When protest becomes prayer

Demonstrators kneel in front of riot police during a protest in Washington June 1, 2020, following the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was taken into custody by Minneapolis police and later died at a Minneapolis hospital. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters) 

Hail Mary, full of grace

I don’t slip the rosary beads through my fingers to count the prayers, but fret each bead in until they return to the large medallion that holds a rock from Assisi, a stony splinter of St. Francis’ crypt.

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Make me a channel of your peace.

No justice, no peace.

Six years ago, when we marched down these streets to protest the Staten Island grand jury’s refusal to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, there was a third strophe of the chant: “No racist police.”

During the more aggressive chants that have taken its place—“F*** the police,” “How do you spell fascist? N.Y.P.D.”—I grow quiet.

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Perhaps I do not join in because I am afraid, perhaps because I cannot help but feel that the police as such are incapable of fascism (though the majority ethnic groups who back them are), perhaps because the rosary slipping through my fingers opens up a more capacious space for outrage and grief to stand than sneering.

Eventually, the march is kettled by a police force in front and on both sides. The trailing cop cars turn on their sirens and the loudspeakers announce that curfew has begun. It is 8 p.m. Go home, they warn, or you will be arrested. The crowd begins to scatter, despite remonstrances from the leaders. Essential workers only, the loudspeaker warns. “We’re essential,” a woman launches back. Only a few voices join her. All of a sudden, a girl in front of me has her hands zip-tied behind her back.

As we walk away, I wonder if I use my care for others as a pretense to avoid the discomfort of what a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Alexis James Waggoner, called “putting my body where my theology is.”

I turn to my roommate: “Do you want to go home, or do you want to get arrested?” It looks like those are our two options. He is not a citizen, so we choose the former, out of an abundance of caution for his visa status.

As we walk away, I wonder if I use my care for others as a pretense to avoid the discomfort of what a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Alexis James Waggoner, called “putting my body where my theology is.” I interviewed Rev. Waggoner, a fellow Upper West Side resident and the minister for leadership and congregational development at Church of the Village in lower Manhattan, for our local paper, the West Side Rag. “Because I had the ability to decide to not do it,” Rev. Waggoner said, “that was a decision-maker for me. [I decided] to put my body where my theology is—to not just stand there and pontificate about it but to actually then go out there and do it.”

I thought of her words as we walked home, feeling waves of guilt wash over me for having a body and a skin color that made walking away easy. The girl we saw being arrested looked to be in her early 20s, my little sister’s age. Later, I read the nightly stories of peaceful protestors and journalists jailed. I hope that she was not alone that night.

I haven’t found the words to express the sort of grief and anger I feel seeing the sort of police violence in person that I had only previously witnessed on iPhone videos, PBS documentaries and reading Dorothy Day’s biography. This is just an introduction to a course in rage and solidarity that black Americans have already mastered.

White Americans like myself often struggle to understand our place in conversations about systemic racism, so often we vacillate between silence and denial.

White Americans like myself often struggle to understand our place in conversations about systemic racism, so often we vacillate between silence and denial. Or we jump two feet forward into righteousness, giving the right takes, tweeting the right tweets. But I wonder if our (correct) urge to be allies, to align ourselves on the “right side,” glosses over the necessary uncomfortable space of recognizing and reckoning with our inescapable enmeshment in injustice, our collective white responsibility for racial sin.

What exactly is the theology that compels me to take my body to the streets? Certainly, it is a belief in the efficacy and necessity of solidarity, one of the Catholic social tradition’s core tenets. But it is also a deeply held belief in the necessity and possibility of conversion to find freedom. And that conversion requires penance, particularly the concretely, physically enacted kind.

In Enfleshing Freedom, the theologian Shawn Copeland quotes the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva to describe a system of understanding color-blind racism as a series of structures and frames that form an “impregnable yet elastic wall that barricades whites from the United States’ racial reality.” Ms. Copeland argues that the body of Christ in the United States remains fractured by divisions because the white Americans in power are structurally prevented from seeing the racism from which they benefit.

One of Mr. Bonnilla-Silva’s frames of color-blind racism is naturalization, the white American hubris of having no explanation for our whiteness, our own ideology of race, our own love of power. The Rev. Bryan Massingale noted in a recent op-ed that the viral video of a white woman, Amy Cooper, threatening a black man exposes the lie of naturalization and shows white racism as the violent ideology it is.

Like the language and rubric of the Mass, the language of protest becomes a conduit for expressing oneself in the language of a community, incorporating and transcending one’s own individuality.

In response to women like Amy Cooper or cops who kill, a current socially acceptable response is scapegoating. While effective for maintaining the social status quo, scapegoating often leads to deeply unjust social realities or events—mass incarceration, anti-Semitism, Christ’s crucifixion. If we indict only the police officers (which we should do), we can unfortunately preserve the rotten social mechanisms that enabled and supported their crimes. If we simply punish egregious bad actors, the burden of social conversion—or our own conversion—is lifted from our shoulders.

But social conversion is precisely what we are being called to. Like Ms. Copeland, Thomas Merton sees the extended kairos moment of black resistance as a call to freedom, a call to conversion. Merton writes that black Americans “are seeking by Christian love and sacrifice to redeem [the white American], to awaken his mind and his conscience, and stir him to initiate the reform and renewal which may still be capable of saving our society.”

The protests overtaking our country at the moment are actions of conversion to a deeper freedom. The act of protest is, like the Catholic Mass, a liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, meaning a public action or work of the people. Like the language and rubric of the Mass, the language of protest becomes a conduit for expressing oneself in the language of a community, incorporating and transcending one’s own individuality.

As we “say their names,” we invoke a new litany of saints: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd.

As we “say their names,” we invoke a new litany of saints: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. As we kneel altogether for eight minutes of silence, I feel the same sense of solidarity as when all the kneelers fall at Mass and a wave of standing congregants drop to their knees. The call-and-response chants echo like the Kyrie, a ritual of solidarity in the face of violence. Philosopher Hannah Arendt deems violence, particularly state violence, an action not of power but weakness. Power is bestowed on states by the governed. Violence is the eruption of the state that loses its hold on power.

At the end of our eucharistic liturgy, we receive the command to “go forth.” We are called to go forth into secular liturgies, like the protests, bringing with us a eucharistic solidarity. But, as Ms. Copeland notes, the sins we commit—including the social sins in which we live—harm our eucharistic unity in Christ.

As the small group of protestors scattered last night in the face of violent action, I felt the weakness of my own solidarity. Several times, when the fight-or-flight instinct flutters through my chest, I tighten my grasp the beads in my hands, an instrument of contemplation.

Hail Mary, full of grace.

How can I pontificate about Christ’s presence with those who suffer but not put my body where Christ’s is?

Thomas Merton begins his book on racism, Seeds of Destruction, by establishing that contemplative life is not a flight from the world around it. The contemplative life does not allow its practitioners to escape their historical time but rather grounds them to confront their social situation. Western monasticism’s founder, Benedict of Nursia, began his monastic project not as a flight from the crumbling empire around him but as a response to it. He responded to a shredding social order with a community of men housed solidly on the rock of Christ. Theirs was a hospitality grounded in contemplation.

This contemplative spirit sets Catholicism apart in the evangelical landscape of U.S. religion. At the prayer services I attended this week in Times Square and Harlem, the evangelical, imprecatory forms of prayer call on a God who is mighty, who “covers the city” with God’s power. It is a language that is foreign to me. It is not necessarily in opposition to my native language of contemplation, but it emphasizes a need for a contemplative, as well as active, response.

In Harlem, a man on his bike yells at the pastor preaching the power of Christ. “Where was Jesus when his knee was on his neck? Where was he? Where was Jesus?”

No one responds. The pastor hears him, but says nothing.

Christ was there, of course, suffering in solidarity with the innocent man being executed. That is what my theology tells me. But how can I say that—pontificate about Christ’s presence with those who suffer—but not put my body where Christ’s is?

It is easy to speak justice and harder to envision how it looks concretely. It is easy to speak about conversion and hard to let go of the power I cling to.

As I worry my fingers around the rosary beads, I pray to the Lady who tears down walls of sin to bring God’s presence to humanity:

He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.

Praying the Magnificat means asking God to take from us whatever riches—intellectual, racial, social—give us an advantage over another. It is a hard prayer to prayer. But a spirit of contemplative conversion and solidarity calls us to just such a prayer.

The Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams once said to his church communion: “Unity is Christ-shaped, or it is empty.” Christ-shaped unity, in imitation of our kenotic savior who did not deem the form of God something to be grasped, always calls upon the powerful and privileged to divest ourselves of whatever forms of comfort and status we have to live in solidarity with those whose lives have been sacrificed on the altars of the powerful. Conversion always comes with a cost. Christ’s sacrifice, says Ms. Copeland, shows us “the cost of integrity, when we live in freedom, in love and in solidarity with others.” The cost of that integrity, of the eucharistic solidarity with others the church calls us to, might be our own egos, our own sense of comfort or our desire for “normalcy.”

If this is so, if we are inheritors of riches that are partly the wages of sin, then we know where Christ calls us—to that conversion that shines the light into the darkness of our own heart, the darkness of our blindness to the racism we have naturalized. Conversion is the cost of solidarity. There can be no solidarity without it.

Christ-shaped unity begins with our conversion from the ideology of whiteness. Unity begins with white ears listening with the ears of contemplation to black voices, who are the voice of Christ.

It is easy to speak justice and harder to envision how it looks concretely. It is easy to speak about conversion and hard to let go of the power I cling to.

So, for now, I go out to be with those marching and put my body where my theology is—one small step toward conversion.

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