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Reflection: Heed the social wisdom of Francis, Auden, Moten, and Baldwin

Integrating the thought of James Baldwin, W. H. Auden, and Fred Moten, BCM guest author Brendan Johnson reflects on "Fratelli Tutti" for its semi-anniversary.

O God, Trinity of love,
from the profound communion of your divine life,
pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love

With these words, Pope Francis prayerfully concluded his latest encyclical on “fraternity and social friendship” and released it into a world of plague, division, ecological destruction, and flickers of rising fascism. This encyclical, centered as it is around fraternal human love, casts a theological vision of union to draw us past the division which leads to destruction. Matching prayer with poetry, we may be uncannily reminded of a few of W.H. Auden’s lines written on the brink of the Second World War:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

In this scheme, Francis is the “poet” who responds to Auden’s call to, “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” Poetic descriptions of our world are merged with a call towards praise, communion, and fraternity. In Fratelli Tutti (hereafter FT), Francis begins with a meditation on universal relation and fraternal love, yet quickly moves into the global threats which contextualize his call to a “fraternal openness” and “way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel” (FT 1). He moves through various themes and perspectives, but with a vision towards crafting a politics of love, the promise of dialogue and encounter, and the ways in which religion can be of service to “social friendship” with all creation. While these themes are deeply Franciscan—with respect both to the medieval saint and to the pope who took him as his namesake—his letter is not only meant for circulation among the bishops but to the Church as a whole and, indeed, “all people of good will” (FT 6). While the document is too expansive to summarize completely in this short space, I will explore how the theme of love is used to touch upon political life—often considered to be almost entirely distinct registers—especially in as much as they are mediated through theological conceptions of friendship and fraternity.

Fratelli Tutti opens, then, with an account of the “dark clouds” which hinder the “development of universal fraternity” (FT 9). He acknowledges the progress made over recent decades away from wars and disaster, and towards integration—as can be seen in projects like the European Union and similar dreams in Latin America. These dreams, however, are seeing a regression: politically, in the face of “a myopic, extremist, resentful, and aggressive nationalism” (FT 11), socially, in the “limitless consumption and … empty individualism” (FT 13), international, in the “new forms of cultural colonization” (FT 14), and economically, where human dreams of openness and encounter have been “co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or … economic powers” (FT 12). Alongside these are the temptation towards treating the earth (and the vulnerable) with a “throwaway” mentality (18), the challenge of war (25), ‘fake news’ and disconnecting technology (27, 46), the privileging of economics over dignity (21), and insufficiently universal human rights (22).

These examples could each be expanded, but I hope that Francis’ sensitivity to contemporary challenges is evident even in this brief inventory—especially in the ways that each of these phenomena reinforces one another. Numerous and wide are the paths that lead to destruction, but they all lead there. Moreover, these threats are tied together in a very specific way: they all threaten “the human family’s innate vocation to fraternity” (7). They threaten the care and solidarity which is our vocation as children of God. Francis doesn’t let the notion of the political—the contours of our common life together—be captured by nation-states, ideologies, or elections, even as he addresses global political realities. Here is the crucial pivot: our common life is not ‘political,’ but familial—“we need to think of ourselves more and more as a single-family dwelling in a common home” (17). Horizontal relationships within a family, such as those between fellow creatures and children of God, are called fraternal. The logic of family and fraternity is a realm of gift, constancy, grace, solidarity, and love, not one of exclusion—let alone market values or violence (116).

Yet, Francis is not naïve enough to deny that most of humanity is outside of our traditional bonds of intimacy. This raises the question of the stranger and the foreigner. Familial or fraternal relationships are, in some strange way, defined just as much by their relation to those on the outside as by the quality of the internal relationships themselves. To address this point, Francis draws upon the scriptures, as well as the theological traditions which reflect upon them. Israel was commanded to have internal relationships of love and justice, and even Israel’s internal tribes were named even after twelve children, implying membership in Jacob’s family. Rooted in a family, this love was meant to expand:

The ancient commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) was usually understood as referring to one’s fellow citizens, yet the boundaries gradually expanded, especially in the Judaism that developed outside of the land of Israel. … The desire to imitate God’s own way of acting gradually replaced the tendency to think only of those nearest us: “The compassion of man is for his neighbor, but the compassion of the Lord is for all living beings” (Sir 18:13). … In the oldest texts of the Bible, we find a reason why our hearts should expand to embrace the foreigner. It derives from the enduring memory of the Jewish people that they themselves had once lived as foreigners in Egypt: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 22:21).
(59, 61)

Thus, there are two important modulations to the idea of family that our theology requires. First is the expansion of our ethical life, modeled after the character of God. After all, the interesting thing about theology is God! God crafted people—in God’s own image—who were created for community. God, therefore, created the family, and God’s action with Israel created the political family as well. Yet as we pursue God’s universal love, God continually points us beyond the family to the stranger and to the outcast. The second point, which reinforces the first, is that we remember the oppression and alienation of Egypt. Even though we are focusing on the family, we are not always insiders in one. Our existential situation is also one of outsiders, and the continued recitation of Exodus never lets us forget that reality. We are in two positions: those whom God has created to be ‘at home,’ and also those aliens for whom God has made a path of liberation and communion.

Once again, the relationship between love and the family cuts both ways. Love is certainly learned in families and other communities of intimacy, it can grow and flower forth from them. But the love which emerges from natural families also finds its meaning beyond it via love for the stranger or enemy. Our imperfect loves are relativized within the horizon of God’s love and via our participation in it (146). The grace of God’s love draws us and our communities towards the ‘other’ of love, not to keep them as the excluded other but to make them the beloved other: Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit. Thus, love is what emerges from communities of intimacy yet also creates them:

love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home… Love exudes compassion and dignity.

The use of familial metaphors is appropriate because they are temporary, thus unable to be reified, and created out of strangers often with changing membership, keeping us perpetually open to the other. They are particular—affirming both the limits and beauty of our creatureliness, and are both chosen and received, at different times for different people. They are communities of intimacy that create and are created by love, love that exists in a productive tension between the local and the universal (142). Fraternal love and familial metaphors, for Francis, are like Russian stacking dolls: they apply at multiple levels. Natural families are families, of course, but so too are institutions, religious orders, political communities, the community of nations, the entire human family, and the entire community of creation. (174). Prophetic action and communities are often required to remind us of God’s call for justice in light of the many challenges to human flourishing, communities whose actions are like praise: “justice is an essential condition for achieving the ideal of universal fraternity” (173).

Fred Moten, a contemporary Black poet, philosopher, and critic has said of James Baldwin that his gift is to see with eyes of love instead of eyes of fear. Baldwin’s seismic essay “Letters from a Region in My Mind,” written in 1962, tells the story of Baldwin’s escape from “wine- and urine-stained hallways” into the Church, where he became a fiery preacher, “the young Brother Baldwin.” Yet Baldwin narrates himself and his friends with a certain warmth and understanding, a poignant recognition in that very moment of those hard streets and the people resisting that hardness, asking “What will happen to all that beauty?”. Moten asks why Baldwin said that beauty, not this? This is the immanent word, the word referring to the situation one is in. That is a word of distance and narrative detachment. Baldwin, then, is someone who is able to look at the world while looking with the world.

He is the ‘I’ through which the scene he is in, is seen. But his eyes are more than merely his own. He shares them with the others who, somehow, also see but don’t see the fate of all that beauty. … But see what seems to me so deep and beautiful about Baldwin—particularly the way he looks at Black people—is that every time he writes about looking at Black people he writes from the perspective of looking with Black people.

He poignantly views the broad horizon, but does so as one enmeshed within it. He writes as himself and as the voice of Harlem. He writes about the beauty and the struggle of Black life, as he is the one living Black life. This perhaps prefigures the best of Francis’ open-handed and traditioned approach, writing as he only can with Christian imagery and language, yet open to the world. Baldwin ends as a devotee of love, if not the church. Baldwin leaves the Church when he realizes that he ran to it out of fear.

The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant every body. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all … the passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves.

Baldwin and Francis both know the Church is nothing if it is not about love. If it is to be anything, the Church must be maternal, preferential, and the school for universal love.

[A] family among families, this is the Church, open to bearing witness in today’s world, open to faith, hope, and love for the Lord and for those whom he loves with a preferential love. A home with open doors. The Church is a home with open doors, because she is a mother.

This was obviously not true in Baldwin’s day, nor is it overcome in ours. White fears cast Blacks as the ‘sons of Ham,’ while the murderous intentions of Whites made them ‘sons of Cain’: two icy masks facing each other down in the mirror. The weight of the present and our hope for the future lay in the possibility of love. The prophet Amos wrote that justice was like a “river” and righteousness like an “ever-flowing stream.” If love and justice are like water flowing through the desert, perhaps they can yet melt Auden’s “seas of pity” still “locked and frozen in each eye.”

Hannah Arendt sent a letter to Baldwin after the publication of this essay, writing:

“What frightened me in your essay was the gospel of love which you begin to preach at the end. In politics, love is a stranger, and when it intrudes upon it nothing is being achieved except hypocrisy.”

Can love truly be “the spiritual heart of politics” (187), or is Arendt’s social ontology all there is?

For Moten, who was raised Catholic, Baldwin’s eyes of love allow for a new politics and a life in common. A few lines from Baldwin’s essay itself seems to channel Francis in response to Arendt:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.

It would seem that Francis’ project of encounter—which I take to mean a commitment to relations of love—is a way forward for a politics based in human fraternity and an openness to the other. Encounter “does not mean returning to a time prior to conflicts” but rather requires justice, mercy, and truth, and it is truly an “architecture of peace,” part of “an open-ended endeavor” (225-232).

Thus, Fratelli Tutti’s project is one of an “appeal for peace, justice, and fraternity” (285), with the Church one of many religious voices for shalom, a body which understands “the beauty of the invitation to universal love” (278). Ultimately, we journey with the saints towards the “birth [of] a new world, where all of us are brothers and sisters, where there is room for all those whom our societies discard, where justice and peace are resplendent” (278).

D. Brendan Johnson is a medical student at the University of Minnesota and a Fellow in Theology, Medicine, and Culture at Duke Divinity School. He co-hosts the podcast Social Medicine On Air, and you can find him on Twitter at @dbrendanjohnson.