In light of the recent presidential condemnation of NFL football players spotlighting racial injustice, I felt it important to suggest we take a moment, as independently-thinking adults (no matter your political affiliation) to ensure we do not draw simple conclusions as to the players’ motives without first considering the context. I’d like to perhaps most effectively do so by making a rather unorthodox comparison, one I can relate most easily to: the church.
For those confused by the notion that anyone might feel anything but immense pride and affinity for a symbol as bold as the U.S. flag, I’d urge you to consider what you feel when you see other unmistakable symbols you’ve come to know. The cross, for instance: the universal symbol for Christianity, and most commonly, the Roman Catholic Church.
For those who’ve had radical life transformations in a place of worship, who believe whole-heartedly in the saving grace Christ’s death on the cross represents, or simply those who’ve grown up nostalgically clinging to the old hymns and traditions of attending as family, the cross most likely creates a good feeling in you. One you might hope to share with others, wear around your neck, or even tattoo on your body.
Now perhaps consider that the very same symbol does not mean the same for your friend. Consider that that friend, neighbor, or family member was one of the thousands of people worldwide who were victims of sexual abuse by those in authority/power in the church. Consider that while they stood in church next to you, instead of feeling joy, reverence and freedom, that person felt disgust, fear, powerlessness and eventual anger because they had seen a side of that symbol that you’d never experienced or even wanted to consider existed.
We know this undoubtedly happened for many. From 2001 to 2010 the Holy See, the central governing body of the Catholic Church, considered sex abuse allegations involving about 3,000 priests dating back 50 years. Cases reflect worldwide patterns of long-term abuse as well as the church hierarchy’s pattern of regularly covering up reports of alleged abuse. Diocesan officials and academics knowledgeable about the Roman Catholic Church say that sexual abuse by clergy is generally not discussed, and thus is difficult to measure (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_sexual_abuse_cases).
Not only unspeakable actions, but abuses of power had taken place.
I can imagine that that person would not only become disenfranchised with the symbol of the cross itself and all that comes with it, but that they might also want to bring these issues to light so that, once revealed, discussed and corrected, others might not suffer the same fate. Some might say they’d want justice. I imagine that I, as a friend and Christian, would want the same for them and would fight to ensure they see that justice. I would want to ensure that the institution I love and experience differently can be the same for all.
In this context, I wonder if some might better understand that many who do not look like you may experience law enforcement, a system put in place to serve and protect its citizens, in a completely different way. Consider for a moment that the institution you have tremendous respect for is respected because those who’ve represented it to you have perhaps been your saving grace a time or two or are family members that you know and love and may even wear a badge with pride. Consider that the experiences you’ve had with those who do their jobs well is not always the case for others.
We know this to be true as well. The New York Times recently cited 26 high-profile cases from the last three years in which blacks were killed by the police or while in police custody where officers suffered no conviction, or reached out-of-court settlements, even after some pleaded guilty and raw footage of their victims’ murders were revealed.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine that one might feel fear, powerlessness and anger on behalf of his or her own community members, family members and friends. I’d imagine that when they hear the words, “home of the free and the brave” that there might be a sharp sting felt deep in their hearts. Maybe, just maybe they want to cry out for justice when they see their loved ones in caskets and the person responsible for their murder walking free, in many cases with a badge still securely pinned to his chest. Does this, too, feel like an abuse of power? Is it impossible or repulsive to think that these instances and more might create a disenfranchisement with a symbol that implies liberty and justice for all? Are these instances not enough to inspire a movement to see it change so that symbol can be experienced for all as it is for some?
I tend to have the utmost respect for people and organizations who recognize their flaws, work to correct them and ensure they are continually meeting the needs of the citizens they’re in place to serve. Don’t you? When people talk of improving or reforming the current law enforcement status quo it’s as if the notion itself is sacrilege. Surely, if the church itself is not above reproach, neither is our policing system.
This Sunday, should you kneel in church to pray, or perhaps catch a glimpse of the cross hanging above the altar. I urge you to consider the experiences, fears and freedoms of others. I urge you to truly ask yourself why the image of a bent knee is more enraging to you than the image of another mother pleading for justice on behalf of her dead son or husband. I urge you to consider, while on bended knee, what you yourself can do to bring a voice to the voiceless. You may even want to consider Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right. Seek Justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
Or, you know, you can catch the game afterward over beers with your buddies and continue to throw stones at those willing to put their faith into action.
Libby Hogan, Carmel