Strife in our country

During this time in which we prepare to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Peace, we need only turn on the news (or try to drive through the downtown of a major city) to be reminded that there are great divisions in our country regarding race, regarding the proper roles of the police and of protests, regarding how we live together in this society.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston invited people to reflect on this strife in the context of Advent, with “the Church’s message, of hope and peace. These themes — hope, peace and compassion — are urgently needed in our nation as we pray for the [Michael] Brown and [Eric] Garner families and all who have been impacted by the turmoil of recent weeks. Issues concerning race in our society call for recognition of our shared humanity.”

On November 24, during the height of the tensions in Ferguson, Mo., the local archbishop, Most Rev. Robert Carlson of St. Louis, released the following statement in response to the grand jury decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson: “For several months, I and other religious and civic leaders have repeatedly called for prayer, peace, and calm. Since the grand jury received the case in August, we have seen offensive and violent outbursts by protesters, and acts of civil disobedience.”

Archbishop Carlson then demanded, “I implore each of you: Choose peace! Reject any false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence only creates more violence. Let’s work for a better, stronger, more holy community — one founded upon respect for each other, respect for life, and our shared responsibility for the common good.”

The Midwestern archbishop issued the “following challenges” to his community, but they are good for all of us to ponder (and be challenged by):

— “Commit to learning how to truly love each other. If we do this, then we will learn to love our neighbor. Show children the path of forgiveness and we will see walls of division crumble. Your homes are the foundation of our community. If your homes are full of forgiveness, they will be temples of peace.”

— “Youth, remember that you are not only creating the world of tomorrow, but you are a vital part of the world today. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians: ‘For whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.’ So, ask yourself: Are you sowing seeds of division, resentment, and discontent? These will only lead to anger and hatred. Begin creating the world you want to see.”

— “Please pray. Pray unceasingly for peace. Pray for our leaders and pray for your neighbors. If you feel called to act, do so only after prayer. Blessed Mother Teresa knew the proper formula. She spent a holy hour in prayer every day; it was only after prayer that she would serve. So, too, must it be for us.”

— “Finally, I issue this challenge to all religious, political, social and law enforcement leaders: Join me in asking the Lord to make us instruments of peace. We, as leaders, need wisdom, compassion, and courage in order to combat the brokenness and division that confronts us. We must be leaders who help heal, not inflict hurt. We must be leaders who can come together to address issues like family breakdown, racial profiling, quality education, abuses of authority, lack of gainful employment, fear of one another, mistrust of authority, and many other needs. We must ask the tough questions and find lasting solutions.”

Less than a month later, New York was convulsed in reaction to the death of Eric Garner due to a chokehold by a police officer. In response to the varied protests, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, together with Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn and other Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders, issued a statement to the population of the city, trying to remind them of prior successes of civic harmony, in the hope that that would prevent future violence.

They wrote: “New York City has a long history of confronting the challenges that arise from its greatest strength — the diversity of its residents, and our cooperation for the common good. Successive waves of immigrants have experienced both initial rejection and gradual acceptance. Minorities have endured discrimination, but have made significant progress in overcoming barriers to full inclusion.”

The interfaith leaders then brought up the current tension between some Americans and the police. “We have seen examples of extraordinary cooperation between communities and police, but barriers to trusting relationships remain. We have watched as incidents of mistrust and tension have torn other cities apart. In contrast, we in New York City have historically set the example for peaceful, meaningful, constructive engagement.”

Discussing demonstrations, the leaders said that they “can be a constructive part of this process, when they call attention to essential concerns and mobilize individuals and government to act. Peaceful discourse of this nature will ensure the progress we all hope to achieve.” 

Dr. Maureen O’Connell, a professor at LaSalle University, writing back in 2012 after the death of Trayvon Martin, said that often we look at racism as an “examination of conscience” issue, reflecting on whether we personally have done a racist act, while failing to look at how our society is set-up. “[R]acism is not about isolated and blatantly evil acts. Rather, it is a far more subtle and pervasive way of perceiving ourselves and others that is shaped by our collective way of being together. Failing to name racism as a cultural phenomenon — a set of dispositions and perspectives on the world that are collectively learned and symbolically shared — only perpetuates white complicity in racism. Since few of us have probably ever committed conscious, intentional and deliberate acts of racial hatred, most whites can be assured of our lack of culpability with the events related to the Martin case in Florida and shirk any kind of responsibility for it that others try to foist on us.”

Dr. O’Connell offered the provocative thought, “If you want evidence that whites are indeed complicit in a culture of racism, consider the fact that we are usually unable and at times unwilling to accept responsibility for the privileges afforded to us by our white skin. Like the privilege of wearing a hooded sweatshirt without fear of being seen as threatening, or knowing that the neighborhood watch is watching out for you and not watching out for you.”

Many members of the police have had the negative experience of being judged unfairly during these days (similarly to how “all” priests were considered pedophiles back in 2002, so “all” police have had to deal with being considered racists), while African-Americans have had to continue to endure what they’ve endured their entire lives — being viewed, consciously or unconsciously by others, as somehow “different,” with a negative connotation to that difference. We ask God to help us make an examination of our individual consciences and of our society in 2015 so that all will be treated equally with love and respect. 

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts