NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he lights went out early on May 29, just before a private Mass I was blessed to be able to participate in after a long fasting from the greatest prayer there is. The natural response now, when things seem to be getting worse, is, “Well, of course” or, “Why not?” I’ve seen that in reaction to a possible tornado in New York, a news story about locusts (yes, locusts), and another about apes escaping a facility with COVID-19 samples (!). I’m not sure how true any of these news stories are in the era of “fake news,” but at this point, aren’t we preparing for the worst?
And there is a certain amount of reality that reflex acknowledges. Most of us, if we are honest about things, have regrets. We know there are sins, both of commission and omission, — “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” And we know that when we take into account what everyone does, there’s a lot of darkness we are all responsible for, even as there is great light in the goodness men can do for one another, too.
May 29 happens to be the day that the Catholic Church now remembers the life of Pope Paul VI. He’s the one who released the encyclical Humanae Vitae that exposed some warring factions in the Church in a whole new way. The sticking point was and is contraception, which, in 1968, was really only just beginning to change the world as we knew it. But it was also about something much more fundamental: our common humanity and the truth about love as self-sacrificing and other-centered. In a Christian context, we give because of the love of Christ, because we want to give that love, and we see it in others. We don’t put up barriers to that love. It’s why a Christian really living the life would be the best kind of neighbor and citizen. Of course, many of us fall quite short of that. Some of us, if we’re honest about it, don’t always try.
The timing all seemed to make some sense in the dark those early-morning minutes (it didn’t extend for more than ten or 15 minutes, but pre-caffeine, they might have seemed longer). Throughout the night, parts of Minneapolis were in flames because of the seemingly clear murder of George Floyd by police. Most of us have seen video that shows a cold, calculating cruelty, a total indifference to the humanity of Floyd, completely helpless under the weight of the officer pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck. “He’s human!” one bystander yelled. I didn’t know Floyd, but that’s all we really do have to know.
This is at the heart of the nursing-home scandals, too, during these coronavirus times — do we consider our elderly less than human because they may not have all the faculties they once did? Do we realize that will likely be you and me one day, sooner than we realize? It all comes back to what we think about life. Is it a gift? Is it precious? One thing I worry about these past few weeks and months now: Have we been staying home out of respect for others more vulnerable than perhaps many of us are, or have we been hiding in an act of somewhat universal self-preservation? One of the healthy lessons from this time is gaining a deeper appreciation for the fact that we are all going to die! If it’s not the coronavirus, it will be something somewhere, and we do not know the day or the time.
Which brings us back to Mr. Floyd. Right on the eve of Paul VI’s feast day, as people were looting parts of the Twin Cities, an image was making the rounds on social media. It appeared to be Jesus, falling under the weight of His cross. But beside Him were the words “I can’t breathe” — the words we know Floyd said as an officer’s knee on his neck must have made breathing impossible. I saw a flare-up on Facebook: “Is that a stretch?” someone wrote. He was a man, not God, after all. But that is precisely the point the artist, I suspect, was trying to make, and that Paul VI was, too. See God in one other! When we look at others with the kind of loving look that God, who would die for us, has when He looks at us, it changes the way we interact. You don’t treat a man like a wild beast when you see the dignity God has given him by creating him in His image and likeness. And, yes, racism is certainly anathema to such living.
When the lights are out for a moment, we are uncertain, and we reflect on what is most important to us. Isn’t this what this whole coronavirus time has been, in a sense? We’ve all experienced it in different ways, but isn’t that the invitation? To love one another more? Many things matter to the functioning of society, but love is really the measure of our lives and what makes the difference in the lives of others. Love makes it impossible to needlessly and callously kill another. Love keeps us from hate on Twitter or Facebook or in real in-person encounters. Love keeps us from destroying a man’s livelihood, as we’ve seen in the burning and looting in Minneapolis. Love changes things, and we all have a limited time to do our part. What are we waiting for? Why are we wasting time on anything less?
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.