Monday, November 27, 2017

Christian Leadership Navigating Geopolitics: Pope Francis in Myanmar amid Ethnic Cleansing

With the U.N. having “denounced the murder, rape and pillaging of the Rohingya in western Myanmar as ethnic cleansing,” Pope Francis had to “strike a careful balance” during his visit to the country in late 2017 “by maintaining his moral authority without endangering his tiny local flock.[1] Even the decision to meet first with Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander of the military that had “driven more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country” could be taken as a compromise of the Pope’s moral authority because Francis would met with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of the government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the next day.[2] That the local Cardinal had urged the Pope not to even use the word Rohingya during the visit pointed in the direction away from the Pope acting as a moral compass and thus to a hit to his reputation as a leader of principle rather than expediency.
Considering the salience of agape, or self-emptying love, in Christianity, the spiritual virtue should be in the Pope’s leadership even in the context of national and global politics, especially if on behalf of a persecuted group. Was not Christ himself persecuted? Furthermore, a history of Christian martyrs suggests that compromising for the sake of one’s self or organization enjoys little legitimacy. To gain the whole world and yet to compromise or lose an opportunity for spiritual leadership in a secular, sordid context—evading talking truth to power—has an anti-Christian resonance that can deplete a Christian leader’s reputational capital.   
The institutional self-protection that an organization tends to engage in can rationalize all sorts of antithetical conduct, including protecting clerics who rape children. Are not such children worthy of protection even if the institution itself bears the brunt? What then of a persecuted religious and ethnic minority? If Christ evinced love where it is not convenient, then Christian leaders should be protecting other religions even more than Christianity itself. Paradoxically, only in such a way can Christianity really thrive, for being true to itself—being authentic rather than self-serving—is true strength, whereas expediency evinces weakness.  

[1] Jason Horowitz, “Pope Francis Arrives in a Myanmar Tarnished by Rohingya Crackdown,” The New York Times, November 27, 2017.
[2] Ibid.