Amidst peaceful protests, meaningful marches, raucous riots, and determined demonstrations across America, many young people are trying to sort out what really matters as they come to deeper understanding of racial injustice. Having sheltered-in-place a long time, we, citizens, have pent-up energy that is exploding. During confinement, we separated from societal clutter and chaos to experience hours of pensive reflection. In both the purposeful gatherings and quiet moments, we realize that it all matters: police protection matters, police brutality matters, racial injustice matters, the sins of the church matter, black lives matter, all human lives matter, all life matters. At particular times, certain things matter more than other things but what matters most, I think, is our relationship with God, with one another, even how we care for the earth and creation itself.
While our classical school moved from on-site learning to in-home studies this spring, I took time to read (or re-read) some of the classics, especially Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. The 19th Century novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, takes on the issue of racism in pre-Civil War era, here in America’s heartland. If you remember, Twain begins the story after Huck and Tom Sawyer discover a treasure trove in the caves of Northeast Missouri and Huck’s estranged father, a violent and abusive alcoholic, shows up to kidnap and imprison his son in hopes of gaining his fortune. Huck escapes his pappy’s wrath and meets up with a runaway slave, Jim; together the two venture down the Mississippi River. As they encounter numerous characters, Huck faces the reality of racism as he meanders between what his environment teaches and what his good conscience reveals.
“Justice,” used in Sacred Scripture, is never about getting even; it’s about getting right: right with God, with one another, and with all creation. When we get off track, justice demands that we restore these relationships to make them right once again. Black lives matter specifically as our society deals with injustices in The United States from slavery to racial profiling, from Emmett Till to George Floyd; and all human lives matter, just as all life matters. Floyd’s tragic death last week sparked incredibly deep and painful reminders that we don’t yet understand “justice.” While the violence on display for our children to witness reveals the dishonor we give our Creator, how we go about restoring our right relationships will determine our fate and whether or not we can pass along to the next generation a better world than the one we inherited.
Today, Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity—our belief that the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier are one Lord. It is, essentially, the feast of right relationship. As the Creator breathed life into the first human creature, so did Jesus, upon His resurrection, breathe on His Disciples (and us). He taught us: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me…The Father and I are one…I am in you and you are in me…I am the vine and you are the branches…” When He breathed new life upon them, He said: “…Receive the Holy Spirit…I will not abandon you but am sending another…and know that through the Holy Spirit I will be with you always, until the end of time.” This summarizes well the right relationship to which we ought to aspire. When we get off track, as we are now, our triune God challenges us to restore right relationship with one another. As creatures of His creation, the greatest honor we can give our Creator is our creativity in restoring relationships—making them right once again. As people of good will and as Christians, we must get off the sidelines and become players in this struggle for justice.
In Dickens’ Great Expectations, the coming of age story of a boy named Pip, the main character has high hopes to escape from the world into which he was born. Fortuitously, he is granted many blessings and privileges, but also faces his share of disappointment and misfortune. He eventually surrenders to his original creation and realizes that his integrity is restored and he is again in right relationship with his true nature. Unfortunately, but understandably, many schools have banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of the liberal and careless use of the ‘N word’ that was used liberally and carelessly in those days. Nevertheless, I think that boys and their fathers should read it together, along with other stories that reveal how racism was woven into the fabric of American history and as motivation for how we might now creatively restore our nation to more just levels of interaction.
Huck, Jim, and Pip are merely characters of ages past but they point to real youth today who deserve our attention to this matter of grave significance. I think it is important for us to have great expectations for them regarding true justice, ridding society of racism, and restoring our right relationship with the Creator (and, therefore, with all who were created in His image and likeness, and even with creation itself). This, I believe, is what matters most.