Social Justice

Think Before Tweeting, and We All Will Be Happier

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

I became more and more angry every time I biked passed the outdoor sign in my hometown. What was this “great place to raise a family” coming to? The bold letters “LOCAL FAMILY PREFERENCE” really rattled my cage. Was the rental company inherently prejudiced against prospective customers a shade different from the city’s natives? I found the message terribly unwelcoming.

Part of the irony was that the house in which I grew up a few miles from the sign was now owned and occupied by immigrants from India! As soon as I returned to my computer, I knew that I would compose a response to an editor, my blog, or perhaps the community’s tourism board or chamber of commerce.

But as the week wore on, I thought, “Call the phone number listed.” I could produce my own investigative report by speaking to a representative of the rental company! And besides, doesn’t Scripture admonish us to work it out in dialogue with an adversary before taking our gift to the altar (Matthew 5:23-25)? So in a fast-paced communication era of “tweet before you think,” I convinced myself to leave my comfort zone, do my homework, and converse with another who I was sure was a polar opposite.

The person on the other end of the line was most gracious and informative. I explained that I was a native of the community but had left the area at the beginning of adulthood to launch my career. Did the sign really mean that I would not be given a fair shake if I sought to rent from the receptionist’s company? The woman explained that her company was required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to offer special preference to low-income natives for these subsidized housing choices in an attempt to address generational and local poverty. I mentioned that I was quite familiar with the Housing Choice Voucher program and thanked her for her explanation.

Moral of the story? Pick up the phone or knock on the door before going to battle with a perceived ideological foe. Furthermore, we often need “cooling-off” periods. During these days of polarization in our legislative capitals, homes, and churches, expend a small amount of extra time and energy to really get to know others and the necessary facts before flying off in judgement.

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

Asking “How About a Cucumber?” Instead of Dialing 911

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

A recent WBUR “On Point” segment (“Racism, Discrimination, And Calling The Police On Black People,” July 19, 2018) and Washington Post essay (“Police calls for #LivingWhileBlack have gotten out of hand. Here’s what we can do about it.” by Megan R. Underhill, July 20, 2018) nailed an issue that we would like to sweep under the rug … but, unfortunately, the instances have become all too commonplace. I found a few of the cited instances especially egregious, such as when a white adult called the police because a black grade school kid was enterprising enough to have a lawn cutting business and was cutting grass in the caller’s neighborhood, and the instance when campus security was notified because an African-American student was napping in a common area in a U.S. university. Really? Is not academia supposed to model inclusivity and open mindedness?

Some argue that such citizen overreaches are not more common, but that we are simply more aware because any encounter can be recorded and uploaded to the web in minutes. The point is not that the instances are more or less commonplace; the point is that one unwarranted call to the police is one call too many.

Bishop Edward Braxton (Belleville, Illinois) is one of the most profound Catholic writers on race and culture. Since 2015 he has written two relevant pastoral letters: “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015” and “The Catholic Church and The Black Lives Matter Movement: The Racial Divide in the United States Revisited.” In one appearance, I heard him describe how he was pulled over by an officer when he was transporting used furniture in his car to a needy parishioner in Louisiana. I take it that he was not wearing his pectoral cross that afternoon?

I have never  called the police because there was a black or brown person in my backyard. But I do recall the fear that I felt as a minority white person in a Chicago area gas station asking for directions, especially when the recent immigrant from central Europe behind the counter referred my question on directions to a young adult African-American male behind me in line. Dreadlocks, baseball hat, baggy shorts—oh my! Was I going to be roughed up in an unknown neighborhood en route to a Catholic social action conference at a Catholic university?

The gentleman (I think that he even called me “bro”; how did he know? I was not even wearing my habit!) provided clear and perfect directions, and I got a free Sunday afternoon tour of Chicago’s southwest suburbs and neighborhood.

How can I respond to the “call the police” overreach? My abbey sits in the middle of a 160-acre soybean field and I work in the basement of the Chancery of the Diocese of Green Bay. But I do spend several hours a week in the heart of downtown Green Bay, working in an office within range of multiple agencies serving people of all races and volunteering in the front garden of the Central branch of the Brown County Library (and believe me, our downtown library does not suffer from lack of cultural diversity). I might be “inconvenienced” while weeding, watering, or harvesting by passersby who look, talk, and dress differently than me, but in today’s “I’ll call the police on you” environment, the simple gesture of looking up into the eyes of another and saying, “Hey, how are you?” and perhaps offering a cucumber or tomato can go a long way.

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

“Sometimes God’s Law Supercedes Man’s Law”

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust (Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

I have known Fr. Bill Ribbens, O. Praem., for 30 years. He once noted that his happiest experience in ministry has been serving the immigrant Spanish-speaking community in the Green Bay area (his ministry for the last 15 years). At a time when some national political leaders are justifying the separation of immigrant children from their parents as being legally justified within U.S. law, while faith leaders quickly counteract, I am reminded of Fr. Bill’s comment of yesteryear, but so relevant today:

Sometimes God’s law supercedes man’s law.

Fr. Bill Ribbens, O. Praem.

Fr. Bill Ribbens, O. Praem.

I never have been arrested for civil disobedience, but I understand Fr. Bill’s point. Our country has a long list of laws that eventually were replaced or thrown out after years of protests, negotiations, and advocacy:

  • enslavement of Blacks
  • restricting women from the right to vote
  • use of poisons on “unwanted” plant life
  • unchecked presidential wartime power

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Fr. James Martin, S.J., was one of many faith leaders who immediately counter-responded:

Mr. Sessions is engaging in what is known as ‘proof-texting’ that is, cherry-picking Bible passages to prove a point without referring to (or even understanding) the overall context of the quote. Often, especially in political battles, this technique is used to weaponize the Bible.

The problem with proof-texting is that there is always another Bible verse, or in this case many Bible verses, that can be used to refute the one chosen. To rebut Mr. Sessions, one could easily respond with a line in that same passage in which St. Paul says, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rm 13:8-9).

On June 14, Sr. Donna Markham, O.P.,  president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, wrote to Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen:

As a clinical psychologist, I have also seen the consequences that not having a parent can have on a child, and it is deeply troubling that the administration has chosen to create a generation of traumatized children in the name of border security. Surely as a nation we can debate the best way to secure our border without resorting to creating life-long trauma for children, some of whom are mere toddlers.

What responses can we have? Prayer, letters to Congress (see S.3036, “Keep Families Together Act”) and our newspapers, financial support to organizations providing humanitarian and legal help to immigrants, and acts of kindness and support to immigrant families that we meet on a daily basis go a long way.

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.

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