I was so taken by Pope Francis’s expressions in the photos above that accompanied a Catholic Relief Services (@CatholicRelief) tweet from his visit to a deeply impoverished part of Nairobi where he greeted persons with disabilities. So much warmth and genuine joy! And what a stark contrast to the snarling ugly photos of a certain candidate for the U.S. president who spent much of last week mocking a reporter with a physical disability, and then denying that he did just that. Pope Francis in Africa once again reminds the world of the true meaning of servant leadership, and the contrast with the search for leadership in the United States could not be more evident.
The Pope calls for peace and honors the poor, walking unafraid into a war zone in the Central African Republic, embracing the poorest of the poor in Nairobi and Kenya. Meanwhile, in this most affluent nation in world history, some very wealthy candidates seem to embrace only the most shameful self-reverence and pandering to hate, surrounding themselves only with fawning admirers, calling for more war and destruction from the relatively safe confines of a heavily guarded campaign stop.
The candidates vow to destroy ISIS and terrorism, but meanwhile, the most heavily armed nation on earth continues to suffer extreme violence at the hands of its own citizens. The same candidates who whip their followers into frenzy over international terrorists, who pose statistically tiny threats to most American citizens, see no irony in promoting more guns with more opportunities for violence and bloodshed right here in our own communities — the real threat we all face every single day. According to Shooting Tracker, there have been 351 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, with 447 people killed and 1292 injured. Just in 2015. The most recent horror at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado was chilling beyond measure; people shot and some killed because they were seeking healthcare, a young officer dead because he rushed to help. People who profess to be “pro-life” must express abhorrence for this kind of wanton destruction of life with as much vehemence as they decry abortion.
We are searching for leadership in the age of destruction. We are searching for someone who can truly help this troubled society find peace, establish justice, care for those on the margins. But, instead, in our national politics, we seem to have only loud, self-interested rhetoric that throws off a great deal of heat but creates more darkness, not light.
The moral character of leadership has never been so starkly defined as in today’s headlines. Is leadership really the ability to stir up the most vicious passions of the crowd, to inflame hatred and mockery of other people, to show nothing but contempt for those who disagree, to rattle the sabres of war, even going so far as to imply that a nuclear weapon could be useful? Really?
Or would we prefer a leader who truly tries to understand other people, who helps the community heal despite disagreements, who does not boast about personal achievements but, instead, expresses a vision for the future that includes everyone? I always remember what the late John Gardner wrote in No Easy Victories, paraphrasing here: we need leaders to rekindle hope; the first and last task of a leader is to keep hope alive, the hope that we can find our way through to a better society.
We the People deserve better from all of the political candidates. We need an end to the appallingly uncivil and irresponsible rhetoric and a restoration of some dignity and sense of the quest for a common good in this presidential campaign. Sure, we all have different views of the issues and different opinions of the candidates. The tradition of this Democracy encourages robust debate, but not irresponsible and inflammatory demagoguery, outright lies and disgraceful trashing of other people.
The candidates would do well to study the leadership style of Pope Francis to understand what has made him such a compelling figure on the world stage. The genuine delight he takes in other people, such as the persons with disabilities in the photos at the top of this blog; the courage he shows in going to some of the most fragile places on earth; the clarity of his call to elevate the poor and marginalized citizens of this earth are all evidence of what real moral leadership is all about. He dares to preach peace in the age of destruction.
If the leader does not speak the truth, who will? The leader’s job is not to pander to the emotion of the crowd, but to lead the crowd to channel that emotion toward the creation of a good and just society. Leaders with real political courage are unafraid, whether walking into war zones or zones of disagreement with their most ardent followers. We need some U.S. leaders who can exhibit that kind of courage.