International Opinion Race & Ethnicity Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Pope Francis, diplomatic prophet in Myanmar

Pope Francis meets with Myanmar's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on Nov. 28, 2017. (Max Rossi/Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — It is hard to be both a diplomat and a prophet, but Pope Francis pulls it off better than anyone else.

Prior to visiting Myanmar, the pope was urged by human rights activists to condemn the murder, rape and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar military. Hundreds of villages in Rakhine state were burned by the military, and over half a million Rohingya fled as refugees to Bangladesh.

But Myanmar’s cardinal, Archbishop Charles Bo, asked the pope not to use the word “Rohingya” because he feared the small Catholic minority would be attacked by the Buddhist majority who see the Rohingya as illegal aliens who are a threat to their nation. The military denies any persecution is taking place, even though the evidence collected by journalists and human rights organizations is overwhelming.

Thus, Pope Francis was faced with a terrible dilemma: Be prophetic and put at risk Christians in Myanmar, or be silent and compromise his moral authority.

Pope Francis chose neither. Instead he carefully threaded the needle by being both prophetic and diplomatic. He told Myanmar’s leaders that the country’s people have suffered “from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted for too long” and called for “peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity,” without using the word Rohingya while in the country.

No one misunderstood his message. Although the media noted his not using the word Rohingya, they also knew and reported that in his speech he was referring to the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar, especially the Rohingya Muslims.

Rohingya activists and human rights activists were not satisfied. They wanted him to specifically and publicly criticize the military and the government for its treatment of the Rohingya. I certainly understand and sympathize with their view.

On the other hand, it is one thing to be prophetic and personally suffer the consequences; it is another thing to put others at risk by your statements.

I have no doubt that Pope Francis would have been willing to put his own life at risk, but to put other lives at risk would be reckless, especially when it is unlikely that his words would have had any effect on the military, which continues to deny that any discrimination or ethnic cleansing is going on.

A Bangladesh border guard soldier stops newly arrived Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, from moving ahead toward refugee camps, at Palong Khali, Bangladesh, on Oct. 17, 2017. Thousands more Rohingya Muslims are fleeing large-scale violence and persecution in Myanmar and crossing into Bangladesh, where more than half a million others are already living in squalid and overcrowded camps, according to witnesses and a drone video shot by the U.N. office for refugees. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin)

Were the pope and the Myanmar cardinal being overly cautious about the possibility of a blowback? Not at all. Christians are already being persecuted in Myanmar — also known as Burma — as has been clearly documented by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its report “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.”

(Although I am a USCIRF commissioner, the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the commission.)

Radical Buddhist monks are working arm in arm with the military in demonizing religious and ethnic minorities. Religious services have been disrupted, churches have been burned, ministers have been killed, and discrimination is rampant. Even getting a government ID is very difficult for non-Buddhists. In the minds of the military and most of the Buddhist population, you cannot be a Myanmar citizen unless you are a Buddhist, even though Catholics have lived there for over 500 years.

Some experts fear that the anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine state, which led to the refugee crisis, will spread to other parts of Myanmar.

Granted the terrible situation in Myanmar, has the pope’s visit had any effect?

It clearly has not made matters worse, which goes for progress in Myanmar. The trip certainly gave encouragement to the Catholics of Myanmar who rejoiced in the pope’s visit. He also gave encouragement to those who are working for interreligious reconciliation and dialogue.

Most importantly, he also brought the attention of the media to the tragic conditions of religious minorities in Myanmar, especially the Rohingya.

[Updated Dec. 1] His trip to Bangladesh continued to keep the focus on the horrendous plight of Rohingya refugees. Not only did he thank the Bangladesh people and government for welcoming refugees from Rakhine state and called on the international community to do more to help them, he also used the word Rohingya when he met with 16 refugees while in Bangladesh.

Pope Francis recalled the Islamic creation story where God “at the beginning took a bit of salt, put it in water and created the souls of all people.” Speaking of the Rohingya, he said, “These brothers and sisters carry the salt of God within them.” Then he surprised all present by adding, “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

Thus, Pope Francis played the diplomatic prophet in Myanmar, but became more forceful in Bangladesh.

So, I would judge the visit to be a net positive but no miraculous accomplishments. But then, we should not expect miracles from the pope. He can’t walk on water.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

31 Comments

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  • again, how about the pope being interested in drawing people to Christ and leave the politics to someone else

  • You do realize that the Pope is a head of state as well as a religious leader right? You also realize that Christ was intensely political as well as spiritual right? The two weren’t separate in his day. Hence why he was crucified by the Romans.

    Also drawing people to Christ includes speaking on social issues. What attracted people to the first Christians was their way of life, being “practitioners of the way”

  • Jesus was not “intensely political.” He said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” PERIOD. He was crucified by Pontius Pilate because the religious leaders demanded it, while Pilate tried to “wash his hands” of the whole business. Neither did early Christians speak or concern themselves much about “social issues” as in our 21st century definition. There’s been a tremendous amount of historical revisionism. Please quote from the New Testament (i.e. the source documents) those passages which support your assertions.

  • Am. Jesus was intensely political. When the Romans crucified someone they placed the crime they were crucified for on top of the criminal. His said “King of the Jews”. King of the Jews was a subversive title to Rome because the only “King” was Caesar.

    Also, you spoke of the religious leaders role. Lets look at their reasons for handing Jesus over in the first place. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place, and our nation”(John 11:48). Or this “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor”(John 19:12).

    Titles like “son of god” and “savior of the world” were intensely political titles because they were the titles given to Caesar. Augustus was the son of God because he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar who was declared a God by the Roman Senate. He even had a Roman imperial cult to bolster his rule. And being a “messiah” was deeply political in both the Jewish and Roman world. So yes……Christ was political. No one was crucified if they weren’t.

  • “Roman crucifixion was commonly used as punishment for all types of crimes committed by slaves and the lower classes.”https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/22725/what-crime-was-committed-by-the-thieves-crucified-with-jesus
    “King of the Jews” was mocking Jesus.
    The religious leaders’ motives were their own. They were not the motives for Jesus’ preaching. Previously in the Gospels, the religious leaders showed hostility towards Jesus for other reasons.
    There is nothing that indicates that Jesus and his followers were knowledgeable of or educated in the “imperial cults” practiced by Romans.

  • The New Testament is not telling the entire story. First of all, the Romans would not have cared about Jesus violating Jewish law. Second, Pilate is recorded by secular historians as a brutal tyrant who despised Jews, so brutal in fact that Rome eventually had to recall him as governor. The Gospels’ portrayal of him as the Colonel Klink of Judea is not accurate. The Romans likely saw Jesus as a possible insurrectionist. He may not have been one in actuality, and it doesn’t make him “intensely political.” And the other Jewish sects could have referred Jesus to the Romans for execution. But political is how he would have been viewed by the government at the time.

  • John 11:45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
    The Romans didn’t want to kill him, but the Jews insisted.

  • ” The Gospels’ portrayal of him as the Colonel Klink of Judea is not accurate.” History teaches that he was afraid of rebellion by the Jews that would cause his recall by Rome. He was recalled to Rome in 36 because he mishandled and riot involving the Samaritans.
    This may help you also:
    Luke 23:4-12English Standard Version (ESV)
    4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5 But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

    Jesus Before Herod

    6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. 9 So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.

  • King of the Jews was a subversive title to the people who wanted Him killed – the Jews.
    I see you didn’t read the scripture I submitted for you.
    Also, John 5:18 English Standard Version
    This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

    John 10:33 English Standard Version
    The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

  • This Humanist “pope” will please the Progressive agenda to exalt Muslims while he disobeys Christ (and Paul, James, et al.) in ignoring the long suffering of non-papist Christians in Burma. He doesn’t have a biblical but instead a popular Humanist Progressive view of borders and immigration (no doubt like the Jesuit author of this hagiographic article [after all, they are papal soldiers]), and he, like the priest and Levite in the parable of the loyal Samaritan Israelite, breaks the command to work above all other human concerns to relieve the suffering of his fellow covenanters. I seriously doubt that this pope is a Christian, for I see that he does not serve Christ but a Humanist caricature of Him.

  • Correct. The Gospel is “not telling the entire story” and is in no way a commentary on the Roman Empire. It is only recounting the story of Jesus. That Pilate found Jesus not guilty and that Pilate is historically a brutal tyrant are not mutually exclusive statements, Nor do the Gospels portray Pilate as “Colonel Klink.” Your last sentence is a supposition since we only have the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate and Herod and no secular history on the matter. However, common sense would indicate that politicians view events through a political lens.

  • Yes. King of the Jews was a mocking title. It was also the title given to show the crime he committed. And the crime was claiming that he was a King, which went against the Imperial cult of Rome.

    And of course there’s plenty of evidence that Jesus and his followers knew about the imperial cult of Rome. Have you ever just read St Paul’s letter to the Romans where he specifically condemns it in chapter 1 of that letter? Or the Acts of the Apostles?

  • (i)You are peddling flat out antisemitism with your interpretation there. It wasn’t all of the Jews who wanted Jesus to be killed. It was the political authorities who wanted him killed. Hence why the Gospels say “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death for they were afraid of the people”(Luke 22:2) and also “they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said ‘not during the festival, or there may be a riot”(Matthew 26:4-5).

    And why would the chief priest say that? Because Caiaphas was put in power by the Romans. According to Josephus the Roman prefect Valerius put Caiaphus in power 18 A.D. So Rome is definetly behind the cruxifixion. Hence again why the chief priest says as I posted before “If we we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy places and our nation”(John 11:48). Why would the chief priests even be worried about retaliation from Rome if Jesus’s message wasn’t political as well as spiritual? Caiaphas himself intensifies this by saying “it is better to have one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed”(John 11:50)

    (ii)Even beyond the crucifixion Jesus’s message was political as well as spiritual which the Pope is following. Jesus says at the beginning of his ministry he says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”(Luke 18;19). Christ is quoting directly from the prophet Isaiah who says “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing”(Isaiah 61). Calling for justice and peace as the Pope does is in line with the prophetic and Christ centered call of a Christian.

  • Jesus answered Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.* For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
    So Jesus claimed he was “king” only insofar as “to testify to the truth.” Then Pilate “again went out to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in him.””
    So neither Jesus nor Pilate considered him to be “King of the Jews” according to the Roman definition.
    Nothing in Paul or the Acts refers to Jesus’ own understanding of who he was or what he considered his own ministry to be vis a vis Roman politics. As I mentioned, all Jesus ever said was “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

  • You, of course, are assuming this encounter really did happen and happen in the way desribed. Since there are numerous flaws and inconsistencies in the gospels – written almost 40 years later by men who did not witness it – I wouldn’t put much stock in the biblical account.

  • The pope follows himself.
    No anti-semitism whatsoever, but thanks
    Luke 23: 18But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

    Now, for the reality of the matter:
    John 10:18 – English Standard Version
    No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

  • When Jesus said “My Kingdom is not of this world”It wasn’t just a “testimony to the truth”. The title of “Messiah” and “king of the Jews” was a deeply political and earthly title. And they clearly did find it to be “King of the Jews” according to the Roman definition because they had him killed for it. The Romans don’t crucify people simply for just purely spiritual claims. That’s a historical fact. Crucifixion was a deeply political act. If Jesus was simply just proclaiming an other worldly message they would have regarded him as they did Plato, Cicero and Gnostics and wouldn’t have even bothered with him.

    Jesus himself refers to it that way when he says “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel”(Matthew 19:28). And again…..I’m gonna keep repeating this verse to clearly demonstrate why Jesus was crucified. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation”(John 11:48). Question. Why would they even think Jesus’s movement would cause a crack down by Rome if it was simply just this overspiritualized, other worldly message that Rome didn’t care about?

  • No, the Pope is following scripture where again, I’ll repeat these verses Jesus himself says “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”(Luke 4:18-19).

    Justice for the oppressed is deeply part of the Biblical message hence why the prophets state the following:
    -“Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God”(Micah 4:3)
    -“Learn to do good, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”(Isaiah 1:17)
    -“Is this not the fact that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?”(Isaiah 58:6)
    -“Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your heats against one another”(Isaiah 7:10)

    Speaking truth to spiritual AND political power prophetically is Biblical as well:
    -“Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel. Should you not know justice you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people and the flesh off their bones”(Micah 3:1)
    -“Hear this you rulers of the House of Jacob, and chiefs of the house of Israel who abhor justice and pervert equity and who build Zion on with blood and Jerusalem with wrong”(Micah 3:9)
    -“The Lord rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples. The Lord enters into judgement with elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor says the Lord of Hosts”(Isaiah 3:13-15)

  • Yet, he had a crowd of hungry, needy people that he went to gawk at and spoke nothing about how Christ could help them – making the matter worse by telling them there is little he could do for them. The rich man and Lazarus comes to mind.

  • Am. You clearly haven’t listened to the Pope’s homilies. He speaks all the time about evangelization. He speaks about going to the peripheries, whether it’s the economic, political, and what he calls the “spiritual” peripheries. I.E those who need Christ.

    This Pope was known as the slum bishop in Argentina. He lived with the poor and those who were the Lazarus’s of the world and quadrupled the amount of priests who worked in the slums under his time. So respectfully, you have no idea what you’re talking about. He wrote a whole apostolic exhortation 4 years ago called “The Joy of the Gospel”.

  • To state Jesus was “intensely political” is the same fallacy as his fellow Galileans thinking he was the “messiah” that would deliver them from Roman oppression.
    The overarching Gospel message is clear. The response to God’s love is a personal conversion to love one another.
    Although this may be “political” in a country ruled by Republicans, it is not in Scandinavia, for example, where the political system practices it.

  • He didn’t to these people. He told these people he couldn’t help them. He walked out of there after gawking at their hurts offering them nothing – no hope. Nothing.

  • Am. No he didn’t. He met the refugees and gave them his blessing. And stated “the name of God is rohingya”. A reference to Matthew 25 where he says “how you treat the least of these is how you treat me”

  • Where do you get “Republicans” and “Scandinavia” into the convo? This whole thing started with a thread saying the Pope should “stay out of politics”. Sorry but the notion that the gospel is just “personal” and not “political” is rubbish.

    We are always called to challenge the principalities and powers of this age as the prophets did. Of course not in the ways of this world like the Galileans and Zealots wanted. But nevertheless in the Biblical/Prophetic mode. The Pope is practicing love your neighbor to these rohingya refugees and the many refugees he has been advocating for since the beginning of his Papacy.

    So I don’t see the argument here at all. The Pope is practicing the personal conversion to love your neighbor in word and deed so this seems to be just a dead argument built on nothing here.

  • Wow – and all these years I considered Buddhism the religion of compassion and peace. Every religion, apparently, has its nutcases on the fringes. But monks collaborating with the military in genocide is more than I will ever comprehend.

  • We do have secular historians like Josephus commenting on Pilate’s brutality and hatred of the locals. That’s why the Gospels’ portrayal of him as hands tied and letting The Jews do what they want reads more polemical and less historical. He could have found Jesus not guilty, but the stuff about washing his hands of the matter and The Jews shouting “His blood be upon us and our children!” is doubtful.

  • If Pilate was fearful of rebellion, the secular history indicates that his way of dealing with it was not acting kindly toward accused insurrectionists but brutally stamping out any rebellion. He was rather fond of antagonizing the Jewish population, whether it was placing graven images of Caesar in Jerusalem or taking money from the Temple to build aqueducts. Both times the Jews protested, both times they were threatened with death. The incident you mention with the Samaritans was “mishandled” in that in return for their desire to do some archeological digging on Mt. Gerizim (their Jerusalem), Pilate carried out a massacre, upon which he was recalled to Rome.

  • Actually it was because the Jews threatened to go to Caesar, that He relented and allowed Christ to be crucified.
    John 19:12-16 – 12 From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” 13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic[a] Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour.[b] He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.

  • It is no refutation of Pilate’s brutality that the Gospels relate that Pilate found Jesus to be not guilty. The Gospels do not portray Pilate as “hands tied” since only the civil Roman authority could order a crucifixion. As a part of every formal liturgy in Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Protestant Churches, the creed states Jesus ”
    was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
    I agree that many details found in all the Gospels are “doubtful.”

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