Catholic Social Teachings and African American Communities

Reflection given by Fr. Matthew Hawkins at St. Benedict the Moor Parish, Pittsburgh, PA on August 29, 2020, the occasion of the Juneteenth Celebration, 2020

“In Ramah is heard the sound of sobbing, bitter weeping! Rachel mourns for her children, she refuses to be consoled for her children — they are no more” (Psalm 31:15)! One cannot read that passage from the Book of Psalms without feeling the loss of mothers all around the world who are losing their children to mindless violence.

Sometimes it is the result of officially sanctioned violence by the state; sometimes it is through acts of war; other times it is through random acts of crime, terrorism, hatred, or revenge. But the sound of the bitter weeping of mothers over the loss of a child is no less painful despite the circumstances. It is all-too-frequent and is too painful to bear.

The suffering of a mother speaks to universal sorrow but there is a particular side to this as it has affected African American communities. For 400 years African American mothers have felt this pain as they were separated from their children during slavery, as their children were hunted down following emancipation, and as they were hung by lynch mobs under the systemic injustice known as “Jim Crow”.

For the next 75 years black mothers suffered this emotional pain as their children were killed in race riots in the north to prevent black families from moving out of urban ghettos, and their children were killed by angry mobs in the south to prevent them from using public accommodations, public parks, public water fountains, to sit at public lunch counters, and to freely choose where they would sit on public transportation.

The children of African American mothers have been killed through the state-sanctioned violence of public officials and through random acts of violence in the streets. And yet if I were asked to choose one word to sum up the history of African Americans that word would not be “racism,” nor “victimhood”, nor “suffering”, nor “despair”. The one word that I would choose to sum up the African American experience would be this: “resilience”.

Resilience is the defining characteristic of African American people and of African American culture. It is the resilience expressed by the Blues and the Negro Spirituals, which took pain and suffering and creatively transformed them into empowerment for survival. It is the resilience expressed by the spirituality that finds resonance in the Book of Exodus and the Psalms of lamentation. It is the resilience expressed by Martin Luther King when he said that he had been to the mountaintop, and by little boys and little girls everyday as they vow that when they grow up they will “make a way out of no way.”

Resilience is the defining characteristic of the African American experience, yet it is rarely acknowledged by politicians nor is it highlighted in mass media. Resilience is the thread that runs through our lives and it has sustained us for more than 400 years.

Juneteenth is an American holiday celebrated primarily in African American neighborhoods to commemorate the date when enslaved families in Texas finally learned that they were free. The news of emancipation arrived in Texas more than six months after the Proclamation was issued. For the past 155 years, Juneteenth has been a celebration of the freedom and the dignity of the human person. It has been a celebration that has brought families together and strengthened the bonds within our communities.

The strength and resilience of African American families and communities is at the heart of these celebrations. This is why it is important, during the belated celebration of the holiday this year, due to the COVID crisis, to assess the challenges our families and communities face and the principles that will see us through to the future. Our very survival will depend upon the strength of our faith and on our family and community life.

Odd as it might sound, improbable as it might seem given the image of the Catholic Church in African American communities, I am willing to argue that the future resilience of our family and community life will find its fullest expression in the 10 major principles of Catholic social teaching. What are these 10 major principles and what have they to do with the future of our communities?

These principles have been compellingly summed up by Fr. William J. Byron, S.J. of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia but I will make a special application of these principles to address the challenges facing us today.

The first principle is that of Human Dignity.  Every human person has a claim upon the family of humanity by virtue of being a child of God in the image of his or her Creator. This is not measured by social status, or accomplishment, or ability. It is not measured by what you “can do for me” or by what you have done to me. If we cannot see the face of God in every human being then the cycle of violence, abuse and oppression will never end.

The second principle is respect for human life from conception until natural death. It follows from the first principle: all human life is sacred because all human life is a gift from God. When we treat human beings as disposable objects, whether this is to maximize profits in the workplace or to get revenge after being disrespected in the streets, then we have already destroyed the foundation upon which all rights have their grounding. We cannot hope to achieve universal respect for human rights if we are not willing to insist on universal respect for human life.

The third principle is the principle of association. We are not meant to be alone. Human beings develop the fullness of their humanity within the context of a community. Family and community life are essential to healthy personhood. We cannot be complacent about the alarming fragmentation of African American family and community life over the past 50 years and claim, at the same time, that we are working for the empowerment of the community. We are enriched by our associations and we are impoverished by their dissolution.

The fourth principle is that of participation. Social and economic institutions cannot work for the wellbeing of the human person if they make it difficult or impossible for people to participate in constructive and informed ways in the deliberation and decision-making process of these institutions. It is folly to rely on social and economic institutions to make plans for us without our active participation and engagement in them.

The fifth principle is that of the preferential protection of the poor and the vulnerable. A mother loves all of her children but she will momentarily leave the older ones if the youngest one wanders out into the street and is at risk of being hurt. The same is true if one child is ill while the others are healthy. The preferential protection of the poor and the vulnerable is based on the insight and wisdom that equal treatment is not always equitable treatment. We must give special attention to the weakest and most vulnerable individuals and communities who are part of the human family. Above all, we must not allow them to be used as objects for exploitation.

The sixth principle is the principle of solidarity. Empathy is an essential quality of our humanity. Not only must we be prepared to help the most vulnerable among us, we must also be willing to accompany them on our journey together. We must keep them in our thoughts and spend time with them, not just money. We must realize that our fate is inseparably connected with theirs. It is a fundamental Christian teaching that our liberation, in Christ, is not an individual affair, but one that takes place in the context of a community.

An artist from an aboriginal community once said: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This statement nicely sums up the Christian understanding of the principle of solidarity. We are bound together in this brief journey through life. Concern for the well-being of others is essential for our own well-being.

The seventh principle is that of stewardship. We have not been given charge over the blessings and bounty of this earth without being accountable for how we make use of them and what we leave to future generations. All that we think we possess will gradually pass through our fingers in time and will ultimately slip beyond our grasp. We are stewards, not owners, of the world around us and we must make good use of the resources with which we have been entrusted. The future generations, our posterity, depend on this stewardship. Ultimately we will be accountable before God for how we used or squandered the world’s wealth and resources.

The eighth principle is that of subsidiarity. This principle emphasizes the importance of voluntary forms of social organization, at the level that is closest to the people and enables them to become part of a society that has a human face. The principle of subsidiarity means that people should never be reduced to being a mere number or nameless statistic. They should not be lost within the complexity of a soulless bureaucracy that is incapable of seeing their humanity. The beauty and diversity of humanity must be given room to flourish. Our most meaningful social encounters occur on a scale where the distinctive lives and personalities of families and individuals are not overwhelmed by the mechanical functioning of corporations or the state.

The ninth principle is that of human equality. At the core of this principle is a passion for fairness. To discriminate unfairly on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and social status is to send the message that “you are not one of us.” It is to draw lines of distinction that forever keep some people at the margins of society, with no hope of ever becoming part of the family and the community. By its very nature, unfair treatment is immoral. It is used to exploit, distract, scapegoat, and bully. It is premised on a false sense of oneself and a false sense of “the other”. It is a pitiful attribute that begins during childhood when we learn to ask: “Who do I have to hate to be your friend?” We must resist the temptation to seek fellowship through exclusion.

The tenth principle is that of the common good. The principle of the common good is based on the understanding that the purpose of a society is not merely to protect us from one another, rather it is to create an environment in which human beings may flourish. It is to create an environment where people may be safe and healthy, and where they may be inspired, educated, and uplifted. It is to create a cultural environment that does not reduce humanity to beasts and machines, but allows them to participate in activities that draw out the best in them, and that enable them to actualize their fullest rational and creative potential.

These are the ten principles of Catholic social teaching. They are relevant for us today, during this Juneteenth celebration of African American communities. Catholics do not claim exclusive ownership of these principles. These principles are also embedded in the very fabric and nature of all humanity, regardless of faith or tradition. We are clear, however, that these principles inform our values as Catholics and that if others abandon these principles we will continue to adhere to them and to propose them to the larger society.

These principles directly address the challenges facing African American communities because they move beyond a narrow focus on merely ending the sin of racism, important as that is, but they also address the larger social conditions that will be necessary for us to move forward as families and as a community with or without the scourge of racism in our society.

These principles answer the three most important questions of any social movement: Where are we going? How will we get there? And where will we go after we arrive?

African American families and communities have endured much pain and suffering over the past 400 years, but we have also proven ourselves to be resilient. We are people who get up each time we fall or are knocked down. Scriptures promise that the weeping of mothers who have lost their children to acts of violence by the state or in the streets will be comforted, healed and restored. The scriptures promise: “With weeping they shall come, but with compassion I will guide them; I will lead them to streams of water, on a level road …” (Psalm 31:9a). Let us always have the moral courage to boldly speak truth to power and let us also humbly participate in the quiet and subtle work of God to transform our families and communities into places where children may thrive and have a future.  May God Bless You.