Considering how bad the first five months of 2020 have been, I shudder to think what is coming next.
A year which in Philadelphia began with a controversy over blackface (and then seemed to bottom out with the COVID-19 crisis) has hit a crescendo with riots and looting around the city in response to the killing of George Floyd of Minneapolis by a police officer.
Let’s call that action for what it was: murder. Let’s call institutional racism and abuse of power what they are: scourges on society which weaken our social fabric and exploit the poor and marginalized.
And let’s also call what has erupted in our cities for what it is: lawless and senseless acts of violence which obfuscate the very real problems which brought peaceful demonstrators out into the streets.
“American” is not a nationality. One cannot be an American the way one can be Italian or Lithuanian or Vietnamese. America is not a nation-state based on shared ethnicity. Rather, America is an ideal, a republic in which citizens are united not by nationality but by a commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
If that social contract fails, we have no common heritage to fall back on.
It is not my place to offer policy recommendations in response to this. That is not my area of expertise. But I do know that institutional reform – while necessary – is not sufficient. The structures of our society are simply the way we organize ourselves. And if we let our hearts be filled with anger, prejudice, and hatred of the other, no change in structure will do a bit of good.
The Church must issue a fresh call to responsibility on the part of all people of good will. Violence and harsh words are the solutions of schoolyard bullies, not citizens of a virtuous republic. Instead, what we need is a spirit of conversion. Having just celebrated Pentecost, we can ask the Holy Spirit to shed light upon our hearts.
We should examine ourselves and ask a painful but necessary question: how have I allowed hatred or indifference to fester in my heart? How can I help our society to heal – even within the small circle of influence that I have?
The vast majority of Americans, I am convinced, are good and decent people who want to do the right thing. That includes the vast majority of police officers and the vast majority of this weekend’s protestors.
Yet what allows the situation to become out of hand is when many good and decent people concern themselves with their own little worlds – thus allowing the extremists to define as a people. Those little compromises we make each day – even in the silence of our hearts or in the quiet of our dinner conversations – make space for injustice and unrest.
How ironic it is that American cities were set on fire literally as the Church was celebrating the feast of Pentecost. That solemn feast commemorates the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church in the Upper Room. As a sign of this, the Acts of the Apostles tell us that “tongues as of fire” appeared over the disciples.
The real solution to evil abuse of power is not lighting a car on fire or stealing a television from Target. Instead, the real answer to our problems is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has already come to redeem us, and to make us like God the Father by removing the blindness of hatred and sin from our hearts.
The original sin of America is not racism. It’s original sin. And only the fire of the Holy Spirit – given to us in baptism – heals that wound. May we respond to that real fire – that purifying fire – anew this day. In this way, we are configured to Christ.
By cooperating with the Holy Spirit, Christians can contribute a great deal to making the rest of 2020 much better than it has been so far.
Father Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish, Broomall.
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