Leading in chaotic times: the example of Pope Francis

We live in chaotic times. If perchance you doubt this, I suggest you view a few episodes of the television comedy, The Simpsons.

It is the longest-running American cartoon series ever. It is frequently on our screens also.

Like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, it is primarily written for adults, but it is more especially loved by children and adolescents.

It portrays in a humorous, but blatantly honest, way the political, economic and social chaos of our contemporary world.

The series recount the animated adventures of Homer Simpson and his lower-class family. Homer, the father and husband, is a lazy, beer-drinking safety inspector; Bart, is the border-line juvenile, ten-year-old boy, who evokes fear in his teachers.

Lisa is his socially conscious sister and saxophone player. The most loathsome character is Mr Burns, the owner of a nuclear power-plant and a cruel example of the worst form of contemporary neo-capitalism, that is fueled by greed and the profit motive at any cost.

Through the behavior of this family and equally dysfunctional members of the community, political hypocrisy, the rise of fake news, consumerism, fundamentalism in politics and religion, environmental abuse, corporate greed, neglect of people on the margins of society, are all uncovered in stark and often parodied ways.

The Simpsons is richly laced with satire, sarcasm, irony, and caricature as the authors seek to morally expose reality as it is – violent, filled with uncertainties, fears about the future of the planet, fears of violence in all its shapes, prejudices against ethnic minority groups.

This is the real-world of chaos we live in!

This paper concentrates on one notable form of the violence – fundamentalism, as portrayed in The Simpsons. It is threatening to tear apart both the Christian church and the entire world.

This paper first briefly explains its nature and its causes. Then the example and leadership of Pope Francis show us how we need to react to fundamentalism in a Gospel way.

Understanding Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism in its multiple different expressions is today vigorously alive at home and abroad. Pope Francis is right: “Fundamentalism is a sickness that is in all religions.” And NOT just religions!

All institutions are capable of fundamentalist reactions. It is a form of organized rage and anger in reaction to the fear-evoking unsettling consequences of rapid social and religious change. Fundamentalism is an authoritarian reaction to the fears of political, economic or religious chaos.

Fundamentalists find rapid global change emotionally extremely disturbing and dangerous. Cultural, religious and personal certitudes are shaken.

Consequently, fundamentalists simplistically yearn to return to a utopian past or golden age, purified of dangerous ideas and practices. They intolerantly band together in order to put things right again – according to what they decide are orthodox principles. They seek to build walls around themselves. History must be reversed.

To get things back to ‘normal’, fundamentalists react to threats to their identity in militant ways, whether in the use of words and ideas or ballot boxes or, in extreme cases, bullets and bombs.

Because fundamentalism is at depth an emotional reaction to the rapid experience of change, fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion and dialogue.

Here in Australia there are fundamentalist groups who seek to preserve the so-called ‘pure, orthodox Australian culture’ from the ‘endangering ways of foreigners,’ particularly Muslims and Asians. It matters little to adherents that such a culture has never existed.

In summary, for most people fundamentalism today is solely synonymous with radicalized Islamists.

This is unfortunate. Fundamentalism takes many shapes, though most often with much less observable violence.

Populist Leaders

Fundamentalist crusades often become populist movements. That is, the main quality they share is an appeal to the people as a whole, with an emphasis on the ordinary citizen as opposed to political and religious power elites.

The elites are described as trampling upon the rights, values, and voices of the legitimate people. Populist leaders, for example Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, with the use of extremist language and behaviour assert that innocent citizens are plagued by remote, powerful and malign enemies. They must be named and marginalized or silenced.

Outbursts of rage in the West and in Islamic countries can be whipped up by mischievous politicians and others preying on an ill-informed and wronged people. These leaders offer unsophisticated simplistic solutions to complex problems.

The sad lesson of history is that fear and contempt are the most predictably powerful motivators for galvanizing one group to hate and dominate another.

All Capable of Fundamentalism

The disturbing fact is that every individual and culture is capable of developing fundamentalist attitudes and actions.

We need to be alerted to the danger that our own prejudices, if left unchecked, can solidify into fundamentalist behaviour.

Pope Francis: Axioms to Guide Leadership

Francis, leading by example and word, articulates seven Gospel-based practical axioms that a leader needs to embrace to respond appropriately to fundamentalism.

Axiom 1. The Gospel condemns violence, vengeance and hatred; Jesus Christ challenged the violence of fundamentalism in word and action.

There is no doubt what Pope Francis thinks of violence: “Let us say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.” His leadership against the violence of fundamentalist movements is also uncompromising.

Axiom 2. Understand the violent conditions that lead to, and flow from, fundamentalist movements.

For example, he points to the economic and social inequalities in society that foster fundamentalism.

And he writes: “Today, everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized; without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

Axiom 3. Respond according to Gospel Values

He clearly and repeatedly articulates the moral principles that must guide us in resolving injustices. For example, he often returns to the truths inherent in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“People’s paths are riddled with suffering, as everything is centered around money, and things, instead of people.”

In light of the Good Samaritan parable, he calls for “the revolution of tenderness…Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future.

“To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, the planet, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.”

Axiom 4. Every person and culture is capable of fundamentalist beliefs and actions; hence, fundamentalist movements can and do exist in the church.

As a good leader Francis is humbly self-critical of the institution he leads – the church – when its members stray from Gospel values.

For example, he identifies fellow Catholics who sadly take a fundamentalist view of their faith.

Fundamentalism is a sickness that is in all religions…Religious fundamentalism is not religious, because it lacks God. It is idolatry, like idolatry of money…We Catholics have some – [and not some, many] – who believe in the absolute truth and go ahead dirtying the other with calumny, with disinformation, and doing evil. (Pope Francis)

He recognises that Catholic fundamentalists are nostalgic for the Church’s security and power structures of the 1950s. But it was a Church closed in on itself, neglectful of the Gospel mission to a world outside.

He wrote: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

The church’s primary task is to evangelize, not to protect itself from the sufferings of others especially people who are poor and vulnerable.

Axiom 5. Cultivate the difficult art of dialogue, the antidote to fundamentalism.

Francis as a good leader believes in the importance of struggling to dialogue with people who have different views – something that is abhorrent to fundamentalists.

For example, in Cairo, in April 2017, he reached out to Muslims by firmly joining with Muslim leaders in denouncing extremism.

His dialogue is not of an abstract theological kind but a “face-to-face encounter, creating space for the two faiths to start work together in the cause of peace.”

He writes: “Confronted with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalisations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence.”[i]

In speaking to young people Francis said: “Today, we adults need you to teach us how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity.”[ii]

But he is realistic. He warns that with most attempted dialogues “we don’t listen; we just reload.”

Axiom 6. The gift of hope inspires courage to act creatively and courageously in times of chaos.

Francis is a leader inspired by the gift of Gospel hope. Hope is the rare ability to see a different and more positive future in the midst of chaos and to be inspired by the energy to begin to change things.

Hope prevents us from becoming paralyzed by chaos. It stops us from seeking refuge in the false securities of fundamentalism. He says:

To Christians, the future does have a name, and its name is Hope. Feeling hopeful does not mean to be optimistically naïve and ignore the tragedy humanity is facing.

Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow…A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us’….When there is an ‘us’ there begins a revolution” [of tenderness].

As a prophetic leader Francis is physically courageous. Recall, for example, that he declined to ride in an armored car, preferring instead a blue Fiat car, with its windows down, while visiting Cairo in April.

Axiom 7. Ultimately Gospel love calls us to abhor prejudice, discrimination, and hatred no matter where it is found, as it is said: “You shall love the Lord your God…[and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12: 30,31).

Back to Homer of The Simpsons! Boorish he is. But he has one redeeming quality – his vices are controlled and his wounds are healed by his love of his family.

But it is a love that rarely goes beyond his family. However, the Gospel love of Francis extends to all peoples. “Love makes us similar. It creates equality. It breaks down walls. It eliminates distances. God did this with us!”

One final quotation from Francis challenges any would-be fundamentalist in our midst: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.” No more needs to be said.

  • Gerald Arbuckle, SM, Ph.D., a Cambridge University graduate in applied cultural anthropology, is internationally known for his expertise in helping Church leaders minister, particularly in Catholic Healthcare,  effectively in a postmodern world.
  • Image: The Guardian
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