Breaking Tradition – Can the new Pope inspire courage in a dangerous world?

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE March 30, 2013

Sitting in a candlelit church this Maundy Thursday, sharing in the representational last supper, breaking bread with strangers and drinking of the cup, I was struck by the simple and powerful sermon given. In it the pastor discussed how Pope Francis, only several days into his papacy, was breaking traditions, and in the process demonstrating true Christ-like behaviors. Among the traditions he was breaking, was revealed in the announcement that the Pope was going to a detention center housing young people - some Catholic, some not religious at all. The Pope will be washing the feet of women as well as men at a detention center; that there are women, and these folks are adolescent inmates is epic. Washing the feet is symbolic of Jesus as servant and purveyor of loving kindness. It was a story that much of the media either missed or failed to understand the significance. 

The Peoples' Pope/What our leaders can learn?

Just hours into his papacy, Pope Francis told his bishops to hold off flying to Rome, and to use the money that would have been spent travelling, to help the poor. It is highly likely this pope will take a good look into the Vatican financial situation, not as a Swiss banker, but as a shepherd tending his flock. Clearly he is putting the needs of his people front and center, showing a concern for human suffering.

And it already appears he understands the importance of ecumenicalism. Non-Catholics are Christians, too.  Already this Pope is reaching out beyond the traditions, trappings and constraints of his lofty post, and within the scope of his influence, trying to share a universal compact - communion, love, community, that transcend the edicts, policies and rules that have isolated the church from an increasingly disenfranchised people. While it is too early to tell whether this Pope will come close to being a unifier of people, it is clear, he understands the heady responsibility of being the front man for a church that was supposed to be built upon the final commandment of God's son and messager Jesus - "to love one another."

It takes courage to break tradition for a higher ideal. And at this special time of year when two of the great religions celebrate truly holy holidays - Passover and Easter, it is important to consider they represent a tradition of breaking traditions! Each is in effect a celebration of courage. Whether escaping from generational servitude in Egypt, or escaping the servitude of laws over love - something Jesus often warned about.

The Pope At Risk? Remembering 1978

One of the "it comes with the job" as an expert on poison, you get involved in some interesting conversations. A friend recently asked me how long it would take before Pope Francis ended up like Pope John Paul I,; when he would be poisoned, murdered. It was not a satirical or disrespectful question. On the contrary it was deadly serious, and a threat that should not be ignored. The Vatican, not unlike the clerical leadership in the Islamic Republic of Iran, or some Protestant organizations, numerous charities, or banks, governments and other major enterprises, deals in the most intoxicating of commodities - power. Recall in 1978 a new pope (John Paul I) was elected. If ever there was destined to be ‘the peoples' pope, it was him. Vowing to release some of the Vatican wealth back to the people, and critical of collecting money for Rome from impoverished parishes, he was clearly going to shake the foundations of power. And the result? He died a month after he became the pope. There is little doubt that Pope John Paul I was sent to Heaven by earthly forces.  He, like Pope Francis, wanted to open the windows of the Vatican, allowing fresh air, fresh ideas, greater access, more outreach with a focus on service as his path. He wanted to share the wealth of the Vatican - then one of the largest and most powerful banks in the world, with the poor, and implement reforms.  His early writings suggest John Paul would have been a remarkable, kind, and beloved pope. Sadly, this healthy man ended up dead just hours before some of the reforms he promised were to receive his signature. It has been suggested the Vatican Secretary of State, some of the Curia and others were involved in the murder and subsequent cover up. The KGB would have been proud of the efficiency with which it was done. Does Pope Francis face the same risk if not fate? Is it realistic for one to think the Curia and power brokers involved in or tied to Vatican money and influence are less inclined to self interest than their predecessors of the 1970's? To suggest the Internet and media confer more protections than what occurred in the 1970's is to ignore the death or imprisonment of moderate clerics in Iran, and other threats against high profile journalists, political leaders... reformists.

There is evil in the world. Profound grasp of the obvious. Sometimes it wraps itself in the notion of lofty ideals, trying to create or sustain the illusion of being a force for good. One has to wonder if the clerics and folks who were involved in the murder of Pope John Paul I convinced themselves that they were considering the greater good. It is not hard to imagine them justifying his death as a way to preserve the wealth, influence and security of the Vatican. That in some way they tried to legitimize their actions, cloaking them under the mantel of lofty words, and precious ideals - the survival of the church of Peter, the Vatican, was more important than the life of a solitary individual. One has to wonder what Jesus would say about that trade off and unholy bargain.

By eschewing many of the regal trappings of the Papacy, exhorting his subordinates to worry less about money, and more about people, including women in a ceremony of service long held to be for men only, and looking to reach across the aisle to non Catholics, Pope Francis is taking a big risk. But great achievements require risk.

It takes courage to break tradition; to challenge the dogma and habit of generations. Rules are powerful weapons used to control people. It has often been said that he who holds the keys to Heaven, rules. This control is far more evident in the radical Islamic world today than most of the Christian or Jewish world, as folks in these older religious traditions have experienced a spiritual revolution bordering on if not fully enjoying a form of "soul freedom," and a more direct connection with the Almighty, without the need for intercessors like Rabbis, Priests, Pastors or Ministers.

One has to wonder if the God of Islam who gives us the religion of peace, or the God of Judaism the religion of atonement, or the God of Christianity who gives us love, would condone the use of one religious tradition to inflict harm upon others. We all worship the same God, yet some seem bent on killing, isolating or limiting the rights of others who follow a different faith tradition.

One has to wonder what the God of Ibrahim and his followers, Allah, would say about His children killing followers of Abraham.

Perhaps the example this new pope is setting can inspire enough people to have the courage to break traditions that cause pain and suffering. Patton might caution me it will take a thick prayer rug to achieve that.

If Islam is the religion of peace...prove it!

As this is being written, Christians are literally being crucified for their faith in sections of Iraq. In other sections of the Middle East - from North Africa and beyond, and several Asian countries, Christians are beaten, harassed and killed. One has to wonder how a religion based upon 5 tenets of charity, can condone these behaviors. To be sure there are many Muslims, like many Jews and Christians who work tirelessly to make the world a better place. But we would be suicidal to continue a policy based upon the willing suspension of disbelief in terms of radical Islam. There's renewed anti-Semitism (not just by radicals) against Jews in Europe, the Middle East and North America.  Women remain disenfranchised, trafficked, victimized by honor killings and draconian religious or cultural customs. The mistreatment of women is not just a Muslim problem.  Virtually every continent has a nation, culture or religious tradition that imposes some gender inequality - from economic, matrimonial, social and violent.But radical Islam certainly can lay claim to significant suffering imposed upon women.

If Islam truly is the religion of peace, then that must be more than a slogan or defensive comment against criticism. It must be proven. And for radicals (this applies to other faiths, too) to suggest the protections of the faith only apply to Muslims, especially male Muslims, is to prove the illegitimacy of any assertion that Islam (or other faiths) as a good and decent religious tradition. For Muslims who do not engage in the practice of terrorism, or attacks on non Muslims, or honor killings, or even support the officious term "non believer" it will take true courage to effect change, starting with breaking the tradition of not criticizing other Muslims. It may be a fundamental tenet of Islam; it is also, quite convenient. A Nuremberg defense of sorts. If ‘moderates" came off the sidelines, and stopped providing the protection of non criticism, but in fact raised a unified and loud voice denouncing threatening behaviors, we would see a much safer world.

Courage to break tradition is exactly what is needed today. Evil triumphs when good people do nothing. Muslims, and political figures who sit on the sidelines, deafeningly silent as radicals threaten to injure and kill in the name of Allah, are in fact as guilty as those performing those criminal acts. 

Dad often said if people truly believed in God, they would act like they did. But who we are is best described by how we behave when we think no one is watching. Apparently few believe there is a God who watches.

Freedom of religion or from religion?

It takes courage to break tradition - like the tradition of being silent as our faith continues to come under attack. Christians seem afraid, ashamed or hesitant to defend our faith. At a former Congregation, I suggested we take a booth at an event the church was volunteering at to teach folks about our tradition. The outcry I received makes me ill just thinking about it - what they said was they don't want folks to think they are trying to talk about Jesus. Seriously? Christians afraid to say they are Christians? I left the church and found one that isn't ashamed of our Founder. But those behaviors ... being afraid to talk about the very founder of our church - something that our Islamic and Jewish brethren are not afraid to do, is not rare among Christians. If Christians continue this behavior, then we perhaps do not deserve protections under the Constitution. If our faith is not special to us, why should others respect it?

But the United States was founded on the principle of "In God We Trust" - we are a Christian nation  - with over 70% of Americans self identifying as such; it is about time we stop apologizing for it as a people, allowing so called progressives to dictate the narrative, that somehow "God" is a four letter word. He is not! And I'm darn tired of liberals misrepresenting the Framers, including Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution. Aren't liberals supposed to support freedom? I could be wrong.

In Alfred Maps book Faiths of our Fathers, it is clear the Framers not only embraced freedom of religion, regardless of personal tradition, but were proud of it. It is said in various sources Thomas Jefferson commented proudly when a public building was used for services from three different faith traditions, without conflict between them. Yes a public building was used for religious services. Several of them! 

We are guaranteed freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. And it is time that Christians show some courage and, in loving, respectful but firm voice push back against those who would silence our faith, or expressions of it. Starting with public spaces; displaying a religious symbol that has significance to a community, on public property is not establishing a church or religious tradition.

In my city there is a rotary where a menorah is displayed at Hanukkah and a tree at Christmas. When the anti-happiness/anti-religion minions showed up whining about the menorah, Christians were as vocal in support, as Jews. When those same folks tried to get the tree down, Jews spoke up in support. Making the world a darker place is not affirming freedom, it is undermining it. It shows lack of respect for others. The vocal faithful won that battle...for now.

Christians also need to start alerting our elected officials about the plight of Christians in countries we send funding or military support to. Then hold both our politicians and those countries accountable to do something about these human rights violations. To reward Egypt with $250 million in military aid while Christians are harmed, and Israel is threatened is obscene. Barack Hussein Obama seems to have blinders on whom he will protect and whom he will not. His policy and timing do not show courage.

I always found it somewhat ironic that countries like Iran, Libya, Egypt, even secular Turkey, make no secret, make no apology and make no effort to change the fact that they are Islamic countries (nor should they apologize), yet folks from there take umbrage that our nation is a Christian one. Israel is a Jewish state; and it is their right to remain so. Yet we have somehow allowed the narrative in the United States to be hijacked to the point where we are ashamed to admit we were founded upon certain traditions and principles. Being a nation under God is not the same as saying you have to believe in one.  Being Christian founded, but of secular laws is a good thing. Separation of church and state is not elimination of church from state. "In God We Trust" is not a epithet. Yet the ACLU and others suggest limiting religious expression is in the greater good.

Many of our freedoms are coming under attack under the guise of a greater good. Gun control, Christianity control, and privacy control.  The increasingly intrusive government edicts under Attorney General Holder to keep information obtained on non terrorist citizens for five years instead of 180 days, and to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars monitoring talk radio, in the potential strategy of limiting freedom of speech require courage, and challenge. So much for the first few amendments!!!

Interestingly, bad behaviors culturally protected are increasingly supported by our government. Sharia - a religious law - is being allowed to coexist with our secular laws in the US. Is that hybrid not an institutionalization, an establishment of religion? Any questions... check out the United Kingdom. Sharia court is a law within the land. Why is it ok for others to manipulate the laws to reduce our expression as Christians or Jews, at the same time promoting other expressions of faiths or the elimination of them altogether?

It takes courage to break tradition - like no longer supporting candidates because of party affiliation who wantonly prostitute themselves. When someone is wrong, regardless of democrat or republican, they are wrong.  Faith, politics and human rights are strange bedfellows, but in a complicated world they are interrelated.  Watching Pope Francis challenge the traditions of faith, politics and human rights practices that for so long have done more to isolate than unify, reveal to us what we, too, must do.


Easter is a time of resurrection. A time to reaffirm the last commandment - to love one another. Not an easy task at times. But this is also a time when we affirm our faith, and give thanks for the sacrifice made on the Cross. As part of this affirmation, we might want to reassert our freedom to worship and stand up to those who would silence our expressions of faith. And we need to show courage to save and protect our fellow Christians who are being targeted for their faith around the world.

It takes courage to break tradition.

Courage doesn't come without a price. Nothing good ever does. But for the sake of a nation increasingly divided, a world where people are killed for their faith or gender, with little reaction from those who share that faith, or gender or sensibility, and yet are blessed with the luxury to live in safer places, it is time to push for change.

Easter is a time of service, renewal and courage. Whether to inspire juveniles who still have time to change their lives for the better, as Pope Francis' actions are meant to inspire, as well as demonstrating the value of women by his serving them, challenging us to focus on coming closer together, or inspiring us to rescue people of a common God from global threats, or to challenge the rhetoric of folks who use lofty words to obfuscate evil purpose, the new pope so far has set an example of breaking traditions.

May we have the courage to challenge convention, challenge our leaders on policies that imperil instead of enhance the public or national good, and break traditions -personal and institutional ones - that are barriers to freedom,  safety, and community - whether in the Christian, Jewish, Muslim faith, different faiths, or no faith at all. The stakes are too high, the body count too large, the freedoms too precious, the erosion of our social compact too advanced, and our nation too polarized for any of us to stay on the sidelines. We're all in this together. 

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    


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