by John Tuttle, Benedictine College
The following opinion does not represent those of the Clarifying Catholicism writing staff. We welcome respectful responses and rebuttals in the comments below.
Racism is an unfortunate reality of the fallen human condition, spanning continents and ages – from the Israelite bondage in Egypt to the brutal enslavement of Africans by European trade and beyond.
The subject of current conjecture and criticism is the killing of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of arresting officer Derek Chauvin, a white man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s death has triggered a sizable revival of the Black Lives Matter movement (established in 2013), and Chauvin was quickly charged with murder. What I present today is a moralistic commentary on racism in America and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Racism Is Un-Christian
As Christians adhering to the beliefs and rulings of the universal Church, we should do well to remember that our faith rejects racism and other demeaning prejudices. Paragraph 1935 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly notes:
“The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.”
Christianity allows no room for racism in the lives of the faithful. Moreover, the language that the Catechism uses in describing our response to racism and other bigotry is eradication. Catholics are bestowed a moral obligation to rid society of harmful ideologies like racism which act only to disrupt unity in community. Racism is inherently evil, just as human cruelty and division are evil.
In the early chapters of 1 Corinthians, St. Paul the Apostle reprimands the way the faithful have divided themselves. The Church teaches that every form of division is like thrusting a pointed wedge into the human family, as if driving agonizing thorns and nails into the Mystical Body of Christ. This is not to say that different ideas are bad but that it is problematic when people of different mindsets refuse to work together or dehumanize each other. No matter a person’s ethnicity or heritage, Gentile or Jew, Christ challenges us to care for and console our brothers and sisters.
What’s at the Heart of Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter Foundation (BLM) rose out of concern for racism and violence toward African Americans with the intent to, in the organization’s words, “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”
Here again we see that potent verb “eradicate.” BLM not only focuses its energies against racism, but states that it is anti-violence. The true Christian must admit to the fact that, in its core goals, the BLM Foundation shares several beliefs identical to Catholic social teaching, which springs forth from our shared acknowledgment of universal human dignity. Thus, as Catholics, I believe that we are all called to propound this outcry for racial justice and to labor for an end to racist mentalities that underlie many social institutions. A healthy society is one devoid of racism.
However, this does not mean that BLM does not have its shortcomings, those human failings that any organization is bound to face. Many activists in its movement seem to have a one-track mind when it comes to racism, often scoffing at or disregarding the response they are met with from time to time: “All lives matter.”
“All lives matter” is a truth which cannot be undermined. How easily we Americans have forgotten the disgusting racist aggressions shown toward Asian Americans amid the threat of COVID-19. There have been reports of people spitting on Chinese Americans in recent months because of their ethnicity and supposed affiliation with China. Racism affects many people, not solely the Black community. This is something the entire BLM movement must come to terms with. Justice deserves to be served to triumph in favor of all people regardless of the complexion of their skin pigment.
Deeper into the Rabbit Hole
In this section addressing the BLM Foundation, it is equally necessary not only to delve into its motives but to explore the funding of the organization.
Influence Watch has analyzed BLM, its funding, and how the public has responded to it. Their report notes that various parties with ties to BLM have been supported monetarily by pro-abortion philanthropist George Soros as well as donors to Democracy Alliance, an organization whose representatives have openly lauded the “freedom” of abortion.
Those interested in seeing abortion championed through policy and society are also some of the ones backing the BLM Foundation. Moreover, one of the primary co-founders of the Foundation – Alicia Garza – has professed herself as an adherent to Marxism (an ideology with a dimension of staunch atheism) as well as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Patrisse Cullors, another one of the trio of founders, has also self-identified as a queer activist.
With a far-ranging spectrum of ideals incorporated into the beliefs of the BLM founders and donors (which can be found here), it is worth acknowledging what Catholics believe about these issues.
Abortion is an old enemy of life. The papal encyclical Humane Vitae has stood the testament of time, receiving its fair share of scorn and dismissal but remaining a stellar defense for the dignity, merit, and sanctity of every human life. Murder has always been viewed as a mortal sin, one which God clearly outlined for us when He bestowed the Ten Commandments to Moses. But the problematic issue goes all the way back to Cain and Abel, the first generation of descendants from Adam and Eve.
Abortion is the termination of the fetus – a human fetus, a conglomeration of cells, but cells that are alive. The cells reproduced in a fetus are human cells. Thus, when this organism is deliberately destroyed, it is the killing of a fellow human being, another human organism. Abortion is an act of murder.
In regards to Marxism, little needs to be said. It does not permit any room for the fundamental reality of being – the necessity of the Demiurge, the Originator behind the Big Bang. The pinnacle and purpose of our Catholic faith is denied in the ideals of the philosophy of Karl Marx.
ABC News touts that BLM, from its very inception, was preoccupied with lending a voice to the LGTBQ+ community. As Catholics, we can, in good conscience, believe in the dignity of people who identify themselves as queer. Truly, all lives matter. All lives have dignity, a dignity that can never be stolen from them. With particular regards to queer people, they have the same rights as anyone. They are, like the rest of the extensive human family, bound to natural law, a topic which modern philosophers either dismiss or shy away from. This natural law holds that the individual sexes of the human person are ordered to conjugal love in a heterosexual scenario. In other words, God created humans as male and female; every person is who God created them to be; and human intercourse is naturally intended between two persons of opposite sex. This is not only Christian teaching, but mandated by intelligent biological design.
So, while we pay full respect to the inherent dignity of every individual person, we cannot always concur or advocate for the full array of their beliefs, their inclinations, and their actions when they are contrary to the Faith. Inevitably, this is what happens with the Black Lives Matter Foundation. A few of their core beliefs, such as the eradication of racism, are ours to share. However, simultaneously, beliefs such as the acceptance and integration of the lifestyles of LGTBQ+ people cannot be condoned by Catholics.
Nevertheless, we are still obliged to display due dignity to activists, one and all, but we are not called to advocate for everything they do or want. The most significant maneuver for the Christian in these circumstances is to show them charity and mercy.
The Protestors: Two Sides to the Story
COVID-19 and its subsequent lockdowns provided a restless milieu perfect for producing a countercultural movement. Countless people were practically forced to remain in their homes. Meanwhile, people grew nervous and were confronted with a range of emotions stemming from social distancing, loss of employment, and countless other factors. It is likely that the BLM revival could have been fostered by these circumstances.
Many opponents of BLM have fixated on the radical activists who are committing violent and destructive acts across the country; they point these out just as readily as liberals overlook them. So, the polarization increases.
The protestors, in warranted anger, have the goal of speaking truth to power, as it were. A prime target for the movement once again is the police. This, at least to some extent, is not only understandable but necessary.
Law enforcement has a notoriously ill-made reputation when it comes to virtue and legalities within its own ranks. British officials shot and killed Crispus Attucks, a man of both African and Native American heritage, in 1770. Attucks, a former slave, was the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre, dying in the street and inevitably heralded as a martyr for liberty. This is an example that really hits home right now and sinks deep.
Furthermore, the accounts in which officers have abused or murdered prisoners, participated in sexual misconduct, and been employed by parties of the Mafia are too numerous to consider. To put it politely, law enforcement needs a re-evaluation and proper screening for its own employees – not a total disbandment.
I personally believe that many detrimental behaviors of law enforcement are born out of an inflated sense of control. There are those people, not merely officers, who succumb to the idea that because they have a certain amount of authority that they have inherent power over many others. In short, this leads to a lot of unprovoked pain and suffering, and this is why BLM protestors respond in rage.
Here it must be noted that anger finds it chiefest fault when it desires retaliation. The Catechism (paragraph 2302) states that anger becomes most damaging to the soul when it escalates into a realized desire for the killing of another human being. Simultaneously, there is a shred of benevolence in the concept of anger, specifically the element of implementing consequences for law-breakers. Justice is called for, but no man is intended to take measures into his own hands. Ultimately, God is Judge over the actions of others.
When we look around us, instead of at our screens, we see that there are, in fact, peaceful protestors. An apt example is that of Terrence Floyd, George’s mourning brother, who has been seen sitting quietly near the locale of his brother’s murder. He has frowned upon those who act violently in their protesting, noting that all that isn’t going to bring George back.
Anger has prompted people to march under the BLM cause. Some are violent in their rhetoric and actions. Meanwhile, there are also those who protest without pelting rocks at the police and shooting them. Yet, neither the protestors nor the organization perfectly represent one another. They are not synonymous; the thousands of protestors are not all employees of the Black Lives Matter Foundation.
There are BLM activists who are defacing public property, but there has also been a resurgence of cross-burnings, which are evocative of the terror instilled by the Ku Klux Klan. I think the importance in this distinction is the danger of using the label “Black Lives Matter” for referring to activists collectively. Not all of the activists hold identical ideals or display the same behavior. Throwing out an all-encompassing, blanketing reference to BLM is not only unfair to individual protestors, but it also limits one’s view of what is taking place.
Because of this, I find it quite rash to judge all BLM activists in a faceless conglomeration based solely on the immoral actions/beliefs of a portion of them.
The Response from Catholics So Far
Lately, Catholics have contributed to the booming yet frequently shallow social media arguments concerning racism and Black Lives Matter. The result, again, is a hodgepodge of varying opinions.
Robert G. Christian III, the editor of the digital Catholic journal Millennial, shared a post on Twitter in which he compared two seemingly contradictory tweets on public protests – both originating from a Fr. Dwight Longenecker. One Longenecker tweet states, “Protests are a way for immature people to feel good by blaming others.” Christian then does a side-by-side comparison to an older Longenecker tweet noting the priest’s pride in joining the annual March of Life. Christian, pointing out the hypocrisy, makes a point to state the fact that those protesting in the current marches are seeking justice. The same holds true for those involved in the March for Life against the culture of death.
Meanwhile, there are some Catholic social media influencers who are saying that they do not think they can stand by the mainstream pro-life movement because organizations (e.g. the March for Life) have not always looked favorably upon BLM. On the opposite end of this spectrum, there are brave pro-life activists like Abby Johnson who became upset about a Christological-esque painting portraying a hurting George Floyd being fondled in the arms of his mother. Frankly, I do not think that either of these latter two responses is warranted. If you are Christian, then you are pro-life in every circumstance as well as in favor of authentic justice. As to the painting in question, I might suggest to Johnson that it was Christ who said of Himself:
“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:40). In short, the good that you offer to or deprive of your fellow human being is a gesture given or robbed from Christ. Thus, our Lord urges us to aid those in need.
Indeed, upon his deathbed, George Floyd was certainly a man in need. We are all called to see Christ in our neighbor and treat him or her as we would our Lord – for every human being has been made in the image of God.
A Just Response: Listening and Understanding
As a fateful and oft-quoted passage from Ecclesiastes chapter 3 relates, there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak. On the issue of racial injustice, this is most certainly a time to speak – to speak up for those who have been hurt and silenced by force.
However, we cannot have anything meaningful to say if we do not first submit ourselves to the humility of listening. I think that, as sentient creatures who find dignity in comprehension, it is very important to listen. It is the elementary basis for learning, for expanding one’s hemispheres of knowledge. This is a method that certainly applies to the realm of the news and politics – as fractured and biased as they often are.
If we do not listen, we cannot conceptualize a proper evaluation of something. When someone speaks, he or she must have something to say. But if one who refuses to listen begins to speak, the other party has no reason to listen in return.
Thus, it is simply good practice to lend an open ear, albeit not always an open mind. If a mind has no grounding, no principles, no foundation, then it is susceptible to every possible whim of influence and passion. As G.K. Chesterton cautioned, “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”
Nevertheless, we must be willing to listen in order to detect both the good and the evil in our society for both are very real and quite present. Did not King Solomon, the wise judge of old, listen thoroughly to both parties who came before him? Did not our Lord Jesus listen to the objections of those who confronted him in the streets prior to pointing out the error of their ways?
These are holy examples of how we are to react when confronting injustice in society. We must listen to the whole story and call out injustice when discovered. This same rule of thumb applies to Black Lives Matter. We cannot only focus on the good of the organization, nor only on the bad. Doing so is itself a disservice.
And by listening to the pain felt within the African American community right now, we are called to develop understanding and compassion. St. Francis of Assisi, in one of his most famous prayers, begs for the virtue of understanding his spiritual brothers and sisters:
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek…
To be understood, as to understand…
Jesus, being God and knowing all, was already aware of what weighed heavily upon the hearts of those whom he touched and guided while on Earth. We, however, have to go through a process. We must communicate. We must share ourselves. We must listen to others. And we thus grow in learning. It takes intentionality, persistence, and patience. But, as with anything virtuous – anything of great merit really – hard work and elapsed time are needed.
Ultimately, many BLM activists seek to be understood, and we are called to listen. Our vocation is not meant to be a one of quietism and distancing from the issues facing our society and the world. That is neither good stewardship nor wholesome communion with our fellow human beings.
I am afraid that political polarization has led to a good deal of Catholics’ differing views on BLM, but the truth is many aspects of the BLM organization are directly in line with Catholic teaching, while some of the protestors’ actions (e.g. violence toward others and the destruction of public and private property) are obviously immoral.
As usual, the true story lies somewhere in between extremes, somewhere outside the political factions, and somewhere beyond the biases of the media narratives of the left and right. The truth is that there is both some good in the BLM activism, which should be lauded, as well as some bad, which should be gently cautioned.
Whenever I hear someone utterly denounce the BLM movement or, alternatively, blindly uphold every action performed by the activists of its cause – I really do cringe.
I honestly cannot approve of pulling down statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary under the guise of racial injustice because it is not an injustice. Different cultures depict our Lord and the Saints in different ways according to their ethnicities, wardrobes, and customs. Likewise, the Christological-esque icon of George Floyd is an artistic representation. Artists are at liberty to add local features to their work, no matter the subject. Thus, I cannot see how a representation of our Lord or our Holy Mother is racist in any way.
But at the same time, I get disgruntled at those who look down upon the BLM movement as a wholly unrighteous cause because that is not the situation. Are all Muslims bloodthirsty suicide bombers? No. Have all the Catholic clergy been chaste and lived up to the sacred truths which are theirs to protect? Absolutely not. There have been rapists, thieves, and power-obsessed egomaniacs in our ranks. Have all the Black Lives Matter activists protested peacefully, without hurting a soul, as Martin Luther King did decades before them? Nope! The point is that individuals’ actions do not comprise the intentions of the whole.
The next time you look apathetically upon Black Lives Matter, I urge you to think about George Floyd and what happened to him. Like St. Dismas, he found himself on the wrong side of the law, paying a penalty too high for the piddly crime to his name.
I want you to realize there are protestors out there who aren’t hurting others. The next time your friends bring BLM into the conversation or you see an article in the news, maybe listen to what they are saying. Try to understand the protestors’ point of view. Try to envision the fall with the weight of the cross on your back and the pressure of a knee against the side of your neck.