This Christmas Eve I went to church. What brought me was the shooting of another black teenager by a white police officer: Antonio Martin, 18, who was fatally shot on Tuesday night near Ferguson. Today I got the call that a candlelit vigil would be held for Antonio and other victims of police violence outside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, the heart of the local Catholic Archdiocese. I went to pay my respects and recognize his humanity, and because his death is part of an unjust, racist system which consistently perpetuates violence against African Americans.
The Basilica is close to my apartment, so I walked the few blocks there. I arrived at the scheduled time, 11pm, to the sight of police cars lining Lindell Boulevard – I was concerned something may have happened. Then I saw something I never would have imagined just a few months ago: some 100 peaceful vigil-keepers standing in front of the Cathedral, before line after line of police – over 40 in all.
This Christmas Eve vigil-keepers carrying candles and signs reading “Black Lives Matter”, meeting outside a Catholic Cathedral, were met with police officers carrying riot shields and long batons.
Candles versus batons.
Vigil-keepers who arrived early reported being shooed from the Basilica steps, and that the clergy of the Cathedral had requested the police presence. No Priest spoke with the crowd, or offered a prayer at the vigil: apart from the tens of armored officers of the law outside, they continued with their Mass as usual – as if nothing was amiss in the city to which they minister.
What were they afraid of? Such a ludicrously disproportionate show of force – and such a despicable misuse of police resources – surely points to some level of fear. Were they truly afraid that these people who had come to remember the life of a young man killed too soon would storm the Cathedral, or damage it in some way? From the reverent poise of the vigil-keepers the idea seemed preposterous, offensive.
What a craven act of moral cowardice. Critics of the Catholics Church could not ask for a more damning display than this: on the eve of the birth of the Christ-child, the Church turns its back on those calling for dignity for all people, the clergy huddling in their opulent palace while we struggled to keep candles lit in the wind and the rain. Anybody seen a manger? There was no room for justice at this inn.
I am and have always been an atheist. I do not celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. But I know enough of the story of Christ to understand that he grew up to be a messenger of peace and a warrior for justice. The man who drove the moneylenders from the temple and lifted the voices of the meek above those of the mighty would have been ashamed at the actions of this Church, founded in his name.
A pastor friend of mine, hearing of this disgrace on Twitter, directed me to Matthew 23: 13:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
Tonight we discovered where the Archdiocese of St. Louis stands when it comes to the movement which started just a few months ago in Ferguson: behind 40 riot police on the wrong side of justice.