Mar 21, 2013 - Issue 509

A Sweet, Sweet Spirit

On March 14, Rachel Maddow interviewed on her show (The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC) a person with the sweetest spirit that I have encountered in a long time! Many folks on the left refuse to admit that there is such a thing as spirit even when it causes them to fall silent and awe struck. Some of us may be so closed down from our pain - either direct or assumed - of living real human lives that we can’t feel spirit even if we wanted to do so. However rarely, for most of us there are individuals and moments that blow us away with spiritual sweetness. Such was my moment while watching the March 14 Rachel Maddow Show.

The Catholic Church’s recent Pope selection was dominating all the news and was the topic of this interview. Rachel set up the interview with her typical sparkling intellectual dexterity, bold liberal analysis, and brisk verbalization. The entry hook was a reference to Bill and Hillary (Clinton) NOT standing alone as the most famous political couple in the western hemisphere in the 21st century. When Maddow said it, I immediately knew that she was right. That honor must also be shared with Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the consecutive elected presidents of Argentina from 2003 until today. Right out the box, this was a pleasing dash of cold water to the US right-wing’s twisted claim of “American” exceptionalism.

Rachel followed up that hook by referencing the incredible political courage of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in picking a fight with the powerful Catholic Church just prior to her reelection. There is an extensive negative history of the Church’s involvement in South American politics and specifically in Argentina. Argentina has one of the highest concentrations of Catholics of any country in the world. Behind President Christina Kirchner’s personal leadership a bill was presented to give gay people in Argentina the right to marry, to adopt children, and to inherit money.

“In response to this move of the government, Church leaders organized big anti-gay marriage protests around the country in the months and weeks and days before the Country’s Senate was due to vote on the bill. They spoke out forcefully against gay rights, against gay marriage and against Christina Kirchner in particular. But far and away, the most out front vocal opponent of gay marriage within the Church’s effort on this issue, the one who took this on as his cause célèbre, the person who entered into the political fray with the most gusto, determined to keep gay people from getting married in Argentina was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.” As you know, Bergoglio is now Pope Francis I.

Maddow went on to describe how Bergoglio claimed that Argentina’s government, if it passed the bill, would be committing a “destructive pretension against the plan of God.” In other words, they would be doing the devil’s work. Kirchner courageously shot back that the arguments of the Church leaders were reminiscent of “the times of the Crusades.” Many of us who are or whose likeness has been the target of the Church’s imperial sinfulness do not forget. We may forgive - especially if there are reparations - but we do not forget! Obviously, Madam Kirchner was familiar with the Church’s sordid history during the Crusades.

Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope, lost this political fight in Argentina and Kirchner was reelected. So Maddow’s questions of her guest were focused on what impact would result from having this loser as head of the Church for folks who are still the targets for exclusion as full spiritual human beings. That Maddow said little about Bergoglio’s so-called “preference for the poor,” even though he condemned Liberation Theology, is an artifact of Maddow’s liberalism as opposed to her having a more radical progressive perspective. Neither did Ms. Maddow note that Saint Francis of Assisi, after whom Cardinal Bergoglio named himself, rejected most trappings of the Church, including the exclusion and marginalization of human spirits - the opposite of Bergoglio’s practices.

But Rachel’s guest - the one with the sweet spirit - was Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of the national Catholic social justice lobby called Network. Sister Campbell helped organize the Nuns on the Bus tour last year that opposed Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. Sister Campbell began, as we should all begin such assessments of other human beings, by finding the humanness and goodness in the other. The Sister expressed her hope that what appears to her to be a real “preference for the poor” by Cardinal Bergoglio would be strongly expressed in the direction that he would push the Church. “I think he would speak out against Paul Ryan’s new budget as our bishops spoke out against the old budget.” Sr. Campbell expressed no expectation of a miraculous change in the person who is now Pope on the issues more sexually-oriented. Next, incredibly, she expressed some recognition that this man appears to sometimes be “touched by other people and see their struggles, see their efforts. And let his heart be broken by that.” Wow! What a perfectly wonderful, sweet spiritual wish for someone: that their heart would be broken by touching other humans in struggle! This is a wish and expectation for transformation that does not arise from coercion or defeat but from the spiritual power of empathy and enlightenment. [For Senator Rob Portman, it took the confession of his son. Sister Campbell is talking about a heart-breaking empathy that can connect with all humans, not just one’s relatives.]

Maddow asked about the Sister’s internal struggle with the Church over issues of male hierarchy. “Do you now foresee that getting better? Or do you know yet? Could it get worse?” Sister Simone Campbell’s response to this question was profound. “I guess it could get worse. But the thing that I’ve seen, Rachel, is that the fact that we got criticized by the Vatican gave us the notoriety that gave birth to Nuns on the Bus. So I say that the Holy Spirit from my perspective, the Holy Spirit is alive and well and making mischief. So even though painful things happen to us when the criticism from the Vatican, the spirit took it and generated a hope and an engagement for people. And so that yesterday, I was in Richmond and some of the people in the crowd pointed out, we were talking about women’s leadership in the church. And one of the members of the group said, oh, but you - but you, Sister Simone, have become a leader in the church and I was really surprised. I mean, I think of myself as engaged in politics. But there is a way in which this movement has generated a - I don’t know - a really electricity about hope and about another way forward. The spirit’s alive and well while it could be painful in the criticism, other things are happening because of it.”

Unique and rare is the recognition of the mischief element in the social psychological, phenomenal history of human beings. That powerful institutional “criticism” can lead to notoriety and then to powerful engagements that have the potential to bring about change is counter-intuitive. The power of this way of understanding the unfolding of human circumstances has mostly been lost in Western Culture but still is vibrant in indigenous cultures.

In fact, the honoring - not just acceptance - of “the two spirits” (homosexuals) in indigenous cultures often “rests” in this sacred mischief. Sister Campbell expressed this well and has much to teach the Church and the Pope. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Sister Campbell must obviously believe that “the universe bends towards justice.” There are opportunities, openings, and hope even in adversity that true creative revolutionaries can grasp and use to make change without succumbing to hate, coercion, or offensive violence. Maddow recognized the strength, dignity, and eloquence that shone through Sister Simone Campbell. Shinning through it all was Sr. Campbell’s sweet spirit; I could feel from her person - her voice, her dress, her mannerisms, her history, her everything - that she was fully with what she was saying and what she was saying was wise and profound. Maddow was inspired. I am inspired. Columnist, Wilson Riles, is a former Oakland, CA City Council Member. Click here to contact Mr. Riles.