Truth amidst the flames

Speaking about Pope Francis’ recent mention of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, Historian Marco Impagliazzo said, “As St. Paul said, the truth will set you free. So now we have this freedom of knowledge of our past, to be more free to build a new future together,” between Armenians and Turks.

Impagliazzo told CNA that the pope’s words were “very important” and showed the freedom he had “to speak, not to accuse the Turkish people or the Turkish government, absolutely not.”
Pope Francis, he said, “is aware of this fact, of these massacres, (and) he spoke as a free man, a free man who wants a new consideration of the facts in order to establish a new story.”

The professor said that he believes that there is in Turkey the seeds of future reconciliation, seeds which were in part planted by the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered in 2007 “by a 17-year-old Turkish nationalist named Ogin Samast. At his funeral, large numbers of Turkish and Armenian citizens marched together ‘to demonstrate to the Turkish people that we don’t have to fear memory,’” Impagliazzo said to CNA.

In the United States at the moment (and in the past, too, and most likely in the future), there is a need for the truth to set people free about many things. The riots in Baltimore this week bring to mind the many divides which exist in this country about race and police matters.

Speaking at Georgetown University a few days before chaos broke loose in Baltimore (he gave his address on April 20), Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill. drew upon a pastoral letter he recently issued: “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.”

At Georgetown he asked his audience to do the same thing he had asked the people of Belleville to do in his letter, which was to imagine being a poor white American teen-ager and going into a Catholic church for the first time, finding that almost all the people there were African-American and all the religious art depicted the Holy Family, the Apostles, and all the saints and angels as being African, too. He suggested that the teen would ask why all these religious figures were depicted as being from Africa, since we really don’t know what the first Christians looked like, but that we do know that they were Semitic Jews, and that angels are spirits, not from a particular continent. Bishop Braxton said to imagine that the response from the churchgoer would be that “everyone” accepts this type of art, but that in a few city churches a few statues have been added with saints depicted as being white, but in general people don’t want that.

Bishop Braxton used this discussion of the Church as a “framing” device at the beginning and end of his letter and talk, since he is addressing Catholics and reminding them of the truths that Christ brought us, truths that need to be lived out in the Church if we are to be able to call the world to face its own difficult truths.

The bishop then summarized the recent controversial deaths of African-American men. He noted, “Each of the accounts of encounters between white police (or a neighborhood watch person [in the Trayvon Martin case]) and young men of color ending in death is a unique event. While there are some obvious similarities, they are completely distinct and the people involved are all unique individuals about whom we should not generalize or stereotype.”

Bishop Braxton then spoke about the dueling stereotypes in our country: “The work of police officers is very difficult and very dangerous. They deserve our respect and gratitude. Most police are fair-minded and respect the human dignity and worth of all citizens. Some, however, are not. There is credible evidence that bias and prejudice influence the attitudes and actions of some police officers, no matter what their race or nationality may be. Significantly, 57 percent of African-American police believe black offenders are treated with far less respect by white officers than white offenders. However, only five percent of white officers agree that this is true. It is a fact that some young black men commit crimes requiring their arrest by the police. However, this should not lead to the demonization of all black men as dangerous, violent criminals. It is a fact that some white police officers use excessive force and display racial prejudice when they interact with black men suspected of crimes. However, this should not lead to the demonization of all white police officers as racists ready to kill black men at the slightest provocation.”

Bishop Braxton admitted that it is very difficult to find the truth of what happened in each of these incidents, since at least one person is dead and not able to communicate with us, while in some of these situations there were no eyewitnesses. 

Writing before Baltimore went up in flames, but after other cities had dealt with rioting, the bishop said, “All American citizens have the right to protest peacefully and demonstrate when they believe that they are faced with unjust laws, unresponsive government officials, and morally unacceptable social structures that do not respect the dignity and worth of every human being.”

However, “no one has the right to break the law by expressing frustration with violence, arson, looting, destruction of property and endangering the lives of fellow citizens. These inexcusable crimes only undermine the efforts of those with legitimate grievances.”

The bishop then addressed how this violence, or even the non-violent protests which block highways, end up causing more grievances. “There are feelings of anger and frustration about the cries of ‘white racism,’ the criticism of the police, the attack on the judicial system, the disruption of normal life by protesters, and the destruction of property by vandals. As one Catholic expressed it to me, ‘Slavery and racism are things of the past. The protesters should stop complaining, obey the law, follow the orders of the police, get a job, and get on with their lives.’ But, there are still other Catholics who are profoundly distressed. They feel that they were naive in thinking the era of racial conflict was behind us. They are upset by the attitudes and comments of some of their Catholic neighbors. Some of these individuals, concluding that there is systemic racial prejudice in American society that is morally wrong, have taken to the streets taking part in the mass, nationwide, peaceful protests while condemning the acts of vandalism.”

Bishop Braxton also complained in his letter about a protest done against the police when they were justified in taking action: “Unfortunately, instances in which members of the community have a credible reason for peacefully protesting what may be inappropriate conduct by the police will be significantly undermined if protests take place even when the police are acting properly in difficult circumstances with regretful deadly results.”

The truth will set us free — may we search for it, together, even when it says uncomfortable things about ourselves, so that the future will be what Christ wants it to be.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts