“Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his people; peace is our gift to each other.”
These words, from Holocaust survivor and peace activist Elie Wiesel, are my go-to on Franciscan Media’s social channels whenever a mass shooting befouls our country. Needless to say, I’ve tweeted these words far too often.
The message speaks to our own potential as peace-builders—and they are so inherently Franciscan they could have flowed from the pen of Francis himself. But it seems that, culturally, we have devalued the art of peacemaking.
Some time has passed, but the nation is still reeling—and healing—from the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. There have been countless instances of gun violence before and since the tragedies, but they haven’t always registered on the national consciousness because gun violence is so commonplace in America anymore that it isn’t always news.
But this isn’t about the Second Amendment: neither our country’s silly gun lust, nor the destruction that guns in the wrong hands can bring. This isn’t a rant about 21st-century social problems, but a 13th-century remedy to them.
Medieval and Timeless
Francis of Assisi was medieval to his core, but his struggles were surprisingly contemporary. Born into privilege, a young Francis was wooed by earthly trappings and dreams of glory on the battlefield. But that was not to be. During his time as a soldier, he was captured and taken as a prisoner of war for a year, eventually returning home, sick and broken. But healing through spiritual conversion was underway.
One chapter in that conversion story happened when Francis approached a leper outside the walled city of Assisi. Once repelled by the sight of them, he suddenly saw the face of Christ in the leper, kissed his cheek, and embraced him as a brother. What could have been a sweet-but-insignificant moment became a hallmark of Franciscan spirituality: embracing “the other.”
It isn’t always comfortable embracing those who differ from us—and rarely is it convenient. Shedding our worldly selves for such a higher purpose almost doesn’t count unless it challenges and changes us. Francis of Assisi understood this lesson of rising above prejudice and scorn, but it is one seldom practiced today.
The Least Among Us
Who qualifies as 21st-century lepers? What individuals or groups have we neatly categorized as dangerous, unsavory, suspect? Asylum seekers, those who have fled persecution in their home country but who are without legal status as refugees, are a good place to start. Tens of thousands are still being held in detention camps in the United States, many of which can best be described as human kennels.
How would Francis of Assisi treat them if he were alive today? Would he favor their indefinite internment? Or would he embrace them as brothers and sisters? The love Francis had for Christ burned like fire in his heart, and he would surely see parallels between asylum seekers behind chain-link fences in McAllen, Texas, and the plight of the Holy Family, asylum seekers in their own day.
Those who are targeted because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation could qualify as 21st-century lepers, absolutely. According to a 2017 report by the Department of Justice, over 50 percent of hate crimes in the last year were committed by white Americans. But the relentless narrative among many is that the real threat is beyond our borders, not within.
Would Francis of Assisi help in building the wall promised by the current administration? Would he fan the flames of fear and suspicion? A singular moment in Francis’ life may give us an answer. When he was praying in the fallen-down chapel of San Damiano, Francis heard God’s simple message: Do not destroy, repair; build bridges, not walls. That should be our directive as well.
Endure in Peace
It’s easy to classify Francis’ message as too dated to be relevant in this complex century, but that’s a shortsighted position. His life mirrored the Gospels. And their core message—love God, love your neighbor—goes away whenever a human life is endangered, compromised, or cut short.
Living lives devoted to peace is like a stone thrown into still waters: The ripple effects of those acts register outward—and inward as well. Francis of Assisi knew that Christ’s message is our reward. He told us as much in his “Canticle of Brother Sun”: “Happy those who endure in peace; by you, Most High, they will be crowned.”