Communism and Socialism is to reduce the human being to a financial unit, whether a unit of consumption or of labor. Human beings in God's economy are created in God's triune image for God's redemptive purposes and are called in their humanity to live together in love, justice, peace, and mercy.

When Francis speaks of "wealth," then, he evokes a Christian theology of economics. In so doing, he challenges us to allow our faith as Christians to take priority over all other interests.

Looking into the faces of these young people, as the television camera panned across the vast crowds, it was easy to see what the pope meant when he described them as "the wealth of Mexico." These young people, first and foremost, are children of God called to touch the suffering of the world, the human household, with God's healing love.

But the main reason the pope has been in the news recently is because his name has been mentioned in connection with our presidential election campaign.

I would like to say something that may surprise the readers of this blog. I agree with one thing recently said about the pope. Although the comment made about him was said derisively and as a criticism, I believe that what was said about him should be taken as a high compliment. It was said that "the pope is very political."

As a Christian theologian, I would say that what the pope said in Mexico was political. But the way the pope is "political" is not the way the criticism seems to have meant. It all has to do with the way we have changed (and I would say perverted) the meaning of the word "political" to describe something sordid, narrowly partisan, and antithetical to authentic Christian faith. However, the word “political” has a deeper, nobler meaning than what gets tossed around by both political parties and a number of religious figures in our country these days.

Politics, classically and theologically understood, relates to the way people order their lives together. The word “politics,” like the word “economics,” is from the Greek; it comes from the Greek word polis meaning "the people," as in "We, the people" (see, for example, Aristotle's use of the word in his classic essay on the subject). The pope is political in the best, highest, and the most theological sense of that word, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is inescapably political; the gospel is about the way people live together to the glory of God.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is and always has been concerned with the ways we order our lives together. From the Magnificat (the prayer of Jesus' mother, Mary; Luke 1:46-55) to the pages of Revelation (a book of apocalyptic "forth-telling" not "fore-telling"), the faith of Jesus of Nazareth is resonant with the message of the great prophets of the Old Testament. Christ came to bring to every beating human heart the reign of God that restores humanity and all of creation to God's vision of love, justice, peace, and mercy. Our Christian faith prays and works for justice that rolls down "like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) as much as for the personal repentance, forgiveness, and righteousness that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor, the hungry, those excluded and hated for his sake; Luke 6:20-22). St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. James, as well as the gospel and letters written under the name of St. John, reiterate this message, making it clear that the gnostic division of spirit (as good) from human flesh (as evil) is false. God didn't go to all the trouble of incarnation just to make us religious, but to redeem and restore us to that humanity for which we were created in God's image.

I am saying all of this simply to provide a Christian context for some of the controversies that rage in the highly partisan and ideologically fevered world in which issues are often discussed in our society. It has become very hard for modern Christians to "hear" about certain issues without first putting these issues through their partisan and ideological filters before allowing them to be submitted to the gospel. Thus, when the pope speaks as a Christian leader and teacher on a subject such as immigration (to take just the most recent example), his comments are immediately tallied up as belonging to a particular version of partisanship or ideology, when, in fact, he may simply be trying to articulate and apply the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whatever our national interests may or may not be, we Christians are called to be "neighbors."

Many years ago, in the midst of the controversy in our Presbyterian Church over the so-called "Sanctuary Movement" (a social movement in the 1980s in response to the plight of an earlier generation of people seeking refuge from a dangerous situation in their countries of origin in Latin America), I led the congregation I then served as pastor through a biblical study of the issue. Interestingly, while we could find scant biblical mandate for the concept of "sanctuary," which dates in the Christian world to the late fourth-century AD, we did find in Jesus' teachings (e.g., Luke 10:25-37) and in the teachings of St. Paul (e.g., Galatians 3:26-28) a much more demanding and universal mandate. According to the gospel, the "neighborhood" of Jesus Christ travels with each of us. The question Jesus raises is not, "Can this or that person be defined as a neighbor?" But, "Am I a neighbor?" We are called to view ourselves as the neighbor of whomever we meet - whatever their culture, race, religion, or nationality. And we are called to extend to them nothing less than the "neighborhood" of Christ, that is, the love and justice, peace and mercy of Jesus Christ. This "neighborhood" of Christ extends beyond every boundary ever erected by whatever political or economic powers or principalities that have risen and fallen in history, from empires to nation-states.

After we finished our study, one of the most wonderful members of that church's session came to me with a question. "So, if a person fleeing another country comes to my door seeking help, as a Christian, I am their neighbor in Jesus Christ, and I should serve them in a way that is consistent with that calling. Is that right?”

I told her yes, that seems to be what the Bible teaches.

"Okay, then," she said. "I will, if they come. But I will also pray that they don't come to my door."

This was one of the most honest responses I've ever heard to the claim of the gospel. She heard the gospel. And she took it seriously while recognizing that she didn't think it coincided with her interests or inclinations. This is where the pope's message gets really tough, because his new book, The Name of God is Mercy (New York: Random House, 2016), echoes a message preached by one of his predecessors, "the name of God is mercy." Mercy, it turns out, is not only a theological virtue, it is a political virtue as well.

In the series of interviews presented in his new book, Francis says: "I am ever more convinced of it, this is a kairos, our era is a kairos of mercy, an opportune time."

Drawing on the biblical concept of the fullness of time, "kairos" time in contrast to "chronological" time, God's time as opposed to the time on the clock or the calendar, this is the opportune moment, according to Francis, to accomplish what God intends for the sake of God's mercy. The pope challenges us, in the midst of a polarized age, a fearful age, an age that glorifies bullying and aggression, greed and covetousness, that now is the right moment to act selflessly, to risk living out the implications of God's redemptive economy. As Pope Francis says, quoting John XXIII in his opening of the Second Vatican Council: "The Bride of Christ prefers to use the medicine of mercy rather than arm herself with the weapons of rigor." Quoting another of his predecessors, Benedict XVI, Francis says: "Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament and fully in Jesus Christ."

Mercy is the name of God. That is the pope's message. And, as we've heard at the end of a thousand paid political announcements on television, "I approve this message."

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