A Franciscan-Christian Response to Racism
It is eight days or so into the riots over the death of George Floyd at the hands the police, the people who are supposed to protect and serve citizens. Since then, many other people died directly due to riots, the very thing these “protests” seem to be again. People are claiming destruction of peoples’ property isn’t violence because it is justified in order to change an unjust system. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Riots are the voice of the unheard.” C.S. Lewis said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” How we do we listen if we are deaf? How do we get our hearing back?
Last week I wrote about why I decided to become a Franciscan Friar and priest instead of a police officer. Basically my article points out that I can have a bigger impact inspiring people to a conversion of heart and following Jesus Christ instead of enforcing laws. For what its worth, I respect the rule of law, respect police agencies while recognizing their shortcomings and sometimes their terrible abuse of their power. That being said, and with a modest twitter following of over 10k accounts, I felt like I have a modest responsibility to share my thoughts about racism and the Christian response.
Before I get into that matter, just a little story of how I think I’m perceived as a priest as a public figure. This past January I attended the March for Life, and I have for years. I posted a group picture on Facebook. A few weeks later when I was going to visit my (non-Catholic) friend out of state, he said his wife wouldn’t be joining us for dinner. She was upset that I was at the March and refused to see me. My friend said that me being at the March did not support women’s rights and that as a leader in the Church, I need to pay more attention to what image I present. I’m not here to comment on the March and women’s rights, but I was shocked to be considered a leader in the Church. I’m not working in a parish or high school, so I have very little ministerial contact with the laity, but I’m still perceived has having some sort of authority. I certainly have a responsibility to preach the Gospel, even when I’m not doing public ministry. And I sometimes forget that. With that, I present the following.
A former student of mine sent me this question:
“Just with everything going on with the death of George Floyd, I realize that that racism is still apparent in this country and that there’s a great injustice. I guess my question is, as someone who’s striving towards living a good, Christian life, what do I do about it all?”
Man alive that’s a tough question. My TL:DR response is that social change happen very, very slowly and most of us can only influence a handful of people that know us and interact with us regularly. And any change we support has to be done while our eyes are fixed on God and we listen to those around us.
Jesus was revolutionary in how he questioned existing authority and would spend time with anyone. He didn’t care about someone’s sex, nationality, class, or religious. He spent time with everyone He encountered and challenged them. If Jesus had a mission or vision statement it was preaching about the nearness of the coming of the kingdom of God. Literally everything Jesus did in His life was motivated about bringing heaven to Earth and that all people on Earth might go to heaven. Everything Jesus did points to this! And to the best of our ability we need to do the same. So obviously prayer is needed, but we cannot stop there.
With the use of hashtags, movements, and all sorts of other well intentioned but short-sighted mechanisms, an important concern can be forgotten about as soon as it arrived. George Floyd was not the first African-American man to be killed in police custody, this is sadly not a new problem. And more sadly, I don’t think these types of killings, or the underlying issue of racism, is going to go away soon. But, by the grace of God, it will in time. But we got some work to do.
Laws are helpful and insofar as they reflect natural law. But laws also must come from the people enacting them and they need to be enforceable. If a police officer breaks a department policy, they must be held accountable. If there is evidence a police killed someone, they must be arrested, arraigned and brought to court. Most of us aren’t lawmakers, police chiefs, criminal prosecutors, or judges. So what do we do? What is our response?
I’m a Franciscan, so this response is inherently Franciscan, but there are a few things in my life that I take for granted, that are normal. This past year I lived with fourteen other friars including ones coming from the US, Togo, Columbia, El Salvador, and Mexico. Many of our friaries are international. This is true for many different religious, but since Franciscans are one of the biggest Orders, it is even more true. Ever since St. Francis started the Order of Friars Minor (or Lesser Brothers) it has been international. And as a Conventual Franciscan (there are different types, it gets a little confusing) our priority is on our community. Getting along with brothers, recognizing shortcomings of others and my own, seeing how different cultures live, etc. Even at the breakfast table this morning today I learned about how people understand the use of police force differently. These cultural differences aren’t really taught but picked up upon in chance encounters like breakfast table conversation. There are ways of policing that are different than that of the US and that might be better! I have an undergrad in Criminal Justice and don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of that point, but my point is that most people don’t have an opportunity to learn from different cultures.
Moreover, most people don’t have an opportunity to see how people of their own culture who are from a different class or race or economic level live. I’m from Buffalo, NY and it’s a very quietly segregated town. There’s no laws enforcing that but it exists. I imagine there are other cities like that too. How are we suppose to interact with people of other cultures and races if we don’t live near them or go to their schools or churches or shopping centers? Purposefully going looking for people of other races is pretty absurd, but we must take the time that we have with people of other cultures (or even are own) and get to know them. My neighbors growing up were African-American, and little by little I got to know them. Not as well as I’d like, but I knew where they came from, what they did for work, etc.
When I was newly ordained I was sent to teach at Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore, MD, a predominantly African-American city. In order to teach kids you need to get to know them. And theology class was often a good place to get to know kids and better understand what they had to live through. Every now and then I’d hear about a student’s cousin or brother getting shot. I’d ask them how they felt and it seemed like a regular event for them. They were sad, but not altogether completely upset. That was shocking to me. A well-known local rapper was shot and killed near the high school. Again, students were upset but didn’t seem to be surprised. Again, this shocked me.
I was only at the high school for two years, but I started to see how differently these students lived. And this slowly changed me. I started to realize how for a lot of these students they might be the first ones in their family to go to college. It wasn’t a given that they’d go to a four year college and get a job, a plan that now seems programmed into American society.
There are two times in my life where I have been told I have white male privilege, both times to make a political point that I found silly. However, coming from a middle class family, I was privileged to not have to second guess going to college. And education is a clear indicator of future earnings and overall welfare. Being white, I’ve never had to experience racism. I’m not going to renounce these privileges, but I do need to recognize that I have it better off than most.
What can I do about this? In so far as I don’t have “power” (in the sense to cause change in laws, educate in a classroom, etc) I can only focus on myself. And that means being empathetic of others, recognizing not all people have the freedom of job security or living in a safe neighborhood, or experiencing any type of racism. If I see someone being racist, I can try to talk to them about it.
What can you do about this? The Christian response needs to be prayer and ministry. Reflect on what benefits you have been given, what privileges you take for granted. Thank God for what you’ve been given, be charitable as you can. Reflect on how Jesus talked to people of other cultures, read what the Church says about racism. This is an excellent letter from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/open-wide-our-hearts.pdf). Concerning ministry, go volunteer somewhere. Don’t do this just with the hope of talking to someone from a different culture, that’s weird and performative or inauthentic. Go feed people because they are people, not because they are black or latino or whatever. Pray with these people as you’re able. Do something! If you want racism to end, you have to do something about it. You’re not going to get better at running by just thinking about it, you need to train. You’re not going to end racism by prayer alone, you need to go out and do something!
Movements are nice and good, but I’m not going to use the #BlackLivesMatter because it is attached to an organization that promotes ideas contrary to the Catholic Church. If other Christians/Catholics do, that’s their business. Movements and hashtags are nice, and be helpful to gain exposure, but that’s not my goal here.
Again, the TL:DR response is that social change happens very, very slowly and most of us can only influence a handful of people that know us and interact with us regularly. Any change we support has to be done while our eyes are fixed on God and we listen to those around us.
All people are made in the image and likeness of God. Racism is a sin. Pray, reflect on what good things you have. Thank God for that, and then be as generous as you can with others. Remain hopeful, things will change. It will be slow, but they will change.