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Lessons from a life

by Robert Docter – 

What does the life and leadership style of Pope John Paul II have for The Salvation Army? What can we learn from this man who led Roman Catholicism with unswerving consistency for almost a quarter of a century?

A lot!

Here are some thoughts we might ponder:

People matter most.

That phrase John Gowans used during his time in the West resonated with me as I thought about John Paul. He seemed to be a complete egalitarian. He seemed to believe that everyone was equal to everyone else. No one was better than his neighbor. He seemed to believe that when any human is lost or diminished we all suffer, and as an emissary of Christ, any threat to human rights meant everyone has lost. He was a fighter in the cause of social justice for all.

This is part of our ethic as well. Our current response to social injustice, however, tends to be very quiet and dealt with in large programs administered by competent, trained individuals with minimal participation by Salvationist volunteers. The approach is a response to the problem—not an effort toward prevention. We tend not to explore causal factors leading to social ills or speak out when injustice occurs. We tend to ignore the sources of problems. We must both respond and work with others to prevent social injustice.

While always respectful, he never worried about being politically correct.

He seemed totally secure in himself—skilled in being able to express unpopular points of view when confronting the floodgate of secular change. His rationale for decision making rested firmly in his conception of what Christ would do.

He reprimanded world leaders, including President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and President Putin, anytime there was violation of international law or infringement on the rights of individuals. As Time magazine put it, he was “never cowed by controversy.”

Unlike many Americans, he opposed both abortion and the death penalty.

If people come to know more fully the belief system that guides our ethic, they will respect us even though they might not agree with us. Who speaks for the poor in the cities and towns in which we work? Where are the Army think tanks or research organizations recommending ideas designed to alleviate social ills? What attention do we pay to slow, negative shifts in social change that place new populations in jeopardy? Are we willing to take the risk of making unpopular statements in the cause of social justice, and if so, who determines what is said—and if not, why not?

I don’t have any easy answers for any of these questions, but I’d like to see us begin some process that might make it possible for that “open-air” voice we have to be heard more often.

He was involved with humankind.

He was a bridge builder across great divides. He was culturally sensitive, but never saw someone’s race or ethnicity as the sole defining factor of their identity. During his funeral, Arabs, Sikhs, and Jews shared the same platform along with Roman Catholic leaders of Orthodox denominations and Protestant Christian leaders. He visited a mosque, prayed at the Western Wall, led services in American ballparks—and everywhere he went he attracted crowds.

Because he loved people he was able to communicate genuine sincerity to millions as easily as he did to only a dozen.

We have been called “insular” within our communities. We minister to those who attend our services. We meet occasionally with other groups in our community. Most people like us. Very few know us. I don’t believe we are sufficiently involved with what I see as a significant desire on the part of many young people today to become more spiritually aware and to help others. We are, I believe, in the “reaching out” business—“Christianity with its sleeves rolled up.” I hope we don’t forget that it takes arms within sleeves to do this. Is our armament weak? There are never enough “arms” to hug humanity.

Dominating a world stage through periods of great tension and turmoil both within the world itself and in his church, John Paul spoke clearly and pointedly about his interpretation of the message of Christ. We must do the same.

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