Editor’s Note: After I begged him for several months, my friend Steve Patterson finally wrote something for NAnewsweb.com.*
By Steve Patterson
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Sometimes we learn lessons. Most times we’ don’t. But the United States of America has just been presented with an opportunity to learn the greatest lesson of all and challenged to apply that lesson in a way befitting its status as the most powerful country on earth. That lesson is the ancient lesson taught in the Scriptures. The simple lesson of Love taught first by Jesus Christ and, last week, by Pope Francis during his historic visit. The question is this: Will we rise to the challenge? These are the thoughts that sparked this column. Maybe you’ve had some of the same.
A story that I often tell, which unlike some, has the added advantage of being absolutely true, goes like this:
A Bible salesman from Nashville traveled to my former hometown of Louisville, Mississippi. He stopped downtown at Glen Fulton’s Gulf service station, where he encountered “Slick,” an elderly African-American service station attendant. As the salesman emerged from his Buick, he asked Slick for the location of the Church of Christ.
Slick hesitated a moment and then pointed to the white clapboard Presbyterian Church with the tall steeple at the east end of town and proudly proclaimed, “That church there is Mr. [Charles] Fair’s church.”
He next turned toward the middle of town and pointed to the massive red brick Baptist Church saying, “That church there is Mr. [Bill] Taylor’s Church.”
Then, frustrated, Slick sheepishly confessed, “I don’t believe Christ got no church in Louisville.”
(I must note that both Charles Fair and Bill Taylor were two of the finest Christian gentlemen I ever knew.)
Slick’s dilemma begs the question for us all: Does Christ have a church in our community?
Well, the answer, of course, is that Christ can be found wherever we are willing to seek him–in a Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal Church, it makes little difference.
In fact, it doesn’t always have to be “in church.” Seeking and finding Jesus can happen in a slum, in a homeless shelter and even in the mighty Halls of Congress, as last week’s visit to America by Pope Francis demonstrated.
This historical visit magnified the obligation of all followers of Christ to adhere to simple truths of the Gospels and to understand the force for good those truths have for us both individually and collectively.
The Pontiff’s message was not reserved for the seventy-plus million American Catholics, or even the rest of us who profess to believe – but for everyone. Yes, even the doomed non-believers. Filter through all the pomp and circumstance, the constant analyzing by television’s talking heads, and all the ideological jockeying left and right, and, the primary message the Pope delivers is a thing of simple beauty:
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
Imagine how much better our culture would be, how our political discourse would be elevated, and how our individual lives would be enhanced if that simple golden rule was followed.
I love Pope Francis. Yes, let me state that again. I love Pope Francis. Now let me explain why that is a bold statement for me and how and why I care and admire him so deeply.
Like most Southerners, I was raised in an old school, orthodox, Puritan protestant church. Catholicism was alien to me. I had never met a Roman Catholic until I was in my teenage years; and, I knew little about the faith and what little I did know I misunderstood. I would never be convinced of the infallibility of the Pope on any issue and still cannot.
The only thing infallible in my world is the Holy Scriptures themselves. Not even the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, which forms the basis of my theological thinking and was pounded into me as a child through catechism classes, was infallible. In fact, in the Confession’s original form, the Roman Catholic Pope is referred to as the “Anti-Christ.”
For as many generations as I can determine, my ancestry was firmly and strictly Calvinist Protestants, without one smattering of papal allegiance to ever be found anywhere. In fact, my baby son is named John Calvin Patterson – a name not much revered in Catholic history. So for a man with this proud heritage and background, to say unequivocally he loves the Pope is a pretty bold statement, indeed.
Several weeks ago, long before the Pope’s visit to our country, a friend sent me a little book containing short quotes from Pope Francis. It was intended to lift my spirits, and it did.
Knowing that this Pope had made some statements perceived as controversial, I eagerly began to read and reflect on his words.
This representative of Christ, this Vicar of Christ, this New Roman Pope had offended thoughtful folks on the left and right, Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, and all ideologies in-between.
As I began considering his messages and seeking to learn more, I came to the certain conclusion that my ideology and his were completely compatible. The more I read the more I loved Pope Francis. His words and those red-letter words found in the Gospels were never at odds and were always expressed with humility, compassion and love. This exercise sent me on a journey I felt was worthy of documentation.
The first step of this journey was to reminisce about the two Roman Catholics that impacted my life the most. Both of these devout, practicing Catholics also happened to be first-rate and highly placed public servants, well positioned to put their faith to work for the greater good.
Former Governor Bill Allain was Mississippi’s only Catholic Governor. To say that he was a friend and ally of mine would be a huge understatement. For well over thirty years we discussed, argued, agreed, disagreed and maintained a trusting, loyal, cherished friendship. I saw up close how Governor Allain’s faith influenced every public decision he faced. A true populist who loved a good fight, he took on the big utilities on behalf of the consumer, bravely challenged the all-powerful Mississippi legislature when the State’s Constitution was being ignored and fought for “the least of these” at every turn. All Governor Allain’s holidays were reserved for soup kitchens around the state where he served meals for the homeless. forsaking his own comfort. Governor Allain is no longer with us, but I’m sure he’s looking down with approval on the courage of Pope Francis.
Another Roman Catholic mentor of mine is the current Vice President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden. I have known and been close friends with the Vice President since he first came to the United States Senate in the early 1970’s. I know of very few men that have endured as much personal tragedy as the Vice President. On many occasions, he has solemnly confided in me that faith and faith alone has sustained him. I looked on with joy as Joe Biden accompanied the Holy Father of his church during his recent visit to America. No doubt Joe Biden was in his element with this Pope. I’m sure this was a big deal for my Irish Catholic friend, and I can easily imagine the colorful expletive he uses to describe just how big a deal it was.
–William Alexander Percy, “Lanterns on the Levee”
Two events recently occurred in our country that set me on a further course of deep reflection. As an old, battered and bruised, recovering, disgraced politician, I watched in amazement as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – “The Donald” – drew huge crowds in Mobile and Dallas and soared to the top of the field in all the polls.
My astonishment was further enhanced by the fact that Trump was accomplishing this feat in spite of fifteen other capable and qualified contenders, all with experience and resumes superior to his questionable credentials. What was this phenomenon about? What did it say about the state of our Republic? The polls and pundits have told us for a decade now that we are a divided country and gridlock is inevitable. What is it in America’s DNA that causes such dysfunction?
As I looked carefully at the events and listened to the rhetoric, the answer became clear. Mr. Trump preaches a gospel of fear, divisiveness, personal attacks, and mean-spirited greed. He even stoops to schoolyard name-calling — he is quick to call leaders “stupid,” “ugly” and “failures.” He is quick to blame, although his facts are usually wrong, and he is reluctant to forgive. The masses love his huckster style and his P.T. Barnum, dismissive approach to serious problems. Most of his followers are quick to express reverence for the Constitution, yet every time “The Donald” speaks, he demonstrates his lack of knowledge and disdain for that hallowed document. The entire phenomenon reminds me of several Latin American countries that have been lulled into believing their plight was so miserable that they needed a strongman dictator in order to overcome. Sadly, that approach has never worked out and in every instance, human rights were exploited and massive poverty and even death to dissidents occurred on a massive scale.
Who are these folks that follow this circus? Do they remind anyone of the crowd that gathered to shout “crucify him,” “crucify him”? Frankly, it scares me – and I am not easily frightened. I cannot help but be reminded of a great line from William Alexander Percy’s classic book “Lanterns on the Levee” in which he describes the people at a 1920’s Mississippi political rally as “the sort of people that lynch negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards. — They are the sovereign voter.”
Now let’s look at another phenomenon of equal importance and much more value. A religious leader from Argentina, the Pope, makes a three-day tour of the good ole U.S.A. He stops by the White House to see our President, addresses Congress, and moves on to New York, the United Nations, and Philadelphia. What’s his message? It’s simple, to the point, morally honest, and superior: Protect God’s gift, our Earth, look out for “the least of these,” stop the genocide of the unborn and care for them outside the womb as much as we do inside, abolish unfair economic practices that benefit the rich and further impoverish the poor, and respect all people – love them – pray for them and lead them to Christ. He quotes the scripture found in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John: “A new Commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you love one another. By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Two diametrically opposed messages, both in style and substance: one of peace, love, brotherhood, and compassion; another of bravado, divisiveness, fear, and greed. While it is apparent to me that the Pope’s message is vastly superior, both are drawing a crowd. This dilemma – good vs. evil – has been evident since the dawn of humanity. Thankfully, at least for now, the Pope’s crowds appear to be bigger than those flocking to “The Donald.”
Politically speaking, this Pope agrees, for example, with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee on some issues and Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders on others. And, guess what: So do I! You probably do, too. Is the Pope a Democrat? No! Is he a Republican? No! Is the “People’s Pope” a populist – one who puts people before special interest? You better believe he is. And so am I! Are you?
Is the Pope a spiritual leader alone as some have suggested or should his voice be heard on political matters as well? A very thin line distinguishes these two roles. A moral compass is the very first instrument we should use when we are deciding where we want to go. Those who are called to preach the Gospel are also called to implement those values into our individual and collective lives.
— Martin Luther
Without question, my personal favorite modern theologian is the German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed because of his opposition to the horrific politics of Hitler’s Nazi German. The following passage, in which he quotes the founder of the Protestant Reformation, is worth repeating here: “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross, he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. ‘The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And, he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing, who would ever have been spared.’” (quoting Martin Luther).
Little did ole Slick know that when he told that Bible salesman that Christ “ain’t got no church in Louisville,” that theologians and scholars like Bonhoeffer and even Martin Luther himself had expressed similar observations.
There is little of which I am absolutely certain. I believe our world will be a much better place if we follow the admonitions of Pope Francis – who merely echoes Christ. I believe the “People’s Pope” has indeed proven himself to be the Vicar (spokesman) of Christ. But, there is only one thing of which I am absolutely certain; Christ died for us all, loves us all, and expects us all to love one another.
As Pope Francis said: “A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.” I believe that. Do you?
*Editor’s Note: I first met Steve 20 years ago this summer in the lobby of the Winston County Courthouse in Louisville. Big guy, big cigar, big smile. Another flamboyant, back-slapping politician, I thought. And, of course, Steve is a flamboyant and gregarious politician. Years ago a well-known political writer called him the best Southern political orator of his generation.
However, as I have learned during two decades, he’s all that, and some other things as well.
He is a very serious scholar, one of the best read people I have met anywhere.
He may have more friends than anybody I have ever known, friends from all over the country from singers and song writers to sinners and preachers and many nationally known business and political leaders.
Perhaps the most essential thing about Steve, though, is that he is and always has been a devout ARP Presbyterian, one who prays and meditates without ceasing — a trait that has served him and others well during a long and sometimes rough public and private career.
He has agreed to make irregular contributions to NAnewsweb.com whenever his muse comes to visit. This time it’s about the Pope and Christianity. Next time it may be about bird dogs or bourbon or cigars or anecdotes about some of the fascinating people on his speed dial.
To see Steve’s second post: Steve Patterson on Friendship
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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gov. Bill Allain, Pope Francis, Vice President Joe Biden, William Alexander Percy