My family is facing a most difficult situation. My mother has been on a slope of gentle and gradual decline in her cognitive ability and memory for several years now. But the trauma of my younger brother’s terminal diagnosis appears to have pushed her off a cliff into progressive dementia with extreme paranoia. Although it is not constant and she still has times of lucidity, she spends at least a part of each day terrified. One day she is convinced that “they” will make water pour from the ceiling and she will drown in the flood. On another day, she stands in the hall with her sneakers tied together to use as a weapon when “they” come to steal her money. Clearly her fears are irrational, but no amount of logic or reason can resolve them. It breaks my heart to see this capable, intelligent woman who raised 10 kids with such competence devolving, at least at times, into a person we don’t recognize.
Interestingly, when I take a step back from my personal life and broaden the view to my country, I find myself feeling similarly. Paranoia is now running rampant, and “they” have become a source of great fear. In fact, there is a strong movement that attempts to defend our “Christian heritage and identity” by eliminating “them” from our midst. Jewish cemeteries are destroyed, mosques are burned to the ground, hijabs are ripped off, and people whose skin is olive, brown, or black are attacked and told to go back to “their own country.” Refugees fleeing for their lives who have already endured two years or more of vetting are told they can’t be trusted or admitted. Even Canadian church volunteers coming for two weeks to help in needy areas of the United States are blocked because border agents are afraid they are here to take American jobs. This view is all about grasping, not giving; hoarding, not sharing; keeping “them” out, not drawing everyone in.
Unlike my mother, who is imagining her demons, “they” are real people with lives, families, hopes, and dreams. “They” are fellow children of God, created and loved by the Creator. Labelling and fearing vast swaths of “them” on the basis of the actions of a few is the antithesis of everything we know about Jesus, whose life overflows with compassion, service, inclusion, self-emptying, and relationship. He is the suffering servant, refusing to break a bruised reed, bringing justice for all peoples and light to the world, serving, challenging, and sacrificing so others might be free. This is our call, too, and Pope Francis never tires of reminding us to stand with the poor, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and serve everyone no matter their ethnicity, religion, orientation, or class. I believe God cries as Jesus is crucified again in this “Christian” nationalist lust for power, riches, control, and exclusion.
I cannot cure my mom, but she has her entire family and a cadre of doctors working to treat her with a balance of medications (which are beginning to control the paranoia), the best possible living situation, and as much comfort and care as we can manage. In the national discourse, how can we Catholic Christians become the caring family and the medicine for these hurting and excluded people?
There is much to continue doing on the national stage – writing letters to Congress, protesting, supporting organizations of justice, and making our voices heard. Much more needs to be done on the local and parish level – asking for pointed homilies on the topic (which I have only rarely heard even when the readings point in that direction), starting or expanding parish initiatives of outreach and sponsorship, attending or hosting interfaith gatherings, learning the truths of Islam and Judaism, and publicly declaring inclusive views (for instance, we have a yard sign that reads, “Hate has no home here,” written in six different languages.) Perhaps the biggest thing we can do is ensure that we are meeting, interacting with, learning from, and supporting individual people of other cultures and faiths. Paranoia and fear is often driven out by personal interaction that allows us to see the “other” as a regular human being like ourselves. There is nothing like looking into the eyes of a hurting person and sharing our lives for driving out prejudice and false judgments.
The challenges are many, and they continue to build almost exponentially. It can feel disconcerting and overwhelming. Yet we dare not give up. Jesus didn’t, even in the face of opposition from powerful people. So as we enter this most Holy Week, may we find ever new ways to more faithfully live out the call of the Suffering Servant, standing for and defending our poor, persecuted, excluded, and unjustly treated brothers and sisters.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.