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Reflections on the Words of a Pope


Pope Francis addresses different issues than those addressed by the world’s political leaders. They talk about the uses of power to achieve their goals. His subject is our souls. I am an atheist, so when I hear Pope Francis speak about this, I must translate the idea of a “soul” into words I can understand. For me, he is talking about the inner, conscience-driven personality of each of us, which determines our behavior toward the world and toward others. Fortunately, the Pope makes such a translation easy, since he talks mostly about how we think about and behave toward each other in our daily lives, rather than the fate of an ephemeral “soul” in the hereafter.

The Pope’s recent TED talk provides a wonderful example of his message, and an example that deserves reflection from each of us. The essence of his talk was that we need to realize that the core of being human is being connected with other human beings. In particular, he urged each of us to feel connected to those who are less fortunate, who, in his words, have been “discarded,” and are being wasted while we pass them by, as did the Priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He urged us, and by us he meant those with power and wealth, but also each individual who was in reach of his words, to not see the world in terms of things and money, but in terms of human beings.

Francis pleaded for a “revolution of tenderness.” He asked us to open our hearts to those around us—and he meant those anywhere on the planet—and see them as our fellow human beings, as people we can care about. His words gave me both hope and inspiration.

It is easy to see the antithesis of tenderness in the behavior of our political leaders. As the nation with the most powerful military in the world, we approach most international problems in terms of how to use our military force to solve them. We address ideological differences in Afghanistan with an influx of troops to favor the side that favors us. We address a civil war in Syria with arms and military support for the rebels we hope will favor us if they win. We confront North Korea’s nuclear weapons aspirations with threats, sanctions, and our mighty navy. Hardheaded “realists” tell us that trying to recognize the humanity of our opponents in these situations is foolish, and that military power is the only message to which they will listen. We say this despite admitting that the real solutions to these problems will be political, not military, and in the face of the abject failure of our military solutions so far.

Pope Francis reminds us that tenderness starts in our own hearts. The first step is recognizing the humanity inside of those we oppose.  Many of us belong to partisan camps, which vilify their opponents. Calls to understand each other are labeled traitorous. It has become not only perfidious to listen to those we oppose, but even to allow them to speak. We have disparaging labels for everyone who disagrees with our point of view.

Those we vilify are persons like ourselves whose life experiences have brought them to a different point of view than our own. To distance ourselves from them with self-righteous wrath or even violence, is to fail the humanity inside of us, which we must seek within ourselves to allow us to reach out to our fellow human beings. That is what a “revolution of tenderness” requires.

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