Building Solidarity and Belonging Through Encounter in Our Fractured Society

Millennial editor Robert Christian writes:

The United States is a deeply divided country –economically, racially, politically, and more. And many of these divisions divide American Catholics, despite the pope’s call to embrace solidarity. While the costs of extreme individualism, hyperpolarization, and growing social injustice tear at the seams of the country, the mood of the country, especially among its young people, has become decidedly more pessimistic.

In The Ethics of Encounter, theologian Marcus Mescher describes these “divided states of America.” He describes an age of growing insecurity. Feelings of anxiety and helplessness are rising, as is rage. We often lack the ability to talk to one another or even agree on the basic sets of facts needed for any sort of real dialogue.

It is not surprising that this collapse of community and sense of social responsibilities has paralleled the rise in isolation and loneliness. We see it in people’s behavior online. More time on social media is correlated with higher rates of loneliness, isolation, and insecurity—yet social media remains extraordinarily popular….

Without the intimacy of durable close friendships and the stability of a robust civil society, many Americans are losing a sense of purpose and place. The opioid crisis, rise in suicides, and other deaths of despair show how powerful these forces are….

How can the United States reverse these distressing and deadly trends? How can it restore hope and community? How can we overcome some of the deep divisions that stand in the way of needed cooperation and collective action? Mescher is skeptical that tolerance alone is the answer, arguing the problems we face are simply too extensive for it to do the trick.

Something is needed to challenge the assumptions of extreme individualism. Something is needed to get us to look beyond our own self-interest and fixation on maximizing our autonomy and choice. Mescher argues that Christianity has the ability to do this—but it cannot be a watered-down, complacent version of the Christian faith that many have already encountered and found wanting. He has in mind a Christianity that is driven by gratitude and generosity, that repents and atones for past exploitation, that embraces inclusive neighbor love, and that truly works for a more just world. This is a countercultural Christianity that does not make peace with the forces that favor the status quo….

In the book, Mescher describes how we can move from encounter to accompaniment to exchange to embrace and finally to belonging. He explains how distractions can be avoided, fear and bias can be overcome, good habits can be built, and trust can be established. None of this is easy, but it is not impossible.

Subscribers to the Messenger of Saint Anthony can read the full article here.



Remembering John Lewis

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In the wake of John Lewis’ death, many have reflected on the life and legacy of the heroic Civil Rights leader and Congressman. Here are a few of the reflections.

Barack Obama wrote:

America is a constant work in progress. What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further — to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world.

John Lewis — one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of Georgia for 33 years — not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work. He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.

Considering his enormous impact on the history of this country, what always struck those who met John was his gentleness and humility. Born into modest means in the heart of the Jim Crow South, he understood that he was just one of a long line of heroes in the struggle for racial justice. Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country, understanding that such tactics had the power not only to change laws, but to change hearts and minds as well.

EJ Dionne offered a tribute to John Lewis—in his own words:

John Lewis was militant and gentle, a fighter and a peacemaker, brave and self-effacing, confident and humble. He was a listener whom others wanted to hear. He was a man of infinite faith and hope who nonetheless saw and experienced the profound shortcomings, even evils, of our world and our country. He was a partisan when he needed to be, but a unifier at all times.

In thinking about Lewis’s achievement, I found that the words coming to mind were not those of a politician or an organizer, but a well-known injunction from a pope. “If you want peace,” Paul VI said in 1972, “work for justice.” This was the commitment that drove Lewis’s life….

“I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of a sense of faith faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings. From time to time, I make a point, trying to take people back, and especially young people, and those of us not so young, back to the roots of the movement. During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. That’s not anything any Constitution say[s] … about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.”…

“Voting access is the key to equality in our democracy. The size of your wallet, the number on your Zip code shouldn’t matter. The action of government effects every American so every citizen should have an equal voice. … We all count! It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American. We are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house – the American house.”

Adam Serwer wrote about John Lewis as an American Founder:

The Alabama that John Lewis was born into in 1940 was a one-party authoritarian state. Forty years before Lewis was born, the white elite of Alabama, panicked by a populist revolt of white and Black workers, shut Black men out of politics in a campaign of terror, fraud, murder, and, finally, disenfranchisement….

Most of America’s Black population, when Lewis was born, lived in a white republic, where they were driven into poverty, disenfranchised, and denied basic civil and political rights through violence, custom, and law. More than one-third of Alabama’s population when Lewis was born was denied the right to vote….

Vivian and Lewis fought and bled for the cause at sit-ins, in the Freedom Rides of 1961, when police and the Ku Klux Klan worked hand in hand to brutalize protesters trying to desegregate public buses, through the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965, where Lewis had his skull cracked open by Alabama state troopers. Without these men and their allies in the civil-rights movement, the maxim in the Declaration of Independence that all are created equal would be but words on paper written by slave masters. Absent their sacrifice, their bravery, and their brilliance, America would remain a herrenvolk republic, not a nation for all its citizens….

The Third American Republic, the only one to sincerely pursue the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the first true attempt at interracial democracy in American history, was founded by people including Vivian, Lewis, Diane Nash, and Coretta Scott King. They are part of a third generation of American leaders who elevated the universal truths in Christian doctrine and the words of the 1776 Founders, and shamed the nation into deciding that these ideals meant something. The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act remade America into something it had never been, bringing the nation closer to what it fancied itself to be.

Michael Gerson wrote about the centrality of his faith:

Yet Lewis sided with King in embracing a distinctly Christian vision of the “beloved community.” Lewis believed in the promise of interracial democracy. He was an integrationist at a time when many young activists were turning to separatism. And he believed that the movement for civil rights “was based on the simple truth of the Great Teacher: love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Lewis’s faith was a source of personal strength in the face of cruelty. It also provided a framework for his activism. Like King, he did not believe in inevitable progress. Lewis did not think that those who exercise unjust power would give up their privileges easily. But the willing embrace of sacrifice in a good cause could, in his view, break down the resistance to justice. Redemptive suffering, Lewis wrote, “opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral, the force of righteous truth that is at the basis of all human conscience.”

Lewis was addressing the primary decision that all of us face in pursuing our ideals. Is the answer to hatred the mobilization of equal and opposite hatred? Or does love have the peculiar power to break and change the hardest hearts? Lewis staked his life, again and again, on the second option.


Christian Leaders Urge Democrats to Reject Abortion Extremism in Party Platform

A coalition of Christian leaders, including Bishop John Stowe, Sr. Norma Pimentel, and Marcus Mescher, has sent a letter to the Democratic Platform Committee, asking it to reject the extreme position on abortion that was included in the 2016 Democratic platform. The letter states:

We urge the Democratic Party to embrace policies that protect both women and children: legal protection for pre-born children, improved prenatal care for women in need, especially women of color, alternatives to abortion, and a comprehensive culture of life free from violence, poverty and racism.

We call upon you to recognize the inviolable human dignity of the child, before and after birth. We urge you to reject a litmus test on pro-life people of faith seeking office in the Democratic Party. Crucially, we urge you to end the explicit support in your platform for abortion extremism, such as taxpayer-funded abortion in America and overseas, opposed by 60% and 76% of voters.

79% of voters oppose elective abortion on demand, including, but not limited to, many people of faith. They deserve a home in the Democratic Party.

You can read the full letter and see all the signatories here.


Growing Up White in White Spaces: Incomplete Glimpses of Trinitarian Communion

Where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships? I learned it in Oakville, Missouri at Queen of All Saints Catholic Church: on Catholic Youth Council (CYC) sports teams, at De Smet Jesuit High School, and through my family. I was grateful for these loving communities. I still am. They inspired many moments of joy and laughter, offered me friendship, taught me teamwork and sharing—and patience and prayer and self-giving love—and in so doing gave me a glimpse of the ever-loving Communion of the three divine Persons whom we celebrated last month on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

On that Sunday, amid the civil unrest prompted by the latest incident in our history of systemic racism, I once again noticed the incompleteness of the image of the Trinitarian Communion that my upbringing offered me. To be sure, no image of Communion offered in our finite temporal reality could ever completely convey the grandeur of the Trinitarian Mystery. Every child’s upbringing will provide glimpses of the Trinity in the communion they experience through ordinary human relationships, but they will each have blind spots in their vision of the Trinity that is the infinitely knowable Communion of divine Persons. Prompted by this intersection between our nation’s civic life and our liturgical year, I would like to offer a reflection on the blind spots that my suburban St. Louis upbringing left on my understanding of the God who is Communion. I believe such individual reflections can be a key step in unraveling systemic racism and living in full unity with God as members of His Mystical Body.

So I ask again, where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships?

Oakville, a community of about 10,000 people during my years there, sits at the southernmost tip of St. Louis County. The result of suburbanization, it offered a safe and calm environment as a child. I would run out to the ice cream truck in the summer, umpire at QAS, explore the natural beauty of Bee Tree Park, enjoy frozen custard with my CYC teammates after games, and excitedly pester police officers for the free Cardinals baseball cards they passed out to kids in this tranquil St. Louis community.

When I was 18 and geolocating myself in stories more expansive than Oakville’s, I researched the demographics of the suburban community, and what I discovered was striking but not surprising: Oakville’s population was 98% white. The most recent US Census data has “White Alone” at 96.2%. Neither percentage is surprising given the de facto segregation brought on by mid-century “white flight” to the suburbs, an American phenomenon particularized in suburban communities like Oakville.

Queen of All Saints, my local parish, reflected the racial makeup of Oakville itself. Through my nine years of Parish School of Religion (PSR) classes, my approximately 17 seasons of CYC sports, and my 15 years of weekly Mass attendance there, I can only recall knowing of a single black member of our parish community. (The fact that he stood out to me in itself reveals the distinctiveness of racial minorities in such an overwhelmingly white parish). When I listened to my priests’ and deacons’ homilies, I heard the wisdom and holiness of God’s ordained faithful, but only from the whites among God’s ordained faithful. When I lined up before the CYC soccer, baseball, and volleyball games to open our competition in prayer, I did so alongside loving teammates and coaches, but only white teammates and coaches. When I attended adoration, I kneeled in silent prayer with other broken yet devout searchers, but only the white subgroup of broken yet devout searchers. After I worshipped at Mass and waited as my dedicated mom and stepdad chatted with other parishioners, I was absorbing community life, but only community life between white parishioners. When I checked in with my supervisors and laid out pregame instructions to coaches as a CYC umpire and referee, I encountered men and women modeling the virtues cultivated by youth sports, but only white men and women with white cultural fluencies. My formation in Christ at QAS was rich and textured, but nonetheless incomplete in presenting me with the racial and cultural diversity that lives through, with, and in Christ’s Mystical Body.

At DeSmet Jesuit High School, a community still close to my heart, I gained a more representative, though still incomplete picture of the Church in St. Louis. Across 8 semesters totaling 54 courses, I had zero black teachers. On my six or seven high school retreat experiences, I don’t recall ever hearing a black speaker. During my one season playing soccer and four playing volleyball, I never had a black teammate or coach. In my all-honors core schedule, I do not recall having a single black classmate in my honors classes—meaning that I learned about the international slave trade and Western imperialism in AP World History class without any black classmates, I learned about the United States’ fraught racial history in an AP US History class without any black classmates, I had peer-to-peer discussions about Miranda rights and affirmative action in an AP US Government class without any black classmates, I considered the racial dynamics of Shakespeare’s Othello in an Honors World Literature class without any black classmates, I read Huckleberry Finn in an AP US Literature class without any black classmates, and I read through invaluable works of the Western literary canon in an AP World Literature class without any black classmates. Consequently, some of the most valuable insights afforded by my academic education were cultivated in my mind without being filtered through the perspectives, objections, insights, and experiences of any black members of the Mystical Body. Some of my most unconscious assumptions about authority, intelligence, academic knowledge, course content, and social norms were established in the wonderful, loving, academic environment of De Smet, but one nonetheless lacking the presence of any black voices.

Systemic racism, to be sure, was addressed in my Morality and Faith & Justice courses. The former was taught by Mr. Donahue, a man I privately criticized at the time as a “bleeding heart liberal”—a “snowflake” before the word itself gained such as disparaging and politicized definition—but whom I now recognize as a Christian more fully attuned to Christ’s summons than my argumentative, intransigent teenage self would allow. I grew more deeply in love with Christ at De Smet, and that Jesuit Catholic community certainly set the moral foundation that makes this very reflection possible. Still, my experiences there left me with blind spots in my conception of the Holy Trinity’s Communion which we find reflected in our human relationships.

I share all of this for several reasons. Let me first address some objections that I have come to expect given the ideological blinders worn by too many Americans when discussing race-related experiences. I do not share these reflections as a performance of self-flagellation for white guilt. I do not share these reflections out of deference to the illiberal demands of leftist, identitarian zealots. I do not share these reflections to heap shame on white St. Louis Catholics or on faithful communities as beautiful and good as Queen of All Saints or De Smet Jesuit High School. (De Smet in particular appears to have begun intentionally addressing the racial disparities in society and in their school community by increasing the racial diversity of their faculty, establishing race-conscious scholarships, and providing student programming to heighten racial consciousness.)

Rather, I share all of this so that my fellow white Catholics can reflect on their own blind spots and work to see and hear the nonwhite members of the Body of Christ. My hope is that white Catholics throughout the US might commit to, as St. Louis’s Archbishop Carlson recently urged, “listening to our brothers and sisters of color and learning about their experiences, their triumphs, their struggles and sorrows” so that we Catholics can walk together through these tense and perhaps transformative moments in our nation’s history.

How can we do this? Plan parish movie nights around racial justice topics. Start a small group to read the US Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” Email your Catholic school’s administration and request new programs. Ask your diocese to host a Theology on Tap series about being bridge builders across our nation’s and your city’s racial divide. Speak to your children about systemic racism—not just overt prejudice—and share with them the names and stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Such actionable and reasonable steps, even if potentially uncomfortable, would strengthen Christ’s Body and provide a new angle from which to see the Trinitarian Communion alive in our world.

Michael Jezewak is a high school theology teacher who has been formed by Jesuit, Christian Brother, and Augustinian Catholic educational institutions.


Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

‘Cries for help’: Drug overdoses are soaring during the coronavirus pandemic by William Wan and Heather Long: “Suspected overdoses nationally — not all of them fatal — jumped 18 percent in March compared with last year, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May, according to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a federal initiative that collects data from ambulance teams, hospitals and police. In some jurisdictions, such as Milwaukee County, dispatch calls for overdoses have increased more than 50 percent.”

Should We Be Drinking Less? by Anahad O’Connor: “If accepted, the new recommendation would make the United States the latest country to issue stricter guidelines on alcohol consumption. In recent years, Britain, Australia, France and other countries have issued new guidelines lowering their recommended limits on daily and weekly alcohol intake. Health authorities in those countries have said that recent evidence suggests consuming less alcohol is safer and that even one drink a day increases cancer risk.”

America’s child care problem is an economic problem by Anna North: “Experts have been warning for months that this pandemic would cause an unprecedented child care crisis in the United States, a country whose system for caring for children was already severely lacking before the public health emergency began. But policymakers devoted little attention to the problem, and for months this spring, parents were left to figure out, largely on their own, how to do their jobs with schools and day cares closed.”

How the American Worker Got Fleeced by Josh Eidelson and Christopher Cannon: “Long before the pandemic, U.S. workers’ productivity and their median pay, which once rose in tandem, went through an acrimonious divorce. Compensation, especially in some of the country’s fastest-growing industries, has stagnated, while the costs of housing, health care, and education decidedly have not.”

In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both. by Deb Perelman: “Let me say the quiet part loud: In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job. Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it?”

Is Hamilton a “Bootstraps” Story? by Amber Lapp: “Hard work that is not undergirded by a strong public system will reap fewer rewards than effort unaided. A truly just American system will not expect that individuals rise up by sheer dint of thrift and effort alone, but acknowledge that personal responsibility must be matched by public responsibility.”

As the U.S. Exports Coronavirus, Trump Is Blaming Mexicans by Antonio De Loera-Brust: “Since the beginning of his administration’s abysmal response to COVID-19, U.S. President Donald Trump has cast about for someone else to blame for the devastation the pandemic has wrought. It was only a matter of time before he returned to his favorite scapegoat: Mexicans.”

Not everything happens for a reason, says Kate Bowler by US Catholic: “At age 35, Bowler, now an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, had landed a tenure-track teaching position, married, and given birth to a son. By any prosperity preacher’s standards, she was blessed. Then she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. While never considering herself a believer in the prosperity gospel, this experience made her realize how deeply engrained the idea of a divine reward system is in American mentalities. Bowler chronicles her experience of navigating intense suffering and the people who try to explain it in her New York Times bestselling memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Random House). She also hosts a podcast, Everything Happens, where she explores how to speak about suffering.”

Bishop McElroy’s hopeful vision for a church transformed by MSW: “This short homily puts the lie to the idea that the church in this country is on its last legs, prostrate under the weight of its own self-inflicted wounds or threatened by a hostile secularism. The text breathes a confidence in the Lord that is quite distinct from the programmatic, managerial or neo-evangelical and individualistic approaches some U.S. Catholics advocate.”