Saint Francis and the Problem of Pity

Today is one of my favorites in church, because I get to bring my dog. You might hear him barking in back. I’ve loved St Francis Day since I was a little kid, for the same reason. I loved bringing my animals to church. It just makes sense to me that animals are given a blessing. We say a sacrament is an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Today we bless the animals who have blessed us. Today we remember our animal companions, and we give thanks for the measure of gentleness, of compassion, for the measure of love they bring to our lives.

Saint Francis didn’t start out very saintly. A rich young man, he was taken with the roguery of his day. He chased women. He chased glory in the crusades. He was known as a bit of a lush. But Francis had a moment of conversion.

He began to see, to really see his neighbors who were poor, his neighbors living with the disease of leprosy. There among his suffering siblings, Francis heard God’s invitation to a life that would be richer, more integrated, more whole. The young Francis famously took off his silk clothes in middle of the town square. Francis handed his clothes to his father and then walked off to start a new way of life.

Truthfully, very few followers of Jesus have ever really taken Jesus so literally. When I hear people say they are “Biblical Literalists,” I wonder. Francis is one of the only people I can point to who could truly claim the title literalist.

Francis left behind all his wealth. He started by rebuilding a little neglected church. Then he started inviting in the lepers, the hungry, and those who were left behind in his society.

You see, Francis understood something. When you look around at the world, when you stand side by side with the suffering, you don’t look down. When you look at the world not asking, “how can I be recognized,” but instead, “how can I be gentle?” When you look at the world that way, you are looking at the world upside down. You see the world from a totally different perspective. Francis did not pity the poor. He stood with them.

The Problem of Pity

The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt escaped Hitler to teach at Berkeley. She famously questioned the value of pity. She questioned pity, she questioned sympathy, because this inner drives preserves inequality. Pity enforces a power dynamic. If I pity you, I am in a position of power. I am looking down. Pity, according to Arendt, is problematic.

Francis turned pity on its head. Like John says of Jesus’ incarnation, Francis “chose to dwell” with God’s beloved poor. Francis took the path of downward mobility. The Franciscan way is not a way of pity but of solidarity.

Francis had the odd habit of using the terms sister and brother for unlikely characters. Famously he sang of “Brother Sun, and Sister Moon” (the reason for their prominent presence in this St. Francis window here to my right). Francis spoke of crickets, larks, wolves and flowers as siblings. Francis did not pity God’s lesser creatures, Francis saw them as equals. He understood creation as one big family. For Francis, pity was not enough.

The avoidance of pity may seem like a minor nuance. God deals in nuance. What may seem like a minor adjustment in our perspective can have radical consequences for our souls and for our world. Let me turn to the events of this week for an example. I am not going to get into to many details of a difficult story. I want to notice one nuance.

The week we have had: Dr. Blasey Ford.

This week, we heard a great deal of pity from both sides of the political aisle for Dr. Blasey Ford. Elected leaders of both parties articulated sorrow. They said, “I am so sorry this happened to you.” There is a danger in this kind of pronouncement. When such an expression comes from a place of pity, of sympathy, it can create a distance. I, the pitier, am in a place to look down on you with sadness for this terrible thing that happened to you. In a case like the one our world faced this week, pity is not enough.

I am mindful that I stand in a church as I say these words. Too often the church has reacted to questions of sexual assault, to sexual abuse, by saying too little. “It’s such a pity.” Those words do not go far enough. As Christians we say we are “one body in Christ.” We are one body in the church, across time and distance. We are one body. We must face and own: the body of believers has committed terrible sin. The body of believers has abused sacred trust. There are those who will never again walk into a church for fear of being re-traumatized. We must own what has happened in our body.

When we hide, or cover up, when we deny that we have any culpability in the church, we further a toxic dynamic of power. When we face the survivors of abuse with only pity, we can fool ourselves into believing that abuse is your problem, not mine. Trauma is your problem, not mine. We can fool ourselves.

But if we are honest, if we are willing to do the hard work of listening, of believing, we might discover a deeper meaning of the church’s body theology. The choice will cost us, but we can choose to see ourselves as a body that survived abuse together, a body that stands together. We are one body, and together we are a body that has survived.

What does Jesus mean when he tells his followers, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light?” I am convinced that part of his reassurance comes from hope and trust: that we do not carry our burdens alone. We carry them together. We can carry our stories. We can carry our trauma. We can carry our work together. We can, we will, survive together. We can stand together. The way of Jesus is an invitation to share life’s difficulty, to share life’s pain, an invitation to come out of hiding and stand together, to know together, we are a body that has survived.

Pity doesn’t take us far enough. God invites us to compassion. Compassion means literally, to “suffer with.” Compassion isn’t easy work. Compassion does not leave power dynamics in place. Compassion engages us in questions about the ways we have benefited from the power dynamics at play. Compassion causes us to see our self interest in undoing the abusive dynamics that have caused our suffering, the suffering we have shared.

The indigenous activist Lilla Watson says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Nuance is everything.

Francis of Assisi lived this way, this way of compassion, this way of suffering with God’s creation. Francis stood with the forgotten, the poor, the outcast. Francis practiced Jesus way of sharing the burden and lightening the load. He knew pity wasn’t enough. Charity wasn’t enough.

I think Francis would have been glad to share his day with our beloved pets. If he lived today and drove a car, Francis probably would have that bumper sticker from the Humane Society with paw prints and the words “Who saved whom?” Francis questioned the dynamics of power, and he did it playfully. He would have wanted the world to understand that our animals can teach us a way greater than pity. Allowing the creatures our world counts as “less” to care for us, to love us, to lift our spirits, it can bring us a long way.

The way of St. Francis is a way of gentleness, a way of sharing. Francis has been called “the first Christian.” He has also been called “the last Christian,” and “the only real Christian.” However you read him, Francis took Christ’s invitation extremely seriously. Francis chose a way that cost him, a way that asked him to suffer, to suffer with those who were in pain, with those who had been abused. I believe Francis’ way, Jesus’ way, can liberate us, can free us from the systems of power that continue to corrupt our world.

Pity does not take us far enough. We are invited to open our eyes, to get down off our horses. We are invited to stand alongside our sisters, our brothers, our siblings. We are invited to solidarity with all God’s creation. We can survive together. We can share the load. God is in the business, always, of remaking creation. We are invited to share this work, together. Happy St. Francis Day. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Saint Francis and the Problem of Pity

  1. I thought of you this morning, Mike, when I heard the NPR segment on Bishop Romero and the fact that he’s been officially declared a saint.   Blessings,Verdery

    From: Mike Angell To: Sent: Sunday, September 30, 2018 10:26 AM Subject: [New post] Saint Francis and the Problem of Pity #yiv1124827601 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1124827601 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1124827601 a.yiv1124827601primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1124827601 a.yiv1124827601primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1124827601 a.yiv1124827601primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1124827601 a.yiv1124827601primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1124827601 | Mike Angell posted: “Today is one of my favorites in church, because I get to bring my dog. You might hear him barking in back. I’ve loved St Francis Day since I was a little kid, for the same reason. I loved bringing my animals to church. It just makes sense to me that ani” | |

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