Thursday, March 5, 2015

that long arm has hair and the occasional wart

an awkward way of saying...the law, while an objective good for the common good (Catechism #1951), is policed and adjudicated by real live human beings.  I.e., it will not always be perfect.  Real people make real mistakes, and some times real people willfully commit really wrong acts and will use that same law to cover their tracks. 

See Judges 21:25In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

and then Catechism #1953:  "The moral law finds its fullness and its unity in Christ.  Jesus Christ in in person the way of perfection.  He is the end of the law, for only he teaches and bestows the justice of God: "For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified." (citing Leo XIII's Libertas praestantissimum)

St. Paul the apostle and St. Augustine had a few things to say about this, too.  

Keeping all this mind might help given recent headlines about policing and justice.  America Magazine sees the difficulty:  everybody falls short of the law, but then those charged with upholding and policing the law are people, too.  In our protests for a more just society we cannot ignore or violate the humanity and dignity of the police;  they're just as human as we are.  The Jesuit editors:

With the legitimacy that only an insider can bring to bear, Mr. Comey said that he and many of his fellow officers “develop different flavors of cynicism that we work hard to resist because they can be lazy mental shortcuts.” The antidote to such prejudice in police work, he suggests, is empathy: “We must better understand the people we serve and protect—by trying to know, deep in our gut, what it feels like to be a law-abiding young black man walking on the street and encountering law enforcement.”

Mr. Comey did not, however, let the rest of society off the hook. Police officers work courageously in challenging communities “that most citizens are able to drive around” literally and figuratively by ignoring social ills that incentivize criminal behavior. In the national conversation on race, sparked by the events in Ferguson last summer, people have too often spoken past each other. We must all take up Mr. Comey’s challenge to confront our own latent biases and see the humanity of police and civilians alike.

As Collective Soul sang, No More, No Less

Then consider the sophisticated analysis offered by Methodist theologian Rick Quinn(Disclosure: I have known Rick for almost twenty-five years. He pursues theological reflection with exacting standards and spiritual discernment.  He always been sensitive questions of violence and justice.  While I disagree with this particular post, I nonetheless want to recognize and honor his work.) A Lenten study group focused on theologian James Cone's The Cross and The Lynching Tree prompted Quinn's reflection on recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr. and Eric Garner at the hands of white police officers.  Quinn considers a "theopoetic" reading which juxtaposes the lived world with that of the Gospel.  He reflects:

As white hearers, can we open ourselves to being drawn into the world of these embodied texts where our certainties are questioned and then be pushed into a reconsideration of our embodied interconnection on the other side of that encounter? Can we honestly hear black rage without a reflexive, self-protective dismissal of it? 

Tough questions--and formulating a response, I have found, is neither easy, nor quick, nor immediately satisfactory.  But a response is prompted by both the Gospel and, more broadly, natural law.  As noted above, those protesting and those policing are both, first and foremost, persons.  They each retain God-given dignity.  Hearing authentically steps towards recognizing that dignity, but as will be discussed briefly, this hearing occurs within certain limits.

Quinn continues:
The existential comfort of mind that accompanies white privilege is maintained primarily by excluding from our view the material conditions on which it is based. This “peace of mind” requires that it be fed a series of self-deceiving claims. “I should be perceived by others by my intentions.” “My advantage over others is a by product of my hard work and not structural inequities.” These and other similar explanations are what might be called a metanarrative, comprehensive, overarching explanation that gives credibility to “how things are.” Like any narrative, it is selective and partial; it comes from a particular location and expresses particular interests. The difference (and it is a difference that makes a difference) is that a metanarrative erases those traces of particularity under a cloak of universality. 

It is meta in the sense of seeking to go beyond the particular. It is an abstraction that is “theological” in the sense of providing an explanatory cause “beyond” the particular that gives cover to the status quo. Whether we want to admit it or not, it too often is a projection of my/our particular experience as universal. “Theologically” it is supported by assumptions that “God” is white as is “His” son. Ok, I may know that really isn't the case; I mean, after all, God is beyond race or gender. But, privilege manifests its theological staying power in the twinge of discomfort felt at references to God as her or in the depiction of Christ as black.

 Here it might help to remember Quinn's Protestant foundations.  "The Church," which certainly is real in Quinn's experience, is not the same church ecclesiologically as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  Therefore, Quinn's reflections possess an immediacy and local specificity that perhaps Catholic reflections might, at first, lack.  It is "evangelical" and that evangelical immediacy is part of our American fabric.  Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and even Muslims drink from that well, too, despite protests to the contrary.  However, it is precisely that immediacy that can gloss over the irreducible personal dignity at whom protest anger is directed (in this case, black voices--but it could apply to any other group, regardless of cause or ideology).  At what point, then, can we authentically hear protest anger but then also appreciate the dangers and stresses faced by the men and women who serve, as America recognized, to protect and uphold the law for all?  

Quinn's mention of theopoetics recalls the illustrious Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who arguably coined the term.  Here is a recent Catholic blog-take thereupon.  Anne Carpenter writes: 

A theo-poetic is a hard thing, it turns out. A dangerous line to walk. Poetry risks becoming perfunctory, and prose risks confusion. Or if the poetry is too confusing, then the prose is too perfunctory. Christ could at worst receive expression as a fiction or as a math equation, and neither expression satisfies. So it is that when amalgamating genres – poetry and prose, figure and metaphysics, art and theology – one gambles against the high risk of leaving everyone from every original genre perplexed and angry, and thus confuting the fusion before it can run its course.

I make no claims about how Quinn and Carpenter might read each other's work.  Carpenter, though, makes a crucial point that theopoetics might not produce the intended results. Quinn, acknowledging his privilege, clearly wants black anger--theological or otherwise--to express itself unrestrainedly.  But would Quinn thus sanction protest violence?  Assuredly not--but an evangelical theopoetics might, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps quite committedly, leave that door open.  As the state of Georgia postpones (temporarily) the execution of a woman convicted of murder and now a compassionate prison minister herself, we are all confronted again with the law's objectivity juxtaposed with the humanity deciding and enforcing it.  Catholic publications have united (for once...ironies there) in their opposition to the death penalty.  So which lives matter--ultimately?  All of them.

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