One Chaplain’s Response to George Floyd’s Death

June 10, 2020

I wish I could show everyone my Facebook feed. Everyone’s feed is different, but here’s what I’ve observed. This past week, about a third of the posts appearing in my feed have been angry about the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and speak of their desire for action to address systemic racism. Another third disagree with (or deflect from) those views and have expressed frustration about the turn taken by many protests that have occurred across the country.

Of these two-thirds, some posts are vitriolic and some are thoughtful. Some present ideas for me to consider, others suggest that I should, or must, say or do or think some particular thing if I’m to be a decent person. The remaining third are not in response to current events on the national stage–personal stories and feel-good stuff. And many of my Facebook friends haven’t posted anything in the last week. One thing’s for sure. My Facebook feed is not an echo chamber. More of a battleground, really. Maybe yours is, too.

All of these posts come from friends, students, colleagues, brother priests, and acquaintances whom I love and respect. At a time like this, I wish I could bring all these people together to sit down at the table for dinner. It probably wouldn’t go very well, but at least the food would be top-notch. The endeavor might fall flat by the end of the evening, but I still think it would be worth a try. It would probably do a better job than Facebook.

Statement from the Brown-RISD Student Leaders

The student leaders of the Brown-RISD Catholic Community with whom I work drafted a statement this week in light of recent events. I stayed out of the process, because I trust them to study, reflect theologically, debate the matter, and then articulate a position. The statement is their own and I trust them to own it. Some will agree with every word. Others won’t. I think that’s okay.

Some have asked me what I think, personally. If you want to know what I think, please bear with me. I probably won’t say all the things you think I should say. I might say some things you think I shouldn’t say. You can stop reading at any point. At the outset, what follows is not an official statement of the Brown-RISD Catholic Community, just some thoughts from its chaplain. Nor is it a very theological exposition. Theology has a lot to contribute, and I hope to address these issues on a more explicitly theological level sometime in the future. This is just what I’ve been thinking about of late.

The Thoughts of a Chaplain

I think a lot of things. I don’t say most of the things I think because I find it hard to listen when I’m speaking. That said, there’s also a maxim that “silence gives consent.” Right now, there’s so much discord in the air that it’s probably a good time to say something, lest my silence be interpreted as consent to one or another of the discordant opinions out there–or consent to the discord itself. Consider the following as what I might say at dinner if I could bring my friends together….

George Floyd, who was suspected of a petty crime, died a brutal and horrific death. I wouldn’t want to suffer the death he suffered, nor would I wish it for anyone. I offered Mass for him on Wednesday morning, on the memorial of St. Charles Lwanga and his companions, young men who were martyred in Uganda in the 19th century.

George Floyd, who was black, was killed by the unspeakable brutality of white police officer, with the aid of other officers. And this is not the first time such a thing has happened. Far from the first. And that’s a big problem that cries out for a solution.

Here, I’ll pause to say that black lives matter. I haven’t said that before in those words exactly. Not because I didn’t think it before, but because I don’t say most of the things I think. I’ve never not thought it, even if I haven’t said it. If you’re someone who has thought I should have said this a long time ago, and perhaps doubted whether I thought that black lives matter. I’m sorry for that. If you think that my saying “black lives matter,” is an endorsement of everything endorsed by the activist movement bearing that name, please know that that’s not what I mean. If you’re someone who thinks instead of saying “black lives matter” I should say something else, or something more, to qualify it, keep reading. Maybe I will. Even if I don’t, bear in mind that I don’t say all of the things I think, and certainly not in a single sentence.

A Call for Justice

All those responsible for the death of George Floyd’s death should be brought to justice. His death, and the death of so many others at the hands of law enforcement officers speaks to the need for broader reform as well. What precisely that reform entails, others can speak to more expertly than I. Some reforms have already taken place in some places, but obviously more needs to be done in every place. On a personal level, I hope for the day when no one fears police officers or looks on them with suspicion in the way that many people currently do. It would seem to involve changes in the way law enforcement officers are trained and conduct themselves, as well as changes in how people perceive them. It would require a lot from a lot of us.

Such a change is not simply about policies and procedures. And it’s not simply about law enforcement, but touches every part of society. Here is where many speak about systemic racism and unjust structures.

What is Racism?

Going back to my Facebook feed for a moment….some people find systemic racism and unjust structures everywhere, while others deny the very existence of these concepts. So I know I’m walking in a minefield.

People seem at least to agree that individual persons can think, say, and do things that are racist. Such racism is wrong. To apply a theological category, it’s a sin. People also seem to agree that there have been unjust laws and institutions that deliberately endorsed racist ends on a massive scale, most notably slavery and segregation.

Some people believe that, since these laws have been abolished, the only sort of racism that could remain is individual racism. Others point out that, long after these laws and institutions have been formally abolished, the vestiges and memories of them remain in complex, subtle, and often unheeded ways which continue to affect people from black (and other minority) backgrounds. On this view, as I understand it, systemic racism is the consequence of those vestiges and memories when little or nothing is done to root them out. As with every social construct, some people see it, and some don’t.

I find it particularly hard to say what I think here because, well, I’m still thinking about it. I will probably say too little to satisfy some people, and too much in a way that upsets others. So be it. The main reservation I have in appealing to accounts of systemic racism is that it’s just too convenient. In the listening and reading I’ve done, I’m starting to wonder if this way of describing the world deflects our attention from looking deeply inside of ourselves.

If I’m so confident that the problem is outside of my own mind and heart, if it’s so much bigger than I am, if I focus all of my anger on unjust structures and systems, then I run the risk of missing something inside of myself. Even if I’m not guilty of racism in thought, word, or action (and I’m still examining….), have I ever failed to think, speak, or act as I should in the sight of God? Because, after all, there are sins of omission. Only when I’m quite certain that the problem is not in me, or very near to me, will I be ready to try tackling those structures and systems.

A Word on Anger

Finally, I want to say something about anger. Anger over the death of George Floyd (and all that has come before it) has moved many to protest, some peacefully, others not peacefully. Anger over the violent outgrowths of some protests has in turn caused many others to respond, some helpfully, others not helpfully.

As a priest, lots of people come to me, both inside and outside of confession, to talk about their anger. Anger is a fundamental human emotion. Sometimes it’s also a sin. Here’s an insight I learned from St. Thomas Aquinas: anger is difficult because it’s a composite emotion. It can be thought of as a product of two more basic feelings: sadness and hope. I feel angry when I am saddened on account of an injustice I perceive (either one that has befallen me or someone else) and simultaneously hopeful that something could be done to rectify the injustice.

On this analysis, anger morphs into sin when a person responds to injustice in ways that cannot and will not hope to rectify the injustice that saddens him or her in the first place. Looting and violent protest would seem to fall into this category. So too would posting intentionally divisive rhetoric on social media. Does this invalidate peaceful protest? Does it invalidate using social media to communicate ideas? I don’t think so, but it does show that we need to be very careful what we do with our anger.

When we are gripped by anger, our first instinct is usually to act. But I think when we are gripped by anger, we might do better to rise above our instinct and instead try to grip the anger that has gripped us. So, when people come to me and are troubled by the anger they feel, I encourage them to identify the perceived injustice that saddens them and then ponder what they might hope to do in response.

What are you most angry about right now? What injustice most saddens you? What are you hopeful for? Feel all these emotions, and then think. Can you do something, anything, that might actually bring what you hope for a little closer to becoming reality?

Fr. Albert Duggan, O.P., is the Catholic chaplain serving the Brown-RISD Catholic Community.

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