Francis and the Crisis of Bodies: Protests and Pandemic

Francis and the Crisis of Bodies: Protests and Pandemic

David B. Couturier, OFM. Cap.

How did the medical crisis of a global pandemic become engaged with the social crisis of racial injustice in America? How did the pandemic turn into a protest movement for racial justice? The statistics give a first insight. The rates of infection among black men are proportionally higher than the rates of white men. African-Americans are also significantly over-represented in the population of those likely to die from the disease. (Blacks are dying at 2.7 times the rate of whites.) Much of this is due to pre-existing conditions exacerbated by unequal access to preventative medicines and quality health care in both the urban and rural areas where African-Americans are concentrated. It is a “crisis over bodies,” specifically African-American bodies, that is the intersection point between the pandemic crisis and the racial justice crisis. This paper argues that this “crisis of bodies” is rooted in economic, social, cultural, psychological, and religious forms of tolerated distance between certain populations in our society. It argues that there will be no transformation until those tolerated distances are acknowledged and transformed.

The Crisis of Bodies in Franciscan Thought

We remind ourselves that the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi began as a “crisis over bodies.”[i] The crisis of his adolescence was a simultaneous triple crisis. It was a financial crisis between the majores, the wealthy nobles, with their “strong” money and the minores, the poor, and their “weak” or “soft” and manipulated money. It was a social crisis of greed and antipathy that sent neighbors and fellow citizens into endless spasms of war. It was a medical crisis on how to care for the sick and vulnerable, especially those whose lives were ravaged by infectious diseases, like leprosy or Hanson’s disease. We know how Francis handled these three crises as a young man. They landed on the bodies of the lepers.

From the sources we understand that Francis could not go within two miles of a leper hospice without demonstrating his disgust and disdain for bodies disabled by leprosy or Hanson’s Disease. Francis had grown up a child of privilege, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. His ambitions as an adolescent were of fame and fortune and the will to fight for the good and glory of his beloved town of Assisi. Francis had an exalted view of himself and his destiny; his instincts were that he was made for greatness. He went to war to realize it.

He came back from war disillusioned and broken in body, mind and spirit. He had seen his childhood friends, the ones he used to party with, massacred and left for dead on the bloody floor of the Umbrian Valley. His disillusionment and despair were profound. He couldn’t believe that his family, his society and his church had allowed him to go to war and possibly death to advance their own lust for violence and greed. He returned to Assisi after his incarceration as a prisoner of war to search for a new path and purpose for his life. For a while he retained his disdain and disgust for lepers and maintained his distance from them. That distance, however, was not just in meters or miles. The dislocation between him and lepers was a political, religious, social and psychological distance. The distance had a profound, disturbing and dangerous cultural and religious meaning of extraction and exclusion.[ii] Part of the conversion process that Francis had to undergo was precisely the spiritual, psychological, and social transformation of distance itself, which he had used as a cultural and religious weapon against the poor and vulnerable.

By rituals and banishment, the leper would have been officially made “invisible” to humankind, unworthy of attention, reduced to non-personhood for the rest of their lives in the wild forests in the valley below Assisi. They were obligated to announce their limited and distant visibility by the rattle of sticks, so that others could depart from their path.

Their social classification had been changed by the public and visible act of the “separatio leprosorum,” by which the individual was ritually buried by the community, exiled to the edge of the settlement and then subsequently shunned by society at large as a person no longer.

When Francis embraces the leper on the road, he reverses the dynamics of visibility and invisibility with regard to those excluded from society. He turns his disgust into dignity and makes the leper visible again, indeed even central to the whole meaning of his religious Franciscan movement. One might say that the leper becomes “hyper-visible” in what is to become the Franciscan movement, as Francis moves the entire episode and his own religious call from hostility to hospitality. Francis replaces surveillance of the leper with service, as he turns a providential eye of care and compassion on the leper who joins (or, one might say, leads Francis into) a movement where the entire creation becomes a brother-sisterhood of hospitality. The crisis over bodies which coincided with Francis’ threats of terror and fears of insecurity is re-engineered and the ontology of bodies from which Francis worked, the ontology of the diseased and distanced body of the leper, becomes re-narrated as the ontology of the body of a brother resurrected to personhood in the graced fraternity of the lesser brothers.

Just as Christ’s body was crushed and broken to make it invisible and socially useless by the political and religious leaders of his day, so too is Francis’ body weakened by the ravages of war, malaria and leprosy. When Francis returns to LaVerna at the end of his life, he is convinced that the ontology of his own body has been found wanting and useless, as good for nothing. His body is wracked by sickness, disease and the results of his enormous penances. However, all seems for naught. Francis is disillusioned and convinced that he has lost control of the religious movement he had begun. He comes to Mount LaVerna in deep distress. However, the Stigmata, the imprinting of Christ’s nail marks on Francis’ body, makes his body hyper-visible as the means by which his fraternity will be recognized and reformed. The Stigmata also reveals that the negative surveillance of the brothers will be transformed. The mockery and murmuring against Francis, the brother who knocks at the friary door at midnight and is rejected by his own fraternity, will be recast not as rejection but as a “perfect joy,” the moment of fraternal reconciliation.

What Francis learns at LaVerna are the lessons of a new surveillance created in fraternal dialogue. Up until now, the friars have been watching Francis with increasing levels of mistrust and frustration. He, for his part, has been surveilling the brothers with his own depressing moods and modes of disappointment. By the end of his life they had arrived at a stalemate of mutual dissatisfaction and dis-ease. However, it is Francis’ stigmatized body that will re-narrate the meaning of mercy and compassion. The body sacrificed for the other, the body that does the work of mercy, however spent, is the means of reconciliation and the font of peace.

Distance and Contemplation

In his youth, distance was a tool of fear, anxiety, disgust and disdain for Francis of Assisi. It was a political, religious and cultural weapon of social categorization. It was a way to designate those who were worthy and unworthy, those who were included and excluded. To make progress in the spiritual life meant that Francis had to undergo a wholesale revision of the meaning and experience of distance itself. It appears that Francis learned to refashion the psychological and spiritual meaning of distance not by plunging into an incessant and active immanence, as we might do in our frenetic modern world, but by going away for a time into contemplation, creating a new kind of distance. It was away in silence, in hidden places that Francis began to understand the political and social mechanisms of distancing. It was where he also came to understand the relief and release that a true and ardent absence can bring to the soul that learns to yearn well and deeply.

It was away and at a distance, alone with the Alone, that Francis could finally understand the surveillance traps he and his brothers were involved in with each other. He could come to grips with his disappointments with the brothers’ inconsistent living of the Franciscan movement, their rejection of him and their tendencies to shun and avoid his strict interpretations. It was only from a contemplative distancing that Francis could find the love he had for the brothers deep within the disappointments and disillusionments he harbored against the very movement he had founded. It was only from within that mystical distance that he could come to see in a cruciformed way the true meaning of his life, the deeper sense of his times and the part he was meant to play in its transformation. It was the Crucified One, the Seraph, who revealed to Francis how we must come to self-sacrificial love through an engagement with a contemplative distance, with an “ardent absence.”

Pandemic and Protests

The pandemic we are undergoing reveals the social, cultural, medical, educational, financial, and religious distances we still tolerate and maintain across every sector of American life. It is our sad but enduring American legacy of racial injustice. We still live in a society that uses the tool of “distance” to keep minorities and other vulnerable populations from the opportunities and access needed for equal thriving in the health and wealth of America. We continue to put up and maintain obstacles that depress the capacity for African-Americans and Latinos to accumulate wealth at the same rate as white Americans. It is not enough to point to advances in salary-equalization. We need to look at the distance in wealth accumulation (wealth inequality) between whites and blacks across the generations to get a real picture of justice in America.

Pandemics reveal social disparities but it is the nature of protests to propel a society beyond itself.

The protests today with their broken buildings are symbolic of the broken bodies that are afflicting all of us, but some of us in disproportionate numbers. The higher than average accounts of black deaths in this pandemic are not accidental but are baked into the system as reliable indicators of systemic inequities in health care, home care, and access to care. Some bodies break faster and more often than others, because the vulnerabilities are deeper and inter-generational and the access to adequate care is more difficult to find. And so, broken buildings are “used” as “necessary” and “available” signals and markers of where the pain and the hurt are deepest in America. They point to the sharpest pain and the more complicated of stories. We need to see the “broken buildings” as more than symbols of destruction and chaos. They are markers of where change is needed for the common good. They disrupt our apathy and our lethargy.

It is time for white America to admit with Francis of Assisi that our ongoing distance from the vulnerable in education, health care, wealth, and leadership is manufactured and maintained by privileges not yet disowned or discarded. Like Francis, we still stand two miles away, not close enough for justice!

Protests are the evidence that people have realized that the injustices of racism are not inevitable. They can be changed; they must be changed. The distances we have manufactured to keep both the privileges and the privations of racism in place have to be dismantled and the protests indicate the moment of conversion has arrived.

It is time for Franciscans to acknowledge the connection between the leper and the lynching tree.

But, it is also the right time and the holy time  to bridge that distance and to repair the world by embracing those we have too often abandoned, disregarded, ignored and excluded and finally make good on the promise we made to one another on an independence day long ago – that all women and men are indeed created equal. It is the right and just time.


[i] These thought on distancing, privacy and surveillance are developed in a new article, see David B. Couturier, “The Surveillance of the Victim: Visibility, Privacy and the Crisis of Bodies in Franciscan Thought,” Cross Currents (upcoming issue, 2020).

[ii] David B. Couturier, “From an Economy of Extraction to an Economy of Inclusion,” Franciscan Connections: The Cord 67:3 (2017), 26-33