I’ll admit, I got duped into signing up for Audible a few months back. I always sign up for promotions and then forget to cancel. A few weeks ago I discovered I had accumulated “credits”, so I purchased a lecture series on the life and faith of St. Francis of Assisi. Every morning and afternoon I drive the highway between Orange City and Sioux Center listening to insightful commentary on his life and ministry.
I remember a few years back when the “Benedict Option” was all the rage. Here’s a summary from Rod Dreher:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation. hhttps://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/benedict-option-faq/
Right or wrong, this approach always struck me as elitist. The emphasis on withdrawal for the sake of formation means building up alternative institutions. Even critics of the Benedict Option seemed stuck in a concern for power and influence, arguing that Christians need to inhabit the upper echelons of political and cultural institutions so they can be salt and light. The debate that ensued seemed more concerned with ways for the Christian community to hold on to power and influence either by removing ourselves from the barbarians, or trying to beat them at their own game. Listening to the lectures on St. Francis—and discussing Leonardo Boff’s interpretation of Francis with my students—I wonder if the time is right for the church to pursue a “Francis Option”. The Francis option means stepping outside of the ideological struggle, renouncing power, wealth, and influence for the sake of the gospel. It’s not a retreat from the world, it’s the renunciation of the systems and power structures in order to be a community for the world. It’s a call to poverty. Not the form of poverty that results from oppression and injustice—this is a direct result of sin— but poverty that consciously chooses to forgo security for the sake of the world.
One of the more powerful examples of this from the life of St. Francis is his visit with the Sultan, al-Kamil. He traveled to Egypt to meet with the Sultan at great risk to his life. He was following Christ’s command to love our enemy, and while his attempt to convert the Sultan to Christianity was unsuccessful, the two developed a mutual respect that deeply impacted Francis. So much so that in an addition to his First Rule he writes, under the heading Going Among the Muslims: “If any of the brothers wish, by divine inspiration, to go among the Muslims and other unbelievers, they should go with the permission of their minister and servant…The brother who goes, then, should conduct himself among unbelievers in these two ways. First, do not create arguments or contentiousness, but instead, ‘For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,” while still confessing yourself to be a Christian. Second, when you see that it is pleasing to God, announce God’s Word, so that they might come to believe in the almighty God…” Francis of Assisi: The Essential Writings.
The second admonition was the norm for Christian mission; the first—not so much. Echoing the work of St. Patrick in Ireland, it offers a different approach to living in the world without power or privilege.
It’s time for the church to consider the Francis option—to divest ourselves of power and wealth, to no longer be concerned with the survival of our institutions, and to no longer concern ourselves with maintaining a hold on power and influence. Then we can get back to the work the gospel requires—living as the new people of God in the world, not creating “arguments or contentiousness…while still confessing yourself to be a Christian.”