I’m posting this today, not because any of us think what happened to George Floyd was okay–I’ve yet to meet the person who thinks that–but because we, as Catholics, need to be reminded that it’s not enough just to think it’s not okay.
Our bishops have talked about the realities of institutional racism through this document, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call To Love.” They’ve told us also that we have a responsibility to act, and that the first part is to recognize how we are complicit in the continuation of racism in our country. And that is the part too many in the Catholic community are unwilling to do. This week I’ve encountered Catholics who won’t even read this document because it calls us into that hard examination of conscience, and they refuse to believe there’s anything to examine.
This is one of those times when being Catholic requires us to be intentional. Because if we aren’t, then we aren’t really being Catholic at all. We’re letting pre-determined worldly values determine how we interact with the world, rather than doing the hard work required when our faith directs us.
I went to a park to meet a friend and her son, my godchild, to social-distance celebrate a birthday. She was upset, and I didn’t immediately realize why. She had to lead me almost all the way there.
I have rarely felt the privilege of my own skin color so keenly.
Because unlike me, she and her son are not white. And while the events of the past week, beginning in Minnesota and spreading all over the country, are a source of grief to me, for her they are inescapable realities that she has to wrestle with on a daily basis.
What is the future for her child? For all her male loved ones? Can they not go running in their neighborhoods? Do they really need to be afraid every time they see a police officer?
We rarely recognize how deeply our unconscious biases affect us. How many ways we have taken worldly values (self-reliance, personal responsibility, small government, and money, always money–it’s my money, no one has a right to it, especially a central authority, even to help lift up vulnerable populations) and tried to use our faith to justify them.
It’s not that those values are without merit. Of course they have merit. But they so easily become idols, when the Gospels make it clear that people ALWAYS come first.
As my friend and I talked, I could empathize–sort of. The cluelessness of white America is, for her, something like the cluelessness I encounter about issues surrounding disability. Whenever I share a frustration I experience with institutions that interact with my daughter–health care, schools, etc.–I get pushback from people who oversimplify the situation. People who don’t understand that the pat solutions that seem so obvious to them simply don’t work. The tangled complexities of the situation are invisible to those outside it. Even those who are closest to us generally don’t “get” it, because they haven’t experienced it themselves.
Last fall I tried to explain our family’s struggles with special ed to a group of health care workers who were studying issues surrounding special needs. I thought I could tell the story in twenty minutes. At twenty-five minutes, I realized I was only a quarter of the way through, and the audience was zoning.
Even an audience of people most poised to understand really couldn’t “get” it.
So I understood, on an intellectual level, my friend’s deep frustration and woundedness. But I don’t *understand* what it’s like to be black in America. Not at a deep, visceral level, the way the black community does.
The only solution to all this is to “hear with open hearts,” as the pastoral letter from the US Bishops on racism teaches. To accept that what we cannot “get” at a visceral level is nonetheless real, and to recognize that it calls for a response from us. Not just an express-my-outrage-on-social media, write-a-blog-post response, but a “don’t blame the victim for the way things got out of control” response. A “hold my leaders accountable for their inflammatory words and lack of positive action” response. A “quit giving them a pass because they check the box on a single issue, regardless of how poorly they reflect the rest of my faith” response.
It’s been a hard slog, the last couple of months. Although Memeland USA has tried to lighten the mood by joking about it (my personal favorite was a picture of Doc and Marty, with the words “First Rule of Time Travel: Never go to 2020!”), the humor is only an attempt to bleed off some of the stress. Some among us are struggling financially because of lost income. Some because of the stress of illness or death–coronavirus-related or not–in a time when families can’t even gather to grieve. Some because mental health is hard to maintain in a time of anxiety and isolation.
That last was the struggle for me and my household. It took us a full month to get our equilibrium–which I achieved partly by counseling, partly by a 100% withdrawal from all news sources. And prayer, of course, but prayer guided me to those real-world solutions. Prayer is rarely a fix-all on its own. In prayer, God guides you to what *else* you need. God is the creator of science and psychology, after all.
I still have to be vigilant about mental health in certain quarters in my family, but I know we had it pretty easy compared to others. My Facebook feed is filled, top to bottom every day, with evidence that more people are still struggling than not.
I’ve started dipping a toe back in the news now, and the vehemence and acrimony of the protests against stay-at-home orders and masks are really striking. I heard a report this morning that in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a man threatened a business owner with a gun because he didn’t like the citywide requirement to wear a mask inside businesses. I mean, really? REALLY??
Full disclosure: I’m a flute player. Wearing a mask makes me feel like I’m suffocating. But I’m wearing them anyway, not when I’m outside, but when when I go to the grocery store or the hardware store. Why? Because I trust the medical authorities who say this is one small sacrifice we can make for the greater good.
That news story this morning just blew my mind. I don’t know what that man’s beliefs are. What I can say for certain is that his actions show a lack of respect for life and the Gospel. The Christian call is about self-emptying, about placing others’ needs ahead of our preferences.
And that’s my point for today. The whole point of being “intentional” about the faith is to take it out of the realm of the vague generalizations. It’s easy to talk in general about self-emptying, but the real test is what happens when you’re asked to make a sacrifice for others. Especially when you’re already struggling with loss of income or freedom of movement or mental health or loved ones.
For years, we in the religious community have criticized American culture for being hedonistic, for the idolization of instant gratification and “me, me, me.”
Those are totally just criticisms.
But the response to this pandemic shows that hedonism, instant gratification, and “me, me, me” is just as much a problem among religious people. (How many of those signs demanding an end to stay-at-home orders invoke God?)
This pandemic is nothing if not a series of opportunities to make sacrifices. When I think of people in Italy and Spain, who weren’t even allowed outside (because where would they go without encountering others?), it is abundantly clear to me that my stay-at-home order, which allows for biking and hiking and playing outside and taking walks in the neighborhood and going to the grocery store and on and on and on, is really a *very* small ask for the health of the community.
And now, as my community begins to open up–today, in fact–the discernments are going to get more complex. With schools and businesses closed, there wasn’t really anywhere to go, anyway. We had no choice but to honor the greater good by staying home.
Now, we have to start learning a new balance, because as important as “flattening the curve” was, economic motion is vital to the community, too.
But we can’t be cavalier about it. To be a Christian in this new reality means we have to think, rethink, and rethink again. All the rules and rituals we take for granted have to be re-examined. How do we best balance the safety of the community and the need to slowly expand exposure to this new virus, against the need to get the economy moving again so that everyone can regain the dignity inherent in work?
It’s inevitable that for the foreseeable future, we’re all going to have to give up things we’d like and deny ourselves things we’d like to do on our own schedule, but which now have to be planned around the greater good. It’s not going to be fun.
But we can view this as an invitation to grow in faith and holiness–by self-emptying, by doing the things we don’t like for the greater good.
Ever since “it’s the economy, stupid,” this has been how every issue is approached, both personal and societal. Who am I kidding? If the Vatican II bishops were talking about this, clearly it’s been this way since before the 1990s. But it’s impossible to escape the message these days. No matter what crisis is happening (coronavirus is one, but there have been plenty of other instances), the go-to response is always “how is it going to impact the economy?” As if that were the only–or even the most–important factor.
As a Catholic striving to put my faith above all else–far, far above money, which is supposed to be how we survive and do good in the world, not the defining factor of existence–I find this fixation problematic. We say we want to be a Christian nation, but that only holds as long as the topic is some moral issue that costs me nothing, because it doesn’t impact me personally. As soon as it’s a Gospel directive that affects *my* pocketbook, it’s a whole different story.
I’ve never succumbed to communal panic about crises. The closest I came was my senior year of high school, when some dude who’d “never been wrong” in predicting an earthquake predicted the biggest one ever on the New Madrid Fault, and it happened to line up with the day I was out of town auditioning for all-state band. I think my response was to pack a blanket in the car.
So it felt very… wrong… somehow, yesterday, to go to the grocery store a day early and spend more than twice what I normally spend on a week’s worth of groceries to freeze–vegetables, snack packs with nuts & cheese, milk & pizza makings. It felt like abandoning a long-held principle.
But if things do follow recent patterns, we could find ourselves quarantined in our home for two weeks, and if that happens, well, I have six people to feed. Extra groceries seems like a reasonable precaution.
Here’s what I’m realizing this week: in the coronavirus era, more than ever, living the faith intentionally requires humility and self-checking one’s biases.
I, for instance, have been very resistant to the limitations on worship that have come down. But I remind myself that devotion to purity of worship is a golden calf just as deadly as idols of political philosophy or money. There are immuno-compromised people to consider, and their dignity is more important than the externals of worship.
We all have some hangup to get over. Some people are so certain that “on the tongue” is the only proper way to receive the Eucharist, they are unwilling to bend in the interest of public health. Others insist we shouldn’t ban the Cup or stop the sign of peace because obviously God will protect us.
For all of us, the coronavirus outbreak is a wakeup call. For years, we’ve been warned that something like this was inevitable, but we all shrugged it off.
And now that it’s here, we’re reaping the fruit of our collective failure to listen and compromise. While Americans up and down the political food chain have been busy screaming at each other about a handful of hot button issues, a bunch of critical things have been ignored. We’re not prepared for a health crisis like the one China and Italy have been facing. This morning, a family member sent the text of an article from the Economist (a British magazine which is rated “least biased” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a rare distinction), which stated that “In 2010 the CDC budget was $12.7 billion in current dollars; today it is $8 billion.”
Meanwhile, the talk in some quarters is more tax cuts. Tax cuts *might* stimulate some minor economic movement (although with everything closed/canceled, what are we going to spend it on?), but the nation is already deeply in debt. You can’t keep cutting government’s funding and expect it to be able to carry out its proper function–i.e. the protection of the population.
Our basic vocation as Christians is to care for each other. Sometimes that’s on an individual basis, person to person. But if we want to be a “Christian” nation, then we should view that as a collective, societal vocation. To accomplish that is going to require taxes. Taxes are not evil; the pandemic illustrates that some functions simply *cannot* be carried out on an individual basis. They *require*, by definition, centralized intervention. We can’t hold any philosophy, whether it’s Communion under both species, Communion on the tongue, or low taxes, so tightly that we give up the thing that’s most important–the Christian call to care for each other.
This seems like such a simple quote. I was going to let it stand without commentary, but I realized that this is really the essence of the convictions of all Christians who are passionate about social justice. To be a Christian is to care, in a self-emptying, physical, sacrificial way, for others. And to recognize that the things we do now have ripples down through history, on generations not yet born.
This quote expresses why we have a responsibility to act on environmental issues, on racial issues, on issues of poverty and inequality–the whole range of questions that are the most uncomfortable to address, because they challenge cherished ideals of self-reliance and rugged individualism.
There’s been an uptick recently in the expression of a point of view that suggests that since we are citizens of Heaven, not earth, we should not pay attention to earthly suffering or strive to alleviate it. The Church says otherwise.
Listening to today’s daily reading caused me to perk up. What an image James uses to remind his community that simply talking about being a disciple isn’t really being a disciple! Farther down in the reading, he clarifies what he means by “doing something”: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world. What struck me is the both/and of it–social justice AND personal piety. No false binaries here.
What this reminds me of, though it’s a separate issue, is tax shelters, offshore corporations, and tax loopholes. I’ve often heard, in relation to taxes, “As long as it’s legal I’m going to take advantage of it.” But we recognize that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s morally right (cough-cough-abortion). So using this argument as justification for doing whatever possible to hoard as much money as possible has never sat well with me.