Protesting on Both Knees

COMMENTARY: Catholics should be on the front lines of the fight for justice, beginning in the front pews, protesting devoutly before God.

A man kneels in prayer in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem April 9, during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
A man kneels in prayer in front of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem April 9, during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. (photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 4, I was returning from early morning Mass for religious sisters across Midtown Manhattan when, on 48th Street, I entered the pedestrian protective tunnel of a construction site.

There was an African American construction worker on the other side of the tunnel who, as I approached, asked at high volume, presumably for his fellow workers to hear, “Are you heading out to protest, Father?”

Because of the mask he was wearing, I couldn’t really be sure of his tone, but it seemed like a friendly query.

“Are you a Christian?” I asked him, figuring that if he used the term “Father,” the odds were good.

“Yes,” he replied with pride.

“Well, as a Christian,” I smiled and said, “I protest on both knees.”

He looked at me quizzically, seeming to request elaboration.

“Our first protest against evil is not to drop to one knee, like football players, but to drop to both knees in prayer, crying out to God for forgiveness for the evil of racism, for the wicked killing of George Floyd and other victims, for the sinister rampage of destruction and looting that have harmed so many businesses and led most others to have to board up their windows. We drop to our knees and beg God for help to fight against and repair these evils.”

He paused as he processed what I was saying and then nodded his covered chin in agreement.

“So would you like to march with me to church,” I asked amicably, “where we can protest together before the Lord?”

He replied with a laugh, “I have to work!”

“Then I guess I’ll march for both of us!” I concluded and gave him a hearty socially-distanced wave goodbye that he reciprocated with “Thanks!”

I have been doing a lot of double-kneed protesting over the last couple of weeks.

To protest means, according to its Latin roots, to “give witness” (testari) “on behalf of” or “in front of” (pro) others.

I have been regularly going before the Lord in reparation for the indefensible slaying of George Floyd; for the history of racial injustice that blacks have suffered in the U.S. all the way back to the evil of slavery at our national origin; for police officers who have become corrupted and for those who attack the good ones because of the bad; for the decades of inadequate responses, tokenism and political exploitation blacks continue to suffer from various leaders; and for the need of a movement to help convince others of what should be both obvious and culturally and legally ensured, that black lives matter.

I have also been building up knee calluses in response to the evil I’ve seen in New York City by those using the protests as a cover for anarchic destruction, organized crime and brazen robbery.

Last Monday morning, walking back after celebrating Mass at a different convent down by City Hall, I passed through Chinatown and Little Italy, making my way north. I normally don’t read the news before Mass and so I was unaware of the severity of what had happened the previous night.

Turning left from Mulberry Street onto Bleeker, ahead of me on the sidewalk, I saw thousands of tiny shards of glass. As I drew closer I could see that all of the windows of the store had been shattered. Turning the corner onto Lafayette Street, I saw that many establishments had met the same fate, cars on the road had had their windshields and windows smashed, and graffiti was everywhere. I saw stunned store owners trying to contain themselves, sweaty construction workers putting up boards to cover the windows, and people scrubbing walls to clean the graffiti.

As I walked on farther, every block or two, a store had been singled out for destruction, looting or graffiti and random cars for gratuitous damage. This continued most of my way home, including an attack on the doors and display windows of an eyeglass store a few blocks from home.

And those weren’t even the worst sections, where cars and buildings had been set on fire.

Then on Thursday, traversing the city westward for confessions and Mass at 6am, I felt like I was crossing a lumber yard. Construction workers were already hard at work — not building new skyscrapers, but cutting plywood and hammering it into windows and doors as protection. All of the iconic stores of New York, national media studios, restaurants, banks, hotels, museums — and basically everything else not made out of stone — was being boarded up.

This was a result of a lack of trust in the protesters’ goodwill and in New York’s leadership to protect the city’s citizens and businesses, not to mention enforce its curfew or the most basic COVID-19 social-distancing regulations.

Police officers told me they felt basically powerless to fight the vandals and pillagers effectively, because local and state leadership, under the guise of “justice reform,” had recently passed laws and orders that prevent law enforcement from holding overnight in jail those arrested for most crimes.

To see almost all of Midtown boarded up was like the collective raising of a white flag of surrender to the mobs, something that saddened me almost as much as witnessing the destruction a few days earlier.

It returned me to my ongoing protest before the Blessed Sacrament.

While similar upheavals have been taking place in Minneapolis, Washington, Los Angeles and other major cities, there’s something particularly painful about seeing it happen here in New York, a symbol of American resilience after 9/11.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the city defiantly, courageously, inspiringly rose again, spurred on by true leadership at various levels. This time, discouraged by leadership at most levels, and enfeebled by three months of fear of the coronavirus, the only defense it seemed capable of mustering against riots was to build plywood walls.

Most residents and store owners had understood that if, after months of enforced social distancing with apocalyptic messages about how deadly COVID-19 was, state and municipal leaders allowed crowds of thousands of people to convene to march, rally and mourn, then they were simply not serious about enforcing laws and executive orders. Those wishing to take advantage of lawlessness were also paying attention.

Some argued that the importance of the cause justified such an exception. The cause is indisputably important. But when authorities shut down Jewish funerals with 50 people in the streets and pretend as if Catholics would violate love of neighbor if 10 people were at Mass across a vast cathedral, yet nevertheless permit thousands to agglutinate for any other reason, it communicates that there is one set of rules for the protesters and another for everyone else.

The fight against inequality will never be won, however, by other forms of inequality. Injustice before the law will never be rectified by other forms of injustice. New double standards won’t eliminate, but, through fomenting resentment, likely perpetuate, the contemptible double standards against which multitudes are marching. Justice, equality and peace will come only through assiduously treating people equally according to their equal dignity.

Catholics should be on the front lines of the fight for justice. But we should always remember two things.

Marchers should begin in the front pews, protesting devoutly before God. “Unless God build the house, in vain do the builders labor” (Psalm 127:1). The first thing Catholics should always do in response to any need or crisis is unite themselves to God in prayer.

And when they take to the streets, they should head toward the One who never ceases to say, “Follow me.”

Christ perpetually asks us to march with him, and the pilgrimage of the Church in time is a march for love and against sin. Marches guided by different principles or different destinations will not deliver the justice and peace they seek.

Father Roger Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.

  He is based in New York City, where he works for the Church at the United Nations.   

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