These past few days I’ve had on my mind, close to my heart, and in my prayers my former parishioners at the Lutheran parish I served for 11 years in Detroit; the many fine clergy and laity from Protestant and Catholic parishes that I worked with when I was involved in community organizing and building houses; the students I taught and families I worked with in inner-city Milwaukee; some of the students at the Catholic high school where I taught for 9 years; the Orthodox laity in Detroit that I knew who were involved with the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black; and my nephew and his mother.
All of these persons have at least two things in common: they are African American, and they are friends and family.
These days have brought a spotlight to the fear they walk with daily; a fear that many described to me through the years. It’s not the fear of being different, but the fear of being treated differently. Not the fear of what they do, but the fear that when they do they will automatically, or unthinkingly, be judged as a menace or a problem or a threat. Not the fear to speak out, but the frustration of not being heard. It’s the fear deep in their bones that they are less than human, that they must be ‘kept in their place,’ and that their contributions to society have no value. And, regardless of the make-up of their community, they walk and drive the streets with a visceral fear of police and of being mistreated by certain unrestrained police officers.
These are not fears I’ve heard about from the media or from a distance. These are fears and anxieties that I’ve heard when I have sat in living rooms, at parish gatherings, in classroom discussions, and through tears in one-on-one conversations. The afraid don’t rush into these conversations, and they don’t speak quickly and openly. But they will speak once you’ve earned their trust by taking seriously their fears, recognizing their particularity, treating them with dignity, and listening to them as brothers and sisters, as wise men and women—as humans.
Part of the frustration and anger we’ve seen expressed in these past few days is that of my friends and family; and those whom we too often put unconsciously or deliberately in their ‘box.’ Regardless of what we may individually think, their fears need to be heard, acknowledged, and not swept aside. And persons of color that we know, that we speak with, need to hear clearly and directly from us that we do not condone violence or threats of violence against them.
I have another nephew who is a police officer in Florida. And we have several law enforcement personnel in our parish, as I’ve had in all the parishes I’ve been blessed to serve. These friends and family—they’ve also been on my mind, close to my heart, and in my prayers these past few days. These are good men and women who take seriously protecting the lives and rights of others, and who show dignity and respect in their service.
And like my black friends, these days have brought a spotlight to the fear they also walk with daily: a fear that they will be judged or maligned by the actions of those they quickly condemn.
Both groups have sat side by side in churches I’ve served, in graduation parties I’ve attended, and at my family reunions. In fact, some are both African American and in law enforcement. And while they disagree on several things, both groups agree that police brutality of every kind must be not merely condemned but eradicated; that police tactics that seek to harm or disable should be used only in extreme circumstances after all other measures have been exhausted; and that, in every case, the dignity of the individual person must be maintained.
Both groups also agree that the protection and sanctity of every life, from conception to natural death, is vital and inseparable from Christian morality. And that this sanctity means more than keeping hearts beating. It also means uplifting and supporting so that they live better here. But more so, sanctity of life means that we see that the life of each person, and our own life, is intimately and inseparably tied to Christ the Life of all the living. So we protect and fight for the life of each person because in each person we see Christ.
These truths are truly tested when the least, the overlooked, the berated, and the marginalized receive an undue proportion of mistreatment and abuse. Whether here in America or in the Middle East and Turkey or elsewhere, intimidating tactics force not just the mistreated but all who look like them to look over their shoulder in fear, and to lose their voice. And when others don’t stand with them, then they come to expect that no one cares.
Standing with those in need does not mean attacking. Violence doesn’t assuage, but rather incites more violence. All forms of violence are against the Christian ethic. This includes words spoken or typed in anger, against the stranger or friend on Facebook or even against people we love in our own family and parish. Angry and extreme words are acts of violence which do more lasting and deep-seated harm than other forms of violence. And words of hate-filled anger reveal a violent heart for which we must repent (which has two parts: confession and change).
Standing with those who are afraid, and who have seen their greatest fears come to life on TV means, first of all, listening to individuals in their homes, businesses and coffee shops. It means hearing the fears of African Americans (as well as others); and being open to changing your attitude as well as your thinking. Then your offer of support is authentic, and is aimed at real individuals instead of labeled people. And offering support includes support for material needs, for emotional well-being, and for inalienable rights. These rights, as we know, are God-given. And they are rooted in a truth that we Christians hold dear: that each of us, from best to worst, from least to greatest, have been made in the image of God.
Christ Jesus speaks to this truth when He reveals the questions we will be asked at our last end. He asks not about doctrines we can recite, but doctrines we have lived. Has our faith been seen in our morality? Is our creed lived out when we keep the Lord’s Commandments? Are we doers of the Word of mercy and kindness, and not merely hearers?
Christ’s answer is that, for our own salvation, we need to seek true and lasting justice, and live for all, regardless of our own experience, politics, or fears. That’s easy to do when it comes to a bag of food or writing a check. But living for all also means sitting, listening, and working for the good of those who live in fear and who have faced trauma and mistreatment.
How we live for another will take a different shape for each of us, given our unique circumstances. But individually, and together, this is a life that we must regularly learn and re-learn, and dedicate ourselves to. For we, who are baptized into Christ, are called to live no longer for ourselves but for those who need us most, confident that in these ways we are living for Christ.
At least in our parish, and especially at this time, I invite a conversation among us. Not a conversation to persuade or win people over to our side, but a conversation where we begin to listen to each other: our thoughts, our fears, our hopes, our challenges, our opportunities. Such a conversation, if done with open and honest hearts and attended with prayer, will both strengthen our parish and will show each of us how to engage in meaningful conversations with others we meet.
Rev Msgr John W Fenton