“Brothers and sisters, watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.”
These words from the letter to the Ephesians cause us to stop in our tracks. These are not words we want to hear from our God. We look, instead, for a message of love and compassion, for we all feel the need for comfort in these difficult days. Yet there are times when we must hear chastening words like these, for even the most virtuous among us knows that we all can fall into sin and do the most horrendous things.
This past week many people in Springfield, Illinois, dared to stare evil in the face and lament its effect on our history. For so long we have resisted talking about the race riot that erupted in our city and has plagued us now for 110 years. White citizens latched onto rumors about some of their black neighbors and reacted with terrible violence. Bypassing legal action and genuine investigation, they looked, instead, for scapegoats to blame and punish. For more than two days they went on a rampage that left a whole section of town demolished and a whole multitude of blacks beaten, homeless and driven out of town.
Violent justice is no justice at all, but nothing more could be found during those days in Lincoln’s hometown. Innocent people were abandoned by police who would not keep them safe, a court system which could not give them justice and a citizenry who were willing to sacrifice the innocent in the wake of their pent up anger.
This week—110 years later—some citizens of Springfield chose to face and name this painful part of our history. We gathered as black and white together, as Latinos still anguishing over families violently separated from their children, as people of every color and creed and faith tradition who mourned a history we have never fully owned. Some gathered for prayers of healing and reconciliation. Others came together to tell the truth of a city gone wild and a people unable to quell violence. In coming together honestly, we are taking steps to own this tragic part of our history and to build relationships of respect with one another. We hope to continue the journey, taking more and more steps to dismantle the racism that keeps systems of injustice alive among us.
This is not the only evil we faced this week. Stories of priests abusing children for decades once again appeared in news reports, this time in numbers beyond our ability to deny or ignore. Reports stretch into the thousands of children who were cruelly violated by those ordained to serve and then further betrayed by the highest church authorities who looked the other way in order to protect the institution rather than the innocent victims.
If these two stories have told us anything it is that we cannot look away when evil confronts us. If truth and justice are to have their rightful place in our communities and in our churches, we must look evil in the face and name it, tell the truth about its oppressive influence, admit the ways we have been complicit in perpetuating it and seek ways to dismantle its power. Repentance, though necessary, is not enough. As a people we must stand in solidarity with the innocent and the vulnerable. We must insist on truth and justice. Even as we lament the wrong, we must seek ways to change systems that have allowed such oppression to continue and to be concealed. We cannot do this on our own. For the sake of all who suffer indignity, we turn to the One who gave his flesh for the life of the world and we beg for mercy that can heal the wounds we bear.
Sister Mary Jean Traeger, OP, is an experienced pastoral minister who for many years has written a weekly reflection on the Sunday Scripture texts proclaimed in the Catholic Church. She is a former prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and currently serves as the co-director of the Springfield Coalition on Dismantling Racism (SCoDR).