Like many of my fellow Americans, I have been stunned, shocked, perplexed, alarmed and angered by recent public demonstrations. What is happening to our law-abiding, peaceful country? Never before in my almost 100 years have I seen such tensions, such near and real hatreds, such unChristian and unAmerican incivilities. There is little or no dialogue—just rage, shouting, property destruction, injury, lies, theft and looting. The intimidation is reminiscent of the Gestapo or the Brown Shirts of Hitler’s Germany.
A bad apple cop caused the unnecessary and brutal death of a black man, George Floyd, who had been caught in a petty, low-level offense. It ignited legitimate protest, but also unleashed blatant criminality and a huge torrent of real hatred for this country and its law-abiding citizens. Peaceful and legitimate protests were hijacked by seditionists and thugs. Even people who seemed balanced and reasoned got swept up by the anarchists and some became raging, violent protesters, tossing fire bombs and destroying private and public property.
It is not a one-sided problem. People are blameworthy from all directions. Putting all the blame on a rogue cop is simplistic. The principle of Causality is always operating. An effect is in response to a cause. Why are all these things happening in this way at this point in time? Why? Will someone explain to me the link between bias and stealing a Rolex from a Fifth Avenue store? I want justice for the murdered man but I also demand protection from violent looters who have no respect for the rights of others. Attacking innocent people never solved social problems.
Is this a demonic force? How does one explain the loss of reason and the total embrace of violence and disruption? There is near 100% agreement that the cop is a bad dude and that there is real room for stricter guidelines for law enforcement. Effective law enforcement doesn’t need brutality or murder to keep the peace. 90% of police (at a basic minimum) know and practice such a common sense attitude.
I know whereof what I speak. I was a Police chaplain for over 20 years (NYPD) and found the law enforcement officers generally to be decent, hard-working men, anxious to do the right thing as they faced serious life-threatening situations every day. Most of them were God-fearing family men. Most adhere to the strict regulations of their own calling.
I am also a priest. Most priests are sincere men but we have bad apples. We do not throw all priests under the bus because of some disgusting Cardinal or priest. That is neither reasonable nor fair. We must fix the problem, not kill the entity. Similarly, we don’t engage in unbelievably dumb rhetoric, screaming for the abolition of police departments, like Chirlane McCray, the wife of a NYC’s Mayor De Blasio, who said that life without police “would be like a nirvana, a utopia that we are nowhere close to getting to.” This must rank very high on any historic list of stupidities. She must know little of human nature. I learned in the first grade about a reality called Original Sin—a given for any real insight how human beings function.
But our country, our beloved country; the country where we laughed together no matter one’s background, where we relaxed enjoyed hot dogs and Baseball, where we gathered around campfires and sang “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad”, where I could worship without interference from government, where I could say whatever I liked without fear of retribution or of a wild eyed bigot screaming at me should I say the “wrong thing”, where everyone had a shot at life as black Americans became President, Secretaries of State, advisors to Presidents, members of Congress, millionaire movie stars, millionaire sports figures, prominent religious leaders. We are all guaranteed opportunity, not outcome. Outcome usually depends on personal initiative, sacrifice, and character. Ask Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas or Candace Owen! The real American spirit asks not for handouts but only a fair shot at a happy life.
Yet in some sections of our country there was (and still is) definite bias against black people. That is unconscionable and wrong. But it is also incorrect to call this ‘systemic racism.’ I lived under systemic racism for seven years in South Africa, where Apartheid made American bigotry look like Sodality Boys Clubs. Honest Americans are ashamed and would like to redress this evil—and certainly most try. How to do it is the question. No solution is ever really possible unless one sees the problem through the other’s eyes. Don’t criticize someone until you have walked in his shoes. Could that ever be possible?
The underlying factor is the history of slavery, the national shame which decent people have tried to redress with considerable success. No one has any right to own another person, as that person is made in God’s image and is God’s child. This is a sacrilege which calls to heaven for vengeance!
Is the scar of slavery so deep that it can never be healed? Is there an element in the deep recesses that refuses to be healed? Is there some kind of self destruction that leads people to a feeling of victimization, no matter how well they do in life? Analogously, in my Jewish soul is there some element that whispers to me that the centuries of discrimination and humiliation have marked me with a self-doubting DNA, in spite of my achievements and successes? I know that had I lived in Germany in my youth, I would most likely not be alive today. That was systemic racism. I understand that it would be difficult to dialogue with Nazis! The difference today is that in the United States, 99.9% of Americans are horrified at the murder of George Floyd, want justice for him, and want bad police removed. We are all on the same page!
Murder is never right. Nor is brutality. Looting and mayhem are never right. It is never right to redress a wrong by doing “the wrong thing”.
I was raised in the tenements of the West Side. Seven people crowded into a railway flat with one bathroom. No car. Vacation was a day trip to Coney Island with the 5 cent subway fare and homemade sandwiches. The parish school was free, sponsored by the Paulist Fathers; high school tuition also paid by the priests, at $10 per month. College was CCNY and later a scholarship to St Francis in Brooklyn. I was a Duns Scotus Scholar. My father went gray overnight in the Depression. We ate sufficiently but sparsely and survived.
We “made do.” We wore clothes until they fell apart. We laughed. We loved. We prayed. My sister became a college professor. I received a PhD from NYU. My maiden aunt earned a PhD from Columbia. We all made it and never felt victimized. It was never easy but obviously doable. There was no social security or supplemental funding. Those were challenging times.
Being half Jewish and half Irish, I endured sneers and innuendos of being a “ Jew b- – – d”, an “Irish pig”, and ignorant and low class. I too was hurt and embarrassed by many in my formative years. Yet by God’s grace and with gratitude for opportunity, we kept healthy goals and got out of our ghetto. Almost anyone can if they are willing to pay the price of hard work and sacrifice. Clearly having a supportive and encouraging mother and father helps tremendously, but that is for another essay . The “poor me” cry is a cop-out and ultimately self sabotage. At the very least we can all make our tough situations a little bit better.
Now, I am almost 100 years old and am near nauseated when I see so many young people crying victimization as they carry their cell phones and wear expensive sneakers and drive expensive cars and plan their winter break in warm climates. The opportunities (even with college debts) are enormous today for anyone who is willing to shake a leg and work. Is it that people don’t even see their possibilities? Or is it that people want not just a good living but rather the fantasy life of Hollywood and the media? On the proverbial platter? Is it revenge that is the goal and not justice? Isn’t life a series of balances between having and not having?
Perhaps looters, crummy cops, and hired protestors could benefit from a serious conversation with God wherein one might ask for the grace to see the beauty of what one has without any bitterness relating to what one does not have. And for the grace to attain the basic America dream because, granting limitations, there are many wide open chances for a happy life, pursuing happiness and personal destiny.
It begins to look as if all the “sit-downs” and dialogues and ranting sessions will never really do the job of healing. I suspect both sides need a spiritual approach to help see God in his fellow man. We all need the help of God, not smooth-talking ambitious politicians. It is, as the Lord said, a situation that can be changed only by prayer and fasting.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form on Fr. Lloyd’s Facebook page on June 27, 2020.)