a shared mythology
How does a country whose revolution, inception, and existence are intertwined with sin, do any good? How does a country whose mythology is built upon lies and misconceptions find a common story? Ibram X. Kendi proposes that denial is the “heartbeat of America.” And in eviscerating this denial, what remains? Or as the Aspen Institute asks, “who is us?”
We likely all know the oft-repeated slogans. No taxation without representation! A country of immigrants founded upon principles of freedom and equality. The greatest democracy in the world. In every lie, there is a kernel of truth. How do we begin to process that our revolution was for refusing taxes for national defense while trying to infringe upon indigenous land? Or that embedded within our Constitution is a clause delineating that Black people are less than human? Or that throughout our history we have sought to disenfranchise those who were deemed as others or to keep them out entirely or to violate treaties made with those who already resided on the land?
We are a country that both developed a vaccine for polio and utilize non-consensual cell lines of Black people and aborted children to develop new medicines. We are a country that stood against the rise of fascism in the world while fostering racism at home. We are a country that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” while passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. We are a country that has developed incredible technological innovation while devouring natural resources around the world to expand the bottom line. We are a country which has brokered peace deals amongst warring nations while having some of the greatest gun violence in the world on our own soil.
From all of this we can indeed find our common story – we are a country of innovators. Pioneers. Explorers. None of these facets are a moral good, and so often they have been twisted for demonstrable harm and evil. These qualities are also not exclusive to America, but they are the soul of our country.
America is filled with so many generations of those who moved to start something new, to build a better life for their families. Too often, this has resulted in the erasure of cultures past – whether by oneself or systematic violence. As spoken by Dr. Jose P. Rizal, “A person who does not look back to where he came from would not be able to reach his destination.” We must never forget where we came from. We must never forget Whom we came from. Only from these points can we begin to take on the audacious task of building a true multicultural society that carries forward a culture of life for all of its people to the ends of the world. Despite all of the fallen nature of our country’s founders and foundation, this is our call: to be innovators of new and beautiful things rooted upon justice and mercy.
banality of violence
We would like to believe that the world is dichotomous – a constant struggle between Good vs Evil. The world is easier to understand in these stark categories. Pure Goodness must mean there is Pure Evil; I must be in the forces of Light battling the forces of Darkness.
This Dualism, however comforting, is a heresy. The term banality of evil was proposed by Hannah Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, on the evil of a Nazi SS leader. Evil was not simply deeply manifested, but occurred through seemingly, uninteresting series of decisions. Ruha Benjamin spoke about a concept of bureaucratic violence when the family of Tamir Rice received an ambulance bill from the city government for their son who was murdered by city police officers.
A flawed understanding of theology is that we all have a little Nazi inside of us – that evil is simply waiting to manifest inside each and every one of us. A fuller understanding is that we all have the capability of doing violence, even through a series of banal decisions. The question of Evil can be understood as a distortion of Good. How often are evil, sinful acts interpreted, in the moment, as evil or sinful? The cleverness of the Serpent was the thread of truth within the Lie – “You will gain knowledge of good and evil”; “You are just doing your job.”
With the murder of Daniel Prude, one can see, in the aftermath, how a series of banal decisions that may seem easily justifiable in the moment are, in reality, deeply problematic. A note in red letters to change documentation on Daniel Prude that just says, “make him a suspect.” Language that euphemizes violence such as “stabilize the individual on the ground” and “the officers’ actions and conduct … appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training.” Emails trying to delay release of body cam footage to avoid “misinterpretation.” Lies about an “enormous backlog of work” to explain the delay.
This is how systemic violence often occurs – not through deliberate intentions of evil, but unexamined intentions of good. One lie leading to another. One person’s banal action setting up another’s. One person’s silence permitting the violence of another. This is what it means to be complicit, and it is well within the capability of any of us to participate.
An honest question lies regarding the consequences to an individual who has participated in communal violence – can they be held personally responsible for any single action? Can anyone? Too often, we search for a scapegoat in the demand for justice, while none of the cogs of banality have changed. A sense of filial fallibility or culpability is likely just – leaders should be held accountable for how their leadership has permitted (or encouraged) such actions. However, what we must realize is that the real consequence occurs beyond the individual and to an entire community – a cultural separation from God.
Pope Francis has focused attention on how pervasive a Culture of Death exists amongst us. The murder of someone innocent is obvious. Even the murder of someone who is guilty is now also understood to be a part of the Culture of Death. The banal and bureaucratic violence exists as a foundation to these more explicit forms of violence. The Culture of Death is nourished by euphemistic language that dehumanizes violence; it is cultivated by a focus on self-protection instead of self-sacrifice. It exists because we justify little lies, distortions of truth, as a means to an end.
In the end, we are all held accountable for our actions. We are not exempt from unintended consequences of our actions. We must pursue a Culture of Life and our individual actions play a role in the development of such a culture. The first battle rages within ourselves, that we choose love over banal distortions. At the same time, we must remember that the responsibility is also beyond the individual. This is a communal responsibility to create and hold accountable systems to work for Life.
cognitive dissonance (and the barrier to reparations)
Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize.
Yesterday, I experienced an incident where a co-worker stated, “I don’t understand this, it looks like Chinese to me.” I just froze, and then (to my dismay) tried to ignore it.
This is an experience of Othering that I became numb to from past experience, and I have sought to become more cognizant of this kind of behavior.
However, what I deeply appreciated of this co-worker was that they immediately caught themselves and followed-up with, “I shouldn’t have said that.” Since then, the co-worker has also apologized.
When we do something that was wrong, why is it so hard for us to confess wrongdoing?
The co-worker actually is married to someone of Asian descent (intentionally vague for anonymity). What we have seen in recent times are people using family / friends as a cover for wrongdoing. “I couldn’t have said that.. I couldn’t have done that.. I’m definitely not… Because I am married to.. Because I have a friend who is.. Because.. Because.."
What does having daughters or a wife have to do with a man doing a sexist act? What does having a black friend or husband have to do with doing a racist act?
We use our past, our friends, our families as shields to defend and justify ourselves. We see an image of ourselves as one person which is in contradiction to that action we took. We see ourselves in relation to others which is in contradiction to the action that could be harmful to others. I’m thankful that my co-worker apologized without invoking any of this.
Confession sets us free. I am so grateful to be Catholic and have the sacrament of reconciliation – it is truly a grace that God has provided as the pathway to once again be in right relationship with Him, and with others.
Why then, do we struggle to confess personal wrongdoings? Why do we struggle to confess corporate wrongdoings?
To admit wrongdoing is to destroy the ego. To confess is to die to self.
It only takes another step to see the same behavior from institutions and those within them. We see an image of our country in contradiction to its history. We see an image of the Church in contradiction to its Mother and its Foundation.
The struggle to confess seems to be situated upon a cognitive dissonance and a belief that "good works” and past righteousness are atonement for wrongdoing. What does having done many “good works” have to do with a man doing a sinful act? What does having done many “good works” have to do with a country having harmed others? St. Basil, on his discourse On Justice and Mercy, stated, “If you give alms to the poor after you have despoiled them of their goods, it were better for you neither to have taken nor given.” It doesn’t matter how many “good things” someone does, sin is separation from God. It doesn’t matter how many “good things” America has done, harmful actions still need to be addressed. And if unaddressed, it was better to not have done the “good things” at all.
At the end of the sacrament of reconciliation, the person confessing is called to true repentance in making amends and reparations for wrongdoing. The quicker we are to confess, the quicker we are to find healing. The sacrament of reconciliation is a true gift of grace from God to renew right relationships. Only then can we even begin to discuss making amends and reparations.
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
The Hebrews asked, “Are you sure that the that your widows are being neglected? All widows matter, not just Hellenist widows. Maybe some of your widows are stealing from the other widows. We all know that the real problem is Hellenist on Hellenist crime.”
However, the Hellenists were insistent.
The Hebrews responded, “Okay, we will make sure our food distributors get sensitivity training and anti-bias training. Maybe there were just some bad apples who neglected your widows.”
Yet still, the Hellenists persisted.
The Hebrews were frustrated. “So perhaps there is something wrong with our food distribution system, but that doesn’t mean we should abolish it. We will now ensure that we also serve Hellenist cuisine too and increase the leadership of our distribution to include more Hellenists.”
The Hellenists continued to raise the injustice.
The Hebrews finally relented. “Hellenists, select from among yourselves people of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to lead the food distribution for everyone.”
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly.
In this Teenie Harris photo from 1952, we see a Black woman making pancakes at a downtown Pittsburgh grocery store in the image of Aunt Jemima. You see another Black woman sitting at the counter next to a White man. This was the image of “equality” in the 1950s.
In 1969, we find a snapshot of Black Youth protesting in Pittsburgh – “Down with tokenism; equal job opportunities for all now!” The hope was for a new sense of “equality” that wasn’t just about a couple of Black people being hired by a company.
In 2020, we see a multiracial protest for Black lives in East Liberty.
And it is in the midst of these protests that the lightbulb seems to have finally gone off. What is true “equality”?
But it is not about concessions. It is about justice. It is about ceding power.
martyrdom and saints
During the Boxer Rebellion in China during the turn of the 20th century, a man named Mark Ji Tianxiang was martyred on July 7, 1900. He was lifelong addict to opium and was denied the sacrements. Yet, even in the midst of this, he remained faithful and in the face of death, continued to pray and love others. A century later, he was canonized as a saint.
What makes a martyr?
George Floyd, in his final moments, declared the dignity of the human person. In the midst of injustice, he did not curse his oppressors, but sought to remind them and all of us about the truth about the value of human life, of a Black life. A martyr is not one who has lived a perfect life, but one who has died giving witness to Christ through their death.
And what can be said of his miracle? That after his death, systemic structures are falling down. Hearts are turning towards repentance. People are seeking truth and justice.
George Floyd, pray for us.
cleansing the temple
In recent days, posts have flown around about Jesus cleansing out the temple and what it means for us in this time. The story occurs in all four gospel accounts: Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:13-16. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place this story after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem while John places the account following the first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. Taking an inductive look at the passage in Mark, there is a clear chaismtic structure:
15 Then they came to Jerusalem.
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying,
“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”
18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.
19 And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
Why does Jesus drive out “those who were selling and those who were buying” from the temple?
The obvious answer is in v17, but how did the former actions make the temple a ‘den of robbers’? What was being 'robbed’?
In v15, we can make a number of observations:
- Jesus “began to drive out” after entering the temple, suggesting that this activity was at least occuring near the entrance.
- Jesus drove people out, overturned tables and seats, and wouldn’t allow anything to be carried through the temple.
- There were four groups of people who were targeted: sellers, buyers, money changers, and specifically “those who sold doves.”
So this also brings up a number of questions:
- What was the significance of being near the entrance?
- Why did Jesus destroy property of the money changers and the dove sellers?
- What exactly were all those sellers, buyers, and money changers doing?
- What’s with the doves?
A final observation is with v18, with this event precipitating the plot to kill Jesus. What was the teaching that led the religious teachers to fear Jesus?
the right to bear arms
The lynching and murders of black men and women always bring up the same cyclic discourse. “Don’t protest this way.” “Don’t protest that way.” “Rioting doesn’t get you what you want.” “Stop disturbing the peace.” Martin Luther King Jr. is wielded as a shield against Malcom X.
In 1773, North American colonists decided to dump tea into the Boston harbor as a protest for what they deemed as “unjust” taxes. But what were these taxes for? The colonists wanted to push West, deeming the indigenous as “savage” and “uncivilized.” The resulting French and Indian War was a costly defense to which the British monarchy sought recompense for. But American colonists wanted to have their cake and eat it to. More Land, No Cost. The birth of a nation through violent revolution came out of a desire for the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” at the expense of others – of indigenous lives, of black lives.
The so-called “right to bear arms” against tyrrany was and continues to be deemed as only appropriate for some. As theologian James Cone reitereated, justice and liberation can only be defined by the oppressed, not the oppressors. Through the history of Christian theological tradition, a notion of “just war” has been developed. In sum, when all other reasonable options are exhausted to protect the innocent, violence can be justified.
There has not been peace in this country since its inception. There still is not peace. The names of the innocent are dripping with fresh blood. I do not claim to know when that threshold of reasonable options has been exhausted - what I do know is that Black people have a right to self-determination. As Malcom X has said, “it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” As Martin Luther King Jr. stated towards the end of his life:
“Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community.”
Until we have true reparations and true justice, the litany of Black martyrs extends onwards. The fires will burn.
Emmett Till, pray for us.
Trayvon Martin, pray for us.
Michael Brown, pray for us.
Tamir Rice, pray for us.
Antown Rose, pray for us.
Atatiana Jefferson, pray for us.
Ahmaud Arbury, pray for us.
Breonna Taylor, pray for us.
George Floyd, pray for us.
May your deaths not be in vain.
Only in moments of crisis do we begin to re-evaluate all that has held us until this very moment. What really matters?
That job, that project, that mammon is all worthless.
In the midst of Covid-19, the epidemic of our century, the hidden societal structures have come to light. Who keeps producing food? The hidden agricultural workers. Who gets the food to us? The hidden transportation and delivery network. Who serves us the food? Grocery and restaurant workers. Who keeps the lights on? Who keeps the water running? Who keeps our environment clean and orderly? Who gets rid of our waste?
The individual cell in the human family is truly negligent to believe that it alone has brought forth the world unto itself.
How is that, these most essential people are so disregarded, underpaid, or under-recognized? Is the teacher so much less valuable than the executive? Is the sanitation worker any less valiant and brave than the police officer?
Here in Pittsburgh, sanitation workers have gone on strike, asking for personal protection equipment and hazard pay as they work to continue to remove the physical waste that we generate. They too, are on the frontlines of keeping our society operating. Even on a less critical occasion, sanitation workers have the most dangerous public service work, not only because of handling heavy machinery, but the many environmental hazards that come with dealing with our monstrous waste.
A number of years ago, I was visiting the Bible Museum in DC. As I sat in an atrium eating lunch, I saw a janitorial staff lady clean and wipe down a glass door so it was spotless. People walking through the door inevitably left fingerprints and smudges. Every couple of minutes, the same staff person came and wiped it down again, leaving it spotless, only for more people to walk through. Nevertheless, she persisted.
This was one of the most beautiful scenes I have observed. The display of faithfulness still has me in awe – the distillation of what is essential. How I pray that in the midst of this Great Lent, that we repent of how we have neglected the essential, the good portion, those who are blessed. Let us change our ways and demand justice for those who are essential.
"Almighty Spirit of humanity, let thy arms of compassion embrace and shield us from the charge of treachery, vindictiveness, and cruelty, and save us from further oppression! And may the great chief of the United States appoint no more broken-down or disappointed politicians as agents to deal with us, but may he select good men that are tried and true, men who fear not to do the right. This is our prayer."
— Simon Pokagon, The Red Man’s Rebuke (1893)