In light of the discussions taking place online these days, it seems like a good time to revisit what the US Bishops have to say about racism, and in particular institutional racism, in our country, and what that reality means for us as faithful Catholics. There’s a lot of anger going around these days on both sides of every issue, and we ramp each other up. Extremism on one side begets extremism on the other. Neither of which are justified, but people only want to point the finger at the other side rather than acknowledge extremism on their own.
Too many Christians seem eager to write off the entire question of civil rights and institutional racism because of violence in some protests. Of course, horrific things like people shouting “let them die” outside a hospital where police are fighting for their lives are equally indefensible.
It’s so tempting to take the extremes, because the extremes are easier. It’s really messy in the middle, where we have to call out both “let them die” and the institutional racism that has sparked the protests which, in some cases, have turned violent. It’s easier to blame one or the other and act like the problem is ONLY one thing.
The reality is, whenever we paint things in absolutes–whenever we write off one point of view because of the faults of some among them–we are part of the problem. That messy place in the middle is exactly where we must be as Christians.
Our bishops are telling us in the clearest possible way that race matters, that racism is real, that we are part of it whether we mean to be or not, and that we thus have a responsibility to act for change.
I cannot say it strongly enough: read this letter in its entirety.
It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.
The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.
I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.
It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear. They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”
Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”
But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”
In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.
People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.
None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.
For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.
But the way we say them matters.
Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?
What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?
“Trample my courts no more! To bring offerings is useless; incense is an abomination to me.” (Is. 10:13)
Isaiah really didn’t mess around, did he? Most of the time we focus in on the feel-good prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.
But in yesterday’s first reading, Isaiah says, “Guys, seriously. God’s not interested in what you’re bringing to the altar. You’re trying to substitute ritual for meaningful action in your real life. Your worship is useless. What gives worship meaning is what you do outside these walls, and you’re not doing it.”
This reminded me powerfully of a lengthy reflection I read a few weeks ago. The context is race, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the way we interpret various passages in Scripture. When we hear passages like today’s, we shake our heads at those poor blind, hard-hearted Israelites. But when the readings of comfort come, we think they’re meant for us.
Today I just want to share a couple of paragraphs from that article, which was an uncomfortable but eye-opening read. In fact, the article is one of many in a magazine issue devoted to forgiveness; the whole issue this came from is on my to-read list. I encourage you to click through.
There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.
It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”
How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”
I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”
But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?
It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.
So I did.
I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?
But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.
There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.
*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.
I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—
When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.
Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.
The basic premise behind “Intentional Catholic” is that we should examine everything we encounter–every gut reaction, every human encounter, every decision, every news story, every moral question and political issue–through the lens of our faith.
Many of the songs we love and sing robustly at church are about justice: Canticle of the Turning; Send Down the Fire; All That Is Hidden; Anthem; Christ Be Our Light; We Are Called; City of God; We Will Serve the Lord; Lift Up Your Hearts, to name a few.
These songs stir us because they awaken in us a connection between a real, tangible world and “Thy kingdom come ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.”
They stir us, in other words, because they underscore that justice is *supposed* to be something to be something we work toward on earth. That’s literally what we’re praying for in every Our Father we recite.
This presupposes that we have a role to play in that, because as Teresa of Avila famously said, we are now God’s hands and feet on the earth. They stir us to desire that just, peaceful world.
But when it comes to putting in the effort to make that happen, we crash into our own idols. We start fussing about what actually constitutes “justice,” because we start to realize seeking it is going to threaten some of our own worldly priorities and political philosophies. At some level, we begin to recognize how our idols might have to give way in order to truly see the Kingdom made reality on earth as it is in Heaven. We start feeling threatened by how much we might be asked to give up.
And in the end, we’re stirred by the music, and we talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk.
And so justice remains a far away dream. People who have experienced oppression protest. Some among us look for reasons to justify dismissing them, while others with the best of intentions react so strongly to such dismissals that they end up perpetrating a whole other kind of injustice.
I’m really struggling with the world right now, if you can’t tell. Toss some hope my direction.
A small but vocal segment of my social media circle has been spam-sharing memes that, whatever the intention, give the message “Racism isn’t a real thing, and blacks need to get over it.”
I’ve seen people do character assassination on George Floyd. Quotes from MLK urging nonviolence that are accurate, but ignore the fact that he also acknowledged “Riots are the language of the unheard.” Posts about how one of the first slaveowners was black, so clearly nothing going on now has anything to do with whites or institutional racism. How we don’t have to listen to any of the current outrage, because violence negates their moral authority. Etc., etc.
Well, yes, obviously violence is bad. But think of your kid saying, “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mom.”
And you keep saying, “Hang on, wait a minute,” because you have Important Things to do.
So then they say again, “Mom!”
And you say: “I said hang on!” Even though you’re getting sidetracked by the next thing, and the next thing.
“Did I say wait? Wait!”
Eventually they’ve had enough and they throw something and break it. And now they finally have your attention. Boy, do they ever.
Were they wrong to resort to breaking things? Yup.
But you were wrong first, for ignoring them when they were asking for your attention in an appropriate way.
This is not a perfect analogy by any means. Most especially because whites are not blacks’ parents, and blacks shouldn’t ever be under the authority of whites. It drives me crazy that this is the analogy I think of, because it smacks of paternalism.
But on the other hand, I am a parent, and parenthood is the lens through which I see most of life.
I have more thoughts about what justice is–I barely even touched the quote I shared above. But I’ll save that for another day. In the meantime, here’s the speech with the MLK quote.
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.
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.