Having wiped from my lips the milky evidence of a morning cappuccino, I stepped out into the crisp cool air of Arezzo still tasting the spice of cinnamon. Before long I found myself wandering under the canvas tents and arched walkways of an antique market, admiring not only the many objects considered to be the spice of life, but also the spicy exchanges between sellers and buyers.
Then I heard a voice over the normal hum of market business. It came from a man talking on his cellphone, sharing his conversation not only with the market goers but also with the more stoic figures in the paintings surrounding him in the middle of an art display. His voice rose to an intense crescendo accompanied by the frantic and constant gesturing of his left hand. Just when I anticipated a complete explosion, he took a deep breath and placed his cell phone on an unsuspecting antique side table. Then I realized that the gesturing with his left hand proved insufficient to adequately express his feelings. Now free of encumbrance, I witnessed his hands and arms gesturing uncontrollably as he unleashed a string of words toward the unsuspecting cell phone.
They were words that caused parents of small children to hurry them along, while the other folk looking on responded with either a shake of the head in disapproval or a nod of affirmation. The words were politically charged and racist, transforming the natural spice of a market, on an otherwise ordinary day, into cesspool of toxic division.
This moment in the market reminded me of a story that is told about St. Francis visiting Arezzo. Perhaps it was on a cool crisp day like that of the antique market, which quickly warmed into unbridled and prejudiced feelings. In a painting of Francis’ visit to the city, the primary figure is Brother Sylvester, standing outside the city gate with arm raised as he casts demons out of the city. Francis kneels, close by, in prayerful support of this exorcism.
Looking back 800 years through the lens of medieval painting with its metaphors and symbolism, we come to understand that the real demons in the city of Arezzo were those of social, economic, and political division among the local residents (1). It seems that these demons of division, cast out of Arezzo by Sylvester so long ago, have come to settle today in homes, towns, cities, and countries across the globe. They now manifest themselves as the poltergeists of political polarization, and like the possessed man with the cell phone they are encouraged by racism.
Yes, our political life is possessed. Politics is supposed to help us collectively achieve meaningful goals that could not be realized individually. To achieve this general welfare, the political process is necessarily marked by negotiation, debate, and legislation, like a good haggling at an antique market. In our world today, this spice of the market has been turned into the cesspool of division, which has become so deep that it polarizes family members, friends, and neighbors into uncompromising camps that demonize the other to justify their own perspectives, policies, and prejudices.
This is the racism of today, no longer simplified to the color of skin but now expanded to include anyone who is different than me, my perspective, my desires. This attitude of superiority leads to thoughts and actions that at first glance might not seem racist but are intrinsically rooted in prejudice. This racism of the heart, recognized or not by the individual, grows into communal and social prejudice that makes us all complicit at some level. This happens in relation to fair housing and education, immigration and refugee relocation policies, and the manifold problems with our prison systems (2).
In medieval Arezzo, Sylvester, who perhaps knew the locals more personally than Francis, raises his arm as if naming the sinful divisions, the demons in the hearts and minds of the people that bring about their failures to love both God and neighbor. Unlike the man with the cellphone, Sylvester holds his hand raised as if to preach, drawing attention to the example of Jesus who visited and ate with sinners and tax collectors whom he called neighbors. This naming and preaching together is what ultimately cause the demons to flee.
At the same time Francis falls to his knees in prayerful support of Sylvester’s exorcism. This falling to one’s knees in prayer becomes a righteous action of support through friendship, which upholds the life and dignity of all human beings through living the commandments of loving both God and neighbor (3). As Jesus bowed before the Father in prayer, he then knelt before the poor and those who suffered social discrimination, calling them friends.
Today we too often wish to ignore the demons of political division, by no longer discussing certain issues at the table because heated disagreements are inevitable. Such avoidance, however, only breeds the more dangerous poltergeists of polarization in our homes and work places. In this vast separation between people it becomes easy, and in time even seems natural, to degrade and demonize any word, action, or person on the opposite side.
Such racism is also a sinfulness of omission by the choice to remain silent when confronted with racial injustice (4). As antidotes to poisons often originate from the poison itself, the antidote for us today is to begin talking about politics at the table. No more silence or avoidance of sensitive topics. Instead we need longer meals where nuances and distinctions can be made, and civil discourse with a hope of compromise can once again find a home. In this kind of a space differences of opinion strengthen relationships rather than break them, like a good antique market haggling.
Another table where the sin of omission holds sway is in our churches, in our failure to name the demons and preach like Sylvester did in his time. Friars have confided in me how they fear that preaching the Social Gospel will be viewed as too political and drive a wedge in their ministries, causing irreparable division. Such preaching, however, contextualizes partisan political issues into the moral issues that they truly are. The wedge of division already exists! Rather than causing conflict, our preaching the Social Gospel can serve to uncover, to name the poltergeists of polarization that have imbedded themselves in our hearts, our communities, and in our social structures. Then the difficult healing process can begin, and relationships might be restored.
Antique markets like the one in Arezzo, can serve as a school of civil discourse for us today. Through participating in and learning from the market haggling and exchange of goods, we discover that the true spice of life is not the object haggled over but rather the haggling itself. In these conversations for compromise exists the understanding that what is good and just for you can also be good and just for me. With this attitude of respect for other and self we can cast out the demons of division found within the social, economic, and political conversations of our tables, while adding the all-important spice of antique market haggling for the common good.
Friar Michael Lasky, OFMConv
Director of the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Ministry (Our Lady of Angels Province, USA).
(1) The World of St. Francis of Assisi: Essays in Honor of William R. Cook, page 54.
(2) Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love - A Pastoral Letter Against Racism. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 2018, page 5. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/open-wide-our-hearts.pdf (accessed December 16, 2018).
See Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1869.
(3) See Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 132.
(4) Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love - A Pastoral Letter Against Racism. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 2018, page 4. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/open-wide-our-hearts.pdf (accessed December 16, 2018).