FRANK BRENNAN SJ. ‘I can’t breathe.’

Martin Luther King said ‘in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard’. 

I was at Boston College in 2014 when Eric Garner died at the hands of police uttering those now piercing words, ‘I can’t breathe’. This led to a statement by 456 Catholic Theologians for Police Reform and Racial Justice. They wrote: ‘As Eric Garner’s dying words “I can’t breathe” are chanted in the streets, and as people of faith, we hear the echo of Jesus’ breathing on his disciples, telling them, “Peace be with you.”  His spirit-filled breath gives his disciples, then and now, the power and obligation to raise our voices about the imperative of a just peace in a fragmented and violent world.(https://catholicmoraltheology.com/statement-of-catholic-theologians-on-racial-justice/)’

In January 2015, I attended the US Society of Christian Ethics Conference in Chicago where one of the key authors of that statement Fr Bryan N. Massingale, who describes himself as ‘a black man, a Catholic priest, and a professor of moral theology at a leading university in the United States’ spoke passionately challenging the largely white audience of moral theologians.

Today, Massingale has published an article in the London Tablet saying, ‘To understand what is happening in the United States, I would ask you not to fixate on the videos of burning buildings, broken windows, and engulfed police cars. Listen instead to the grief, the anger, and the lament that too often goes unheard and unheeded.  Hear the fury of being told too often and in too many ways, “You don’t belong”. And stand in solidarity with those of us who continue the slow, frustrating, painful, and even dangerous work of trying to make this country the beacon of justice that it professes to be.’

The learned Fr Massingale from Fordham University commenced this week’s article with one simple vignette: ‘I arrive at a suburban parish whose members are overwhelmingly white to celebrate Mass for a fellow priest who had suddenly taken sick. I ask the usher to direct me to the sacristy. He hesitates and asks, with suspicion, “Why do you want to know?” I explain the situation to him, thinking my visible Roman collar is already a complete explanation of why I am here. He interrogates me. “You’re a priest? Who sent you?” After explaining yet again who I am and why I am here, he responds, “Well, why didn’t he send us a real priest?”’

When confused and troubled about what to make of race relations in the USA, I, like many of you, often turn to Martin Luther King. In a speech at Stanford University on 14 April 1967 entitled The Other America, he said that ‘in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard’. Here is a fuller expression of what he said and meant:

‘Many in moments of anger, many in moments of deep bitterness engage in riots. Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. …But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. [O]ur nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.’

This Trinity Sunday, let’s thank God that our God, who is a mystery and always will be, is with us and is within us – creating, liberating and sustaining us, here in Australia as in the United States, gracing us with ‘the power and obligation to raise our voices about the imperative of a just peace in a fragmented and violent world’.

These are extracts from a homily by Frank Brennan SJ, Rector of Newman College, Melbourne on 7 June 2020.

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Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia and the Rector of Newman.

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