Can you hear us? Are you listening?
The photograph, Erie’s Mastery, is by Dave Sandford.
Jacob Blake grew up in Evanston, Illinois, just 4 miles up the road from Loyola’s campus. His grandfather was a pastor there at Ebenezer AME, organized and marched in the 1960s, and worked locally on housing reform and desegregation. Jacob has three children (ages 3, 5, and 8) and apparently moved to Kenosha (just a one-hour drive north) to get a fresh start. On Sunday evening, however, a police officer shot him in the back. He was struck by four of the seven bullets fired at him as he opened his car door and leaned in, his children present in the car. We do not know many details of the situation but we do know that this use of force was not necessary. The use of force like this is disproportionate and too often lethal. The data cannot not lie. Black men in the USA are almost 3 times more likely to be shot or choked to death by police than White men. This is an especially violent and tragic symptom of racism, including personal prejudice but especially reflecting systemic racism.
Our country is racist and it is plain to see, if you are willing to look. In spite of what the law says and in spite of a person’s denials and “I didn’t intend to …” types of claims, the facts are unassailable: the functioning of our society’s policies and institutions are, in fact, racist because they have disproportionately bad effects on Black people. They also have disproportionately bad effects on other racial and ethnic groups and this latter fact leads us to a more specific conclusion: the racism systemically at work in our country is white supremacy. The standard, the default, the norm in our culture and in statistical conclusions about proportionality is the experience of White people. It is relative to the White experience that police kill Black men at much higher rates. This does not mean that the White experience is idyllic and simple; rather, it means that everyone else is having a harder time, a much harder time in many instances. We must confront that specific problem: the status quo is white supremacy. It infects everything and we must all be active in our work to root it out and overcome it. We must be actively anti-racist, anti-white supremacy. Doing nothing, being passive, continuing as we have before only allows this status quo to continue. Maintaining the status quo maintains white supremacy.
Fighting to be Heard, Fighting for Survival
Jacob Blake is in intensive care and fighting to survive. His family reports that he is paralyzed from the waist down because one of the seven bullets fired by police struck his spinal cord. They point out, however, that their son, brother, father, uncle is strong and now worries more about his community than himself. He seeks justice and healing for his family and community. Will he heal physically and spiritually? We pray that he will. In the meantime, the city of Kenosha is on fire, a specific response to the police assault on Mr. Blake. The anger and frustration, however, reflect far more.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Gross Pointe High School (in Michigan) in 1968 and his words all those years ago relate to the situation we now face, again. His words address us directly:
Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non¬-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
“The Other America,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Grosse Pointe High School - March 14, 1968
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
The day after Pentecost Sunday a few months ago, I wrote in a different blog post about the presence of “A Holy Rage” in our midst. George Floyd had been brutally murdered just days earlier, choked to death by police in spite of his pleas and those of bystanders. Since then we have witnessed protests around the world and they continue in many cities, the streets echoing with cries of sorrow and anger demanding that our society tell the truth and enact an authentic justice. The words of the prophet Amos resonate: “this is what the Lord, the Lord God Almighty, says, ‘there will be wailing in the streets and the cries of anguish in every public square. The farmers will be summoned to weep and mourners to wail. There will be wailing in all the vineyards, for I will pass through your midst’” (Amos 5:16-17).
How will we respond to these cries and wails? Some responses are tragically predictable: we offer “thoughts and prayers” and while taking no real action we hope, nonetheless, for change. The prophet again speaks to us directly, the words of the Lord: “I hate, I despise your festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24).
Are we hearing these cries? Are we willing to listen?
P. Solomon Raj: Thirst for Justice, 2001, batik, ca. 150 x 225 cm.
Dr. P. Solomon Raj is a Lutheran theologian and artist from India. A post to The Jesus Question blog offers a helpful theological analysis of the work, including such elements as the desert surrounding the factories, Jesus attending to laborers and captives, God’s hand pushing a flaming wheel, and the prophet in the river calling for our attention.
Love and Justice
To honor God, to pray to and worship God, requires doing justice. Discerning the truth and pursuing justice must come first. Prayer and worship can accompany this work but unless the work is authentic and underway then prayer and worship are actually harmful, a balm to the conscience of our racist, white supremacist society.
What does it mean to discern the truth and do justice now? This is a personal question. It is also a question for our communities. How will your family answer it? How will your city answer it? How will your congregation answer it? How will Loyola University Chicago answer it? How will the Institute of Pastoral Studies answer it?
These are very real questions. IPS began by leading the entirely LUC community in prayers of lamentation and confession. We’ve continued through the summer and now into the fall with listening, reflection, and study. We have much to unlearn and more to learn. All IPS faculty, including adjuncts, are reading a recent text: Spiritual Care in an Age of #BlackLivesMatter. We’ve hosted a series of listening sessions for IPS faculty and staff, seeking to share and understand our experiences. A student-led series of listening sessions for IPS students is underway. This fall we will continue the dialogue begun in these sessions, aiming to discern together and speak the truth to each other.
And we must pursue justice through antiracist work. LUC is providing training in antiracist pedagogy. A University-wide Antiracism Initiative has begun its work to change and build new processes, identify and secure needed resources, research the specific potential an outside group dedicated to institutional change in view of antiracism might bring, address the specific concerns raised by student organizations, and much more. This is a full-funded effort that will bear fruit over time. The new Vice Provost of Faculty Affairs is developing a Center for Faculty Excellence, one of several efforts in her office focusing on recruiting and fully supporting a diverse faculty body. Also, a new institute will be launched: the Institute for Racial Justice. It will function as a new academic unit and will support research, host conferences, house new courses (undergraduate and graduate), facilitate interdisciplinary work related to racial justice within LUC, and much more.
This is a good start and a reflection of the commitment made by LUC leadership to pursue more authentically the University’s educational mission and embody more thoroughly its Catholic, Jesuit heritage.
Seek Forgiveness, Deepen Discipleship
Though sinfully and lamentably late, we’ve begun. Racism is a scourge and a cancer in our society, an original sin that we have yet to address properly. We must see it for what it is, confess the sin, and beg for forgiveness. We must discipline ourselves according to the truth, pursue justice, and nurture love.
Who is the “we” here? Let us be specific. LUC and IPS are historically white institutions. Our student body does not reflect the demographics of the city of Chicago. The average IPS student is a 47 year old, White, Catholic, woman. In general, we serve the White community very well but this is not reflective of the whole Body of Christ. We must cultivate at the IPS new relationships and serve and support each other in new ways. Those White students that pass through our programs must be challenged to confront their Whiteness in our context of racial injustice and do so in view of critical and constructive formation for service to the mission of God. We must enable and encourage each other, speaking as a White man, to stay vigilant and work within the White community to do our part, to be self-critical and reflective, to grow and change.
Racism infects our politics and economic systems. It is contaminates our health care and criminal justice systems. It reveals itself in our segregated neighborhoods, businesses, and places of worship. It bears itself out in inequalities easily discernible in practically every aspect of our lives. We are swimming in an ocean of racism and not enough of us even recognize that we are wet; far too many White people are in denial. It so pervades our consciousness that rooting it out has become an existential crisis. Indeed, many experience the critique of racism as a personal attack, their identities having been formed within and now bound to what we know are diseased social systems and cultural constructs. Many view attacks on institutions and collective habits and practices as attacks on the country itself and the ideals it is supposed to embody. This is how deeply embedded racism has become; it is malignant and has spread.
Thankfully, this is where the metaphor breaks down. A cancer that has spread to blood, bone, and beyond typically brings with it a death sentence. In contrast, our country, our collective life, our institutions, our habits, and our personal self-understandings can and must be created anew. Individually and collectively, we can cultivate new understandings, new wisdom, new habits, new processes, and new ways of relating. Actually, none of this is truly new. The creative power we possess as creatures fashioned in the image and likeness of God is very real. The message Jesus delivered, that we are already worthy and loved by God in spite of ourselves, frees us from those norms that hinder our drive to use that power to do what is right and to love radically.
The demands of love are too often considered transgressions in our society but the Spirit is here, can be heard in the streets, and bears A Holy Rage. God demands that we marshal our freedom and power to do justice, to show mercy, and to love radically. Are you hearing this? Are you ready to listen? Are you ready accept this truth that you are worthy and loved, and that you are called now to enact that love, to transgress the norms infected with racism, to pursue justice, and to bring mercy, hope, and love to the oppressed and the suffering?
Peter L. Jones, Ph.D.
Institute of Pastoral Studies, Interim Dean