This piece was published in the Spring 2015 issue of The Inbreaking, the newspaper of the Seattle Catholic Worker, and I thought I’d share it again here. Thanks to Peter Gallagher and Shelby Handler for comments and feedback on an earlier draft.
This winter, at the closing of the Chanukkah gathering of a Seattle Radical Shabbat group in a little craftsman house in the Central District, an attendee brought out a list of names.
The names were of unarmed people of color killed by the police in America, and it was long: it stretched back more than a decade and made its way around our circle of thirty more than three times. Seattleite John T. Williams, a hearing-impaired Nuu-chah-nulth woodcarver shot to death only four seconds after being ordered by an officer behind him to drop his carving knife, was on the list. Tamir Rice and Michael Brown were on the list. One attendee, her voice full of tears, asked us to remember that each name we heard was more than a name: it was someone’s child, best friend, lover, parent, companion—someone whose loss to state violence left a tear in the fabric of many anonymous lives.
The Radical Shabbat group, a gathering of lefty Jewish folks, is “working to practice and reclaim our Jewish ritual in a space that holds our values,” including the value of work against oppression. This list of victims ended an evening of conversation and reflection on the lessons of the Chanukkah story, making literal and human the tensions of the story of the Maccabees’ rebellion against Greek domination. How can we work against the violence of an oppressive state?
At the close of this excruciating litany, the attendees said the mourners’ kaddish for these victims of state violence. I listened but couldn’t join in: I was the only Catholic in the room and, though I grew up with Jewish folks in my extended family, I’d never learned these words. I went home with a hard knot of grief in my throat and my head tangled with questions. The Shabbat space showed its participants the trust of letting us sit in our grief and rage: not forcing a happy or positive meaning onto this list, but to feel, even if only for a moment, the terrible individual cost of our society’s criminalization of people of color. Later, I looked the words of the kaddish up: “B’rikh hu,” goes one passage, “l’eila min kol bir’khata v’shirata, / toosh’b’chatah v’nechematah, da’ameeran b’al’mah.” “Blessed is he / beyond any song and blessing, / any praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.”
“Beyond any song and blessing”: the God remembered in ritual, petitioned and honored in prayer, revered (so I as a Catholic believe) in the incarnation of Jesus, and seen in the animating power of the Holy Spirit, can seem unbearably distant sometimes when we’re confronted by state violence. In the world to come, we’re told that “the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). But in this life, the oppressed endure grief, agony, violence, spiritual degradation, and dehumanization, alleviated by no revolutionary miracle.
How can we (I write as a white middle-class able-bodied male citizen, enjoying just about every privilege American society has to offer) say “God loves you” to the oppressed? The daily life of an oppressed person is an experience—to quote Father Gustavo Gutierrez, Peruvian priest and founder of liberation theology—“of exclusion and nonlove, of being forgotten, of having no social rights.” What does it mean to tell an oppressed person that God loves them? I’m honored to have shared the space of mourning with the participants of Radical Shabbat, but I claim no special knowledge on the history and spirituality of Jewish anti-oppressive politics; I face this question as a Catholic. If the great truth of God’s love isn’t going to seem like an empty and meaningless piety in the face of the grinding reality of oppression, what actions must accompany it?
Father Gutierrez, who for fifty years has done his theological and political work in the slums of Lima, Peru, “between the sufferings and the hopes of the people with whom I live,” has a simple primary recommendation. Gutierrez writes that “Christian theology must be grounded in the reality of human suffering and exclusion if it is to be at the service of discipleship and transformation.” To follow Jesus’s teachings and to act from the trust of God’s abundant and self-communicating love means understanding that oppression is not fate, but a system created by people, and that the degradation and violence it forces onto the lives of the oppressed is “against the meaning” of the free, gratuitously beautiful gift of life. To me, Gutierrez’s recommendation leads to three conclusions.
First, Catholics must acknowledge that the suffering of the oppressed—the criminalization and state murder of young black men, the abandonment of the poor, the prohibitions against immigration even for those fleeing violence and poverty, the murder of trans people—is not merely a backdrop to their lives or ours, but a call to solidarity. As Christians, we find our fullest humanity in the radical love of our neighbor, and we affirm that we touch “the suffering flesh of Christ” himself when we minister to the most oppressed, when we strive to build their power and center their concerns.
Second, to follow the call of God’s love means following Jesus’s message toward social, not just individual, transformation. In the words of Pope Francis, “God, through Christ, redeems not only the individual person, but also the social relations existing” between all people. I believe that Jesus—by his words, actions, and life—teaches us that another set of human and political relationships is possible, one that refuses the “structural sin” in which those of us with privilege participate. What would this human-centered society, as opposed to a society of the marketplace imperatives and of state oppression, look like? It’s hard to even conceive of, but, in the meantime, it’s a truly radical assertion to center human dignity, autonomy, and freedom in our politics. When, as Pope Francis writes, “the categories of the marketplace” are made into absolutes, “God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement.” This is a God I am glad to love.
Finally, to truthfully say to the oppressed (and show by action) that “God loves you,” I believe that we Catholics should courageously explore the consequences of what the Church calls its “preferential option for the poor.” Catholic theology defines this option as centering the needs, concerns, questions, and conditions of the poor in our faith life, and examining our society’s policies and institutions in terms of their impact on the poor. A shallow reading of this teaching simply suggests that “we” the church must minister to the needs of “them,” the oppressed. But, carried to its logical conclusion, this teaching can and should challenge Catholics to center the voices of those most affected by oppression when that oppression is being addressed.
What might this look like? Well, here in King County, youth of color are resisting—through education, protest, and direct action—the county’s plan to invest $210 million in a new youth jail; the community most affected by mass incarceration is speaking for itself and saying no. How can Catholics listen to these voices, and build their power over that of self-proclaimed experts and employees of carceral institutions?
Or, for another example: in a church that remains deeply sexist and exclusionary of queer and trans folks, how can those of us who enjoy gender and cis-gender privilege build the power of women and queer and trans communities, internationally and locally? For all his lucid and serious criticism of capitalist ideology, Francis’s opinions on reproductive choice, the role of women in the church, and the humanity of queer folks are largely awful, including his recent offhand comparison of modern “gender theory” to “nuclear arms,” for how both threaten to disrupt “the order of creation.” Liberation-oriented Catholics must clearly and definitively say no to such ideas, and the practices they lead to. Our call is not just to find common cause with oppressed communities, but to strengthen them by addressing systemic injustice and by centering these communities’ politics, cultures, and ways of knowing.
As Catholics concerned with a genuinely human-centered politics, our work must be within our faith communities as well as in the world as a whole. Authentic faith, Pope Francis writes, “is never comfortable or completely personal…. [It] always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values.” And so, remembering the mourner’s kaddish, I grieve for the victims of police violence—and for the hearts of those officers who, for one terrible instant, were the state’s violence, fear, power-numbedness, and hatred personified. In this grief, I strive to act not because I feel morally superior, or because I feel the oppressed to be saints idealized by their suffering, or because I feel those who oppress are inhuman, but because God is good, and in the words “God loves you” I hear a call, impossible to ignore, to fight for the liberation of all people.