A future disciple, hearing about Jesus for the first time, asked his buddy: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Jesus was a back hills barefoot carpenter who became an itinerant preacher claiming to be God. Though most of His listeners and followers were rooted in agrarian values—and He was radical (it comes from “radish” meaning rooted)—He offered insight and sophistication that was unusual for that region.
A few years ago, J. D. Vance’s memoir became an award-winning film entitled “Hillbilly Elegy.” It chronicled his challenges in overcoming his family’s backwoods Kentucky roots and drug-riddled poverty that was laced with violence and terminal setbacks; he somehow handled the obstacles, eventually receiving degrees from Ohio State and Yale, in part because of his own insight and sophistication.
Growing up in rural Missouri myself, I realize the stereotypes of being crass, uncultured, and unenlightened, are tough to overcome. Having lived about forty years in and around Kansas City, I also know that country folk and city dwellers, while having innate or inbred differences, share many common values. I have hope that, linked by Missouri politics, the good values of rural and city residents will meld together. Rural bumpkins probably have a stronger knowledge of and loyalty to neighbors than urbanites do; their love for country and appreciation for the beauty and resources of nature probably goes deeper; and their self-reliance from government dependence or intervention seems more sacred. Vance, while working his way through school as he sacrificed meals, sleep, and owning personal things, had a hard time tolerating scenes foreign to his upbringing, like welfare recipients with cell phones (which he couldn’t afford) or attitudes of entitlement that seemed prevalent around him.
He, like most of us, wants to help those in need, especially with basic health care and freedom from oppression, bigotry, or poverty. Like him, we also want shared respect and responsibility for the common good. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Amoris Laetitia,outlined four principles that he’d like us to use as a spiritual compass: 1) Time is greater than space; 2) Unity prevails over conflict; 3) Reality is more important than ideas; and 4) The Whole is greater than the part. Each provides a depth of material for many essays and reflections, but here I’ll simply ask us to think about them in the context of our society where many Republicans are rural residents accused of being semi-fascists or deplorable “trumpies” while many Democrats and city dwellers are urged to support defunding police, killing unwanted babies, or getting free stuff from the government.
Our time on earth is fleeting. We inherit from those who went before us and pass along to those who follow. Francis believes that it is not our responsibility to settle issues now but to move them in the direction of our compass to a holier place. The exchange of ideas with debate is healthy but ideology is not; we exist in what is real. Here we will face destruction if we cave to conflict, or we can embrace happiness if we seek unity. We must recognize that we are part of something far greater than ourselves and the parts should be directed toward the common good, for the whole is greater than any part or any person.
Inner city parishes are sometimes accused of being leftist because they don’t succumb to doctrinal intervention when what is needed is pastoral sensitivity; they conduct business in-line with the radical barefoot hillbilly God of solid morals and strong convictions. Returning this summer to the urban core after a twenty-one-year separation, I am reminded that these parishes are not left-of-center but at the very heart of Christ’s message and the Pope’s challenge for us to live it. Political parties and demographics in our state and nation will always bring debate and divisions that emanate from our varying backgrounds, but they also call us to find common ground because God is among us.