Pope Francis’ speech to Congress is being criticized by some for not mentioning Jesus. However, as some are fond of pointing out, going to church doesn’t make one a Christian and I would add, mentioning Jesus at every opportunity also does not make one a Christian.
The Pope’s address was the most deeply Christian speech I have heard in a long time and an excellent example of the way faith convictions ought to be expressed in a pluralistic society. There is a time and a place for distinctly Christian language. It is vitally important for Christians to talk about Jesus and what being his follower means in 21st century America.
At the same time, because we do not live in a theocracy, people of faith need to be able to use language that is understandable and acceptable to all when we are engaged in public discourse.
Walter Brueggemann has some helpful insights in his book, Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living. As part of his discussion of 2 Kings 18:1-27 (cf.Isa 36:11-12) Brueggemann notes there are two important conversations that happen. On that takes place on the city wall of Jerusalem between Assyria and Judah as public negotiation and the other takes place behind the wall which uses a different language and has a different agenda .
Judah talks as a community behind the wall in the language of their faith. They prayerfully discern what God would have them do. When Judah’s leaders go onto the wall which is public negotiating space, they use the language of the realm, the language of diplomacy. Make no mistake about it the conversation on the wall is shaped by and depends on the conversation behind the wall. This, in essence is what the Pope did.
That the Pope is a deeply committed Christian is not (at least for most of us) questioned. And it is clear that his comments to Congress are based on that Christian commitment. The language he used was accessible to all. His message could not be dismissed by saying Christianity has no place in public discourse. Rather, out of his faith, the Pope utilized language that people of all faiths and of no faith could hear and consider.
Jesus may not have been mentioned by name but Jesus was present in the Pope’s remarks from start to finish. Pope Francis gave us an excellent example of how, guided by one’s faith, to speak clearly and truthfully in the public arena.