So the pope, the president, a Muslim and a Jew walk into a bar ...
Surely, I'm not the only one to tighten the frame around President Trump's wildly ironic and ambitious foreign odyssey to promote "tolerance." Which, let's face it, would seem to be the joke. The most candidly intolerant president in history set out Friday on a Napoleonic expedition not to conquer the world but to advance a cause he apparently embraced yesterday.
Meanwhile, the many possible outcomes — from monstrous, Earth-tilting gaffes to World Peace In Our Time (and lots in between) — are riveting to consider. And, all hinges on the performance of the most unpredictable, unlikely emissary ever to cross the threshold of Air Force One.
That's my inner cynic speaking. My inner Pollyanna has a different take: Maybe he has had a Damascus moment and fallen from his high horse. He had a brutal week, to be sure. Maybe he has received grace, discovered humility, found the key to his cloistered empathy and is embarking upon a historic pilgrimage of repentance and reconciliation.
While these two forces wage war in my head and the media take bets on Trump's first faux pas, I'll give the president's advisers this: brilliant idea. During his nine-day trip, Trump is touching base with three of the world's largest religions, visiting Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican City. He's also scheduled to attend a NATO meeting in Brussels and a G-7 conference in Sicily. His itinerary is almost too large to grasp, but grandiosity demands grand plans. And, really, what could possibly go wrong?
The president's mission includes advancing religious unity and beseeching other nations to join the United States in ending religious persecution and human trafficking, as well as putting an end to the Islamic State. The agenda is complicated by more than a few confounding factors. Trump meets with NATO after having questioned its legitimacy. And Saudi Arabia, ostensibly our ally, is a chief funding source and exporter of Wahhabism, Islam's most virulent and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Speaking around such inconsistencies is tough turf even for the most experienced diplomats.
Most fascinating and compelling, to me at least, is the slated Wednesday meeting between Trump and Pope Francis, the figureheads of the secular and spiritual worlds. The two men have been exchanging potshots since before Trump's election, with Francis criticizing Trump's immigration policy, his attempted travel ban and The Wall. He also suggested that Trump isn't very Christian, which prompted Trump to fire back that no one should question another's religious belief.
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With their meeting on the horizon, Francis has said he always tries to find "doors that are at least a little bit open." Maybe if Trump sticks to script, he'll be on solid ground with the topics he intends to discuss.
The U.S. has long recognized that where religious freedom is restricted, terrorism and extremism flourish and minorities suffer. And Francis has made human trafficking, which he has called "a plague on the body of contemporary humanity," one of his key issues. There are today more people living in slavery than at any other time in history, with estimates as high as 27 million.
Trump can make the case that not only is slavery evil in its own right but human trafficking is intricately interwoven with terrorism and religious persecution. This overlap can be seen in the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East, such as the Islamic State's Palm Sunday slaughter of more than 40 Coptic Christians in Egypt during worship services. Other intersections are seen in the theology of rape practiced by members of the Islamic State, who, in between prayers, have sexually assaulted women and young girls from the Yazidi community as religious ritual.
In other examples of slavery, just from Myanmar: Ethnic Rakhine civilians have been forced by the army to dig graves, porter guns and perform other manual labor. Child soldiers are drafted in to military and forced labor. Ethnic Kachin women are trafficked to China, where they're forced into marriage or work.
One needn't be aligned with Catholic theology to recognize the inherent evil of such practices. One only needs to be human. Out of respect for the purposes of Trump's trip, we should only wish the president godspeed and, if you believe in a higher power, lend him your prayers.
And may your cynic and your Pollyanna make peace.