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home : bishop : columns

7/14/2016 9:00:00 AM
We can do better than this
Local and national clergy have issued statements and spoken from the pulpit on the July 5-7 shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; of Philando Castile in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; and of Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Patrick Zamarripa, Sgt. Michael J. Smith and Officer Brent Thompson in Dallas, Tx.

*** From a homily titled, "I pledge to love friends and enemies," delivered July 10 by Rev. Richard Vosko at St. Vincent de Paul parish in Albany:
"At the heart of our Christian faith is an act of violence: the torture and state-sponsored killing of a human being -- the murder of God.

"In the letter to the Colossians, Paul implies that redemption does not take place outside this world. Rather, it is the restoration of this created world -- one that has fallen into evil hands.

"The recent shooting crimes remind us that evil has a strong grip on humanity and that something terribly wrong is happening in our nation that cannot be ignored. 

"We can pray and trust that God will rescue us (Psalm 69). However, to be a neighbor to someone else requires more than having general sentiments of benevolence. It means pledging to love not only those who are like us, but also those who are different from us. It demands that we take interest in the injustices in our communities and that we do something concrete for people in need.

"As religious people, we cannot stand by and do nothing."


From a homily by Rev. David Mickiewicz, delivered July 10 at St. Mary's parish in Oneonta:

"At the heart of today's parable [of the Good Samaritan] is an act of random violence. A person is robbed, stripped naked, beaten and left like trash in the gutter of a street.

"At the heart of this Eucharist is an act of violence: the crucifixion of Jesus...the violent death of any person...the breaking of bread, the tearing of a body...the pouring of a cup, the spilling of blood. At the heart of the Eucharist is a sundering of the fabric of the universe. "If Dallas, Baton Rouge and Saint Paul teach us nothing, do Jericho, Calvary and this altar?"

•  On July 12, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger led an evening of prayer at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany for peace in our nation. The Cathedral was open for private prayer and meditation prior to the service.

•  Coming up is "Affirming Peace in the Face of Fear," an annual interfaith peace conference and retreat at the National St. Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine in Fonda sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of New York State and Veterans For Peace. Scheduled for Aug. 19, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., the retreat will discuss peace from the perspective of the Catholic and Muslim traditions, led by Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui from the Al-Hidaya Islamic Center in Latham and Rev. Mark Steed, OFM, director of the shrine. The retreat is $35, but aid is available. The conference, to be held Aug. 20, will include speakers from the Unitarian Universalist church and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, plus speakers on anti-drone activism, climate change and storytelling. There will also be a memorial for the late peace activist Rev. Dan Berrigan. See www.kateripeaceconference.org or call John Amidon, (518) 312-6442.


Violence is violence by any other name. What civil society can long tolerate it yet remain civilized?

One of the main functions of law enforcement and the administration of justice is to contain, or, at least, regulate it, though never is it wholly eliminated.

Not all acts of violence are deemed equal, however. More often than not, this is because -- contrary to our nation's founding principles ("We hold these truths to be self-evident...") and the tenets of our own Christian faith -- we do not treat all human beings equally.

In Orwellian terms, some races, some classes, some nationalities or ethnicities remain "more equal" than others. This is unjust, and injustice breeds violence.

Violence is usually considered a physical act of aggression -- individual or collective -- by one human group or subject against another, which results in injury or death. Now, however, we see that even offensive speech might be deemed too "violent" to tolerate.

Incendiary words and gestures might be reprehensible, but the law has pretty much followed the dicta famously attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes: "My fist ends where your nose begins." Words can be mean and hateful, even incentives toward violence; but before we expand the definition of violence to include even offensive language, let's first acknowledge its many unnamed forms that fit the standard definition.

Dallas has just witnessed a shocking and deplorable act of pure violence: the premeditated and deliberate gunning down of police officers protecting citizens who were peacefully exercising their rights to assemble publicly and decry racial inequality.

Prior to the Dallas episode, however, incidents in Ferguson, Charleston, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, where black citizens died under police gunfire, had cumulatively been raising a national concern about systemic racism in law enforcement and the administration of justice -- long feared and experienced as a recurrent reality within our black communities.

The questions of who, how and why are receiving a good deal of analysis by pundits and news outlets, thought the varying quality and content of their reporting generates news -- not always illuminating the facts, and sometimes exacerbating tensions.

Reactions to incidents of violence such as these vary greatly according to the who, how and why -- and, in these cases, due to the racial context.

The "news beyond the news" is what commentators may add to shape the narrative in attempts either to objectively understand and analyze, or to subjectively exploit and manipulate the incident in accord with their own presuppositions.

Not all commentators disclose their motives, biases or level of competence. There is plenty of finger-pointing to go around and much to decry: racist attitudes within institutions of law and justice, inflammation of passions by those with mercenary or political agendas, indifference to the historical and ongoing reality of racial inequality experienced by so many minorities.

We must state clearly and unequivocally that racism remains an unresolved component of our social fabric and our institutions. It is an individual and structural sin that cannot be regarded with indifference toward its reality and the threat it poses to the value of all human lives.

If black lives do not matter, no lives matter.

However, to condemn any one source of racism -- individual or institutional -- while excluding or exculpating others would be an action of selective and disingenuous outrage. It seems dishonest and futile for anyone to claim an exemption.

I am reminded of the admonition of an esteemed high school teacher who observed that, when one's index finger points to denounce someone else, the other three fingers point right back to the accuser.

If we are to be honest and consistent, our premise must be that all aggressive physical action endangering life and limb should be regarded as violence, no matter who does it to whom or for what reason.

This is relevant since not all acts of violence are met with the same degree of moral outrage. We make distinctions. Classifying the recipients of lethal force, for example, as either "innocent victims" or "unjust aggressors" frequently excuses and sanctions the same violent actions that would be viewed very differently if done by different agents in different circumstances.

The difference hardly matters to the victims! We never named the Korean conflict of the early 1950s a "war," but rather a "police action." How does that resonate with those who lost their lives or loved ones there?

Certain objectively violent actions are reported in much more benign language than "murder" or "massacre," and are even routinely tolerated. Genocide has been termed "ethnic cleansing" by oppressive regimes. Capital homicide is sanitized as a "just" punishment. Unintended fatalities from a "successful" military incursion or a drone strike are deemed "collateral damage." "Elective" abortion is considered fair game in the exercise of "choice," though only one party has a say in a choice that is invariably fatal to the other. Even the ever-popular sitcom "The Honeymooners" danced over the specter of domestic violence (Ralph Kramden to Alice: "Pow! Right in the kisser!").

If there is any outrage expressed, it is often as likely to be leveled against those who challenge as against those who condone the acts of violence. Who dares call a physician, a peace officer or a president a murderer?

Given that all willful actions that injure or kill are acts of violence, how do we reprove some of them so long as we continue to justify any of them?

To ask this question is not to propose total non-violence as the only alternative, especially in matters of self-defense or protecting the lives of others. Church doctrine, at any rate, has never reached this conclusion. To do so would offer oppressed peoples little hope when the violence inflicted by authoritarian repression of their fundamental rights is greater than the decisive action it would take to liberate them. The American revolution itself would lose its justification.

Some ridicule as weak and passive those of us who turn to faith and prayer in the face of violence. Yet, it's perilous to give in to discouragement, the most diabolical of all temptations.

Violence may not always be avoidable, but parsing its definition according to race, class or any other human status will not reduce the violence that exists within and around us. To the extent which we value and respect the lives of all equally, especially our most vulnerable, and protect everyone's freedoms, we also help reduce the incidence of violence.

At the core of Christian resistance to all violence is the awareness that Jesus poured out His blood for everyone.

Christian athlete Benjamin Watson says that American Christians should just focus on "present[ing] the truth before men with the hope of winning souls." That truth is that God is the Father of us all and we of every race are brothers and sisters, equal in our human dignity as images of God.

"My greatest challenge," says Watson as a black American who has experienced racism, "is for my anger to be righteous instead of selfish. We remember that, as proud as we are to be American, we are eternally part of a global royal nation that spans race, creed and time."

It is that belief that makes us hopeful, as well, and might encourage all of us that we can do better.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)

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