This essay was written as part of a Faith and Politics course I took with Dr Julie Rubio at Saint Louis University in 2016. It was shortly after the 2016 Presidential election and I was struggling to feel hopeful for the future and trust in God in the midst of everything going on in my country.
My reflection felt pertinent to how I am feeling after the murder of George Floyd and the protests going on throughout the United States. I needed to reread my own words and the words of countless theologians and saints cited throughout. It helped me process and grieve all over again. I hope it brings you a sense of understanding, of hope and of peace. If you are reading this, I am here for you and I am always available to talk and share stories. Now we must continue to do the work.
A letter to the grieving bodies in the United States
Part One: My Testimony
While I could have said previously that we live in a time of progress, a time of freedom, and a time of hope, I now find my heart aches with a longing for consolation and for community. The most recent election has challenged me in many ways. As a woman of mixed ethnic backgrounds, I saw my heart, and the people I care about, pulled in various different directions. I witnessed my community, and my own family, broken down into arguments over whose issues were worth paying attention to- whose issues should get our votes. This letter is addressed to the people who struggle to create a political sphere that welcomes and works for everyone. I am writing because I want to talk to about the aftermath of heartbreak- heartbreak when you are forced to accept that the outcome of a political decision illuminates the lack of progress, of freedom, and of hope that our nation represents. This leaves us with a question of how can we, as minority people of faith- people who trusted in God, people who grieved to God- reconcile and continue to persevere in God’s name in a time when the identities we were created with have been outwardly silenced?
So today, I want to talk to you about this heartbreak. I want to talk to you about grief. I want to talk to you about faith and about hope, but we cannot start there. I know our experiences are different. I do not fear my immediate family’s deportation. I can blend in and assimilate to white culture without much effort. However, our stories are linked in a way that cannot allow me to move on for my own self-preservation. My heart aches for the pain of my community, for a nation who has showed its people that their dignity does not really matter. We have come to lull in the midst of chaos; the immediate emotions have passed, people have gone back to their routines, and allies have shrunk back into the shadows as the fervor dies and the grind of American life takes its place. I recognize I am in a privileged space by being at a university and being able to write this paper. However, the grief I felt in the days and weeks following the election of Donald Trump is real. I wanted to ask God to strengthen me as I sat and listened through the tears of my friends, but I watched myself become numb to my work and to my art, in a way that felt empty of the divine love that surrounds me.
However, this is not a letter of despair. I write this to show that our voices are important as agents of change in the public and theological sphere. We must accept the necessity of anger, of vulnerability, and of grief as powerful revelatory experiences given by our Creator. We must work to have communities that share stories, that acknowledge our wrongs, and that partake in true reconciliation. Finally, we must never lose hope in the people of faith surrounding us, that believe a better nation, a better world is possible, because this is the transformative love of God truly present among us.
Part Two: Our National Reality
The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States was a wake-up call. Our nation is supposed to be one that upholds the ideals of democracy that guarantee the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for all people. The issue comes when the morality that people of faith expect does not necessarily line up with what is just, or what is feasible, to implement by law. Cathleen Kaveny writes on the power, and importance, of law as a guide to what is just when she writes about the importance of representation. She says, “Human law is not merely a police
officer but also plays an ultimately positive role; its goal is to enable and direct human beings living in the same community to find their flourishing with one another in a coordinated social life” (48). Basically Kaveny is stating that the law in some way always affirms certain visions of how a community dictates or polices morality.
However, the law is always limited to ordinary virtue and practical application (Kaveny 52). The combination of the outwardly racialized and misogynist statements by Trump, as well as his ability to appoint leaders within his cabinet and the Supreme Court, worry many people about the effect his lack of respect will have on our national culture. As a person in a position of power, it must be your duty to treat even the least among you with the upmost respect to be an example of how a national community can live in harmony and provide an environment in which all members have the opportunity to flourish. This is what scares many of us about the influence the rhetoric of Donald Trump could have on the virtue and public sphere of our nation. We are thus left unsure of how to move forward and to combat the possible oppressive policies and shift in acceptable public discourse that Trump represents.
As a person who believes that people ultimately know what is right, I am saddened and shocked at the lack of morality present in Trump’s rhetoric. I would have previously stated that politicians and lawmakers had a healthy respect for the flourishing of all individuals, not just those within their specific demographic, but the turnout for Trump was overwhelming. It does not say that there is no hope left, but it does say that there is a lot of work to do. Bishop Daniel Flores wrote about the effect this election will have on Catholics stating, “We know better today what the issues before us are, than we did before the election. With this in mind, Catholics should be prepared to continue to advocate for justice and mercy in the days ahead. This requires an ongoing process of discernment, a sense of courage, and a commitment to political participation.” However, the answer is not so simple since there is not one clear, Catholic voice in the political sphere. Bishop Flores continues on the challenges of Catholic political engagement, writing, “We have long known that no one political party or platform satisfies the breadth of vision encompassed in the Gospel and in the Catholic Social Teaching that flows from it.” However, we must stand firm in the fact that the outright disregard for those who do not fit within Trump’s white, male demographic is alarming, and stands in stark contrast to the universality for which the Catholic Church is supposed to stand.
Part Three: Our Call
So how do we, as people of faith, respond? I argue that our anger and our grief are necessary emotional experiences, and that the vulnerable expression of this practice is required in order to have true storytelling, acknowledgement of our wrongs and reconciliation. Anger, which has ultimately been understood to be a deadly sin in Christianity, must be welcomed back into our theological and political conversations. Jesus demonstrated the power of righteous anger when he “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (Jn. 2: 13-16). His anger was justified as “a sign of some resistance to the moral quality of the social relations in which we are immersed” (Harrison 49). Jesus’ actions showed the deep and profound response to structures he recognized to be unjust. Beverly Wildung Harrison writes in her essay, The Power of Anger in the Work of Love, stating, “Anger is not the opposite of love. It is better understood as a feeling-signal that all is not well in our relation to other persons, groups or to the world around us. It is a mode of connectedness to others and it is always a vivid form of caring” (49).
The form of caring Harrison writes about demonstrates the vivid energy that is ignited in each of us when we experience, or witness, true injustice. She continues stating, “The creative power of anger is shaped by owning this great strength of women and of others who have struggled for the full gift of life against structures of oppression" (44). It is the power of anger that signals to us that a change is necessary and that we must use this passion to be transformative. However, anger in itself cannot be our only emotional expression. We must combat the consuming flame of anger left alone that can jade our world view and force us to close ourselves off to community. This is where our grief takes root. For at the center of our anger, is the grief that the people we love, the people that God loves, are suffering.
Bryan Massingale writes that we must find a space to “lament the ambiguity and distortions of our history and their tragically deforming effects on ourselves. We need to lament, mourn, and grieve our history” He believes this is because mourning “has the power to challenge the entrenched cultural beliefs that legitimate privilege. It can propel us to new levels of truth seeking and risk taking as we grieve our past history and strive to create an ethical discourse that is more reflective of the universality of our Catholic Faith” (Massingale 47). Expressing our grief is not only healing for the individual, but can function as a form of communal grieving in relationship with God. To allow ourselves to take time to grieve is no easy task. We live in a society where we are taught that our emotions should be hidden and we must grieve outside of the public eye. However, there is importance in hearing the true strife of the individuals suffering under oppression in order for those blind to it to see. Beyond just bringing awareness to others, their expression of grief “takes the form of a forthright confession of human wrongdoing in the light of God’s mercy. It is a form of truth-telling and contrition that acknowledges both the harms that have been done to others and one’s personal and communal culpability for them” (47).
The truth-telling and contrition that Massingale speaks of is how grief and anger manifest in our communities. We must hear each other stories, acknowledge our personal and communal wrongs, and work towards reconciliation in light of our emotions and in the name of our Creator.
Toni Morrison explores this idea of storytelling in her book a mercy through the character of Florens, as she is reduced to being less human by her community, yet the reader realizes at the end that the text we are reading is Florens very own inscriptions. The image of Florens etching her story into the home of her owner Jacob Vaark at the end of the novel asserts her power over her own being and puts her human dignity back in her own hands. However, at the end of the novel, we get to read her mother’s words. She writes,
“It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing, to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing” (Morrison 195).
In this statement, Florens’ mother gives her final testimony, bringing to light the mercy she tried to grant her daughter when she gave her up to her slave owner. She expresses the complex relationship created by dominion, and the requirement we have as humans to assert our own dominion over ourselves through sharing our stories. In some way, by writing her own story, Florens hears her mother words and her mother receives Florens’ back. Florens validates herself as having dominion over her identity as a slave, as free and as lasting, yet her final words we receive are of her sorrow: sorrow that she will never know what her mother is telling her or what she says to her in return. Yet we as a reader and a community in Christ, by experiencing her writing, in some way reconcile the relationship between the two, allowing their stories to be intertwined in a way that not only brings understanding but also a reconciliation.
Storytelling is important because, as Shawn Copeland writes, it shows us how suffering can interrogate Christianity by hearing truths that lead to intellectual and moral conversion. By “pulling back layer after layer, we expose the suffering and groaning, outrage and hope of the victims of history. In them we glimpse the flesh of Christ and we are drawn by that eros, his radiant desire for us, and we too seek to imitate his incarnation of love of the Other, love of others” (Copeland 84). The realization and reflection upon God’s love gives us agency and autonomy, showing that in the midst of everything, we are human and our voices have agency that must claim ontological space. However, storytelling cannot simply be a band aid remedy without truly addressing the root of the issue.
Thomas Merton writes about this during his observations of nature in his book When the Trees Say Nothing as he questions the value of using a person’s minute experience to represent the whole. He writes,
“Man can know all about God’s creation by examining its phenomena, by dissecting and experimenting and this is all good. But it is misleading, because with this kind of knowledge you do not really know the beings you know. You only know about them. That is to say you create for yourself a knowledge based on your observations. What you observe is really as much the product of your knowledge as its cause. You take the thing not as it is, but as you want to investigate it. Your investigation is valid, but artificial” (44).
There is something we simply cannot know by observation or by hearing, which is the depth of the story as it is experienced by the speaker. Yet I believe Copeland would respond saying that all theology does have to come from somewhere, and the theology traditionally heard has come from white male bodies. That is why the experience of hearing the stories of those outside this spectrum, in light of their grief and anger, becomes so imperative. The stories of the oppressed sow new seeds of change for the future.
These new seeds of our experiences must not become like “resounding gongs or clanging symbols” (1 Cor. 13:1). With the sharing of suffering, comes the obligation of recognizing our personal and communal wrongs against the oppressed.
Massingale writes about this in terms of racial justice stating, “For the beneficiaries of white privilege, lament involves the difficult task of acknowledging their individual and communal complicity in past and present racial injustices. It entails a hard acknowledgement that one has benefited from another’s burden and that one’s social advantages have been purchased at a high cost to others” (57). This kind of recognition can only come, as author Bryan Stevenson would say, when we are “proximate” to those who are suffering. The intentional relationship Stevenson advocates for is vital because it requires tangible, meditated action from each of us, and this can be terrifying. However, God calls each of us “to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them” (Day, 338). This true form of love God is calling us to participate in can only come when we take ownership of our complicity in oppression.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes on how we can truly acknowledge the wrongs done in our past when he shares about his experience of reconciliation after the apartheid in South Africa. He writes that, “If the present generation could not legitimately speak on behalf of those who are no more, then we could not offer forgiveness for the sins of South Africa’s racist past” (Cavanaugh 499). The ability to forgive and move on after the end of the apartheid required the full hearing of grievances committed and a recognition of responsibility for those actions by the people of South Africa. Tutu believes that in order to create a future together, “We have to accept that what we do we do for generations past, present, and yet to come” (499).
However, in recognizing our wrongs, we must not allow our recognition to become understood as redemption for our history. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about this in his book Between the World and Me as he reaffirms his son that their “struggle, in and of itself, has meaning” (69). He reminds him,
“You must struggle to truly remember the past in all its nuance, error and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance- no matter how improved- as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this” (Coates 70).
Coates reminds us that our progress can never disregard our past and that we must find meaning in the midst of our suffering. We cannot allow our meaning to be placed upon those who did not willingly choose to take on suffering to be simply an example for the future. However, Copeland states that we can find meaning of suffering through recognizing that it demonstrates “the human capacity for inhumanity and the divine capacity for love” which ultimately allows us to bring reconciliation (1).
Philosopher Tzvetan Todorov talks about each our capacity for inhumanity stating, "Someone who sees no resemblance between himself and his enemy, who believes that all the evil is in the other and none in himself, is tragically destined to resemble his enemy. But someone who, recognizing evil in himself, discovers that he is like his enemy is truly different. By refusing to see the resemblance, we reinforce it; by admitting it we diminish it. The more I think I am different, the more I'm the same; the more I think I'm the same, the more I am different." This challenging perspective on how we view our “enemy,” as well as our own capacity for inhumanity, changes how we should view reconciliation. True reconciliation must go beyond mere acceptance of the wrongs committed, but realization that the enemy is also deserving of love. Dorothy Day writes that sometimes this love is a “harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, of each one of us, but it is the only answer” (Day, 339).
True love of neighbor can be seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ call for compassion. This call shows us that we cannot let our anger and grief blind us to the universality of God and the welcome table in heaven. Our compassion must extend and ignite us for change in our community. Martin Luther King Jr. writes about Christian compassion stating,
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” (MLK, “Silence”).
We are able to do this when we unite, in the midst of our suffering, as a community and practice true solidarity. That is why we grieve and remember- because it unites us in Christ in a way that no oppressor, not even our President and political structures, can take away.
Our community in Christ is sustained, Copeland writes, through “Eucharistic solidarity” (124). She claims that solidarity calls for something “deeper and beyond the moral attention that social justice accords to the distribution of the material and cultural conditions of human living” (93). Beyond awareness or pity for the oppressed, she desires that Eucharistic solidarity be a “virtue, a practice of cognitive and bodily commitments oriented to meet the social consequences of the Eucharist” (127). This Eucharistic celebration helps us to see ourselves as an embodiment of Christ, one that requires discipleship and praxis (127). This type of celebration is for all as it sustains us and creates real social consequences. “His Eucharistic banquet re-orders us, re-members us, restores us, and makes us one’ (128). Copeland’s idea of Eucharistic solidarity not only calls for solidarity in the creation of an equal social order politically, but goes a step further in uniting humanity with Christ and with each other in self-giving love.
Transformative Eucharistic solidarity is significant in our efforts to create a true holy, catholic, and apostolic church. But what does all of this have to do with the election? How can minority people of faith recognize their role as a prophetic witness, but also still seek to create effective change in our nation? Copeland would argue that Christianity is, in and of itself, inextricably political. By expressing our anger and grief, by sharing our stories, we declare that our voices have agency and we will not be silent in this fight for freedom.
Ultimately in this pursuit, our communities must maintain hope. Dean Brackley, SJ writes in his book A Call to Discernment in Troubled Times that “Yes love is possible. A different world is possible. On the one hand, things are far worse than they seem. On the other, they are far better. Sin abounds- but grace abounds even more” (253). By recognizing the pain we have experienced, we give powerful witness to cross of Christ still present in our midst. We must be willing to give up our superficial rationalizations about our suffering, and challenge ourselves to share our own vulnerabilities. “Unless we share the suffering of the world, its beauty cannot heal us and solidarity cannot fill our void.” “The focus is not on the pain, but on being with the one who suffers” (178). We must trust that God is showing us that in the midst of pain and suffering, we need each other to stay strong. That in the midst of pain and suffering, sharing and identifying with those around us is what helps us experience Christ powerfully in the world that God created.
So, to the grieving bodies in the United States, I am with you. We must always remember that we are called to “let the world’s crosses break our hearts, and then respond” (Brackley 248). So this is my eulogy to my own blindness to oppression, to standing on the sidelines when I could have spoken up. We must not be disheartened, because our voices have agency and that, in itself, is political. We must maintain hope and persevere, because people have seen what our silence can do, and we will be silent no more.
To the grieving bodies in the United States, never forget that in the midst of pain and suffering, “life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful. Despite everything” (177).
With hope for a better tomorrow, I remain,
Your sister in Christ, Erica.