The Forces Between Us

True Religion
Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

By Lorraine V. Cuddeback

The first time I fell in love, it was with Baltimore. I spent four years walking the streets of that city — being sure to know the “safe” places to go. Four years not knowing of some streets’ existence because they were left off maps (to prevent the right kind of people from wandering into the wrong kind of areas). Four years learning about what caused sirens at night in newspaper articles and recaps of “The Wire.”

In college, I learned to deconstruct these problems with the latest, greatest social theory. I did service work in literacy, and grew passionate about the power of words and rhetoric — for better and for worse. But as I watched the news reports unfold following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray I realized that words were failing.

Polarization is a buzzword in U. S. Catholic circles, naming concerns for division within the one body we are meant to be. Monday, at the opening plenary panel for the conference “Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming Wounds, Beginning to Heal” at the University of Notre Dame, we were reminded that polarization is a part of nature. The existence of polar opposites, the natural repulsion of forces generates power, processes light, sight, sound. Polarization sustains the actions of everyday life.

Positive and negative charges. Darkness and light. Black and white.

On Monday afternoon, I sat in an auditorium of my predominantly white university. On a screen behind the panel was an image of the Basilica at the Easter Vigil, bathed in the golden light of hundreds of candles shining in the dark: the Body of Christ, come together in hopeful anticipation of the Resurrection.

At the same time as I sat in that auditorium, stones were being thrown on a Baltimore street following the funeral of Freddie Gray. A cry was rising from the righteous anger and thirst for justice from a community that has lost too many of its own. The poles of black and white were beginning a violent encounter. The words and protests and bodies in unity of the previous week were being ignored. The fear and pain of a community that no longer trusts the words of institutions meant to protect them irrupted into the public conscience.

In my auditorium, five thoughtful, committed Catholics spoke about the problem of polarization. Earnest words were spoken about charity: the importance of loving each other, using loving words, of listening to others’ words. Though wounding words were named, less was spoken of the bodies behind these words, bodies that have been broken, were being broken at that moment, that will continue to risk being broken.

The obvious issues were raised: teachings on sex and gender, the rhetorical divide of liberal-conservative in American politics, the growing indifference of millennials to institutional religion and culture wars, and so on. None of this is untrue; but are these the only poles that pull us apart?

…the wounds that divide us are rooted in the loss of confidence that the family members of the household of the faith actually, in fact, love one another.

Such was the proposal of Bishop Daniel Flores in his opening reflection — powerful and true. But this isn’t just a question of whether conservatives love liberals, whether immigration reformers love pro-lifers. Love is more than words, love is a bodily act.

Photo Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

Do black members of the Body of Christ feel loved? What have we done to embody our love for them?  Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the U.S., and that includes Catholic churches.  Racial divisions impact how we will respond to the needs of immigrants, which (as Bishop Flores rightly noted during the Q&A of the panel) cannot be ignored for the future of our Church.

And yet behind the panel I stared at a picture of our predominantly white, college-educated liturgical community during a discussion on “una ecclesia.”

And what do we mean by Church?

This was asked by Julie Hanlon Rubio, as she described how many of her students, especially female students, have been alienated by church teachings on sex and gender — a place that bodies appear. But bodies are shaped by more than gender. We need to seek out all who feel the Church has no love for them, whether that is because of gender identity, or race, or class, or ability.

But we must not place the burden on those left unloved by the Church to speak up, speak out. Too often they are already struggling to meet the everyday needs of a life. They may be sick, hungry, imprisoned. The burden is on the Church to prove our trustworthiness to those we have alienated in word and deed.

Christian Smith reminded us that the religious questions and conflicts so which matter to many in that auditorium matter little to most of the indifferent Millennial generation.

Watching hours of footage of the events in Baltimore later that night, I heard many words about the presence of youth in the riots and the looting. But few spoke of the presence of youth in the peaceful protests that dominated most of Monday. That was not indifference. Is it any wonder that Millennials tire of a Church culture war-of-words when so many have to fight for their right to live in their bodies without fear of harm?

Deeds weren’t completely absent from the panel discussion, as all were asked what the practical steps would be to overcome divisiveness. Michael Sean Winters told a story of crossing polarized boundaries through a pleasant cup of coffee with someone whose book he had negatively reviewed. Smith also spoke of social contact theory as a way to change minds — with the significant caveat that the social contact typically only works between social equals.

Then what are we talking about when we discuss these poles — what is the worth of this common ground between liberals and conservatives if it will continue to be disrupted by the very inequalities and injustices that have plagued a city like Baltimore for decades? Whose wounds are we naming, and whose will be healed?

There was some talk on Twitter immediately following the panel about whether polarization is a “luxury issue.” If we only attribute this problem to political rhetoric, if the only poles we see are progressive and traditional — then yes, it is. Those two poles still sit at the center of a power struggle that is oblivious to the margins.

But when we recognize the other divisions that permeate our church, we see that this is no luxury. It is urgent, needed, necessary to recognize the divisions of black and white, Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. There is no aggregate middle, no center point where we can all meet between opposing forces. Rather, we must continue to move between them, to work for solidarity even when we feel other forces dragging us apart.

Baltimore is one of the places that most feels like home to me. I cannot claim to know in full the pain and hurt that erupted in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death — but I can say that I am not surprised. In between moments when the city charmed me, I have seen pebbles kicked at people who were homeless in Fells Point. I have watched a black man, shirtless, searched for drugs, detained for an hour on a public street corner under the full sun of a blistering summer day. I have seen the anger and hurt shimmering in the air, like the heat from the sidewalk.

Bishop Flores closed the panel by asking us to let the poor have a say in the agendas we set. I ask even more — let us follow the example of their embodied love.

It is risky, but it must be done. The clergy that knelt to pray at Fulton and North Ave were loving with their bodies. The volunteers that began to pick up trash along York Road were loving with their bodies. The citizens of Baltimore that paraded and continued the protest with music and dance on Tuesday morning were loving with their bodies, trying to find lightness in dark, seeking resurrection when surrounded by death.

It is not enough to name the wounds. They will not heal until we reach out our hands with salve and bandages to heal them.

Lorraine Cuddeback is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame in moral theology and ethics. Even six hundred miles away, she still loves Baltimore with all her heart.