I started writing this on Tuesday, June 2, in the aftermath of the brutal, astonishing death of Mr. George Floyd. Yesterday was a very emotional day, watching news, visiting some areas of Milwaukee, talking to friends about the situation we are all experiencing. In the middle of the day I received a text from Fr. Bryan Massingale, the Catholic priest who directed my thesis at the seminary, with a link to the article he had written for the National Catholic Reporter. My thesis was on Malcolm X, and this was 2003. I do not think many Catholic seminarians have written a thesis on Malcolm X. That race and racism is an issue in our society was evident to me when I first came to the United States, my country of adoption. One of the things I heard yesterday was New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow saying that Dr. Martin Luther King was able to be Martin Luther King because there was a Malcolm X.
I hope you do not feel like I am just trying to show my credentials on race. I am only saying that it is a topic that has always interested me. I am who I am, and I believe my biography places me in an interesting position to reflect about this: I definitely look white. But I am a Hispanic. But I am not from Latin America. But I do have a huge accent. I have experienced countless incidents of racial micro-aggressions over the years (I did not even know there were called this way): Americanizing my last name; calling me Ricky Ricardo or Ricky Martin, both destroying my name and my last name at once—which is my family identity, by the way; telling me, “Don’t worry, you speak better English than my Spanish…” only to find out when I innocently ask that the person does not know ANY Spanish! But let us be honest, I have never felt that my life was at risk the times that I have been stopped by a law enforcement agent. Many do not feel that way.
Let me tell you a bit more about my day, because, well, I am also a priest. In the evening, I realized that I had to prepare for Mass for the next day, so I went to read the readings. Leaving Pentecost behind, what would Ordinary Time have in store for us? Part of the day had been discussing with some what is the Catholic Church supposed to do, what could the parish that I shepherd do. So, with that in mind, not feeling really hopeful that I would find much to work with, I turned to the scriptures selected by who knows who, in some pristine office in the Vatican sometime in the 1960s… I started with the Gospel because that is what I normally read first and what I have preached on in 95% of my homilies over the last 17 years. It is a famous one – the enemies of Jesus try to catch him with a question about taxes. My first thought: Would some Christians be cynical enough to think that this gospel text supports the idea that the Church, any church, should keep herself from discussions on politics or race? Most of our people are watching Mass these days on-line. If I preach about racism, will they be “bothered”? Have I disturbed the only place where they could find “peace” and calm? This gospel could be a temptation for us, a community of the Spirit, to fall into our “country club” ways, when church just becomes a socialite experience. Even more hopeless, I went to the first reading. And it was a missile to the gut.
Read it or read it again: “Beloved: Wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation. Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability. But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” (First Reading for June 2nd, Tuesday of the 9th Week in Ordinary Time, 2nd Letter of Saint Peter 3:12-15A, 17-18.)
Now, apply this reading to the news of the day. Written 2,000 years ago and chosen some 50 years ago, this reading shows the power of sacred scripture, that breaks through any convention at any given time: Most of us, Christians of good will, want a new heaven and a new earth, but we cannot just will it to happen. Suffering, disturbance, destruction of old way needs to happen. Years of frustration make that poetic destruction actually take place. And we do not understand the destruction because we do not understand the anger that comes from the constant experience of injustice (the aforementioned Charles Blow wrote this article, in case you want to understand looting, which does not mean agreeing with it.)
The peace of Christ will be, not wishful thinking but a peace borne of God’s justice, “a new earth in which justice dwells.” There is no other way. We can wish that we could wake up in a better world, or we can fall into believing in conspiracy theories (which are often false and a few times just very partial descriptions of reality.) Or we can embrace the suffering and come out of this better disciples of Jesus.
We keep reading: “Be eager to be found without spot or blemish” in our own participation in racial injustice—and since we are at it, on any injustice. In Catholic morals, the best way to be found without blemish is by doing a very good examination of conscience, which helps us to acknowledge and ask for forgiveness for our sins. When we do the examination of conscience, we have to ask ourselves: When did we start to get horrified, when we saw the riots and the looting or when we saw a white knee over a black neck for more than eight minutes? What part of the white woman’s call to the police in Central Park offended you? The examination of conscience is a prayer. However, unlike other prayers, is one that looks first at ourselves, and makes us into part of the solution for the problem we pray for.
Still, do not fall into despair, but be hopeful, as we keep reading: “Consider the patience of our Lord as salvation.” God will be patient with us, especially when we at least attempt to walk the path to truth and justice. If you do your own examination well, do not feel shame. Feel guilt. Shame does not take you anywhere, whereas guilt takes us to a place of forgiveness and reparation.
We keep reading, another hook to the jaw: “Be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled.” Educate yourself. Read Malcolm X, read James Baldwin. Read Dr. Martin Luther King well, instead of just turning him into a meme or some slogan that really does not capture what he wrote. Do you really think Dr. King was murdered because he preached non-violence? We have done to Dr. King what we have done with Jesus. We have diluted them, so we can consume them as we consume everything else. We just want to make them easier to approach.
And since we are at it, perhaps stop posting sweet stuff and wishful thinking on social media: “The heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire”—nothing sweet in the way the Apostle conveys how God tells us that the world’s transformation needs to happen. Educate yourself, so we can find ourselves without blemish when our day comes. And fall from your own stability: Let faith shake your foundations, like we prayed for during Pentecost.
I am being asked these days: What do we do? I think I have explained where I think we can start, which is by being very honest with ourselves and do a very good examination of conscience. We also need to educate ourselves, there is so much we can read, and watch…but we especially need to listen to other people’s experience. We will need to quiet ourselves, really, when someone with an experience we do not have or with a knowledge we did not acquire tells us something. We always react, we listen thinking about what we are going to answer… We have a right to an opinion, but we also have a right obligation not to answer and simply learn.
We can take what we learn in this area to continue “growing in grace” in other areas, as race is not our only problem. But it is especially pervasive, it is deadly, and our complacency steals our souls. Let us be courageous to discover that we are more racist, classist, and sexist than we thought we were. Let us be courageous to admit that at the basis of many of these behaviors, there is fear. Hiding fear has very dangerous consequences.
We need to admit that we are where we are and we all want to get to that new heaven and new earth, but this is no way to take a shortcut. But where is the Good News? That is the good news, actually. Instead of avoiding it, let us submerge ourselves in the ocean of this problem. I believe we can come out of it as much better disciples of Jesus, as much better human beings indeed.