Our long and hard spring of 2020 has become even harder, as we now face not only the anxieties and threats associated with Covid-19, but also rekindled public rage over the sad reality of racial divisions in our nation.
As Catholics we are blessed to have access to the fullness of God’s revelation about the truths of human dignity and of what is required in a just society. This makes us keenly aware in our depths of the multiple layers of sadness and disorder in our current social situation.
Racism is a Serious Social Ill Among Many Serious Social Ills
Easy to identify is the surface layer of disgust and unease over the death of a man at the hands of a police officer when it seems there is no justifiable cause. It violates every sense of trust we are taught to have in authority that by its nature is ordered to the protection of the defenseless and vulnerable.
Near the top of the layers of revulsion is also the tragic fact that it was a black man who was killed by a white man. This opens up anew the unhealed wounds of racial division that have been with us since the beginning of our nation’s history. It raises anew the questions of the disadvantaged social and living situations in our country of the black community, and of systemic discrimination that persists on every level of society.
The layers of unease go deeper. What sort of environment or public cultural framework produces persons that would ever think it justifiable to take another person’s life in the manner that this police officer did? Conversely, what type of social framework produces a mindset that leads persons to glamorize the taunting and baiting of law enforcement officials in riot gear? There is deep fear in the hearts of many persons of color in our country of being subject to abuse of power at the hands of law enforcement officials. There is also daily fear on the part of law enforcement officials of being attacked, compounded by the severe stress and worry of making any misstep at all given the high-stakes nature of their profession.
The pervasive and mutual attitudes of fear and mistrust are a toxin in our communities. The palpable level of anger, frustration, despondency, and despair is rising all around us with every passing year. The toxicity extends far beyond the realm of law enforcement vs citizens. It is a social toxin that produces evils such as school shootings, inflammatory political discourse, and greater disregard for human respect and decency.
Even deeper is the layer of sadness over the realization that increasingly in America, we do not speak a common moral language, we do not share a common set of ideals, and we labor under the burden of numerous contradictions about power, personal dignity, rights, and freedom. Under such conditions that lack a common framework that defines our day to day reality, it becomes starkly apparent that real unity and community is not possible. This is the sorrowful realization that occurs to us as we watch images of buildings being looted and burned in acts of thuggery that have no justification whatsoever, much like the killing of George Floyd also had no justification whatsoever.
The word that enters one’s mind at times like this is: anarchy. What sort of America will I encounter tomorrow? What is to be the America of my children or grandchildren? It cannot be one that looks like it looks now. This we know with sinking sadness deep, deep inside of us.
The Desecration of All That Is Sacred
There have been numerous calls by religious leaders to expunge racisim from our midst, and that is accurate enough. However, the real problems we are dealing with here go far deeper than that. This is only secondarily about race; it is a question of fundamental human respect and identity, and about the necessity of a common moral framework for society that cannot have its origins in mere human devices.
We are witnessing the desecration of the sacred: of the sanctity of human life regardless of race, of the sanctity of institutional order, of the sanctity of personal rights to property, freedom, and even to worship. The same common toxic cultural cesspool that bred a hateful killing of George Floyd has also bred a culture of vengeance, riots, vandalism, family decline, attacks on the unborn, suppression of religion, and the overall glamorization of violence, of destruction, and even of evil itself for its own sake. It is a culture that has decided it no longer has any use for God, at least not a god that is attached to “institutional” religious identities.
Conversion, Prayer, and Penance Are Our Authentic Remedies to Our Ills
Therefore, we all know what is needed. On the surface it will be laws. But, on the deeper more important layers of reality it will be personal conversion that leads to broader cultural renewal. All of that will only be the fruit of personal prayer and penance. Only God can bring it about, as we seek his face in the faces of those around us, regardless of race or status. Any attempt to do it without divine grace will only lead to further misery.
We can and should pray for an end to racism. More than that, we should simply pray period. Pray for conversion of ourselves and those around us. Pray that God will overlook our fundamental lack of respect for him, his teachings, and for each other. Pray for a better tomorrow for our children and grandchildren.
Even with our public health restrictions, many of our churches remain open for personal, private prayer. Before anyone else takes to the streets, we should first stop in a church to pray about how and why we are taking to the streets. Only God can change hearts, and we must ask him to do so before we try and do so by our own limited means.