From Pandemic to Protests: A Call to Conversion

EDITORIAL: As a conversation is occurring in the public square and on city streets, perhaps it should truly begin in the heart.

Protesters kneel in prayer in Coral Gables, Florida on May 30, 2020.
Protesters kneel in prayer in Coral Gables, Florida on May 30, 2020. (photo: TOP/Shutterstock.)

The nation is rightly convulsed with anger and grief over the videotaped killing of George Floyd, a black man who was brutally pinned down by his neck to the point of losing consciousness by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while fellow police officers idly stood by.

But what isn’t right are the subsequent actions undertaken by the violent mobs who injured and killed innocent people and looted and burned businesses, residences and whole neighborhoods in a number of major U.S. cities. The violence that usurped peaceful protests under the Black Lives Matter banner caused disproportionate harm to the same minority communities for whose cause the crowds gathered.

No person of good faith should dispute that the calls for justice, raised up by the millions of peaceful protesters who have assembled across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death to demand an end to racist attitudes and actions, have a legitimate grounding. Nor should anyone dispute that some elements of racism persist in American society, despite efforts in recent decades to expunge them. As Pope St. John Paul II stated in 2001, “Every upright conscience cannot but decisively condemn any racism, no matter in what heart or place it is found. … Racism is a sin that constitutes a serious offense against God.”

But it’s not always easy to discern without the lens of faith and a commitment to the common good of all which kinds of protests are justified and which are not; which actions will help African American individuals and communities and which will injure them; and which measures will unite all Americans in pursuit of the noble and necessary objective of eradicating racism once and for all and which will divide them further.

At their core, these are spiritual questions more than they are political ones. That’s because removing racial prejudice from the fabric of U.S. society can only be achieved by changing hearts and minds, not merely by reforming and/or dismantling political structures.

It’s also the case that this charged national debate over how to end racism — long overdue, though it may be — is occurring amid an unprecedented shutdown of much of everyday life because of the coronavirus pandemic, with all its hardships, including the devastating economic toll and continuing restrictions on public religious worship. It’s also taking place in the context of a 2020 presidential campaign that’s on course to be one of the most bitterly partisan contests in U.S. history. This disconcerting moment, with emotions inflamed on all sides, is all the more reason why the nation desperately needs responses that are founded firmly in faith.

However, unlike the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, which was animated by a Christian ethos and led by Christian ministers such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Lives Matters movement since its inception earlier this decade has been almost completely political in its outlook and even antithetical to mainstream Christian traditions.

Imbued with a secularized and politicized perspective, sweeping institutional reforms are now being prioritized by many protesters, including some as radical and counterproductive as the partial or complete abolition of police forces via their defunding. And some Black Lives Matter supporters insist that the violence associated with the protesting is fully justified, as a mechanism driving home the need for the dramatic institutional reforms that are being demanded.

Some reforms, such as enhanced measures to exclude individuals with racist and violent tendencies from serving in law enforcement, are clearly warranted. But a lesson of the last several decades is that the dismantling of the institutional framework of racial segregation starting in the 1960s was not enough to eradicate racism. Focusing primarily on politically driven changes is not likely to be adequate today either.

Those whose lives are guided by their Catholic faith can offer a fuller perspective.

Elsewhere in these pages, African American Catholic educator Arthur Hippler cautioned against activism devoid of God.

“Unless there are duties to God and neighbor that are written on the heart, there really is no kind of standard; then all you’re left with is power,” he told the Register. Moreover, he added, the absence of this understanding lays the groundwork for violent rioting as a “kind of act for justice outside of a moral framework.”

“The root of racism is in the human heart, so you can’t change the human heart just by laws,” said Hippler. “The only thing that changes hearts is conversion.”

That’s sound, and balanced, spiritual direction. Pope Francis, whose own preferential option for those marginalized by racism, poverty or any other unjust cause is universally recognized, has provided this, too.

In a June 3 video broadcast, the Holy Father advised he was praying for the soul of George Floyd and all other victims of racism.

“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” Pope Francis said.

“At the same time, we have to recognize that the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost.”

Those are words that all Americans, of every faith and of none, can take to heart.