Why I didn’t go to the Black Lives Matter protest. And why I wish I had.

Why I didn’t go to the Black Lives Matter protest. And why I wish I had. July 7, 2016

It had something to do with the specifics of the demands the protestors were making.  One of them required the courts to overturn a previous not guilty verdict, which was the equivalent of double-jeopardy, which I could not support…. Or something.  That’s the rationale I gave myself.  For not going to the Black Lives Matter protest in 2014.

The real reasons were much more personal.  Since moving to New York some of the people I have become closest to are members of the NYPD.  They are members of my soon-to-be-family and they are good people and I love them.  Even if I might disagree with them on just about every political front imaginable, they are kind, decent people.  And I don’t know even a fraction of the sacrifices they have made in the line of duty.  They are brave people and they are honorable people.  And I saw how they were hurt by the protests, and by the media frenzy, and I saw their names dragged through the dirt and I couldn’t bring myself to protest because I felt like protesting would be protesting against them.  And I couldn’t shake the feeling that they would feel the same way.  Worse, I was afraid that the man I love might not love me any more if I hurt his family like that.  So, as with most decisions, my motivations were more emotional than rational.  But the result was the same as if I didn’t feel a thing: I just didn’t go.

Since then, there has been more violence.  More senseless death of civilians at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect them.  And with every futile pop of media outcry I feel more ashamed.  Because what use are my feelings if they are never transformed into action?

I’m a White woman who didn’t do anything.  Who is continuing to not do anything… because of inertia? Shame?  Fear of rocking the boat? How ridiculous for me when I write it out like that.  That I should be afraid of retaliation in the form of angry words from people who love me.  Perhaps those people will cease to love me. I doubt it. But that’s about as bad as it could possibly get.  And people are losing their lives out there.  People are getting gunned down at traffic stops.  People are dying and I’m worried about my family being mad at me.

If that’s not White Privilege, I don’t know what is.

As a Catholic, the situation is especially troubling.  Catholics, and Christians in general, have long been at the forefront of Civil Rights movements… where are they now? Well, times have changed.  The pendulum has swung so far Right that, for many, political conservatism is more important than regular attendance at Mass.  The reasons for this are too complicated for this particular post, but suffice it to say, Catholics fall hard on the police-apologist side of this particular issue.

Unequivocally bashing the people who protect us, who risk their lives for us, is immoral.  Siding with people who attack police is immoral.  Succumbing to media brainwashing is immoral.  I can agree with all of that.  But our responsibility as moral thinkers requires us to see the difference between opposition to the police themselves and opposition to police brutality and institutionalized racism.

But an even deeper problem with a Catholic approach to Black Lives Matter is that many Catholics struggle to understand racism, how it manifests systematically, and what it really means.  Catholicism is an extremely diverse religion worldwide, but in the United States it is largely a White religion.  (Although this is rapidly changing.)  White people in White social groups don’t have to ask themselves if they are racist.  It’s easy to “not see color” when everyone around you is more or less the same. Trying to explain why “All Lives Matter” isn’t the best approach from a moral perspective is difficult when we don’t realize how unequal the value of our lives are.  (Imagine if Pilot said to Jesus, “All Lives Matter.”)

“We don’t believe in sins anymore.  The only sin we believe in is racism.”

 A close friend (who will remain anonymous) once said this to me in a moment of bitterness.  I understand what she meant.  She meant that young Catholics no longer take obligations such as chastity, fasting, and receiving the sacraments seriously.  She’s right.  We should be taking those things more seriously. But the shift in focus towards social issues is not the problem. Racism has always been a sin- it just wasn’t taken seriously.

One of the criticisms I often hear from people who have left the Catholic Church is that it’s a religion that requires you to feel a lot of shame.  You spend a lot of time thinking about your sins.  This is one of the things I love about Catholicism.  Sometimes, shame is the exact right thing to feel.  I am ashamed because I did not stand up for what I believe is right.  I am guilty because I benefit from a system where my life will go largely unchanged whether I do anything or not. I feel these uncomfortable feelings because I should feel them.  Because it is good to feel them.

To my fellow Catholics, I entreat you…

Remember that Conservatism and Catholicism are not identical. The word Catholic means universal. We are the universal Church. We ought not fall into party lines.

And we certainly ought not fall into racial lines.

We fall into what is right.

Remember, it was Christians who were abolitionists.

It was Christians who Marched on Washington.

Because racism has always been a sin in Christianity.

And doing nothing in the face of wrongdoing has always been a sin.

And people like myself will continue to be sinners until we repent and change.

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