My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Democracies offer citizens the right of assembly, regress, and the ability to protest issues that are not favorable to its citizens. Recently, we have seen examples of both peaceful and not so peaceful protests. In Hong Kong, far from us, we have seen in the last month, protests, especially among students, trying to get the attention of the communist leaders in Beijing to allow open and democratic elections in Hong Kong. Even the retired Cardinal in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, is involved in these peaceful demonstrations. Recently, he and other adult leaders of this protest movement have turned themselves into the government in order to avoid any repression or bloodshed, mindful of the terrible memory of Tiananmen Square when the communist forces killed many demonstrators over two decades ago.
Closer to home in St. Louis, the failure of a Grand Jury to indict the police officer involved in the killing of Michael Brown has sparked riots and destruction of property, which goes beyond the democratic right to protest. The destruction of property and, especially the endangering of other human lives, does little to foster change. Just this last week, here in New York City, we have seen the protests following, again, the failure of a Grand Jury to indict a police officer, for the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. For several days, we saw young people, both black and white, using the democratic process to express their opinion regarding the work of the Grand Jury on Staten Island. One difference is that in St. Louis, the Grand Jury records are open. In the State of New York, the Grand Jury proceedings are closed and whatever has been leaked does not give a full picture of the proceedings. It is always difficult to second-guess the legal process, but we certainly have the right to express a difference of opinion in a peaceful way. Non-violent, peaceful demonstrations have been the hallmark of the Civil Rights movement ever since the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired many to protest in this way, eventually giving his own life for the cause of peaceful protest.
Last week, the New York City Commission of Religious Leaders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan and myself, issued a statement (see page 1) in regard to the Grand Jury decision on the death of Eric Garner. In that statement we said, “As we move forward we need to work to avoid destructive violence, build trust and create a more just city in which the dignity of each person as made in the image of God is respected and enhanced. All of us deserve to live in a city where we are protected and respected. We know that New Yorkers will join us in working together to build a better, fairer, and more inclusive city for all. Just as we always have. As the psalmist prayed, ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…God is in the midst of the city.’ (Ps. 46). Our Commission of Religious Leaders will continue to work to improve the quality of life and the quality of our democracy in our beloved city.”
As we move forward, there are many issues that need to be resolved. As I mentioned in a previous column, the Broken Windows Policy which entails policing minor infractions of the law so that greater infractions will not occur, is a policy that has been adopted in many cities. Its wisdom is yet to be tested, yet we recognize that many see it as harassment while, as the same time, others recognize that lawlessness at any level should not be tolerated because public safety and security is at stake.
Thinking of the great work of our police force here in New York City, I remember especially the Annual Holy Name Police Breakfast for Brooklyn and Queens at which officers are cited for special bravery during the year. Usually, there are more than a dozen officers or a group of women and men working on a particular crime scene or rescue that are acknowledged at this breakfast. The stories themselves are inspiring, some even heart rendering, and saddest when an officer loses his or her life in the line of duty, which, fortunately has not happened in the last several years. We need to support our police force as well as all our communities, no matter their understanding or misunderstanding of our civil society.
As we put out into the deep during this Advent Season, we recognize that we await the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Who is both God and Man. He took on our human condition with all of its faults and failings, save sin, in order to teach us how we should live. The test of democracy is that all are given an opportunity to have their human dignity respected. We should use the rest of this Advent Season to reflect on our consciences and attitudes regarding the current protests. And if our attitudes in any way are tinged with racism, we have an opportunity to reject those feelings and recognize the universal humanity which is saved by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.