Once again we are witnesses to the outright killing of a human being—George Floyd—by police officers; we are also witnesses to a woman willfully weaponizing race against an African-American man out watching birds in Central Park; and, we are witnesses to the media and some elected officials inclined to frame racist behavior "objectively" and "dispassionately" (with some notable but predictable exceptions).
Keep in mind, when journalists talk about they, killing them, we fail to recognize that "we" are killing "us." Until those of us fortunate enough to live unthreatened by state violence, begin to speak out and understand these problems as "our" problems, little will change. Those of us who see and "experience" the problem at a distance and, in some real sense, don't feel the lived reality of our neighbors, need to develop a compassionate attitude that leads to action. And, we need to understand that many of our friends, our colleagues, our students and our neighbors are hurting. Which means "we" are hurting.
In his seminal book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson encourages us to "to get proximate" so that we can fully appreciate the challenges confronting our neighbors and so maybe, just maybe, we can be part of the solution and not simply part of the problem.
Yet, when many of us are left to wonder how our neighbors feel each and every time another black body is brutalized, we know that we haven't gotten proximate. When we make excuses for the continued brutality and overt discrimination that remains prevalent in our communities, we know that we have failed to get proximate.
More than 80 years ago Richard Wright placed the words below in the mouth of Max, Bigger Thomas' attorney:
Your Honor, never in my life have I risen in court to make a plea with a firmer conviction in my heart. I know that what I have to say here today touches the destiny of an entire nation. My plea is for more than one man and one people. Perhaps it is in a manner fortunate that the defendant has committed one of the darkest crimes in our memory; for if we can encompass the life of this man and find out what has happened to him, if we can understand how subtly and yet strongly his life and fate are linked to ours—if we can do this, perhaps we shall find the key to our future, that rare vantage point upon which every man and woman in this nation can stand and view how inextricably our hopes and fears of today create the exultation and doom of tomorrow.
80 years, three generations, and yet the words resonate as powerfully today as they did in 1940. Wright challenged the reader to confront the deep-seated problems related to racial discrimination all the while asking the reader not to overlook the basic fact that racism "touches the destiny of an entire nation."
I want to suggest that our first obligation is to investigate our own complicity in the problems we say we overtly oppose as well as the subjective mechanisms that condition our habitual and psychological responses to these problems. This is a fundamental obligation that is not easily accepted. Asking ourselves if we are part of the problem takes courage; it also requires us to look honestly at the ways we rationalize our ways out of becoming part of a solution.
Keep in mind our failure to build a strong public imagination among our citizens and leaders that could enable us to understand how the status quo cuts against racial equality (and other) lines should be recognized as one of the greatest failures of our grand democratic experiment. I have said repeatedly that the world needs, more than ever, people willing to demonstrate that living lives of compassion, mercy and love are possible and, of significance, possible in a diverse environment.
Over the last few days I have been continuously asking myself how I might be able to help raise awareness and engage in practices that demonstrate a commitment to living in a community, broadly understood, where all my neighbors feel they belong. While I am not going to prescribe an approach to each of you, I would ask you to "do something." Put somewhat differently, if we believe that we should preach the gospel always but only when necessary we should use words, we should enact that belief immediately. Our voices AND actions are necessary if we are going to see much needed change emerge.
If we are unwilling to cultivate our sympathetic awareness of these challenges, then not only have we failed our neighbors, we cannot hope that others will strive to become more compassionate.
As always, I also look towards Franciscan tradition to help inform my understanding of the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings, and the actions I can take to affirm those values. Recent statements from Catholic leadership have provided powerful inspiration to me these last few weeks.
- Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities: Statement on Racial Injustice (June 1, 2020)
- Catholic Statements Against Racism, various authors (May and June, 2020)
As I close I leave you with Marvin Gaye's opening lines from "What's Going On":
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today,
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today
Sadly, one is left to wonder why a 1971 song still remains relevant today and why it has not become an artifact of our history.
Trying to stay hopeful amidst the brutal reality.
In peace and friendship,