A Tale of Two Pilgrimages


Francis and Farrakhan go to Washington.

Autumn is a lovely time to visit the nation's capital. Here I look at contrasting visits by two prominent faith leaders.

10.10.15 Justice or Else Gathering. Minister Louis Farrakhan has long been a figure of controversy. Of the Nation of Islam (NOI), which he leads, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) writes, "Its theology of innate black superiority over whites and the deeply racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders have earned the NOI a prominent position in the ranks of organized hate."

Farrakhan's old provocations, however, are absent from the promotion for his October 10 gathering on the National Mall to mark the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. The 1995 event was a peaceful call to unity and self-improvement whose proposed actions included harnessing black economic power and registering voters.

The 20th anniversary event invites men and women regardless of race or creed to demand racial justice from the federal government. The proposed action this time is withdrawal of black money from what it calls the commercialism and exploitation of the Christmas season. It also calls for an end to fratricidal violence within the black community.

The event's website (justiceorelse.com) includes the directive "No Guns - No Alcohol - No Drugs." Its text and videos carry a constructive message. Granted, when I hear "Justice or else," I immediately ask, "Or else what?" The threat, however, involves economic action, not competition with gun-toting white supremacist groups like the Oath Keepers. My differences with NOI aside, its 10.10.15 gathering promises to be another peaceful public engagement. Unless you demand docility (in which case you should wake up), I see nothing to fault.

Pope Francis and gays. Turning from Islam to Catholicism, the bumpy aftermath of the Pope's American visit appears to have resolved itself into a clearer message of welcome to LGBT people, though without any hint of doctrinal change. During his visit, Francis toned down the culture-war rhetoric. One positive gesture was having openly gay Mo Rocca do a scriptural reading during the Mass at Madison Square Garden. Less so was the sole gay speaker at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Ron Belgau, who embraces celibacy in acceptance of the Catholic Church teaching that gay lovemaking is a sin. Mr. Belgau can suit himself, but demanding lifelong denial of intimacy is a prescription for misery.

On his flight back to Rome, Francis defended "conscientious objection," which some interpreted as endorsing the refusal by Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis to issue marriage licenses that went against her faith. Mat Staver, the Liberty Counsel attorney for Ms. Davis, then claimed that Davis had met the Pope in Washington. The Vatican confirmed this, but said she was but one of several dozen people who were given a blessing and a rosary. The only real papal audience in Washington was with the Pope's gay former student Yayo Grassi and his family, which included his 19-year partner Iwan Bagus. A video shows Francis warmly embracing both men and kissing them on their cheeks.

The papal nuncio who invited Ms. Davis, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, appears to be in hot water for marring the visit with a politically charged invitation that was inflated in importance by Staver.

No sooner had the flap over Davis begun to quiet down when Monsignor Krzystof Charamsa, an official with the Vatican's doctrinal office, came out as gay and criticized the Roman Church's homophobia on the eve of its Synod on the Family. Charamsa was quickly fired. This was a reminder that expressions of pastoral care erase neither the Church's love of control nor its condemnation of gay folk. Indeed, notorious homophobe Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was invited last November to a Roman gathering called the "International Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman." The notion of complementarity derives from Plato, except that Plato was gay-inclusive.

Francis, at the U.S. Capitol, asked people to pray for him, and urged those who could not pray to send him their best wishes. In that spirit, and despite our disagreements and my continued skepticism, I send him and Minister Farrakhan my sincere hope that their efforts will advance justice. Prayers avail nothing without action.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.