Somewhere in his vast corpus (thanks in advance to any reader who will remind us all precisely where), Chesterton says, in effect: it takes three to fight. Two to disagree and one to try to make peace between them.
He didn’t try to tackle the even greater difficulty when two are already fighting, bitterly, and another, seeking to bring peace, only opens up a third front, vilified by both.
So in full knowledge that I’m ignoring my own best judgment, I offer what follows.
I will not try to solve America’s – and the world’s – race problems today. Many are already hard at work on what will necessarily be that long-term task. Others merely agitate. Anyway, emotions are too raw at the moment.
On some calmer day, I may write another column in which I’ll try to define terms like systemic racism, privilege, violence, crime, justice, so that maybe we can start to understand what we’re arguing over. Such words fly past us all, as if they were merely rocks you pick up to throw in a street fight, not things needing to be carefully considered.
But today is not that day.
Readers may recognize the phrase, Aragorn urging the troops into battle in Tolkien’s Return of the King:
Sons of Gondor! Of Rohan! My brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me! A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of Men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand! Men of the West!
Every day on Earth is a day of battle for women and men of true spirit against various evils – for Christians, that includes the evils lurking in our own hearts.
But not every day on Earth is a day for outward engagement, even to remedy historic injustices or to defend law and order. There are days of inner battle and silence as well, that may even be more important and more challenging than an outward clash.
Now, more than ever in recent times, is a moment for reflection. Public clashes are raucous – and on some days refreshing and invigorating for that very reason. Today is not that day.
Most of the world’s bandwidth is currently being taken up with lobbing charges at each other of wimpy “wokeness” or unconscious “racism.”
I’ve been splattered myself in this pointless mudfight – in my case in the context of calling on Washington’s archbishop to be a voice of reconciliation and unity and, even worse, in writing about righteous anger vs. mere rage – which drove one reader to say I should be ashamed of writing and the newspaper for publishing such a thing.
So I may be a little oversensitive about it. But to me it’s clear that it would be insanity to continue further in the way we have been going – like some lost tourist, hoping that, by shouting louder, you can make someone who does not speak your language understand you.
Calm is sometimes complicity, but not always. Quiet is sometimes cowardice or despair, but not always. Silence, pace the current nostrum, is never automatically violence.
Silence, as Cardinal Robert Sarah has reminded us, and the contemplation it can engender may be a way to resist the temptation to be drawn into an all-consuming swirl of worldliness in which everything is judged by political partisanship.
And that’s why some of us, at least, would do well to pause and reflect, for our own sake as well as that of others.
It may be Christian self-delusion or hubris, but there must be a different way than the mutual anathemas and anonymous name-calling that social media have made the default way of public speaking now. It’s as if we are afraid that if we don’t add fuel to the hysteria, we have nothing worth anyone’s attention. And we love attention.
There’s always plenty to get agitated about in the world. Besides the turmoil all over America, my wife noticed that there have been 608 Nigerian Christians martyred by their Muslim fellow Nigerians since the beginning of 2020. Courtesy of Fr. Antonio Spadaro (a close advisor to the pope), we’ve learned that a dozen Africans (presumably black since he tagged the story #blacklivesmatter), including children, just drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Italy.
And there’s news from Atlanta that another young black man is dead in messy circumstances. New protests have erupted, though this case is far from the brutality of George Floyd’s murder. The city’s police chief has resigned.
But getting agitated is not the same as getting motivated. Anyone motivated to deal with these and numberless other problems has to begin the hard work of thinking through what is to be done. As we saw during the Covid-19 outbreak, even scientific experts, dealing with scientific matters, simply cannot always know with certainty what’s happening as it unfolds. It takes patience and unremitting effort. And people who just hurl insults at one another as we try to sort things out may be the least helpful of all.
I’m going to end with the words of Aristotle, a pagan, a wise pagan. I’ve quoted him before and been told he sets standards impossible to meet. Maybe so, but it’s always worth hearing the truth: “Anyone can get angry – that is easy. . . but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.”
Words, perhaps, if not for this day then for another.
*Image: A Storm by Georgia O’Keefe, 1922 [The MET, New York]