Monday, December 11, 2006

Theology of Flip-Flopping: More on the Pope

Is Benedict Flip-Flopping?” is the title of an analytical article by Jeff Israely in Time magazine, on the Pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul where together with Istanbul’s Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, he paused for a “Moment of Prayer.” Flip-flopping has got a bad name in the American media these days in the context of a president who is a resolute non-flip-flopper. On the other side of the coin was the flip-flopper-in-chief Senator John Kerry, who having voted to authorize the President’s going to war, changed his mind.

In his analysis of the Pope’s visit to the Blue Mosque, author Jeff Israely wonders, “Has the man who was once iron-clad Cardinal suddenly gone soft?” The question in the mind of New York Times write Ian Fisher was “Has the Pope gone wobbly?” This is the subtitle of his article entitled, The Pope Without His Sting.

Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, was a resolute non-flip-flopper. With dogmatic rigidity he defended and reaffirmed Catholic doctrine and took disciplinary measures against out-spoken liberation theologians and those engaged in interfaith dialogue. Papal observers were not particularly surprised when in September he delivered a controversial lecture on faith and reason at the University of Regensburg, which seemed, at least to the Muslim world, to equate Islam with violence. This event, which Israely calls “the young papacy's quintessential Ratzinger moment,” set off massive protests in the Islamic world and a worldwide debate about how Islamic and western cultures should talk to each other.

Last week, the same man did something few could have imagined. He flip-flopped. Only the second Pope in history to visit a mosque, the Pope visited Istanbul’s grand 17th century Blue Mosque. His purpose was nothing more than a brief meeting and a photo-op with Istanbul’s Mufti (chief cleric) Mustafa Cagrici to show the world that he was willing to mend fences with the Muslim world.

Having warmly welcomed the Pope, the Mufti walked over with his honored guest to a place of prayer which faces the direction of the holy city, Mecca. But when he told the Pope it was time for a "moment of serenity," Isarely writes, “Benedict looked for an instant as if he had been caught off guard.” Despite previous planning, he may not have been entirely ready for this moment. But God works in mysterious ways, even in the life of a Pope. Despite knowing full well that this act might not sit well with some of his followers, Israely writes, “Benedict neither turned away nor turned cold, and simply lost himself in prayer for all to see (he actually prayed twice as long as Cagrici)” providing the most powerful and eloquent moment of the entire trip, perhaps his papacy.

If the Pope flip-flopped, he is in high company. Indeed, flip-flopping is a valued Biblical exercise. The Bible has many instances in which God’s mind changes. “God repented” is not an uncommon biblical phrase. Indeed, when a calamity that will cause significant human suffering is contemplated, the divine mind is prone to change. Among the several examples is the favorite biblical story of Jonah, where just a third of the way into the city, the people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s preaching and turn from their sin; and God “changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). God flip-flopped!
The divine mind similarly flip-flopped, even after 70,000 Israelites had died in a divinely ordered pestilence and an angel was sent to destroy Jerusalem for the sins of King David. “[T]he Lord took note and relented concerning the calamity; he said to the destroying angel, “Enough! Stay your hand.” (1 Chronicles 21:15)

And Jesus flip-flopped. At one point in his ministry he had clearly indicated that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) That was in the context of a gentile woman’s desperate request of him to heal her devil-tormented daughter. Biblical scholars struggle to explain Jesus’ reaction to his poor woman, which sounds worse than Michael Richard’s recent rant, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Perhaps as some say it was a common saying. But Jesus seems to have been startled by the woman’s response; perhaps in somewhat similar ways to the way the Pope may have been startled at the invitation to pray facing Mecca. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Faced with the immediacy of her request, with the parochial nature of his mission and startled by the power of her faith, he flip-flopped. Jesus changed his mind, the course of his mission and lifted up her faith as an example to his disciples. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done to you as you wish,” he said to her, and the daughter was healed instantly (Matthew 15:28).

Many others in the Bible and throughout Christian history – too numerous to mention -- flip-flopped. The Bible has a different word for flip-flopping: repentance. The word metanoia in Greek means turning around, going in another direction, changing your mind. When he flip-flops the Pope is standing steadfastly upon a solid Biblical and Christian tradition. And so are all of us flip-floppers, who change our mind and go in another direction.


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