A young man I recently interviewed sent me pictures he’d taken at a protest against the police-related killing of George Floyd. One image in particular held my gaze: a police car, upended in the middle of a Philadelphia street, had been set alight, pouring forth flames and thick clouds of black smoke.
In the days prior, I’d seen many such pictures, but always from other places — there, not here. But I’d sat in traffic at the very spot where that police car smoldered; now the intersection seemed surreal.
The young man, an African American college student, told me he’d attended the demonstration to make his voice heard in peace. As a 12-year-old, he had been frisked by police while walking to buy a snack at a store near his house. His family — educated, hard-working professionals and devout Catholics — had experienced routine racism over the decades.
He acted on his faith in being at the protest, and he acted on it when, surrounded by four burning cars, he and his friends left the violence, but not the fight for justice and equality.
We live in a moment of fire — of many fires, actually: fires of rage and righteousness in our souls, fires of aggression and anarchy in our cities, fires of a planet savaged by its people.
Fire is a gift of God, and our ability to manage it sets us apart from all creatures. Archaeologists and anthropologists speculate that humans may have extended naturally occurring fires some 1.5 million years ago by adding fuel to them. Learning to start fires, and to control them for heat and light, may well have taken thousands more years.
From the earliest times, fire has drawn us together as we have huddled around hearths, seeking warmth, sharing food and stories. Fire has also divided us as a tool of war, execution, revenge.
Fire refines metals, exposing impurities and burning away dross. A courtyard fire became a place of testing and failure for St. Peter as he denied that he knew Jesus, who stood under arrest in the house of the high priest (Mt 26:57-58, 69-75; Mk 14:53-54, 66-72; Lk 22:54-62; Jn 18:12-18, 25-27).
For Catholics, fire “symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions,” and serves as “one of the most expressive images” of the third Person of the Trinity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 696). Jesus announced that he “came to cast fire upon the earth” (Lk 12:49), and his words were fulfilled at Pentecost, when the Spirit descended in tongues “as of fire” upon the disciples (Acts 2:3-4).
With his name translating the Hebrew word “ruah,” the Spirit is also symbolized by wind, air and breath (Catechism, 691). Indeed, fire itself requires oxygen — something George Floyd was deprived of when he was pinned in a knee-to-neck hold for eight minutes and 46 seconds, even as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”
A knee was never created to be placed against another’s windpipe; breath — the Spirit of God in man — was not given to utter words of hatred, or to be choked from a fellow human being; fire was not sent to destroy our neighborhoods.
Rightly do we kneel in our streets at this moment, for perhaps in these unexpected confessionals we will undertake a desperately needed examen before God and each other. If our hearts are open to real change, and if our hands do not shun the hard work required, perhaps we will rise to learn at last, through the Spirit, the true nature of fire and air.
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