This is a man who washed and kissed the feet of Muslim convicts, handed out phone cards to Eritrean refugees, spent his birthday with the homeless, and reached out to atheists during a Christmas homily. In response to an inquiry about women considering abortion because of rape or poverty, Pope Francis said, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” And in his answer to a question about gay men and women, he uttered what have become the most echoed words of his papacy to date: “Who am I to judge?”What struck me about this is that so many of the transformational leaders we revere have placed that same bet on humanity.
Through these very visible, intentional gestures, it seems as if the Pope is not just signaling tolerance or celebrating diversity but placing a bet on humanity. It is a bet that his core message of peace, love, service, and compassion for the least for these will find a receptive audience among people of differing races, faiths, orientations, backgrounds and beliefs. It is a bet that the existence of the Golden Rule in almost every major religion is no cosmic coincidence. For as Pope Francis said on New Years, “We belong to the same human family and we share a common destiny.”
Just as the fundamentalists of our day have recoiled when Pope Francis suggests that the alleviation of human suffering should take precedence over obedience to the rules, the Pharisees of Jesus' day had the same reaction. At one point they complained when those who were following Jesus picked grain on the Sabbath (which was against the rules). His response indicates that he placed that same bet on humanity: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
Fundamentalists tend to fear that kind of thing because their world view is based on the idea that without adherence to the rules, chaos and evil with reign. Jesus didn't negate the rules, but instead called us to something higher. Observance of the Sabbath - like other rules - was meant to be in service to humanity. He trusted us enough to suggest that when it comes to a decision between alleviating human suffering and obedience to the rules, we could make the right choice.
It is that same belief in humanity that Ta-Nehisi Coates ascribed to leaders like Martin Luther King and President Obama.
Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.If you want to know what makes right wingers afraid and many leftists suck their teeth about President Obama, this is it. Both sides of that coin panic at the thought of letting go of their belief in the inherent evil of those with whom they disagree.
None of these leaders I've referred to here would deny the existence of evil. Its just that they saw it as their calling to look deeper and call out the good. Here's what Barack Obama said about that in response to a question about the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr:
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”What grounds us against swinging from idealism to bitter realism is a belief in humanity...that the potential for good can overcome the potential for evil. I suspect that is a necessary ingredient for leadership that brings about transformational change.