TIME Religion

Can Pope Francis Work a Vladimir Putin Miracle?

Pope Francis meets President of Russian Federation Vladimir Putin during an audience at the Apostolic Palace on June 10, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Vatican Pool—Getty Images Pope Francis meets President of Russian Federation Vladimir Putin during an audience at the Apostolic Palace on June 10, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.

Christopher Hale is executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

The pope can use his partnership with Putin to take a lead in foreign affairs

In light of Pope Francis and Vladimir Putin meeting Wednesday at the Vatican, it’s useful to recall the first meeting between the two in November 2013. The scariest photo of Pope Francis was taken at that meeting. Staring at the Russian president from across his desk, the pope’s demeanor suggested he wasn’t afraid of the former KGB officer who has had an iron-fisted rule over the nation for a better part of a generation. Photos speak a thousand words, but in this case, perhaps it was a bit deceptive.

John Allen wrote Tuesday:

Judging solely on the basis of personality, Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin may seem an odd geopolitical couple. Francis is a man of compassion and peace, while Putin is quite possibly the single world leader you most wouldn’t want to run into in a dark alley. Yet when Francis and Putin meet on Wednesday in the Vatican, it will bring together two figures who’ve forged an improbably strong partnership.

This partnership was originally formed in September 2013 when both Francis and Putin called on the U.S. to not take military action in Syria. Francis and Putin used two very different means to communicate their messages: Francis held a worldwide prayer vigil for peace, while Putin penned a somewhat audacious editorial in The New York Times in which he cited Pope Francis’s objection as a reason for the U.S. to not get involved in the region.

Russia-sponsored media have suggested such partnerships make Putin and Francis champions of similar values—which is clearly overstated. But Francis’s working relationship with Putin isn’t without concern. Some have criticized the pope for being too soft on Putin, particularly after Russia invaded the Crimea region in Ukraine last year. In fact, some of the pope’s strongest critics are bishops in the region.

Yet a little more than two years into his tenure, I still think Pope Francis is the best politician in the world. Twice in his relatively short papacy he’s made significant foreign policy progress.

In June 2014, Francis convened an unprecedented Vatican meeting between then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss a new way forward between the warring nations. Just a few months earlier, a frustrated Secretary of State John Kerry said his efforts to do the same had failed.

And last December, Francis helped usher in a new era of peace and dialogue between U.S. and Cuba. During President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, he credited the pope for his crucial role in the process. Just last month, Cuban President Raul Castro said that if Francis keeps going in the same direction, he might even pray again and consider a return to the Catholic Church.

If Francis can help make progress with Putin in resolving the crisis in Ukraine, the pope will have achieved a diplomatic triple crown.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Pope Francis

Liberal Clergy Lobby Vatican Ahead of Pope’s U.S. Visit

Pope Francis arrives at the Paul VI Hall for an audience with President of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on June 7, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Franco Origlia—Getty Images Pope Francis arrives at the Paul VI Hall for an audience with President of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on June 7, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.

A group of liberal clergy and union leaders headed to the Vatican this week to lobby for Pope Francis to address race relations, income inequality and immigration reform, among other issues, in his upcoming trip to the United States.

During the four-day trip, the group of 14 met with representatives from a host of Catholic organizations, including two key cardinals who work on social justice issues.

Organized by the U.S. faith-based grassroots group PICO and the Service Employees International Union, the trip’s main goal was to get Pope Francis to highlight some liberal causes during his September visit.

“God cares about poor, low-wage workers. God cares about immigrants. God cares deeply about racial justice,” Bishop Dwayne Royster of the Living Water United Church of Christ in Philadelphia, one of Francis’ three major stops, told TIME. “So it’s very important that the faith community continue to lift up a moral voice and also a mirror to those in power.”

Read More: Pope Francis’ Poverty Agenda Draws President Obama

An advocate of the “Fight for 15” movement, Royster hoped to get the Pope’s attention on labor relations in his home city. When Francis arrives, Royster noted, “he will come into an airport where we support poverty wages and people are working in an oppressive environment.”

Participants on the trip also took to social media, tweeting images from the Vatican with captions such as “#TellthePope,” “BlackLivesMatter,” and “IBelieveWeWillWin.”

Overall, the people on the trip said their goal was to advocate for the marginalized.

A former undocumented immigrant from California, Father Jesus Nieto-Ruiz went on the trip to push for Pope Francis to back President Obama’s recent executive actions allowing undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation.

“The Pope and his advisors should listen to the real stories that we have picked up from people who are struggling in this society of exclusion,” he said. “People who have been here for many years, 25 or 30 years, and are now facing deportation because they don’t have documentation—they suffer in the shadows. And that’s not human.”

Read Next: Pope Francis’ Latest Mission: Stopping Nuclear Weapons

For PICO, the trip was also part of an ongoing “Year of Encounter” campaign to tie together various liberal causes, such as universal health care, a path to citizenship and police brutality, into a broader mission.

It succeeded in one respect, with Cardinal Peter Turkson from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace inviting PICO to send a delegation in July to the Bolivian Assembly, where Pope Francis will speak during a Latin American tour.

For clergy members on the trip, the issues are both political and moral.

“The Gospel is political,” said Nieto-Ruiz. “We cannot distinguish and say, ‘Okay, the Gospel must explain theocracy,’ and then let the politicians run our lives with no principles whatsoever. Pope Francis is really incarnating for us the meaning of the Gospel. He’s inviting us to get involved in politics, even when politics is dirty.”

TIME Foreign Policy

Vladimir Putin Tests the Limits of Pope Francis’ Powers

The two are scheduled to meet Wednesday

Vladimir Putin is no longer welcome at the G7, thanks to his government’s continued incursions into Ukraine’s territory. But two days after the meeting of Western powers in Germany, the Russian leader has a meeting with another world leader: Pope Francis.

The Bishop of Rome may not represent the United States or Germany, but he is increasingly a superpower in his own right, and the Wednesday meeting is a diplomatic test of how Francis will use his influence.

The meeting is the second between Putin and the pontiff. When Francis first met Putin in November 2013, Russia was still five months away from annexing Crimea. Since the conflict began, some 1.2 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced, according to the United Nations humanitarian office. Russia continues to deny that it is sending troops across the border or arming Russian-backed separatists, and international pressure mounts to address the crisis. “Russian aggression” against Ukraine, Obama said this week, topped the G7’s recent agenda, and Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with the Ukrainian prime minister Wednesday as well. “[Putin’s] got to make a decision: Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to re-create the glories of the Soviet empire?” Obama said this week.

The Holy See, meanwhile, is working to build diplomatic relations with Russia. The two have only had full diplomatic relations for six years, and those relations took years to build after half a century during which the Soviet Union was an officially atheist state. No pope has ever visited Russia, and even when Putin first met Francis in November 2013, he did not invite Francis to become the first to do so.

Pope Francis has been working to carefully move the relationship forward, especially to advance some of the Vatican’s other diplomatic interests. He wrote to Putin when he was hosting the G-20 summit in 2013 and urged world leaders there to oppose military intervention in Syria. The Vatican has been strengthening ties with Orthodox Christian leaders via ecumenical efforts and Pope Francis’ friendship with Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Orthodox Christian Church, whose leadership is at times at odds with the Russian Orthodox Church closely tied to Putin’s government. Russia has also been a partner for Francis’ efforts to protect Middle East Christians, especially because of the shared Orthodox Christian experience in Russia and much of the Middle East. In March, the Holy See issued a joint statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council with Russia and Lebanon, “Supporting the Human Rights of Christians and Other Communities, particularly in the Middle East.”

Francis also has interests of his flock in Ukraine to consider. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, has urged Pope Francis to take a tougher stance against Putin. “As sons, we always expect more from the Holy Father … we respect his freedom to use the words that will help him mediate in the peace process.” Shevchuk said in February, according to the Catholic news site Crux.

Shevchuk has previously touted Francis’ own familiarity with the church in Ukraine—as a student in Buenos Aires, then-Jorge Bergoglio would go to Divine Liturgy with Ukrainian Father Stepan Chmil, Shevchuk has said, and as an archbishop, Bergoglio served as the ordinary for Eastern Christians without their own priests.

So far Pope Francis has expressed concern over the Ukraine issue, but only up to a point. When Shevchuk and other Ukranian bishops met with him in February, Francis called on all parties to “apply the agreements reached by mutual accord” and “to be respectful to the principle of international legality.” He also called the Ukranian bishops “full citizens” and assured them that “the Holy See is at your side, even in international forums, to ensure your rights, your concerns, and the just evangelical values that animate you are understood.”

What that protection looks like in practical terms is still an open question, and they and the world will be watching the Wednesday face-off. In recent months, Pope Francis has earned praise for helping broker a new relationship between the United States and Cuba, but that was a situation where both sides wanted to pursue peace.

The Russian conflict is very different. Even if Francis chooses to take a tougher line with Putin, there are limits to his influence. Putin has not been persuaded by the actions of the G7, after all, and the Vatican’s primary superpower is a moral one.

TIME faith

Why the Mormon Church Finally Let Black Men Into the Priesthood

The Salt Lake Temple is the bastion of community for Mormons
;National Geographic/Getty Images The Salt Lake Temple, pictured in 1975

Integration didn't happen until June of 1978

In the 1970s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a problem. The priesthood—which, as TIME later explained, ” is not a clergy rank but a status achieved by nearly all male members”—was denied to black Mormons. The Church’s rules, which had been codified in the years before the Civil War, seemed increasingly out of step with the rest of America.

Despite increasingly loud calls to change the practice, the Church dug in for most of the decade. Shortly after athletes began to protest games with Brigham Young University, “Mormon elders reaffirmed their belief that blacks cannot be admitted to the priesthood,” TIME reported in 1970. The article went on to explain why that belief was so strongly held:

Mormon belief depends largely on the writings of Prophet Joseph Smith, the church’s 19th century founder. Though Smith’s first book of revelations, the Book of Mormon, clearly states that “the Lord denieth none that come unto him, black and white,” in The Pearl of Great Price, Smith’s later translation of revelations supposedly made to Moses and Abraham, he took a dimmer view. Smith there concluded that Negroes are the descendants of both Cain, the Bible’s first murderer, and Ham, the disrespectful son of Noah; the reason for their exclusion from the priesthood is “the mark of Cain.” Though racist 19th century Christian preachers once advanced similar arguments, the Mormons go farther, maintaining that in a spiritual “preexistence” blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain.

Amending that policy would take specific instruction from God, not exactly the easiest thing to come by—but it happened. On this day, June 9, in 1978, the Deseret News carried the breaking news that “every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood.”

“The church leaders said they had spent many hours in the Upper Room of the Salt Lake City Temple,” TIME reported the following week. “Eventually God ‘confirmed that the long-promised day has come.'”

Relatively few people were directly affected by the ruling—TIME estimated that about .025% of Mormons at the time were black—but it was still a milestone for the religion. Women, however, are still not eligible for the priesthood—no matter their race.

Read the full story from 1978, here in the TIME Vault: Revelation

TIME Religion

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Prosperity Gospel Is War on the Poor

A logo sits beneath the cockpit window of a Gulfstream G650 business jet, manufactured by General Dynamics Corp., on the first day of the Paris Air Show in Paris on June 17, 2013.
Bloomberg via Getty Images A logo sits beneath the cockpit window of a Gulfstream G650 business jet, manufactured by General Dynamics Corp., on the first day of the Paris Air Show in Paris on June 17, 2013.

TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.

Many of the poor are more willing to place their faith in prosperity gospel than in the tarnished legend of the American Dream

I’ve always been annoyed by Hollywood sports movies that spend nearly two hours earnestly preaching about how it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose the Big Game because what’s really important is the spiritual growth achieved through the challenge of competition. But then the movie predictably ends with the protagonist winning the Big Game anyway and being carried away on the shoulders of admiring teammates. The twisted lesson seems to be: Once you acknowledge that winning isn’t important, you will win. The fiscal corollary is: Once you acknowledge that money isn’t important, you will become fabulously wealthy. And more important than the winning or wealth is that witnesses are there to admire your achievement, to hoist you up on metaphoric shoulders of envy.

It’s crazy logic that stomps spirituality into pulp like a mugger pummeling a victim in a back alley. Like something Cersei Lannister would propose on Game of Thrones. Yet, that is the line — that God wants believers to be wealthy and that giving donations could improve your wealth — that some proponents of the so-called prosperity gospel have been selling. And like the snake-oil salesmen from whom they are descended, their product has a greasy stench to it that cures nothing but the salesman’s own greed.

Which brings us to Pastor Creflo Dollar’s earthly reward last week. In March, his plea to his congregation for them each to donate $300 or more so he could purchase a $65 million Gulfstream G650, the jet of choice for discerning billionaires flying the heavens like self-anointed angels, seemed to have been abandoned after public outcry. But now that the outraged voices have died down, the board of World Changers Church International, which oversees Creflo Dollar Ministries, has said it will buy this “Holy Grail” of aviation. The campaign to purchase the jet, the board said, is “standard operating procedure for people of faith” in “our community.”

And that’s the problem. Who are these “people of faith”? According to a survey for TIME magazine, those who embrace the prosperity gospel tend to be African Americans, evangelicals and those less educated. Though the specific theology from church to church can differ, the general claim is that the more money you give to the church, the more God will financially reward you. But this column isn’t about Creflo Dollar and the other multimillionaires who have cynically perverted Christ’s teachings to fill their silk-lined pockets. It’s about how the country shifted from the war on poverty in the 1960s to the war on the poor today.

The prosperity gospel is just another battlefront in that war. We could just shrug at the hundreds of thousands who willfully give up their money so their pastors can live in the kind of opulence that rivals that of the Roman Caesars. We could dismiss these worshipful congregants as victims of their own greed. But that would be misreading the situation. While greed may motivate the mansion-dwelling pastors, the congregants are motivated by hope of a better life. This is the same desperate, though misguided, hope that droves Americans to throw away $70.15 billion on lottery tickets in 2014, more than what was spent on sports tickets, books, video games, movie tickets and music combined. Who buys those tickets? According to a 2011 study, “Gambling on the Lottery: Sociodemographic Correlates Across the Lifespan,” the highest rate of lottery gambling (61%) came from those in the lowest fifth of socioeconomic status, concluding that “males, blacks, Native Americans, and those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods” were more likely to play.

In essence, many of the “people of faith” are the poor who are more willing to place their faith in the lottery and prosperity gospel than in the tarnished legend of the American Dream. The recent economic recession has delivered a gut punch to that American Dream of working hard and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps until the inevitable riches follow. Sure, it still can happen, just not as often as it used to. Now burdened with enormous college debt, fewer prospects for well-paying jobs, rising housing costs and increased cost of living, more of the what used to be middle class are slipping over the edges of the financial cliff and falling on hard times. According to the CBS News article “America’s Incredible Shrinking Middle Class,” the size of the middle class has decreased in all 50 states. Where have they gone? To the poor side of town. More than 45 million (14.5%) Americans lived in poverty in 2013, up from 12.3% in 2006.

Without faith in the government to help lift the poor out of poverty or prevent the middle class from slipping away, desperate and frightened people seek help in the supernatural of religion or in the supernatural odds of the lottery (odds of winning on a single ticket are 1 in 175 million). It’s hard not to be sympathetic.

Americans have always had difficulty reconciling the lofty pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with the worldly hunger for material prosperity, especially if the former rejects the latter. We want to win, even if winning means we lose something even more valuable not tangible because our fame-mongering, social-media-driven culture tells us we haven’t won unless everyone else acknowledges it. (If someone does a good deed in the forest and no one’s around, is it still a good deed? Not anymore.) But how does one keep score in the spirituality game? According to the purveyors of prosperity gospel, your friends and neighbors will know how righteous you are by the size of your bank account and the make of your car.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he says, “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also” (Matthew 5:40). The coat was considered to be a shirt while the cloak was a crucial garment to protect against the elements. Combined with Jesus’ admonishment to turn the other cheek when struck, we see a teaching that is establishing the basis for Christianity: Tend to what is permanent (the soul) over what is temporary (material goods). To expect an earthly reward other than purity of mind would go against these teachings. Yet those pimping the prosperity gospel are preaching the opposite.

I’m in awe of most religious leaders because they dedicate their lives to helping others achieve spiritual fulfillment. I’m also in awe of most practitioners of religions because their goal is to do the right thing for their god and their community. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful and wealthy. But there is something wrong when some people exploit the poor, the fearful and the desperate to enrich themselves through donations and tax-exemptions by pretending to be spiritual leaders. Like the professional pardoners of the Middle Ages who pedaled indulgences to the highest bidders, they pervert teachings for profit. These are the people that the word shame was invented to describe.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Captain America Dons a Turban

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Armed with a beard, a shield, and a sense of humor, I learned why the U.S. needs new superheroes

I was born in our nation’s capital in the early 1970s – but sometimes when people see me in my turban, they think of conflicts in faraway lands, terrorism here at home, Hollywood caricatures, and sensationalized news coverage.

Donning the costume of a superhero—complete with unitard and shield, in addition to the turban of my Sikh faith—changed all that. Suddenly, there was no question that I was American.

Like any good comic book, there’s an origin story. One that covers moving thousands of miles away from home after high school, trying to make my superpower invisibility, and fending off a constant barrage of hate speech.

Sikhs believe in the innate equality of all, striving to merge with energy that traverses every speck of the universe. Fighting against injustice and practicing the art of compassion are part of our spiritual practice.

As a physical manifestation of this journey, Sikhs must don long, unshorn hair as a natural extension of the human form. This was how I grew up experiencing my faith, though otherwise I had been brought up fairly secularly. (Our Sunday ritual was a trip to the butcher to buy fresh meat, rather than a temple visit.)

I first experienced hatred directed at me because of my religion in India, where I spent much of my childhood after my parents moved the family back to their country of origin in 1975. Following the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 by her two Sikh bodyguards, Sikhs were hunted down on the streets of many Indian cities.

We were fortunate to survive the fury of an angry mob that surrounded the apartment building where my family lived in New Delhi. But many Sikh men and boys would not be so lucky. Many were burned alive by having gasoline poured over them and lit on fire across the Indian capital and other cities.

When I graduated from high school, I moved back to the United States, hoping for a calmer transition to adulthood in Los Angeles. However, I began to encounter hatred of a different variety: offensive calls of “genie,” “clown,” and “raghead,” and laughter at my appearance.

In college, I felt overwhelmed at being stereotyped so much that, by sophomore year, I decided to take off my turban and clip my long hair, which had not been cut since I was born. After a short trip to the barber, all eyes were suddenly off me. I had magically transformed and did not stand out anymore.

I wouldn’t don a turban again for almost 10 years. First, I would fall in love with the words of Asimov, Plato, Nietzsche, Abbott, and Freud. I would explore meditation, Buddhism, and Taoism. Finally, I came back around to the Sikh faith through experiences with the religion’s music.

In August 2001, I put my Sikh turban back on. Only a month later, the horrific Sept. 11 attacks happened. As we watched the TV, shocked and horrified on that terrible day, I remember a coworker looking at me with bloodshot eyes, on the verge of tears, as if I was somehow responsible for these attacks. That was a prelude to a new normal in America that would look at my turbaned and bearded countenance as the ultimate “other” in our midst. The most common racist insult hurled my way ever since has been “Osama,” even after bin Laden was killed.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, after people who look like me were the victims of hate crimes by bigots across the United States, a piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore would change the course of my life. Fiore’s animated cartoon entitled “Find the Terrorist” prompted users to click on the faces of people of all races and countries of origin as a way to point out our own witch-hunting tendencies and prejudices.

The cartoon so powerfully captured my identity and feelings that it inspired me to create my own cartoons featuring Sikh protagonists. In late 2002, my website Sikhtoons.com was born—and it has since provided a way to channel all my whims, frustrations, and inspirations, in cartoon form.

As my website gained attention, I began traveling across the U.S. to showcase my work and host cartoon workshops, mostly at Sikh gatherings and events. In 2011, in preparation for my first trip to the New York Comic Con, I drew a bearded Captain America wearing a turban, inspired by my experience on the streets of America and the release of the Captain America movie that summer. With a flash, reality and fiction collided to present this vision in my imagination.

A photojournalist named Fiona Aboud saw the drawing at the convention and suggested that I come back next year actually dressed as Captain America myself. I swiftly responded, “No.” I had never worn a costume, ever, and being teased my whole life for my skinny frame had further taught me to avoid drawing attention to myself.

Almost a year later, the massacre of six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 at the hands of a white supremacist prompted me to pen a few cartoons and an op-ed in the Seattle Times, making the case for a new American superhero who doesn’t take on Nazis, mad scientists, or communists, but rather takes down the real evil-doers in our society: those who commit hate crimes.

More than ever, we need a hero to fight intolerance and suspicion of people who are not like us, forces that are ripping our country apart. Fiona emailed me after reading the piece and made a second request for me to dress up as Captain America. This time I agreed to her request for a photo shoot on the streets of New York City.

The shoot took place on a sunny summer day in 2013. It was one of the most amazing days of my life. Hundreds of onlookers snapped pictures of me and with me; police officers posed with me in photos for their kids; strangers hugged me; and I even got roped into participating in a wedding party (complete with a photo-op with the bride and groom).

An essay I wrote about the experience on Salon.com, which had six photos from Fiona’s shoot, went viral, gathering over 50,000 likes on Facebook. The images in the article keep finding a home to this day, on blogs and websites around the globe.

I have now traversed the country in my spandex uniform (later upgraded to the one featured in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier), from New York to Los Angeles, Kansas to Mississippi. My trips have taken me to universities, museums—even the backstreets of NYC with a late night comedy crew – to see corners of America I never thought I’d be invited to.

I have received messages of support from Americans in every walk of life: police officers, veterans, active service members, teachers, conservatives, liberals, men, women, black, white, Asian. The embrace of fellow Americans re-enforced my belief that we have much more in common than our eyes lead us to believe, that we all want to believe in a superhero that embodies the goodness of America, even if that superhero doesn’t resemble the clean-cut Chris Evans. And we can all have a good laugh about what I look like in a unitard.

Along the way, I have learned how much my own insecurity about my body keeps me from taking risks, and experiencing life’s many surprises.

I know comic superheroes are not real. In the American tradition, they have long been an extension of the imagination of many young immigrants. Young Jewish Americans of Eastern European descent, who survived the Depression era and battled forces of anti-Semitism, wound up creating one of the most iconic of superheroes—the Man of Steel, Superman.

Superheroes are always in our midst, in a sense. It turns out that just the uniform of a fictional character from the early 1940s, Captain America, created to fight with Axis powers in World War II, does possess a real superpower: It opens doors to new conversations and new visions of what our country can look like as its best self.

Vishavjit Singh is leading a double life. By day, he is a software analyst. By night (and on weekends), he creates cartoons that can be consumed at Sikhtoons.com. He can be reached at @sikhtoons and vsingh@sikhtoons.com. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

What Pope Francis and Joseph Biden Can Teach Us About Suffering

joe biden funeral Beau biden
Patrick Semansky—AP Vice President Joe Biden, center, pauses alongside his family as they to enter a visitation for his son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, at Legislative Hall in Dover, Del, June 4, 2015.

Christopher Hale is executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and the co-founder of Millennial.

Tears at tragedy are evidence of faith

On Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden will bury his son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who died May 30 at the age of 46 after a long bout with brain cancer.

This isn’t the first time tragedy has struck the Biden family. Shortly after Biden was elected to the United States Senate in 1972 at the age of 29, he lost his wife and oldest daughter in a car wreck a week before Christmas. In a 2012 speech, Biden, the first Catholic vice president of the U.S., reflected on how that experience affected his relationship with God:

I was angry. Man I was angry. … I was a practicing Catholic at the time, but I was mad at God, oh man. I remember being in the [Capitol] Rotunda walking through to get the plane to get home to identify — uh, anyway — and I remember looking up and saying, ‘God’ I was talking to God myself: ‘God, you can’t be good. How can you be good?’

Biden’s anger at God is a perfectly appropriate Christian response to tragedy. From Moses and David to Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, heroes of faith have had moments of anger and doubt. Jesus himself cried out from the cross, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

In January, while Pope Francis was visiting the Philippines, a young girl who had lived on the streets asked him, “Why did God let this happen to us?”

After praising her for her courage, Pope Francis said that she asked a question that does not have an answer. The pope didn’t provide a distant theological reflection on the epistemology of evil. He simply focused on her tears, saying, “Only when we are able to weep about the things that you lived can we understand something and answer something.”

This is the kind of response that Joe Biden might appreciate. The vice president has expressed frustration with people who tried to related to his personal tragedies: “I have to tell you. I used to resent people. They’d come up to me and say, ‘Joe, I know how you feel.’ I knew they meant well. I knew they were genuine. But you knew they didn’t have any damn idea.”

Pope Francis tells us that we must respond to tragedy by asking God for “the grace to weep” at the sufferings of others. Photos emerged Thursday of the vice president crying in front of the casket of his oldest son. If Francis is right, these tears aren’t a sign of weakness, but tremendous evidence that faith is still alive in Joseph Robinette Biden.

No one can claim to know why God let Beau Biden die so young, but we do know that the God who lost his son Jesus is crying with Beau’s father. In Joe Biden’s suffering, the vice president is giving his fellow Christians a tremendous example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Faith isn’t always a source of answers, but it can give us a sense of the road forward. It’s alive in anyone who has suffered an intense loss and kept moving, who has doubted the existence of God and yet prayed anyway, and who has endured suffering for the sake of another and found great strength in doing so.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Pope Francis the Chemist Should Give Congress a Science Lesson

Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's square on June 3, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Franco Origlia—Getty Images Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's square on June 3, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a PhD candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.

When Pope Francis speaks to Congress, he'll likely provide moral—and scientific—instruction

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has called on Pope Francis to “leave science to the scientists” in an effort to avoid supporting the pope’s message on protecting the environment and fighting climate change. With the pope’s upcoming encyclical, or letter, on the subject set to be released in the next two weeks, it’s unlikely that this will be the last time we hear a prominent Republican use this line. One big problem: Pope Francis is no scientific illiterate. He has a certification as a chemical technician and worked as a chemist.

Perhaps when the pope addresses a joint meeting of Congress later this year, he will not just provide some moral instruction, but also clear up a few scientific matters, too.

Pope Francis defies the liberal-conservative divide that shapes Congress, and given his straightforward, pull-no-punches approach, he will likely challenge both Democrats and Republicans to reject the “throwaway culture” that he has repeatedly denounced during his papacy. In particular, the pope is likely to challenge Republicans to accept the reality of climate change and to support measures that would protect the environment. Meanwhile, he’s likely to challenge Democrats on abortion, as he treats the issue as integral to social justice and the defense of human rights.

The pope’s upcoming encyclical will likely highlight the impact of climate change on the poor, something that increases the imperative to act urgently, given the Catholic Church’s “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.” The overall framework is likely to call for an end to the “economy of exclusion” and “globalization of indifference” that has fostered irresponsible environmental policies. Francis will also likely challenge the West’s consumerism and disregard for future generations, while calling for sustainable integral human development that reflects the responsibility to care for God’s creation. While many Democrats would cheer this message, many Republicans would likely squirm in their seats.

Santorum is not the only one nervous about the upcoming encyclical. Conservative and libertarian Christians have already begun to push back, attempting to undermine the authority of the pope on this issue. Republicans, including practicing Catholics like John Boehner, have been quick to denounce proposals to combat climate change as job killers that threaten the economy. When asked about the strong scientific consensus on climate change, they plead ignorance, arguing they are not qualified to assess the evidence because they are not scientists, and now they are trying to include Pope Francis in their supposed circle of ignorance.

While Pope Benedict was labeled “the Green Pope” for his strong stance on environmental protection, he did not face this type of backlash. The difference has been the rising tension between a pope who frequently and relentlessly denounces under-regulated capitalism and a Catholic Right in the United States that is enamored by free-market fundamentalism.

But we may also see Francis ask members of Congress to accept scientific consensus on another issue, and this time, it would be Democrats, not Republicans, squirming in their seats.

When asked about when a child “gets human rights,” President Barack Obama, as a candidate in 2008, said that from both a theological and scientific perspective, this question was above his pay grade. This dodge may have reflected his desire to avoid a philosophical debate in which a distinction is drawn between a child’s personhood and his or her humanity.

Yet Pope Francis has said, “Science has taught us that from the moment of conception, the new being has its entire genetic code. It’s impressive. Therefore, it’s not a religious issue but, rather, a clear moral issue with a scientific basis, because we are in the presence of a human being.” Pope Francis may very well reiterate his point that “it is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” He will likely connect opposition to abortion to support for pregnant women and families, along with other issues that threaten the vulnerable, such as poverty and human trafficking, as he has in the past.

Ultimately, his consistent “whole life” approach to human rights and social justice will likely inspire and challenge every member of Congress. Francis will likely put forward a similar standard to former Senator Hubert Humphrey’s: “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” That is enough to make every American, not just every member of Congress, squirm.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME free speech

Just Because Something Is Free Speech Doesn’t Mean It’s O.K.

Alia Salem is the executive director of the Dallas / Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"I question the purpose of free speech when it's hate speech and when it's meant to incite violence"

Last night in Phoenix there was a “free-speech” rally outside a local mosque where Muslims attended Friday prayers. The rally featured a Draw Muhammad cartoon contest similar to the one targeted by two armed men in Garland, Texas, earlier this month. The event’s organizer, who wore a t-shirt that said “F— Islam,” had encouraged attendees to come armed with guns and rifles.

Is this legal? Yes. But is it OK?

In the aftermath of the shooting in Garland, the national discussion quickly turned to the question of what constitutes free speech and whether it is acceptable to purposefully insult a community in order to rile them up to illicit a response. I was relieved to see that, for the most part, people thought the two men were exceptions to the rule of behaviors accepted in Muslim practice. Instead of being about Islam, the debate was about the responsibility people have when they exercise their free speech.

As a community leader, I naturally worry about the safety of the communities I serve. I question the purpose of free speech when it’s hate speech and when it’s meant to incite violence. As a society, we are responsible for what we allow to go unchecked and what we accept as socially permissible actions.

Anti-Muslim activists can say or draw whatever they want, but I have the right to say that I think their words are disgraceful, their actions are dangerous, and I am not OK with it. Their actions are dangerous because they seem to be intended to turn communities against one another using fear, lies, and intimidation. They are dangerous because they seem to prey on people’s prejudices and inflame them to the point at which people think it’s acceptable to treat people they don’t like with hatred. They are dangerous because they seem to define patriotism as something that only belongs only to those who think and act as narrow-mindedly as they do.

Are we a nation that approves of people terrorizing others because they hate their religion and want the world to know it? Many will say yes because that is what they think free speech is. They will say that free speech means the freedom to say whatever you want, whenever you want.

I agree that free speech is an important freedom. But after waking up every day to put on my headscarf and walk out the door—braced for the stares, the fingers, the slurs, and the death threats—the lens through which I view the world has changed. Anyone who has ever scrolled through the comment feed of a story online that has anything to do with Islam and Muslims knows that by doing so, you will either lose faith in humanity or learn offensive insults that combine the words “pig,” “dog,” “raghead,” expletive of choice, and some version of “Get out of my country.”

This may be free speech. Last night’s rally in Phoenix may be, too. But I don’t think these acts should be socially acceptable.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Islamic Community Center Standing Tall in the Face of Armed ‘Free Speech’ Protesters

Usama Shami, the president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, speaks at the mosque on May 4, 2015, in Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin—AP Usama Shami, the president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, speaks at the mosque on May 4, 2015, in Phoenix.

"We have the right to assemble, the right to worship, and he's not going to take that right away from us"

Leaders at an Islamic community center in Phoenix say they’re standing tall in the face of armed protesters who are planning a provocative “free speech rally” in front of the mosque Friday night.

Former Marine Jon Ritzheimer, who planned the rally, is urging attendees to “utilize their Second Amendment right”—the right to bear arms—as they protest during evening prayers at the mosque. He is also organizing a Muhammad Cartoon Contest as part of the protest, which is considered blasphemous by many Muslims.

“I know that he is hoping for confrontation,” Usama Shami, president of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, said of Ritzheimer. “The whole point of bringing guns—these are not peace tools, these are meant to intimidate people.”

“The whole issue with cartoon drawing is to inflame emotions and hoping that someone will cross the line,” Shami added. “We’re not going to be falling into that trap, we understand what he’s trying to do.”

Ritzheimer said the rally is a “response” to the May 3 shooting outside a Texas “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest,” in which both gunmen were killed by police. ISIS claimed responsibility for the shooting, but it’s unclear whether they actually helped plan the attack.

“Islam has an ugly track record,” Ritzheimer, who also organized a May 17 rally in front of the same Islamic center, told TIME in an email. “Our founding fathers gave us the second amendment to protect ourselves from tyranny. I would hate for an attack to happen at this event and people be ill prepared and un able to protect themselves.” Multiple photos on Ritzheimer’s Facebook page depict him wearing a T-shirt that says “F-ck Islam.”

Despite the rally, evening prayers at the Islamic Community Center are scheduled to go ahead as planned.

“We’re not changing anything,” Shami said. “If they want to express their opinion and draw cartoons, that’s up to them. I don’t like them, but they have the right to do that.”

Ritzheimer said he hopes to hold additional events across the country.

“I want Freedom of Speech Rallies to pop up in every state,” he said. “I want the truth about Islam exposed because people are ignorant to the religion if they haven’t read the Quran. I want to know that my children won’t have to be threatened with murder for drawing a cartoon.” Ritzheimer is not affiliated with Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, who organized the Texas event where the shooting occurred.

Shami said the mosque would have extra security Friday night, but he and his congregation are unbowed by the protest. “We’re not going to be intimidated, we’re citizens of this country like he is, we have rights like he does,” Shami added. “We have the right to assemble, the right to worship, and he’s not going to take that right away from us.”

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