America is a nation in crisis. We have been facing a political crisis of ever-deepening division and widespread distrust in our own leaders for many, many years now. With the emergence of the COVID-19, we are being confronted with a public health crisis of a magnitude unparalleled in living memory. This in turn has precipitated an economic crisis of massive proportions, one which will almost certainly rival (if not exceed) the Great Depression itself.
But as significant as these various crises no doubt are, nevertheless in the past month there has arisen a crisis which may yet prove to be more critical than any of them (although in truth they are all intertwined). And that crisis is a moral crisis. That crisis is a spiritual crisis.
Exactly one month ago today*, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by the police officers arresting him for a nonviolent crime. The nation was utterly appalled by the videos which surfaced immediately afterward, showing a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while he repeatedly begged for his life, saying “I can’t breathe.” Shortly afterward Floyd was pronounced dead.
George Floyd was black, and the police officer was white.
This tragedy provoked an enormous wave of outrage and protests, beginning in Minneapolis and spreading rapidly not only across the nation but also throughout the entire world. Floyd’s death quickly came to be seen as the latest instance in a long pattern not only of police brutality, but more importantly of what has become known as “systemic racism” in general.
And therefore the outrage and protests began to be about much more than the crime of a handful of Minneapolis police officers (all of whom have been charged with murder or aiding and abetting murder). The movement has grown to be about much more even than the police. It is now a movement about the very heart and soul of our country, a country which has always believed itself to be founded upon the solemn promise of “liberty and justice for all” — and yet far too often has failed to live up to this pledge which we are are all taught as children to make.
In many ways the movement that has arisen in the wake of this brutal tragedy represents the best of America. An America which cares deeply for the poor and the downtrodden and the oppressed. An America which is willing to honestly confront its own failures. An America which desires to repent of its sins (and it should go without saying that racism is a terrible sin). An America which constantly strives “to form a more perfect Union.” An America which truly hungers and thirsts after righteousness. And this is an America which we as Christians must love and nurture and cherish, to the best of our ability.
And yet it must be admitted that along with this great good, the movement has a darker side as well. Alongside peaceful protests came rioting, looting, and destruction nationwide. In Minneapolis alone, over 1,500 buildings were vandalized, looted, damaged or destroyed, many of them reduced to rubble or burned to the ground. Police officers everywhere and of every color are being categorically condemned and subjected to insults, slurs, and violence by angry mobs. Anarchists and armed vigilantes in downtown Seattle took over a police precinct and the surrounding area; this was first lauded by the city’s mayor as a “block party” and “summer of love,” but then tragically turned deadly in a string of horrific shootings. The police arrived, trying to help, but were turned away by a violent and angry crowd. In Minneapolis, the city council has vowed to disband the police department entirely, although they admit they don’t yet know with what they will replace it.
Across the country historical monuments, often associated with the Civil War, are being defaced and torn down by mobs. Given that slavery is believed by many people to have been the sole reason the Civil War was fought, it is quite understandable that they therefore view monuments to Confederate leaders as an intolerable affront (and I think this is a good reason to enter into a discussion regarding these monuments, out of love for neighbor and desire for peace). Yet this is not simply about the Confederacy, for among the targets for mob destruction have also been statues dedicated to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, both of whom were obviously instrumental in defeating the Confederacy and freeing the slaves. Even a statue of the abolitionist activist Hans Christian Heg was decapitated and thrown into a lake (apparently because the mob didn’t actually have any idea who he was). Not spared either were monuments to Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or Christopher Columbus. It is not my contention that any of these men were flawless. Nor is it the purpose of this article to take a position one way or the other as to whether any of these statues ought to be removed. This is a discussion worth having, and there are points on both sides to be considered. But there is something deeply disturbing about roving mobs desecrating monuments to the honored dead because the mob judges that their entire life and their entire memory ought to be reduced solely to the sum of their sins.
The acceptance of lawlessness, even if it is in the pursuit of a righteous cause, is not something to be taken lightly. We would do well to take heed in this regard to the warning given by Sir Thomas More in the incomparable film A Man For All Seasons:
And the winds are indeed beginning to blow. Reports are coming in at a steady pace of people from all professions losing their jobs and their careers for being insufficiently vocal in their support for the social justice movement. The editor of the New York Times op-ed section was ousted because he published a US Senator’s opinion that the government ought to stop the rioting with force if necessary. The Catholic chaplain of MIT was asked by his diocese to resign for writing a private email to his flock urging restraint and charity in our dealings with one another during these difficult times, even while condemning the killing of Floyd by the police. These are but a few examples. And this is to say nothing of the way in which Americans are treating one another on social media. It seems that the America described in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is still a part of us: a Puritanical America which seeks to hunt down sinners and destroy their lives through public humiliation and shame.
The yearning of the American people for righteousness is truly honorable and praiseworthy and necessary. But tragically, it seems that many of us have been convinced that the path to righteousness is through rage. And quite simply, this is very far from the path shown to us by Christ.
And both Christ and the society in which He lived were by no means strangers to injustice and persecution and unrighteousness. The Israelites under the Roman occupation were a subjugated and humiliated people, routinely exploited and without the rights of Roman citizens, and Christ Himself as well as most of His followers were brutally and unjustly murdered by the authorities acting with complete impunity. Everyone — even the disciples — expected Christ to do something about it, to cast off the hated oppressors, to “at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel.”
Yet what did Christ actually do? He taught us that when we are beaten we are to turn the other cheek, when we are extorted we are to give more than is demanded, when we are exploited we are to do more than we are told. He told us to bless those who curse us, to love those who hate us, to pray for those who persecute us and abuse us. And He told us, in the midst of all of these things, to rejoice.
His words were not mere empty talk; He proved that on the Cross. Nor were His teachings in vain; He proved that through the Resurrection. Nor was He Himself an exception to the rule of human existence; He proved that on the Day of Pentecost.
If we as Christians want to bring righteousness into the world — and we must want this, with all our hearts! — then we must always remember the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” Only by our personal union with the Lord Jesus Christ can we possibly hope to do any good for anyone. For as the Scriptures say: “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”
And if our hearts are truly united with Christ, if we are truly filled with the Holy Spirit, then there will be absolutely no place in us for anger or rage or blame. These things drive away the Holy Spirit as nothing else can, as the Scriptures and Holy Fathers repeatedly warn us.
Rage may be effective in bringing about some temporary political change (and make no mistake, all political changes are temporary). But broken though our political system may be, it is not ultimately the source of our unrighteousness. To heal our country we must heal our own hearts. As Gandhi once said, inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. and countless other activists: “We but mirror the world… If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” Rage and resentment will not cure the sickness in us, or in our nation. For that, we need repentance, and forgiveness, and mercy, and prayer, and love.
May God grant us these gifts. May He grant us His Spirit of Peace. May He grant us to love one another, even as He first loved us, with a love sparing nothing — not even our own lives — for even the worst and least deserving among us. This is the new commandment of Christianity, and there is absolutely nothing that the world needs more.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
*The article was written on June 25, 2020.