“A new command I give you: love one another.” – John 13:34
So said a troubled rabbi named Jesus 2,000 years ago in his Last Supper with his disciples. Shortly afterward he was captured, tortured and executed. The Bible says that three days later, he rose from death. The faith founded upon that resurrection claims, according to the Pew Research Center, upwards of 2 billion adherents worldwide.
Ponder that. On a planet of 7 billion souls, roughly one out of every three of us is governed by that simple, difficult command. Or, at least, so it is in theory. The reality, of course, is another matter.
If that command were taken seriously by 2 billion people — or even any significant portion thereof — can you imagine what that might look like? Would children still run barefoot through the favelas stacked high above Rio? Would women still struggle to get by on less than $3 a day in the shanties of Freetown? Would the streets of Miami still be home to the mentally ill? Would a child in Baltimore still be sitting in class, hungry? Would corporations still be people?
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Last week, Pope Francis went to South America. And, as has become routine for this pope, he upset some people. In addresses to the faithful, he offered a bare-knuckles critique of the excesses of capitalism. While conceding the need for economic growth, the pontiff excoriated a model that concentrates wealth at the top and leaves the poor to scramble for the remains.
“Dung of the devil,” he called it. “A new colonialism,” he called it. “A subtle dictatorship,” he called it.
“As Christians,” he told an audience in Paraguay, “we have an additional reason to love and serve the poor; for in them we see the face and the flesh of Christ, who made himself poor so as to enrich us with his poverty.”
This was not well-received in some quarters, particularly in the United States where unfettered capitalism is regarded by some as a kind of secular religion. Patrick Buchanan probably spoke for many when he wrote in a column, “Pope Francis is the infallible custodian of the truths Christ taught. Is that not sufficient, Your Holiness? Why not leave the socialist sermons to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?”
It is telling that Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum made a similar argument last month in criticizing a papal letter on the environment.
The pope, they say, should stick to religion – to “making us better people,” as Bush put it — and leave the state of the world to others. But if you understand the “new command” Jesus left his followers, then you know this is a distinction without a difference: faith requires concern for the state of the world.
It’s fascinating. Jesus said absolutely nothing about same-sex marriage. But if the pontiff had issued a fiery blast against the practice, it is the safest of bets that Buchanan, Bush and Santorum would be cheering him, and no one would dare lecture him to stay in his lane.
By contrast, Jesus spoke repeatedly and eloquently about the obligation to care for those in need —“Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” he says in the book of Matthew, “you did for me.” Yet the pope has somehow crossed a line when he speaks about the victimization of the vulnerable?
That’s the nonsensical judgment of those for whom “faith” evidently imposes no burden, demands no change, requires only a vague effort to become a better person. Yet you will find no such complacency in Jesus’ “new command.”
“Love one another,” he said. And love is not talk. Love is compassion in action. It is intolerance of suffering. It is urgent empathy. And it is something 2 billion of us are told to give. Candidly, most of us don’t seem to take the command all that seriously. But this pope inspires you to wonder:
What would the world be like if we did?
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, can be reached via email@example.com.