(Originally recorded during Advent 2021, so references to “last year” are references to 2020.)
In this episode, Malcolm and Peter finish discussing the first chapter of Let Us Dream by Pope Francis. This is the fourth part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here, the second episode is here, and the third here. The following are some of the points we discussed.
Viewing the Past
In Chapter 1 of Let Us Dream, Pope Francis discusses our relationship to the past in light of the racial justice protests of 2020. He voices his support for those protesting against racial prejudice and injustice, but also notes that he is concerned by the growth of a flawed attitude toward the past. He writes:
What worried me about the anti-racist protests in the summer of 2020, when many statues of historical figures were toppled in several countries, was the desire to purify the past. Some wanted to project onto the past the history they would like to have now, which requires them to cancel what came before. But it should be the other way around. For there to be true history there must be memory, which demands that we acknowledge the paths already trod, even if they are shameful. Amputating history can make us lose our memory, which is one of the few remedies we have against repeating the mistakes of the past. A free people is a people that remembers, is able to own its history rather than deny it, and learns its best lessons.
In chapter 26 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses prescribed what the Israelites were to do after taking possession of the land the Lord had given them. They were to take the land’s first fruits to the priest as an offering, and pronounce a prayer of gratitude that recalls the people’s history. The prayer began: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” Then came a story of shame and redemption: how my ancestor went down into Egypt, lived as an alien and a slave, but his people called on the Lord’s name and were brought out of Egypt, to this land.
The ignominy of our past, in other words, is part of what and who we are. I recall this history not to praise past oppressors but to honor the witness and greatness of soul of the oppressed. There is a great danger in remembering the guilt of others in order to proclaim my own innocence.
Of course, those who pulled down statues did so to draw attention to the wrongs of the past, and to deny honor to those who committed those wrongs. But when I judge the past through the lens of the present, seeking to purge the past of its shame, I risk committing other injustices, reducing a person’s history to the wrong they did.
The past is always full of situations of shame: just read the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospels, which contains —as do all our families—quite a few characters who are hardly saints. Jesus does not reject his people or his history, but takes them up and teaches us to do likewise: not canceling the shame of the past but acknowledging it as it is.
Of course, statues have always come down and been replaced by others, when what they stand for no longer speaks to a new generation. But this should be done through consensus-building, by debate and dialogue rather than acts of force. That dialogue must aim to learn from the past, rather than judge it through the eyes of the present.
Attacking the Past rather than the Present
Sometimes the past is attacked because attacking the past is safer than attacking evils in the present. For instance, large corporations that currently use slave labor can easily score points by condemning the racism and slavery of the past. Similarly, it is easy for modern individuals to “like” social media posts that condemn past slave owners—on mobile devices that are made with slave labor. In this way, too much attention to past evils can actually serve as a way to white-wash the present.
A Spirituality of Humility
As Pope Francis pointed out, the way the People of Israel related to the past was informed by a certain spirituality. They were supposed to remember how good God had been to them and how much they had been given. In this way, remembrance of the past was supposed to lead to gratitude. At the same time, they were supposed to remember how many times they had failed to live up to God’s covenant. Remembering their failures was supposed to make them humble before God.
This remembering of the past was ritualized through festivals and religious ceremonies. It played a large role in guiding the people and in shaping their spirituality. By contrast, today we do not have a spiritual understanding of the past. We are often ungrateful for the benefits we have received. At the same time, we sometimes try to use the sins of the past as an excuse for turning away from faith in God.
Mercy toward Others
By remembering the sins of our collective past and how good God has been to us, we can also grow in the quality of mercy toward others. The People of Israel were supposed to care for the stranger and the poor precisely because they had been poor themselves. They were to avoid oppression because they themselves had been oppressed in a strange land. If we imitated this view of history, it should make us more generous toward migrants and the marginalized in the present.
The Personal Past
We should have the same attitude toward our personal past. We all have sins and failures in our past for which God has forgiven us. We have all received blessings that we did not deserve or merit. We are all in need of redemption.
This should make us charitable and merciful to others. We’ve received so much from God; in response, we have to give to those around us.
Peter brought up the story of his walking pilgrimages. Many times, he relied on the generosity of others for food and shelter. Remembering this helps him to be generous, to give freely since he received freely.
The Redemption of History
Pope Francis mentions that the genealogy of Jesus includes many sinners. Jesus does not reject this flawed past; rather, he takes it up and redeems it. He brings the best out of it. That’s the way God works with us; he brings good out of the brokenness of human beings.. And we must do likewise. We should acknowledge our brokenness and the brokenness of the past, and use it to build a better path going forward.
History and Community
The past is often a burden, a source of shame. When one is part of a group, one ends up answering for the actions of that group. As Catholics and as Americans we have to answer for sins that we didn’t personally commit.
The Christian way is to bear such burdens with love and humility. There are, however, two different ways in which people try to escape these burdens. These two kinds of escapism map onto two flawed attitudes toward community in general.
We’ve talked before about how Christians sometimes join a community in a futile attempt to escape the messiness of life. In reality, however, the advantage of a community is that it forces individuals to directly confront the messy reality of life. Communities often bring out the worst in others and in ourselves; we can’t as easily put on a good “show” for others when we live in close proximity to them. Such exposure to reality is humbling. At the same time, however, community can bring out the best in people as they carry the burdens of life together.
The temptation is to deny that mistakes and burdens exist and pretend that everything is perfect. This is particularly the case when people join a community with unrealistic expectations of perfection. If the community tries to escape into idealism and an imaginary perfection, it will ultimately fail.
Since community is often messy, people sometimes try to avoid community altogether. If one isn’t part of any community, then one will never have to carry the burden of another—whether that burden is spiritual or physical. In our society, many people are rootless and lead individualistic lives for just this reason. Our culture encourages people to leave behind the particularities of their communities and families for individual freedom. In the religious sphere, this is why many people try to confine religion to their personal relationship with God. That way, they won’t have to carry the burden of belonging to a religious organization.
These are both flawed responses. We need community and we must take up the burden that the community will inevitably lay on us. Community makes us part of a greater whole, and gives us the aid that we all need.
Our choices when confronted with the burden of history are similar. Too often when people say we should remember our past, what they really mean is that we should approve of the past. To aid in this approval, they produce a slanted version of history which ignores the crimes and sins of their group or nation. They refuse to carry the burden by denying that any past mistakes or sins exist. Truthful remembering of the past will always include a certain amount of shame, since we’re in a fallen world. It calls for repentance—but not rejection.
Such rejection is the other error, the mistake of rootlessness. If we deny that we have anything in common with the past and look on it merely with rejection, we are not being truthful. We are each the product of a certain history and a particular community, whether we like it or not. We can’t imagine ourselves as spotless heroes compared with the benighted individuals that came before us.
Choosing our Past
Too often, individuals today choose their own history and narrative. When we are isolated and individualistic, we can pick and choose the history we want for our own lives and for our country. We can reinforce this choice by only exposing ourselves to that with with which we agree. Our polarized news media makes this easier. Social media can also feed this dynamic by isolating individuals in self-chosen echo chambers.
We need to resist this dynamic and take ownership of our history and world as they really are. That’s what Pope Francis invites us into. We can’t be afraid of what we might be faced with. We have to allow the history of other people and other groups to challenge and change the way we see the world.
Community is a great help in this process. As Tim Keller said, there WILL be people with different political viewpoints in a community—or it isn’t a very good community. This will produce tension. In a community, people will be confronted with perspectives that they never would have taken the trouble to seek out. Even the differing personalities found in a community can create this kind of creative tension.
We Are All Connected
Nobody’s history is isolated from anybody else’s history. For instance, we are all part of the tragic history of the Native Americans who were killed or displaced by European colonizers. This tragedy can’t be blamed on any one individual in the present, but it is still something that we have collectively inherited. We need to acknowledge that we’ve inherited a world that is terribly unequal and that our own ancestors were often part of this history of exploitation and conquest. We have to make amends for the past as best we can. If we don’t do anything about it and merely ignore the fact, then we will become guilty for the sins of our ancestors. We will become complicit if we continue to take advantage of their misdeeds.
In a sense, nobody can own anything with clean hands. That’s why we are told to “make friends for ourselves with unrighteous mammon”: by giving it to the poor. That’s the only way to avoid condemnation for holding wealth, since all wealth at some point was derived from injustice. We are each the indirect beneficiaries of shocking evils. It is one thing, an easy thing to condemn the evils of the past. It is a much harder thing to live out that condemnation in one’s way of life!
There are the great societal evils; but there are also personal evils that we are complicit in. We only need to think of the sweatshop labor that went into our gadgets, or the migrant workers who are harvesting our food. Almost anything we buy is cheap simply because somebody else was abused. It is critical that we try to avoid benefiting from exploitation, past and present, as much as possible.
Listening to the History of Others
Another important way we relate to history is by listening to the history of others, both as individuals and as groups. Particularly when those others come from very different backgrounds than ours, this will expand our horizons.
Everyone has a story to share; they are made in the image of God and have the potential for sainthood. With that in mind, we can learn from everyone. Of course, what they are saying might be incorrect or flawed, but even so we can learn by trying to understand them. Why do they hold these ideas? Where did this perspective originate? We should take particular care to listen when people are speaking out of their own experience. We can show love in letting that experience be received and understood, and find points of common ground and agreement.
That doesn’t mean that we should depart from the truth or the teaching of the Church, but it means that other people and other traditions can shed light on aspects of the Truth of which we are not aware. Eastern culture and spirituality, for instance, can help to expand our Western traditions.
It is easy to become angry at those who disagree with you. That’s a funny thing about human beings. If somebody is wrong, we should be sorry for them because they are missing something. Malcolm pointed out that if he suddenly met his past self he would violently disagree with that past self! It can be good for us to remember that we didn’t always get everything right. Our past mistakes should inform the way we respond to the mistakes of others.
Similarly, as a nation, if we think we’ve always got it right, then we will not be to enter into the kind of dialogue and fraternity to which Pope Francis is calling us.
The Standards of the Times
Pope Francis also talks about not judging the past by the standards of the present. That almost sounds relativistic, as if he was saying that different times have different standards. He isn’t saying that, however. The standards are always the same. But God is going to judge each of us by what we did with what we have been given: our health, resources, etc. Those who have more are called to a higher standard. Privileges come with responsibility. This also applies to each individual’s access to the truth. At some points in the past, it was perhaps harder to see certain truths. So when we are discussing historical figures, the question should be; what did they do with what they were given? Did they to some extent transcend the flaws of their culture? Or did they sink below the level of their era? That should make a difference in how we judge their actions.
The Beauty of Our Environment
Let Us Dream discusses our relationship to Creation and our environment. As the Pope says, we can’t carry on as if we could be healthy in a world that is sick! Creation is a gift for us to cherish and tend.
In particular, he mentions that beauty is the entry point to ecological awareness. In a world focused on technological efficiency, beauty is more important than ever.
Today, we tend to impose things on the landscape, instead of being in love with a place and working in harmony with the beauty of the place. We create the same dreary strip malls and sub-developments across a huge diversity of environments.
This is a problem, because the role of beauty is to lift up our hearts to something greater than ourselves. Beauty is going to play a significant role in dreaming of a new world and embracing a community that is greater than ourselves.
By contrast, when people are surrounded by trash and an ugly built environment, they have less of a sense of dignity. If we treat the world with contempt, we are treating the giver with contempt. In disrespecting the Creation, we’re not only disrespecting God, but also those around us. We send a message about the value of those around us when we create certain kinds of environments. We need a sense of ownership, of responsibility for our places and our communities. How can we create beautiful spaces that invite people to cherish the world and one another?
C. S. Lewis wrote about two different ways to see trees. We can see them primarily as a source of lumber, or we can see them in all their glory as amazing creatures of God and only in a secondary way as a source of lumber. Obviously, the first kind of viewpoint will not lead to restraint or respect or gratitude.
Beauty is not useful; rather, it is a recognition of what a thing is in itself. If we see only utility and not beauty, then everything (including other people) will be seen as something to be used up and ultimately thrown away.
Seeing Properly in Contemplation
This whole first chapter is about seeing properly. And if you move too fast, you won’t see properly. We can’t see if we are not contemplative, if we don’t slow down and really try to see what is around us. God will give us a deeper vision if we are attentive. Advent is about being attentive, or the coming of the Lord will pass us by. If we want to avoid that, we have to be open to everything around us, since God can speak to us through anything.
The shepherds and the wise men received a sign, and then they acted on it. They were ready. In fact, it came to them because they were ready. If we are attentive, God will invite us into something different.
On a purely practical level, the sign came to the shepherds and the wise men because they were awake at night. The shepherds were keeping watch. That was because they were the poor and had to work at night.
The wise men had spent a whole lifetime being attentive, even if they didn’t know what was going to happen or what exactly they were going to see. Many others may have seen the sign, but without a lifetime of attention, it didn’t mean to anything.
In our next episode on Let Us Dream will be moving from chapter one, about being attentive, into the second chapter about discernment. If we are attentive, we will see many things: but then comes discernment, discovering what God is telling us. Think of the difference the same piece of news made to the wise men and to Herod. We need discernment to understand what we see. The second chapter is very Ignatian, very much about discerning spirits and the voices that we hear.
At some point we all need to choose. We need to make a decision to follow God in everything. Such a decision might draw us away from what is comfortable. God never forces anything on us: how we will respond is up to our free choice.
In a way, this is a good summary of the community building process as described by our guests. First comes openness to God and to those around us. Then comes discernment, which is ultimately a communal process. Over time, the small initial group can work to discern the best path forward. And finally, the members of the community may find themselves involved in projects they would never have even imagined. But it all starts humbly with openness and discernment.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use