As we come to this year’s Chapter/Convocation, we do so at a nodal point in history. Fellow Franciscan, Richard Rohr, noted that there is a subtle but profound difference between change and transformation. The former happens whenever something new enters the culture. It can take shape slowly. Or happen literally overnight. But it cannot be stopped. And many may be oblivious to it until the change fully engulfs them, when at last the arrival of something new is self-evident. But there is little intentionality involved, save by the early pioneers and the original creators of the change. Transformation, on the other hand, is quite different. Instead of occurring when something new is introduced, transformation takes place when something old dies. When people finally let go of something they thought they had to have, they are transformed. And when they at last do let go, they realize that what they let go of, was precisely nothing! But it had been seen as crucial beforehand because of the attachment to it. But it is the process of letting go that is the challenge. Indeed, in times of vast fundamental change, perhaps the most difficult challenge imposed on the human heart, mind, and soul, is to perceive those values that are devoid of meaning and then to propagate new values more suitable to the new age. At the heart of transformation is the breakthrough of values more consistent with having done this metanoia, the great movement from the old familiar to the new horizon.
We are experiencing a nodal point in history because change AND transformation are occurring in such close proximity. At times, the two feel as if they were occurring nearly simultaneously. That rarely happens. There are at least two specific social phenomena in our culture where this is taking place: same-sex marriage and the dismantling of the last official vestige of a racist symbol of the Confederacy, namely, the flag. As Franciscans, we are called to be at the forefront of justice. And “doing justice” is always what transformation is about, whether at our own individual level or at the collective and cultural level.
So again, as Franciscans, we are called to be at the forefront of transformational change. Those who are “instruments of God’s peace” (“Franciscans in Spirit”, if you will), the agents of change who are the forebears of transformation, often endure pain, suffering, and even death to bring about this day. That has most certainly been the case with both of these social phenomena. The Spirit of the times, the Zeitgeist, inspires such instruments and they respond. And they may not always be fully conscious of the implications, may not know what lies ahead. They just need to be who they are. Who they are meant to be. Who they are called to be. And so they go out wherever that Spirit takes them. Authentic evangelists, are they. Prophets who speak truth to power.
We, as Franciscans, embrace the motto, “From Gospel to Life, from Life to Gospel.” The two are inseparable. Already connected. Already intertwined. But the connection, due to “eyes that don’t see and ears that don’t hear”, is not self-evident. We need to connect the dots. We need to look and to listen to the signs of the times. We need to be intentional about living the Gospel life. The life events of same-sex marriage and of ending the official sanctioning of racism embedded in the symbol of the Confederate flag are upon us. They have happened. They are still rapidly unfolding. Resistance is futile, despite the last gasps of lingerers. The Gospel was integral to both happening. The Gospel is integral to moving the culture through to the next needed step in an on-going journey. The Gospel is integral to these events because doing justice is integral to the Gospel. And these events are about “doing justice”. How are we, as Gospel people, as Franciscans, instruments of being a part of this shift in consciousness, this transformational change in our society?
We will be reflecting on these types of questions at Chapter/Convocation. We will be asking each other about how our individual and collective energy is devoted to doing the work of justice in our society, in our world. We will be listening. We will be watching. We will be discerning. We will be remembering those who preceded us and we will be offering encouragement and wisdom for those who follow us.
The SCOTUS decision in which Marriage Equality is recognized as a right protected and defended by the U.S. Constitution came on the eve of the 46th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The process towards transformation is a rocky one. Violence is the shadow side of that struggle. But that does not mean the violence and all connected with the violence in the pursuit of justice are evil. It simply goes with the territory. Going through that stage may be an inevitable part of the transformational process. It was for Francis himself. He was engaged in bloody conflict and taken prisoner. And was about to go back to it for another round! In the years following Stonewall, there were demonstrations and parades. There were lawsuits and ballot measures. There were many defeats. And there were some victories. And people were murdered, assassinated. And assailants were not held accountable. Eating Twinkies was the culprit more than the shooter. The Hebrew people wandered around in circles in the desert for forty years before entering the “Promised Land”. Likewise, those involved in this particular struggle for Marriage Equality for our gay brothers and lesbian sisters have finally experienced a taste of “milk and honey”. That blessing comes when the work of justice nears fruition after the struggle of a half century. There are now states where our own sisters and brothers in the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans can now get married, but were denied that choice, that grace, beforehand. And for that, we as an Order, as a diverse and open and affirming community, rejoice! And we will persevere in that necessary on-going work for justice in and for and with the LGBTQ community.
The removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of former Confederate states has been remarkable in many ways. For one, it was not the court system that demanded it. It is as if blinders were removed. People of privilege, white people in the South, suddenly saw the flag for what it is and has been all along: a symbol of white supremacy, a symbol of bigoted hatred, a symbol of entrenched racism. The Confederate flag was always about that. But apologists were claiming it was honoring a tradition, a history. Not about racism. It took the shooting deaths of people inside an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church engaged in Scripture study and prayer, with the shooter, to remove the blinders. Former apologists were now saying, “Take down the flag!” Thousands and thousands of black people have been lynched, burned, executed, beaten, tortured, and brutalized in unspeakable ways for over four centuries in this country. In the nineteenth, twentieth and the nascent twenty-first centuries, the Confederate flag propped those sins up. So what was it about these victims in the A.M.E. church? Why now are companies who made and sold the flags as souvenirs no longer doing so? Some may say, the number deaths reached “critical mass.” Like Bob Dylan’s song proclaiming, “How many deaths will it take til he knows that too many people have died?” There is another possibility, noted in another song: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” The Spirit is working in mysterious ways. In us. With us. And through us. That is what we are asking for when we dare to desire to be “instruments of peace.” Risky business. But ultimately, more than worth it. Indeed, it is the only thing that is worth anything. And so we grieve the loss. And we celebrate the tangible transformational change underway. Amazing Grace!
From Bro. John “CJ” Boylan, OEF (chaplain)