Sunday, January 20, 2019

During a bad weekend for equality, I ponder the Catholic Church's social justice traditions

By now, everyone has viewed the video of the Catholic school boys mocking tribal elder Nathan Phillips on the National Mall.

To review, students from the all-boys Covington (Ky.) Catholic High  School are shown mocking Phillips as he beats the drum and chants the American Indian Movement song. Phillips is a member of the Omaha tribe, a Vietnam veteran, and one of the organizers of the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests of 2017. Videos show white school boys wearing MAGA hats. They also chant Trumpisms such as "build the wall." Obnoxious brats, sons of privilege. One wonders where their clueless hatred came from. One need look no further than our clueless hate-filled president, who mocks Native Americans with terms such as "Pocahontas" and references to the Wounded Knee massacre. They heard these things on talk radio or watched them on Fox News. Maybe they heard mockery of ethnic minorities around their house, from parents who shouted similar things at Trump rallies. Some teachers may be to blame, not so much for spouting racism but by failing to nip it in the bud. Certainly social media spreads the hate, although to blame the Internet for these boys' behavior is too convenient. It takes them -- and the rest of us -- off the hook. That's part of the problem.

Some Facebook commenters have urged the school to expel these students. Too easy. This is a teaching moment. Boot the kids from school and they will head off to the local suburban public school where they will remain smug in their ignorance. The Catholic Church has many teaching tools at its disposal. The New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, is a good place to start. WWJD when confronted with a situation where empathy and understanding were called for? Phillips said in an interview that he was trying to insert himself into a brawl. He then tried to escape the melee but the smug-faced teen in the MAGA hat stood in his way. Here was a test to show what true Christianity looks like. Big fail, boys from Covington Catholic High.

The MAGA crowd loves to poke fun of "social justice warriors." Some of us, me included, proudly claim the term. Where did I learn the precepts of social justice? First, at home, then through the Catholic Church during mass and at Father Lopez Catholic High School. The nuns and priests and lay people taught us well. It's fashionable to criticize the church for its many transgressions throughout its 2,000 years. In recent history, we have the scandal of priest sexual abuse. Over he years, Catholic orphanages turned "unwed" mothers into pariahs and treated their young charges like cattle. The church loved its crusades and its bloody Inquisition. Spain and Portugal sent its men to the New World to convert the heathen and kill any who resisted. Nathan Phillips may be a product of one of many Catholic boarding schools, where youngsters were ripped away from their families and bullied into becoming good Catholics. The Catholic Church was a major player in the horror show of history.

It also offers me solace. Not lately, as I quit going to church. I used to find peace in the ritual of the mass. In adulthood, when sinking in the swamp pf depression, I found as much relief in prayer as I did from therapy and meds. I still pray. The main thing that turned me away from the church is what I sometimes refer to as its deal with the devil. The devil is represented by the evangelicals and their handmaidens, the Republican Party. The church decided decades ago that the war against abortion was more important than the spiritual health of its millions of members in the U.S. They allied themselves with the fundamentalists to impose a litmus test on its members. There are only a few questions on the test, I guess you can call it a quiz if you want. You are in the in-crowd if you oppose abortion, birth control, sex outside of marriage, women in leadership roles (including priests), and LGBT rights. This makes you a fellow traveler with the Evangelical Right Wing, a group whose roots are in anti-Catholic bigotry. Of course, Catholics did their own Protestant-bashing. When I was a kid, I was told it was a sin to go to a Protestant church service. I've sinned repeatedly in my adulthood.

So I'm a Cultural Catholic. My roots are in Catholicism but my present is not. I can't ignore memory. My final thoughts may be of a snippet of Latin from the old mass. My Irish grandfather and his rosary beads. Sister Norbert winding up to whack one of us misbehaving boys. Thankfully, I won't be thinking of how I hated Native Americans, Hispanic immigrants, Jews, Liberals, Obama, the transgender kid who just wants to use the bathroom, and all those other people who might look or think differently from me. I won't make others feel small so I can look big. That's a blessing right there.

LATER: Just returned from the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Black Tie Banquet at the Red Lion Inn. Full house. Sat at the Laramie County Democrats' table with Chris and Dem friends. Saw so many people I've met over the years, people I've met through the NAACP, Juneteenth and the arts. All of us were celebrating Dr. King. Guest Speaker was Dr. Olenda E. Johnson, Ph.D., a Cheyenne native who was the first African-American full professor at the U.S. Naval War College. Uplifting speech from an uplifting person. She talked about the late Wyoming State Senator Liz Byrd of Cheyenne who brought up the King holiday in the legislature nine times before it was finally adopted by that body's white majority. Talk about persistence and dedication. Now I'm home and realizing how wonderful it is to get out to meet people who make a difference day by day by day. Another blessing...


Lynn said...

I was so disturbed by the video you talk about, I was obsessing over it all day yesterday. I agree that this can be a teachable moment--for the MAGA kids, for all of us. We are responsible for what comes out of our mouths, for what we avoid, for what we engage in. For what we model. "Where were the chaperones?" I kept asking my husband.

The Catholic Church, like any organization made up of humans, is a big mess. Lots to be dismayed at. But the stems of your social justice, no doubt, go straight to your Catholic roots--as mine go straight to my public-service-loving family.

But don't be too hard on the Catholics. I have a memory from my Peace Corps days. 1984, no rains, no crops in Mali, West Africa. Hunger. The Protestant Mission in Koutiala announced they would supply grain to anyone who converted to Christianity.

The Catholic Mission in Koutiala handed out grain. To anyone who was hungry.

Michael Shay said...

I love the way you wrap up your story with the coda: "To anyone who was hungry." Neat. Kindness endures, doesn't it? It must reside deep in our souls. I'm not surprised by the selfless act of the Catholic Mission in Koutiala. I have seen plenty of examples of this during my life as a Catholic. It's the faith tradition I know best. I'm a little tough on the church because I know it can do better.