“Go, set a watchman, let him announce what he sees.” Isaiah 21:6
Mary M. Doyle Roche
It is “back to school” time in the U.S., the real New Year for many. There is a last minute scramble to finish summer assignments designed to keep students’ minds engaged. The precious days of summer vacation have flown by even though many parents are eager to get children back to routine, to safe places for study and play, and hot midday meals. The new academic year is a time for looking forward.
The Church in the U.S. is also looking forward. Pope Francis will be visiting Philadelphia in conjunction with the World Meeting of Families in September. He will deliver an historic address to both houses of Congress and speak at the United Nations in New York. Catholics are also awaiting the conclusions of the synods on marriage and family in October. Could the world Church be poised to teach and act with greater compassion toward couples and families living in contexts that undermine their ability to thrive and contribute to the Church and the common good? Will there be greater solidarity among all families and greater justice for families who face racism, sexism, poverty, violence, homophobia, political instability, and the immediate impacts of environmental degradation?
While September looks ahead, August presents several occasions to look back. People in the US have had several opportunities to admit some troubled chapters of the national story that expose unexamined privilege and to be present to the ongoing suffering experienced in racialized communities. The residue of slavery and US militarism uncovered by these opportunities raises questions of “liberty and justice for all.”
August 6 and 9 marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On my teenaged daughter’s summer reading list was Hiroshima, by John Hersey. Hersey followed six hibakusha, “explosion-affected persons,” in the days and weeks following the bombing. They are stories of remarkable courage and heartbreaking honesty. For example, Mr. Tanimoto kept reminding himself as he tried to rescue wounded others marred beyond human semblance that “These are human beings.” While diplomats try today to stem the use of weapons of mass destruction, their efforts seem unable to acknowledge the truth that US use of such weapons devastated Japan, cost the life and health of hundreds of thousands civilians, and ignited the global arms race. That past has not necessarily been forgotten, but it seems absent at the tables around which negotiations for peace are attempted.
August 9 was also the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. He was not the first young black man to be killed by law enforcement and, even though his story garnered national attention, he would not be the last. Since Brown’s death, other black men were killed and a young woman died in police custody after having been pulled over for a traffic violation. There were both violent and peaceful protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities across the nation. Again, before the year was out, the nation witnessed horrific murders in a Charleston, South Carolina church. And tragically, as I write, Ferguson is mourning nine-year-old Jamyla Bolden, shot dead through a window as she did her homework. Fifty years ago (August 11-17), just days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the nation watched the Watts riots in LA. And ten years ago on August 29, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, a “natural disaster” that confronted the nation with the consequences of entrenched enduring racism and de facto unexamined segregation.
I wonder, Does revisiting past experiences and images of anguish –like Hiroshima, Watts, or Katrina—prompt anyone to be truly present to another in solidarity in the midst of today’s injustice, fear, and rage? Who is curating our remembrance? Who is selecting the images? Telling the stories? Shaping perceptions of present reality, and future hope?
On my summer reading list was Go Set a Watchman, the eagerly anticipated second book by Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, a staple of school reading lists. The story of Jean Louise Finch, affectionately known as “Scout,” could not be timelier. As I reflect on the events of the past year and these anniversaries of scandalous tragedy, reading Watchman has forced me to confront the racial privilege and “unconscious bias” from which I once read Mockingbird. Forming conscience is a messy business, and the lessons of our common humanity need to be re-examined and this time learned together. Maybe then we can be on watch and denounce the house of cards built with the lies of power and privilege on which the US has stood for too long.