When the Pope landed in America last Tuesday, controversy flew in ahead of him. Catholic Arizona representative Paul Gosar noted that he would boycott the pontiff’s speech during a joint session of Congress. Why? Because Gosar had heard that Pope Francis would not be addressing issues important to him, but rather focus on climate change. “If the Pope plans to spend the majority of his time advocating for flawed climate change policies, then I will not attend,” Gosar noted in an article written for Townhall.com.
Several Native American groups censured the pope’s decision to canonize Junípero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan friar who established nine missions in California. The protestors assert that Serra’s evangelistic methods were simply an arm of Spanish colonialism and enslavement.
Joelle Casteix, writing for The Daily Beast, is protesting the Pope’s visit because she believes the Holy See has not done enough to address the victims of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions, of which she claims to be a victim. How many more children have to be abused?” Casteix pleads. “How many more crimes have to be covered up before there is real action to help survivors and protect children right now?”
All of these are, of course, serious issues that need to be addressed. Christians should never dismiss differences as unimportant and sweep them under the rug. But how often do we reject fellow believers because we passionately disagree with them? Let’s recall that the early church did not see eye-to-eye on everything. Paul confronted Peter when the fisherman changed his mind about eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-13). In the so-called Acts 15 Conference, groups lined up against each other on the issue of circumcision. And who can forget the dust-up between Paul and Barnabas, a dispute so sharp that the two great apostles went their separate ways? (Acts 15:35-41)
I used to think that disagreements between Christians meant disaster and provided a poor example for the unbelieving world. Now I think differently. If atheists and agnostics can see the church differ without throwing firebombs at each other, it might provide a witness every bit as powerful as if we were seamlessly one (and I don’t think that will happen on this side of heaven).
Two summers ago, working a Kairos prison weekend in Texas, a hostile inmate chose me as his special object of “affection.” He fired contentious questions at me. I caught him glaring at me on several occassions. He disagreed with just about every word I said. One night, at dinner, he pointed at a fellow inmate, who happened to be Catholic. “I know you don’t agree with him about religion,” he growled. “You’re Protestant and he’s not.”
I firmly believe what came out of my mouth next was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, because I’m usually not that clever or quick. I turned to the Catholic inmate and asked, “Do you love Jesus with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?”
The man beamed and said, “I sure do.”
I said, “So do I. Love you, brother.”
“I love you, too,” he responded.
I turned to the antagonistic inmate and said, “Y’know, I don’t agree with Catholics on everything. By the same token, I have kinfolk whom I don’t see eye-to-eye with on politics, religion and lots of other things. But you know what? They’re still family. And I love them.”
My detractor dropped out of the retreat the next day. The Catholic inmate and I finished the weekend, chatting and laughing and praying with each other.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18 NIV).