When we finished watching the marvelous film, “Spotlight,” I felt the clear urge to apologize on behalf of all Christians everywhere, although they’ve not authorized me to do so. No need for a spoiler alert with “Spotlight.” This film recounts the Boston Globe’s exposure of the wicked behavior of abusive priests, and the institutional church’s arrogant, evil coverup. Characters in the film share personal testimony that they just refuse to go any more to a church that could act so cruelly.
Part of me wanted to stand up and declare to my fellow moviegoers that you can come to church and trust us, that real Christianity is nothing like this, that we are all about compassion, holiness, and serving humbly. But no. We are eager to listen. Tell us you are mad at us, tell us we’ve disappointed you, tell us you want nothing to do with us. Instead of rushing to defend, we hear you.
And we are sorry. I’m Methodist, not Catholic, and our founder John Wesley’s first simple rule is key: “First do no harm.” We Christians have harmed. If you have ever felt harmed by the church, whether it is something as horrible as abuse, or a failure to support you in your hour of need, or hurtful remarks directed at you or those you love, or however we have wounded you or driven a wedge between you and God, then on behalf of all of Christianity let me say we are so very sorry.
I wonder if we can help each other back toward what we’ve lost. On the morning of Martin Luther King day, I thumbed through some of Dr. King’s speeches, and I shuddered when I noticed again how often he spoke of love. And he wasn’t talking about private love, as in romance or family. He was talking about the big public, political issues of the day. In the face of violence, he spoke of love as the way out.
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Today, when there is controversy or frustration, all the talk is about rights, crushing our foes, blaming everybody else, with much fist waving – and many Christians stampede in support, forgetting who we are. We’ve failed to talk about love in the real world, and we haven’t loved out there ourselves very well.
We believe some beautiful, energizing, healing things about God, but sometimes we come off as dogmatic, wielding a Bible as if it were a weapon instead of a window into the heart of a good God. Or sometimes we are just plain boring. For this we are sorry.
I hope you have fallen in love with Pope Francis as I have. He was handed the reins of a church with much to apologize for: priestly abuse, financial scandal, and an unfitting, conspicuous opulence in the face of poverty. This pope delighted us by riding in a Ford Focus instead of a limousine, and sleeping in a modest hostel instead of the papal palace. He washed the feet of a Muslim woman, and tenderly embraced a man suffering from neurofibromatosis. Instead of asserting papal infallibility, he everywhere asks people to pray for him. His humility and immense compassion are palpable.
Photographs of this pope are telling. It is hard to find a photo in which he is not smiling, whereas it is hard to find a photo of his predecessors who are smiling. Pope Francis reminds us that there is joy at the heart of life with God, and in our own selves. That joy springs out of a mindset of mercy. The pope loves mercy, enacts mercy everywhere, and has even proclaimed 2016 to be The Year of Mercy.
I like that, and I’d begin this Year of Mercy by asking you out there for mercy. We all need it desperately, and need to show it too, I believe. When we in the church ask for mercy, we simultaneously commit to do better. And we do.
James Howell is senior pastor at Myers Park United Methodist Church.