Standing up for our African-American brothers and sisters: the pro-life thing to do
May 30, 2020
Every human life is precious.
It is often the simplest, most basic truths that we need to repeat and defend the most often.
The tragic and horrifying death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 challenges the lack of love and the negligence of an entire nation. Including mine. And yours.
To be clear, I in no way mean that the nation is entirely lacking in love or negligent. Far from it. Ours is a great nation of many excellent virtues and some destructive and persistent evils.
And I do not mean that you or I would ever commit the barbaric acts of violence we have seen so often repeated across the country, which are echoes of a brutality that has afflicted the United States since its beginning. Further, I do not mean that you or I are racist in any conscious way. In fact, like many of you, I oppose the uncharitable and imprudent hurling of accusations we see so often on television, in social media, and elsewhere.
Rather, what I mean is that all of our hearts are wounded by failures to love and to act according to Christ’s law of love.
Of course, the chief guilt for any evil action lies on the shoulders of the person who actually commits the sin. But any constructive steps we might take must begin as the whole Christian life begins, as every Mass begins — with repentance. We must turn away from our own sins and vices in order to begin a new life in Christ.
While we all thank God for the many positive steps our society has taken in eliminating both personal and institutional racism, George Floyd’s death is yet another sorrowful reminder that we still have far to go.
Yet even now, when things seem so bleak, we who are disciples of Jesus Christ and members of His Church work with hope for a better future. Hope is the hallmark characteristic of the Easter season that is now coming to an end. And the whole point of Easter hope is that it is stronger than sin and death. Which is to say that the Lord Jesus is stronger than sin and death.
I began by affirming that every human life is precious, and that truth points us to an important cause for hope. The Catholic Church has a long and wonderful tradition of pro-life prayer, action and advocacy. It is a gift for which we ought to thank God.
One rather lazy and, I think, wrongheaded accusation sometimes launched at pro-life Catholics is that they are “pro-birth” and not truly pro-life, because they supposedly oppose abortion without defending the sanctity of other human lives (e.g. people of color, immigrants, the poor, the elderly). There are several reasons why this accusation is misleading, but spelling-out those problems is not the purpose of this article.
Our purpose, our mission, right now is to be pro-life Catholics who do stand up and speak up for our African-American brothers and sisters, and for anyone else who faces discrimination, oppression or unjust violence. We need to be pro-life in the fullest sense of the term.
Because there are so many unhelpful accusations being thrown around these days, I want to make extra clear that I am preaching at myself at least as much as anyone else. Because of the urgency, destruction, and scale of abortion in the world today, my own attention to social justice issues has largely been taken-up with defending unborn life.
It is tremendously important to defend the unborn! It is almost impossible to overstate how important it is. But we also have an urgent and grave responsibility to defend the dignity and sanctity of all human lives.
And we have the time and energy to do this. To say we do not have the time, to keep racism and unjust violence always down the priority list, is a failure to love and to trust in God. We do something similar when we bring our own needs to God yet to some extent hold back, thinking, “He’s got more important things to worry about.”
The God Who created and redeemed us, Who loves each of us more than we can possibly imagine, always wants to give us His attention and help. And we are called not only to receive that love gratefully, but to share it self-sacrificially with others, especially those in most need of it.
In addition to those who are direct victims of racially motivated violence, there are millions of our brothers and sisters who are afraid, angry and heartsick. They know that while things have changed a lot in our country, they have not changed enough. And they know that things will not change enough, or quickly enough, without pressure.
Which brings us to the rioting we have seen across the United States in recent days. Keeping what it means to be pro-life in mind, we begin to recognize that the problem with rioting is not that it is too strong a reaction to outrages like the death of George Floyd. Instead, it is a reaction that does not go deep enough, as well as one that hurts innocent people and perpetuates disregard for human life.
Rioting does not go deep enough because it does not address the whole person, as did the non-violent pressure exerted by Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the civil rights movement. Theirs was a spiritual crusade, first and foremost. It affirmed the dignity of every person, regardless of skin color, even as it sought to effect societal and legal change.
This brings us to a question that is always urgent at times such as these: “What can we do?” We all know we ought to do something, but what can we do about such large-scale and deeply rooted evils? Here are a few thoughts:
Give this cause some of your time. The name “Catholic” means “universal,” and that means we Catholics must care about all people and all the issues that affect our neighbor, insofar as we are able.
Acknowledge the reality of racism and unjust violence. We will not agree on all of the details when it comes to confronting the evil of racism. We may not even agree on some of the major points. But we can all agree that it is an evil and that it remains a major problem in our society, despite much good progress.
Renounce any racism in your own heart. To be frank, this can at first glance seem to be a mere exercise, a formality. There is no need at all to be fake, just as there is no need to exaggerate your sense of guilt. The point is merely to acknowledge that we share a fallen human nature and that one element of that fallen nature is the inclination towards some form of racism. You might never have sinned, but surely we have all at least been tempted to some racist thought or action. If not, God has blessed you in a rare way.
Reach out to people around you, including both African-Americans and police officers. We might not be able to do much on a national scale, but we can and should be good to our own neighbors, fellow parishioners, family and friends who are most affected by racism and violence. We should never force people to talk about such matters, but we can offer our support. We should fully support our police officers, the vast majority of whom serve their communities with devotion and courage, and many of whom are African-American themselves. We can also join peaceful protests — a great way to express our solidarity at a time that threatens to tear us apart.
Think ahead. How will I speak to my African-American co-workers this week? What petitions might I sign to urge politicians to act? How might I educate myself more about the challenges faced in our society by people who are different from me? Where will there be peaceful protests that I might consider joining?
Share your resources. Building a better world requires that we share our resources with those in need. Conservatives and liberals often disagree about how much of this work should be carried out by the government, but every Christian must agree that we are called to give to those in need of our own volition. Economic hardship is one ingredient of the painful legacy of racism.
Avoid generalizations or slogans. It rarely helps to make sweeping generalizations about what other people think, feel or do. And slogans, while immensely popular today, often do as much harm as good. Try to express the truth with boldness, precision, humility, and your own simple, straightforward language.
Do not make this issue about other issues. Using this moment to air grievances against Republicans or Democrats, to advance agendas that are unrelated to the issue at-hand, or to campaign for or against certain political candidates is probably neither convincing to anyone else nor helping the fight against racism and violence.
Be humble. I sure hope I have followed this rule in this article! Do not present yourself as a hero of racial justice. Do not villainize those who disagree with you, particularly about matters of prudential judgment concerning how to advance the cause of honoring and defending every person’s dignity.
PRAY. The expression “thoughts and prayers” is both overused and over-mocked these days. First, it does not help to equate thoughts with prayers. Prayers already imply those thoughts that are effective in helping the people to whom “thoughts and prayers” are typically addressed. To promise prayers to someone is to promise them the most powerful gift you have. Never be ashamed or think of prayers as a second-rate offering. Yes, we must do more than pray, but prayer is the best we have to give.
As we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, may God send His Holy Spirit into each of our hearts, that we might know His peace and share His peace with a world that desperately needs it. May the Spirit fill us with the love and courage to take a stand for the dignity and sanctity of every human life. Without exception.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.