When Pope Francis came to the United States in September 2015, he addressed Congress. He, of course, quoted from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” His comments on the bottom-line (albeit sometimes forgotten at barbeques and fireworks) reason we celebrate July Fourth every year could be a meditation for an election year during a pandemic: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life. I do not underestimate the difficulty that this involves, but I encourage you in this effort.”
How much of the violence in the streets has been about that? I’m more inclined to listen to the real protesters, including the ones whose form of protest is prayer. Father Roger Landry, a priest currently serving in New York, recounted a story of walking in Manhattan and being asked by a black construction worker if he was on his way to protest and take to the knee, as they say. He explained that his kind of protest, which he’s been doing a lot of lately, is prayer. He explains that for Christians the greatest protest involved “crying out to God for forgiveness for the evil of racism, for the wicked killing of George Floyd and other victims, for the sinister rampage of destruction and looting that have harmed so many businesses and led most others to have to board up their windows. We drop to our knees and beg God for help to fight against and repair these evils.”
He adds: “I have also been building up knee calluses in response to the evil I’ve seen in New York City by those using the protests as a cover for anarchic destruction, organized crime and brazen robbery.”
That seems in keeping with some of what a fact-finding mission to the streets of Minneapolis by the Philos Project is hearing. One activist in the neighborhood where George Floyd was killed told them: “This is a spiritual war. . . . The devil is trying to destroy this land. . . . It will not change until we change the hearts of the white majority. But the white majority has lost its belief in God.” In another tweet from the ground, Philos founder and executive director Robert Nicholson quoted former mayoral candidate and local activist Al Flowers: “Outsiders turned our movement into something else,” Flowers said, referrsing nonlocal rioters. “But we are a God-fearing people. They want an America without churches, but that’s not an America we want.”
This naturally brings to mind Martin Luther King Jr., not only a pivotal martyr to the civil-rights movement but also one of America’s greatest preachers. Pope Francis cited him, too, during that congressional address, talking about his dream, “which continues to inspire us all. I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
But how much of what we are seeing these days is about freedom? Or is it about anger and despair even? Is it about fear? There’s such a thing as righteous anger, which King had. Some of what we have been seeing, however, is not an aspirational anger but rather a destructive force. If it’s a spiritual war, let’s be attuned to what side we’re fighting on. Every political party and even initially well-intentioned cause can be corrupted and swayed by the darkness of evil. That’s one of the reasons King kept his eyes on God when he spoke. We want to uplift the human soul, not drag it down deeper into an abyss that stifles the ability to dream. Freedom is not life in the dark.
One last reminder from that address to Congress, right before Pope Francis inaugurated a year of mercy. He quoted another American, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain: “I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.” Freedom is found in gratitude, in realizing that there is good in us all. We were born for that. The rest is distractive, destructive slavery. To see this is not a daydream but the greatest reality of our lives. Living it is freedom. Embracing this, we can truly celebrate independence in a few weeks, pandemic or not.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.