September has been a CIA month, and I am not referring to the federal agency headquartered in Langley. Today’s CIA initials represent the words “Christians in action.”
For the past several days, the best and the worst of CIA have been on display — most noble and inspiring, some inescapably cringe-worthy.
Chief among the moments of inspiration was the arrival on U.S. soil of Francis, the 78-year-old Catholic who is the church’s 266th pope. The pontiff brings to the United States much more than a regal bearing lightened by personal warmth. He comes showered with the worldwide admiration of Catholics and non-Catholics alike for his outspoken commitment to those who live out their lives with less than most of us in the way of material possessions and spiritual reinforcement.
Pope Francis’s call for respecting each other as well as the natural world is also being praised. Heeded? That’s something different.
Still, this pope speaks with a moral authority lacking in so many others on today’s world stage. His brand of Christianity is inclusive, tolerant and gentle. It encourages believers to be a little less afraid of God, in whose hands are all Christians, in all nations.
And Francis’s loftiness of spirit is being echoed this month in several nations. In a small pocket of war-torn Syria, a group of Christians who know the Islamic State is closing in on them send out messages that, even as they await extinction, their food kitchens are feeding people of every faith.
The same generosity of spirit appeared in Croatia, where Christian churches and relief groups have provided shelter and medical assistance to refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq after Hungary closed its main border crossing with Serbia nearly two weeks ago.
And it is found in the District, east of the Anacostia River in Congress Heights, where days ago the Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, an Episcopal institution, began a new school year, providing tuition-free education and spiritual development for boys of all faiths from low-income families.
At the White House welcoming ceremony, Francis called attention to a world in which “millions of people live under a system which has overlooked them,” referring to the ignored as a “group of the excluded which cries out to heaven.” He implored the international community to “protect the vulnerable in our world.” That thought lies at the heart of the Christianity professed by the Holy See, by those helping Middle Eastern refugees and by the nurturers of youth at the Bishop Walker School.
Those acts of Christianity, however, are notably distinct from displays this month by other adherents of the faith.
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the son of a preacher, told television viewers that President Obama’s proposal that 15,000 more refugees from Syria be resettled in the United States next year “is nothing short of crazy.” “We do not need to be bringing in tens of thousands of Muslim refugees from Syria,” said Cruz, who wants to let in only Christian children and their families.
“Christians are a very different circumstance because Christians are being persecuted,” he said, arguing that they are not a terrorist threat.
And what about Muslim children and their families fleeing from war and oppression? Well, Cruz said, just resettle those children and their families in other Middle Eastern countries. And the United States should help pay for it, he added.
That quote on the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet — has apparently been lost on Cruz.
And he is not alone. Mike Huckabee, another Republican presidential contender as well as a Baptist minister, also believes that the United States should accept Christian, but exclude Muslim, refugees.
And don’t overlook devout Christian and GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson, who said this month that he would not support a Muslim president — though he later backtracked to say he was referring to a Muslim who had not renounced sharia law.
Contrast the behavior of those prominent Christians with: Pope Francis’s act of bending to wash the feet of two Muslim inmates in a youth detention center in Rome on Holy Thursday in 2013; the Bishop Walker school’s welcoming and educating boys of all faiths in need; the Middle East church’s kitchen feeding refugees of all faiths; and Croatia’s Christians providing relief and shelter to fleeing refugees.
All of these are Christians in action in September. Some have called upon, as Abraham Lincoln said, “the better angels of our nature.” Others, it appears, not so much. And therein lies the lesson of the month — and at all times — which is that Christians have a basic responsibility to love others. It’s a lesson that keeps getting lost.
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