This quote struck me with particular force because so often the idea of formal apologies to the black community for enslavement, discrimination, and segregation evokes such strong negative reactions among whites. Like, Why should we have to apologize for something we had no part in? Reading this document is an examination of conscience, inviting me to recognize that this is a cultural and generational problem–that it is not, in fact, a problem relegated to the past, but something very real today. And for that reason, it is my problem.
One of my kids is studying Westward Expansion right now. This weekend, after finishing his homework on Lewis and Clark, he ran to his brother: “Did you know Lewis and Clark were the FIRST PEOPLE EVER TO SET FOOT IN THIS AREA?”
Thankfully, I was right there, so I could correct this gross misunderstanding of American history. “Uh, no,” I said, “they were not the first people to set foot in this area.”
“Well,” he said, “the first Americans, then.”
“No,” I said again. “Not that either. The Native Americans were Americans long before anyone else. Lewis and Clark were just the first white people.”
It’s not the first time I’ve had to correct such errors in my kids. They’ve brought home statements about how “all the shootings” take place in THAT park, which is why we can’t go there (something their classmates were told by their parents). And so on.
And I think, How in the world are they picking these things up? They’re not getting it from me or my husband! (Are they?)
But then, so much of it is just in the water, in the air. We are whites, surrounded by whites, and this is how we look at the world.
I’ve had white friends say, “Are there really more police shootings of unarmed black men, or does the media just highlight every one, so it sounds that way?” (If you’ve ever wondered the same thing, read this and this.)
I’ve had white friends say, “Those people shouldn’t block the interstate with their protest. They don’t have any right to disrupt the community.”
I’ve had white friends say, “Those football players should be playing football, not making political statements.”
I’ve had white friends say, “A bunch of those people in ___ were a bunch of professional activists that travel around. They weren’t even locals!”
And the more of these comments I hear, the harder I wince. Because what, in any of those comments, acknowledges the injustices suffered by minorities? Don’t they all boil down to: “I don’t believe you”? Or: “I can’t be bothered”? Or: “Accepting what you say would force me to change how I talk/think/act, so I’m going to go looking for reasons to justify ignoring you”?
Where we run into trouble is—as usual—in the nitty gritty, practical details. It’s a lot more comfortable to act like racism was all taken care of by the Civil Rights Act and desegregation. Who wants to hear that if there are disparities in education, in earning, in opportunity, in policing, it’s because there is still institutional, communal, societal racism?
Those of us who have benefited from the system sometimes get defensive about having it pointed out to us. We sense a threat to our way of life. Or at least, to our mental and emotional comfort. Because if we admit that such disparities actually exist, we’d have to change our opinions and attitudes. I think that’s why there’s such resistance to the term “white privilege.”
I’ve come a long way in the past few years, but I still routinely discover unexamined biases and presuppositions popping up in myself. My ongoing challenge as a Catholic Christian is, first, to be honest about those biases, and second, to be open in mind and heart to people of color when they say, “This is what I have experienced.” To take them at their word. Not to suggest that they’re overreacting or being stirred up by some outside nefarious influence (how insulting is that, anyway?)—in short, not to look for excuses to dismiss the cry for justice.
Only then can I start to discern how to stand in solidarity in the quest for a world that better reflects God’s kingdom, where all are equal and beloved.
To answer this question, I need to go back: far back, to me as a little girl, running around church parking lots on the first Sunday in November, slipping prolife flyers under windshield wipers. To a little girl who went to Confession and said, “But Father, I don’t feel anything,” and was told, “If a person is cold because they have no coat, do they need you to feel something, or do they need you to give them a coat?”
I was a super-analytical kid growing up in the midst of a large and extended family of opinionated German Catholics who spent too much time arguing right and wrong in the context of American politics. As a college freshman, I accidentally landed in an honors English course focusing on Darwin. Confronted by atheism, I dug in my heels and recommitted to conservative politics, convinced that in every position thereof lay God’s will for the universe, clearly laid out in black and white. I was called “super Catholic” by my older sister, and not only did my husband and I practice NFP right out of the gate, we taught it for seventeen years.
But then this other thing happened to me. I gave birth to a child with a disability, and my world turned upside down. Not all at once. But turn it did.
The first blow to my neat and tidy view of the universe came when, in my self-analysis, I realized I’d been skirting an unpleasant truth through years of infertility: I was not open to “whatever God sends,” because I was not open to having a child with Down syndrome. At all. Those first days in the hospital with my second-born, I had a bruising collision with my own inadequacy as a disciple of Christ.
But as that old saying goes, the cracks are where the light gets in.
As I fell in love with my daughter and became a passionate advocate for her right to a place in the world, I began to see that my pat definition of “prolife” was woefully myopic. It wasn’t enough to say that people with disabilities are a gift and they have a right to be born. I had a front row seat to the steep cost of this gift—and don’t get me wrong, she is a gift. But there were surgeries. ICU stays $5000 orthotics. Five therapy appointments a week. We are lucky—we live in a place that is held up as a model of what can be done for people with disabilities, and between the services offered here and fantastic (and publicly-funded) health insurance through my husband’s university job, we’ve had a pretty easy time of it.
But what about those without the supports we have?
I realized it’s not enough to say that people like my daughter have a right to be born. Disability imposes a burden on families—a joyful, beautiful, rich burden, but a burden nonetheless. If we truly want to build a culture of life, we cannot tell those families the kids are a blessing to society, but the burden is Not Our Problem. Such a position is the opposite of prolife.
And with that one brick, the neatly-constructed wall–the one that protected me from seeing how complex and nuanced the intersection of faith and the real world really is–began to crumble.
Now, I live in a mess, with problems to wrestle on every side. Every hot-button topic in modern America has been revealed, in light of this new understanding, to be a rat’s nest of complications. But I wouldn’t give it up, because the quest to become the woman God is calling me to be is more real, more meaningful, more enlightening, and altogether precious to me because of the mess.
How does one live the Catholic faith in the real world? By being open to the mess. By considering, pondering, wrestling, and praying for God to make his will known in the specific circumstances, the practical, concrete realities of daily existence. Even when the answers don’t line up in neat black and white categories. Even when they challenge biases and reorder priorities.
How does one live the Catholic faith in the real world?
I start here, because this is the heart of the Gospel:
We spend a lot of our emotional energy as Christians on how often we go to church, on what style we sing when we get there, on how to dress for church, on the right to pray in public, and so on. It’s not that any of these are not important, but if we go back to the Gospel, this is what Jesus told us is the measure of discipleship. Read it full here.