Following is a helpful document prepared by the Theology Department of Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. Responding to the needs of their students in this confusing time, they offer us some very helpful guidelines about how to discuss and evaluate the morality of current events in this time of political crisis. With their permission, we are making it available to a wider audience.
This has been quite the week. In addition to the anger and frustration of current events, many of us have felt uncertain as we search for language to discuss it all with students. I’m sure we will continue to unpack it for a while as there is much to be said and done. To help that process along, the Theology Department has put together a reflection on current events from a moral and theological perspective. We know not all teachers share the same Catholic convictions, but perhaps having some language to engage reality from a Catholic perspective can make a difficult conversation easier for us as teachers at Fenwick. Undoubtedly, many other disciplines have useful insights to offer from Social Studies to our DEI Committee. This is but one offering.
There is a profound irony that these events occurred on January 6 - traditionally the day Christianity celebrates the Epiphany. It is the twelfth day of Christmas when the Magi, reading the skies and following a star to Bethlehem, came to worship Jesus as a newborn King. The kingship of Jesus Christ who gave his life in love of the world, particularly his enemies, is repeatedly a stark contrast to the forms of leadership we experience in government. For Catholics, power is a tool for service. Christians can never forget Jesus’ claim, “whatever you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” It is precisely because of our responsibility to live in the love of God and neighbor that we can easily denounce a shameful event encapsulating many forms of injustice, regardless of political persuasion. Failing to do so is to ignore Christ.
However, true loving service demands an honest account of reality. We cannot always agree to disagree - when fundamental truths, rights, and dignity are on the line we have a responsibility to cling to truth in love. Too many Catholics often forget that Christianity is at its heart a demythologizing religion. Scripture frequently critiques the irrationality of worshiping false gods and claims that Israel’s God is the true, rational God (see Wisdom 13). It seeks to destroy conspiracy theories and fantasies about reality. One of the key Dominican mottos is Veritas (Truth). Seeking the truth - trying to understand what has occurred, its roots in individual and social sins, the various claims floating about, etc. - is obligatory. One cannot opt out of this endeavor and call oneself a follower of Christ.
This search for truth is not a closed-minded and heartless endeavor; it is communal. Just this past October, Pope Francis wrote Fratelli Tutti, a letter to the entire world challenging it to rediscover social friendship, to form new bonds as sisters and brothers in a shared happiness. Our search for truth must fundamentally rediscover that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote during his imprisonment after peaceful protests in Birmingham.
As educators, we share the responsibility of guiding our students to see reality truthfully, to know the world and their place in it, and to discover their individual vocation to serve God and neighbor with the gifts they possess. These are challenging conversations to have. They are frequently uncomfortable as no one can truly claim to be without any part in the brokenness of our world. Each of us has had some role in allowing injustice to occur. Nor do all people agree on these injustices. Yet the obligation to seek the truth remains.
To help all of us speak about current events from the rich moral tradition of the Catholic Church, here are some concepts to consider when talking about our world.
- Critique actions, patterns of actions and ideas, not persons in their entirety. One can always criticize a person’s action without completely condemning a person. We do this all the time as teachers - a bad grade doesn’t automatically make someone a bad student. Being a lazy student doesn’t make them worthless. Likewise, critiquing current events does not require us to label people as all good or all bad (even when we name their personal failings). We can talk about whether this action, those trains of thought, that statement, etc. are good or bad without needing to offer wholesale condemnations (even if we are extremely confident that those condemnations are true).
- Do not be afraid of calling some injustices worse than others. Not all bad actions are equal. A 10% and a 60% are both bad test grades, but one is notably more alarming. A sprained ankle and a shattered femur are both bad. Failing to see the difference between looting in a store and storming the capital is a failure to appreciate clear differences in wrong actions. We can call them bad without equating them, in fact it is essential that we not equate unequally wrong actions.
- Get students to wonder if they perceive reality accurately - many people don’t. We are often encouraging students to see themselves more honestly (admit mistakes, accept their strengths, etc.) That needs to extend outwards as well. Traditionally, this is what the virtue of prudence is about. Prudence does not mean cautiously making decisions. It is about our capacity to perceive reality accurately and make decisions according to the true rhythms of reality. Seeing wrongly is a moral problem and takes away from our flourishing as human beings.
We all have a moral obligation to look at the events in front of us and to strive to come to an accurate sense of their meaning and NOT just what we want it to be. Conspiracy theories have no place in Faith. One should assiduously investigate the truth of ideas, evaluate evidence, make reasoned judgments and accept what is most plausible. Catholicism has no opposition to the scientific method - it has been a proponent of that rational approach for millenia. It is unjustifiable to hold on to conspiracy theories without evidence.
- Build trust in people and institutions deserving of it. It is essential to a human society. Imagine a world without trust in one another; we could learn nothing. If we could not accept the explanation from an expert, the account of a friend,etc. we would be forced into isolated existence with limited understanding of ourselves and our world. A world without honesty and trust is a broken world. Of course, no one should be trusted implicitly - we should evaluate the truthfulness of others. But, without evidence, disbelieving and protesting civic bodies is unreasonable. Without evidence to the contrary, it is unreasonable to disbelieve accounts of oppression. A world constantly disbelieving those it disagrees with is one we should strive to transform.
- Encourage an accurate view of injustices, particularly racism. The past year has been dominated by discussions of police violence against People of Color. Watching the videos of the riots, a contrast between their treatment and BLM protests this year is inescapable. White supremacy has been on the rise and part of the national narrative for a while as well. Being able to see these differences and these threads of thought is essential to constructing a just world. We cannot ignore objective differences in how people of different races are treated by the police (which are well documented).
To quote Pope Francis, “A readiness to discard others finds expression in vicious attitudes that we thought long past, such as racism, which retreats underground only to keep reemerging. Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.” (Fratelli Tutti, 20)
- Encourage intellectual humility. Be honest about what we don't know. For example, there is a lot still unfolding about the police response. Seeing a difference in the actual treatment of protesters can have multiple explanations including systemic racism or even overt racism. It can also be motivated by power-seeking. There is a lot we don't know - don't pretend that we do. Affirm what is obviously true without overstating it. That only feeds the mindset of conspiracy theorists which is a huge issue in our society right now. Acknowledge what appears to be true, but also encourage students to keep an open mind as more and more information comes out.
- Listen and promote listening. It isn’t optional- it is part of becoming one. People have a right to be heard. It is only when we truly hear one another that we can begin to find a way forward. Quoting Pope Francis again:
It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women. “Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation… We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together”. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all. (Fratelli Tutti, 8)
Today, in many countries, hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion. Their share of the truth and their values are rejected and, as a result, the life of society is impoverished and subjected to the hubris of the powerful. (Fratelli Tutti, 15)
- Encourage honest evaluation. So many have said "This isn't America." Is that true? We need to do an examination of conscience because the evidence suggests this is exactly who we are (at least in large part). Turning a blind eye to one's problems allows them to grow. Social sin is real; structural injustice is real, so talk about it. Talk about the issues of racism, elitism and the danger of putting any person down. Society has never been perfect and contemporary discord has many underlying reasons.
Consider reading Frederick Douglass' Independence Day Speech. He questions why he was invited to speak in celebration of Independence while his people remain enslaved. Hypocrisy comes in many forms and lives on today. For example, the suppression of Black voters is tied up in the instigating events behind this riot. Are we actually a nation of liberty for all people?
- Hold up true examples of courage. Fortitude (Courage) is not traditionally what people think it is. According to Aristotle and Aquinas, real bravery is always in the service of justice. It is not morally acceptable to say that those rioters were brave even though their cause was bad. To fight for an untruth is not bravery - it is unjust and foolish.
- Talk about true leadership. Again, this happened on the 12th day of Christmas - Epiphany. This is the day that Jesus is lauded as king by the wise men, that the true Suffering Servant is revealed to the nations. Any honest comparison with the Kingship of Christ and his model of leadership with the leadership we saw on January 6 helps us to grow as Christians. It is not a partisan act to critique a leader who explicitly incites violence - it’s a necessary and moral part of addressing the various injustices of our society. That said, critique in order to highlight the better path. Namely, that to serve Christ is to reign, to possess him is to possess all things. Truthfully, we should do this all the time. We need to constantly revisit our understanding of real leadership.
- Don’t shy away from critiquing Christians. Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matt 7:21) There were a lot of Christian symbols in that riot. We don't need to be inquisitors or call everyone heretics, but we need to maintain a distinction between claiming to follow Christ and actually following Christ. We need to be particularly critical of ourselves as Christians and those of us involved with this. Christianity has been at fault in many of the evils of America and we have no reason to shy away from the ways that Scripture has been misused (such as in the endorsement of slavery).
- Encourage students to take seriously the Our Father, where we pray “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” While we do not place all our hopes in this world and need to acknowledge that it will never be perfectly just, we can make it much holier with God’s grace. It is what we pray for all the time. Our mission is to make a broken world just and holy time and time again. We have to make love reign where it does not. But no politician can ever really save us. We are building God’s kingdom, not a red or blue one.
- Give them a real reason to Hope. Tell them stories about bad turning into good, death giving way to life. Jesus enters a broken world to set us free. What does that mean? What is salvation? It does not mean ending the pains of this life but rather redeeming them. Our miseries are transformed into joys. Dying and rising in Christ, living in the love of God is not fulfilled in this life. It begins here, but isn't fulfilled here. We have a foretaste of the full joy of living in Love in heaven by being Love on this earth. Our redemption is unfolding. But - we must keep our eye on the one who truly saves. He alone gives us the power to love our enemies as Christ loved the Church.
- Don’t settle for easy definitions of love. Talk about real Love, the kind that Jesus demonstrated. Real love cares about the true good of the other. Consider Senator Romney's statement that caring about the voters means telling them the truth. What other actions are actually good for others even when they might be uncomfortable? Ask students: What are the manifold ways Love takes shape in life? What does it truly mean to want the good for the beloved?
- Make them become part of the solution by asking hard questions. What does it mean to try to strive for unity in such division? How do we end racial and ideological divides? What is real unity? What does it look like to live in a world that shares a common purpose of serving the good amidst difference? You don’t need to have all the answers. Our job is to teach and to inspire. Every generation has to build a better world, to renew the commitment to goodness. We can’t do that for them.
- Fight despair. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” The world has been through countless evils, yet hope and love spring eternal. Every little act of love and mercy makes this world better. Build a community of love right here, right now and it will spread. Anger accomplishes its purpose when it is channeled into meaningful action
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it gives us some common ground to talk about our world. It is undoubtedly a broken one, but Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. To close, we return again to Pope Francis:
“Our own days, however, seem to be showing signs of a certain regression. Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise. In some countries, a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests. Once more we are being reminded that ‘each new generation must take up the struggles and attainments of past generations, while setting its sights even higher. This is the path. Goodness, together with love, justice and solidarity, are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day. It is not possible to settle for what was achieved in the past and complacently enjoy it, as if we could somehow disregard the fact that many of our brothers and sisters still endure situations that cry out for our attention.’” (Fratelli Tutti, 11)