Why Social Conditions Matter to the Pope

In his statements and actions, Pope Francis reveals a commitment to emulate the earthly ministry of Jesus. This is particularly clear in the Pope's focus not only on the condition of humanity's inner selves, but even more so on the conditions in which so much of humanity lives.
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We Christians tend to focus on personal piety. When dealing with others, we become legalistic and concentrate on dos and the don'ts, mostly of other people. We delight in creating 11th commandments like, "thou shall not drink nor smoke" instead of treating each of these as a medical issue, which they are.

Piety and expressions of personal holiness are important. We praise piety but piety is personal, not communal. Piety did not free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. They had to convincingly plead genuine hardship and demand freedom before they could march out of slavery.

God is not only concerned about personal piety but with the social condition in which we find ourselves. During the prosperous kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the prophetic message to the people of Israel who had gone astray was not to increase their piety. It was a call to eschew luxury (Amos 6:4-6) do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Indeed the prophets routinely criticized the people for putting personal piety ahead of addressing oppression and doing justice.

Jesus preached piety, but only when it was rightly connected with right behavior, as taught by the Torah. His ministry, described in the gospels, focused on the social conditions in which many people found themselves. His concern centered on people who were poor, hungry, and cast out. He sought to meet their needs and to critique the systems which ignored their needs.

We see similarities to Jesus in the latest actions of Pope Francis. He has preached changes to the discourse of Christianity by challenging the idolatry of symbols, material wealth. He has preached a concern for those in need and those who are oppressed. Many are familiar with his radical acts of compassion that are symbolic and tangible. In one striking example, the Pope washed the feet of 12 prisoners, men and women from different parts of the world on Maundy Thursday.

The Pope is not concerned about the status quo. He challenges the status quo.

In his statements and actions, Pope Francis reveals a commitment to emulate the earthly ministry of Jesus. This is particularly clear in the Pope's focus not only on the condition of humanity's inner selves, but even more so on the conditions in which so much of humanity lives.

In his encyclical, Laudato Si', the Pope drew the world's attention not only to our social context, but also to the condition of the earth. Pope Francis reminds us we cannot continue to ignore the devastation caused by pollution in the air, poison in our waterways, and abuse of the land. We are called to care for God's creation entrusted us as stewards.

As the world prepares for COP21 (Conference of the Parties, a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Paris, we have to acknowledge the Pope's concern for climate change and sustainability. The Pope's encyclical was released 6 months before COP 21 which is a crucial meeting as it will frame global action for the next 5 years and beyond.

The Pope has created a World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation on September 1, 2015 to bring attention to how we are living and how we can protect the environment. In his visit to the UN in September, the Pope will address the issue of sustainability and climate justice.

Climate change deeply affects people living in poverty. The condition faced by the world's poorest people is a specific concern for the Pope. Climate change affects those in poverty the most as they lose their land (as they have done with the spread of the Sahara desert into formerly arable lands in the Sahel, the grasslands to the south of that great desert), or are forced to migrate, search higher grounds, and live off polluted soil. The greed of people and corporations in wealthy countries demands cheap production, thereby exhausting the land and creating new deserts. The irony is that, although people living in poverty may have contributed to exhausting the fertility of the land, the poorest have contributed the least to the causes and effects of climate change. As a result, climate change is a concern of social justice.

Pope Francis reminds us that God is not merely concerned about the condition within us, but the conditions within which we find ourselves. In Egypt God heard the groans of the people. God did not deliver only those who believed in him; God did not deliver only the pure in heart, God did not deliver only the souls of the people. God delivered the people--all the people.

How we treat the least of our neighbors--how we care for the physical needs of their bodies--was a priority of Jesus. The Pope follows in the lineage of Jesus as he calls us to care for our brothers and sisters. Pope Francis challenges us to examine not only our inner selves, but the conditions that we are creating for our neighbors and for the rest of the world.

We need to be concerned about the social injustice, racial injustice and climate injustice. We need to work towards changing the injustices that harm individuals, communities and God's good earth.

Follow Grace Ji-Sun Kim on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Gracejisunkim
Follow Rev. Jesse Jackson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RevJJackson

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