Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin
Due to public health precautions, Mount Saint Michael Academy could not hold its graduation ceremony last weekend. Instead, our Bronx school had a drive-thru procession in which graduates were recognized and received various gifts as a placeholder until a more traditional commencement is possible. It was beautiful.
As we honored and celebrated our graduates, I had ample time to reflect on who they are and what kind of future awaits them. Some work hard while others do not. Some are exceptionally well-mannered while others easily lose their cool. They are of mixed aptitudes and multiple intelligences. In short, they are exactly what you would expect a group of young high school graduates to be. They are also predominantly students of color, many of whom are black, being sent out into the same world in which George Floyd was recently executed on the streets of Minneapolis—a crime immortalized on video for all to see. Not even a man as universally loved and respected as Mr. Floyd was safe from the lethal action of a malicious police officer and his uniformed accomplices who together made a loathsome mockery of the MPD motto “To Protect with Courage, To Serve with Compassion!” If not even such a man was safe from police aggression, then who is? What about these young men who I taught as freshmen a few short years ago?
Worry burdens my heart whenever current events force me to ask these questions. As frequent and genuine as my concerns are though, they do not impose themselves upon me at every moment. I get a break because I don’t need to worry for my own well-being to nearly the same extent. After all, as a white man, I know that I am remarkably safe.
I have been just about as successful as I have ever wanted to be in this life. Although it has not come easily, my success has taken place in the context of a system that has both allowed me opportunities to develop my talents and also rewarded my hard work. For some in the aristocratic class, this same system rewards far less effort with even greater benefits.
I am glad that I have done well and I am proud of my accomplishments. In all this though, I was assisted not just by good fortune but also by a rigged deck that I often didn’t realize was stacked in my favor. Although success has blessed me, the only way it will not also damn me is if I work to subvert much of what has benefited me so much. To simply maintain the institutions that have served me well all my life would be to perpetuate gross injustice. After all, these same institutions frequently deny a great many the opportunity to let their talents flourish at all.
Many people work much harder than I will ever have to, but their labor is spread across multiple low-wage jobs that provide little chance for personal enrichment, let alone professional advancement. While a number of commendable individuals do manage to beat long odds that I have never quite had to face, people of color too often find the security of their lives and livelihoods depending on how successfully they can avoid arousing the arbitrary suspicions of highly strung strangers, some of whom carry badges.
This week, my heart has been filled with rage. Of course, I would prefer entirely peaceful protests to people being injured and businesses damaged. But why is that the focus of so much energy? My tears of anger come when I hear people fretting about the burning cars and broken windows, as if to pretend that the tragedy of these days, while genuine, is somehow more significant than the immensity of tragedies that inevitably led us here.
Exploitative labor conditions and the cruel implementation of unjust penal codes fracture family life. Underfunded schools and excessively low expectations deliver too many young people to violent streets or to the abyss of prison. A fearful populous and too many hostile police officers ensure that, for those with darker skin tone than mine, the dread of sudden terror looms over even the most mundane activities. Was I ever given a second glance—let alone threatened—for wearing a hooded sweatshirt? When I was a child, did my parents ever think of having to worry that I could be killed by a police officer for playing with a toy gun?
Our crisis in policing is not dissimilar from the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Both institutions are meant to protect and serve in their particular ways. Those who directly perpetrate egregious harm constitute a minuscule portion of each. But both society and Church leadership have come to recognize that any bishop, priest, or other minister who covers up abuse also enable abuse, thereby sharing in the crime. The police must be held accountable in the same way. A good cop is no longer a good cop when he or she allows a colleague or subordinate to harass, terrorize, target, or fear an individual based on race, zip code, or mental health.
The great many police officers of good will should not currently see their attempts at crowd control as somehow defending civilization, even during this current unrest; such an assumption would deny the manifest barbarity of the status quo. This unjust system is approaching collapse, and it cannot be allowed to remain standing. Those who are in the streets to condemn current injustices are not at war with civilization but instead fighting for it to be born.
Christians know Jesus as the Prince of Peace. He is also the one who said “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12: 49-51). Yes, we desire peace. However, until our desire for justice exceeds our desire for peace, we shall have neither, for justice is the precondition for peace. Right now, the chickens are simply coming home to roost.
The old world is passing away. It would be naïve to imagine that racism will somehow be stamped out and our great social problems solved by the time this current unrest subsides. However upsetting the burning fires and broken glass may be though, especially for those suffering physical or economic harm, I can’t help but think that the current noise and pain is an alarm clock rousing us to consciousness. When the old world does finally pass away, let us not mourn its passing but rather lament with bitter sorrow how long it took us to awake to a new dawn. How have we ever slept so soundly? Were our eyes really shut that tight? Did we really treat the shortened lives and stolen opportunities of entire peoples over successive generations as casually as we brush away an unpleasant dream?
Today is a special day for Marists of Champagnat. On this anniversary of St. Marcellin Champagnat’s death, we celebrate his life and legacy, including his insistence that we read the signs of the times as we look to the mission entrusted to us by God for the sake of the world’s vulnerable. Can those signs be any clearer right now?
This week’s “ear candy” is beautiful, poignant, not nearly as angry as I feel, but far more important than any mood I might have. It has also been known as the Black national anthem for more than 100 years. The “brain food” is a recent statement by President Trump’s former defense secretary Jim Mattis, in which he sets out basic principles to guide our society forward through our present turmoil.
Ear Candy: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – uncredited performance
Brain Food: “In Union There Is Strength” by James Mattis
This blog series is transitioning to a monthly format. Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!