Today, May 30th 2020, is the feast of St. Joan of Arc, who happens to be my confirmation saint. It is also the day after violent protests broke out in my home, New York City. Protests have been erupting all over the country following the agonizing death of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin. Most of these protests have not been peaceful. They are fueled by an anger born of centuries of trauma, and their nature poses a challenge for Christians. How are we to understand what is happening, and how are we to respond? Perhaps the life of this great saint can serve as guidance.
The Mystery of Joan of Arc
St. Joan of Arc was a poor peasant girl from a remote French village. She was born in the midst of a decades-long war between England and France. Violence and poverty were facts of her life. Joan was only 13 when she began having visions of saints telling her she would be the one to liberate France. She was 16 when she dawned a suit of armor, took control of the French army, and turned the tide of the war. She was burned to death on May 30, 1431. Her extraordinary, inexplicable, and short life has inspired women of faith to lead lives of strength and courage. However, it raises more questions than it answers.
Why would God care about the outcome of a territorial war? How could He endorse violence? Why would He ask a teenage girl to commit violence in His name, and why would He allow her to die a miserably painful death at the end? Theologians have tried to address these questions. Whole books have been written on the subject. But at the end of the day only one answer makes sense to me.
God feels the pain of human beings living with oppression. While He didn’t cause this human war, He chose to be present within it. Even the ugliest aspects of human nature can be used toward His ends.
Coming to Terms with Righteous Anger
I admit that I’ve struggled with coming to grips with violent protest. But it’s natural that I wouldn’t understand – I am not living with centuries of generational trauma. History has shown repeatedly that violence is a response to trauma. It’s the last resort of people who feel hopeless, powerless, and unheard. Ultimately, after peaceful protest fails to bring about the desired results, frustration and anger take over. This is a fact of the human experience. Those of us living with privilege cannot sit in judgement.
What we know from the story of Joan of Arc is that God is present even in violent situations, and that He is capable of using violence for good. We do not understand His ways. If we’re tempted to judgement, it’s best to just get out of the way and let Him do His work.
“I Am Not Afraid, I Was Born to Do This”
St. Joan famously declared that she was not afraid when confronted with violence. Unfortunately, I am not like St. Joan. I fear for our marginalized communities, which have already been disproportionately ravaged by disease. I’m afraid that this weekend’s crowds will lead to a spike in Covid cases just as we were beginning to see the other side. I am afraid for innocent people who will lose their livelihoods. Finally, I am afraid for the personal safety of all involved.
But these fears cannot stand in the way of justice. Black Americans have waited too long. The pandemic has only brought inequality into even sharper focus.
Allies Listen. They Do Not Lead
There have been disturbing reports of white protesters escalating violence over the wishes of black activists. This is completely unacceptable. If you are white and you choose to attend protests, keep in mind that people of color will face harsh repercussions for your actions. Just as it is not the place of white people to judge violence, it’s also not the place of white people to instigate violence. Our job now is to take stoke of our biases and preconceptions, listen to people of color, and believe them when they describe their anger and pain.
St. Joan of Arc spent years listening to the counseling of the saints before she ever picked up a sword. This allowed her to be confident her actions were justified. That’s why she felt no fear.