Breathing and Weeping

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Georgetown

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)

If we find this sentence, uttered by the Prince of Peace, hard to understand, we won’t be the first. Thankfully, we have people like Blessed Pope Paul VI to explain this verse to us. In our humble parish cluster, we read the following paragraph together this past Sunday afternoon:

The Kingdom of God and our eternal salvation, which are the key words of Jesus Christ’s evangelization, are available to every human being as grace and mercy, and yet at the same time each individual must gain them by force–they belong to the violent, says the Lord, through toil and suffering, through a life lived according to the Gospel, through abnegation and the cross, through the spirit of the beatitudes. But above all each individual gains them through a total interior renewal which the Gospel calls metanoia; it is a radical conversion, a profound change of mind and heart. (Evangelii Nuntiandi 10)

Interior change brought about by struggling and striving against our profound tendencies toward evil.

My beloved Georgetown Hoyas took the court last night wearing warm-up shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe.” If I were coach JTIII, I would have told them, “Once you can hit 50% from the floor on a consistent basis, then you can make political statements…”

But I am not the coach. And center Josh Smith put it like this: “We weren’t saying the cops were wrong…We wore the shirts to show our condolences to the family. You don’t know who is right or wrong, but they still lost somebody, and they won’t get that person back.”

Now, in my book, there are probably better ways to express one’s condolences. But the pain is real. There are families who have lost someone in a fast-moving, violent scene, involving police firing their weapons.

mlk-jailTwenty years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant on 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C., and a squad of police officers entered with guns drawn. It was genuinely insane. In their pursuit of two punks hiding in the bathroom, the police risked the lives of a roomful of innocent people. Thank God, no one was hurt.

That said: Is this country racist like it was fifty years ago? More than half of the police officers involved in the episode I just mentioned were black. In those days, I was a middle-school teacher with a classroom full of black boys. And the joke among them, after the trial of the decade, was: What did O.J. say after the not-guilty verdict was read? “Can I get my glove back?”

A large group of Catholic theologians have released a statement about the ‘racial unrest’ our country has experienced these past few weeks. I give these professors credit for getting organized and giving us something thoughtful and substantial to consider. Especially the proposal that, since local prosecutors and police can and should work so closely together on a day-to-day basis to keep the peace, someone other than the local prosecutor should instruct grand juries when charges arise against police officers.

These theologians have pledged to abstain from meat on Fridays as a sign of penance for the sin of racism.

Their statement, however, opens itself up to charges of ivory-tower foolishness by…

1. invoking Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail in an anachronistic way.

2. citing the Greensboro, N.C., “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a precedent for a similar nationwide effort. I know some Greensborians, both black and white. I think I can say that the work of that Commission, such as it was, only confirmed the ancient axiom: “Exercises in conspicuous self-righteousness rarely accomplish anything.”

But exercises in friendship and kindness accomplish a great deal. Exercises in sharing the experiences of another human being.

The great evangelist St. Paul wept with those who wept. Laying down in the street to cause traffic jams seems stupid to me. But to weep with those who grieve a dead brother, or nephew, or son—and to hope and pray like Dr. King did, looking to Jesus to help us find a better day: we should do that.