June 5, 2020
As I witness and reflect upon the demonstrations in our cities, nationally and locally, over the tragic death of George Floyd and the whole issue of racism, here’s a story that I believe has relevance in our present, disquieting situation.
“Once upon a time there was a town that was built just beyond the bend of a large river. One day, some of the children from the town were playing beside the river when they noticed three bodies floating in the water. They ran for help and the townsfolk quickly pulled the bodies out of the water.
“One body was dead so they buried it. One was alive but quite weak, so they put that person in their hospital. The third turned out to be a healthy child whom they placed with a family who cared for it and raised it.
“From that day on, every day a number of bodies came floating down the river and, every day, the good people of the town would pull them out and tend to them, taking the sick to the hospital, placing the children with families and burying those who were dead.
“This went on for years. Each new day brought its quota of bodies and the townsfolk worked at developing more elaborate systems for picking them out of the water and tending to them. The whole town took a certain pride in its generosity. However, during all these years and despite all that generosity and effort, nobody ever thought to go up the river beyond the bend and find out why, daily, those bodies came floating down the river.”
This parable points out dramatically the difference between charity and social justice. Charity responds to the real needs of others but charity in itself does not question what caused those needs. Social justice tries to go up the river to identify and change the conditions that create injustice, prejudice and hatred. People will tolerate, even praise our charity, but very often there is suspicion or outright hostility for those who do the works of social justice.
This truth is clearly illustrated by a quote from Dom Helder Camara, a former Archbishop of Recife and Olinda in Brazil who died in 1999. His cause for canonization was opened in 2015. He devoted much of his ministry to moving the Church in Central and South America from its unconditional support of the elite and wealthy to a clearer and practical option for the poor. The Archbishop once said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Similarly, people around the world acclaimed the extraordinary life of Mother (now Saint) Teresa of Kolkata. People of all religions and of no religion, leaders of government and in higher education, captains of industry, entertainment superstars extolled her charity. But for all her astounding charity that she and her Missionaries of Charity did, and for all that her sisters continue to do, she was about more than charity. We saw her stand before the media with presidents, before bodies of governments, before assemblies at universities and she directly spoke out against societal evils. She named the systemic pathologies that are rotting the fabric of society: abortion and all the other forms of callousness toward human life and human dignity. She was not afraid to point to the root causes that have created our culture of death. And when she did so, the government leaders, the university presidents, the CEO’s would clear their throats, present their humanitarian awards, honorary degrees, and the like and have their pictures taken with a living saint. But most often there was a solemn, awkward silence regarding the substance of her speech. Mother Teresa knew the necessity of both charity and social justice. She understood that charity and justice are the two feet of love and she was not afraid to ask that important question: Why do bodies still come down the river? She boldly challenged us to travel up that river and change things.
The violent rioting, the destruction of property and looting is inexcusable. In fact, it demonstrates a disregard for the sacredness of human life – the very truth the demonstrations seek to hallow by expressing just anger at the manner of Mr. Floyd’s brutal and needless death. However, let’s not dismiss the whole cause because of the derelict misconduct of some. This unrest is real and can be an opportunity for all to have the courage to go up the river and discover the actual causes of inequality, injustice and prejudice in our social, political and economic structures, to uproot those conditions from our hearts and our society in order to honor God and the God-given dignity of every human person. The bodies will keep coming down the river until each one of us can look on our neighbor and see another self.
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer