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Raising Consciousness and Forming Consciences: Strategic Disruptive Nonviolence

The Spirit is moving across the US, and throughout the globe, with prompts to respond to calls for inclusive justice revealed in the initiatives of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, LGBTQ+, Sanctuary-Refugee-Asylum Seekers, and Sustainability movements. On many high school, college, and university campuses, these movements’ grass root activists –among them Catholics inspired by our tradition’s social teaching regarding human dignity, solidarity, participation, and the common good—persevere with a decidedly preferential option for those who have long been on the receiving end of unjust exclusivist policies and practices. This wellspring of critical consciousness and courageous conscientious action has the potential to change hearts hardened against others (possibly siblings, parents, children, other family members, friends, neighbors, students, colleagues, and as yet unknown acquaintances and passersby) to incarnate communities recognizable by the Spirit’s compassionate abiding love.

            The North American Forum authors have pointed to these activist movements and other issue-inspired initiatives like them (e.g., responding to the opioid crisis, gun violence, nuclear weapons, attacks on civilians, Confederate war memorials) trying to find the argument(s) best suited to challenge the incomprehensibility and intractability of these goings on and of the persistence of complacent and complicit fear-inspired hatefulness. Beyond North American borders and since the inception of the Forum in July 2011, nearly every Forum essay of The FIRST exposes similar failures in our CTEWC respective contexts. Aware of these failures and moved by the Spirit to confront and transform them (to turn swords into plowshares and vice into virtue), we name both overt and subtle forms of violence as injustice against the people and the planet, both in dire need of assurances and concomitant action that maintains the dicta all are welcome, all will have their fill, and all manner of things will be well.

            I am hopeful in these tumultuous and unstable times that the initiatives of strategic disruptive nonviolence can win despite 24-hour newsfeeds and social media that defy logic in their power to cloak abusive commercial and political power, military and law enforcement recklessness, and unexamined (mostly) white (mostly) male privilege. One of these strategic disruptive nonviolence initiatives is “sanctuary” or the right of vulnerable persons to refuge. Sanctuary initiatives –from campuses to cities to houses of worship—have an historic home in the biblical and Church traditions of asylum. Asylum space included the tent, tabernacle, holy of holies, place of sacrifice/sacrament where God is present and the people safe in God’s refuge. The Church continued the tradition through protective custody of even presumed capital criminals with developments in ecclesiastic law from the Decretum of Gratian, congregational and curial norms, to recognition of organizational needs identified at the Council of Trent, including the right to sanctuary/refuge, which was promulgated in the 1917 Canon Law, c.1022 (though abrogated by the revised Code of 1983).

A good deal of US saber-rattling these days is directed toward Sanctuary cities and the people fleeing conditions in their homelands worse than what awaits them in encounters with the US Border Patrol and/or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The most recent statistics (2016) collected by the UN High Commission for Refugees indicate that a mere 1.2% (¡815,608!) of the 67.7 million women, men, and children on the move –refugee/asylum seekers/displaced persons/stateless persons/persons of concern—are hosted in the United States. This minimally hospitable response to the global refugee crisis is embarrassing in a land as expansive, bountiful, and diverse in its peoples and its natural resources as the US. However, add the US government’s rhetoric about those seeking refuge, rhetoric that depicts our sisters and brothers in less than dignified and increasingly Spirit-insulting ways, and the reasons for that embarrassment become sinful. When this embarrassing failure is named sin some will be moved to shame and will admit perplexed astonishment at the scandalizing proportions of critical need. In place of despair, some will rise to consciousness about responsibilities for one another’s well being, to conscience engaging solidarity with and participation in strategic disruptive nonviolence with those asking for respite and for sanctuary.

Although Canon Law no longer includes the right to sanctuary/asylum/refuge, the Spirit appears to approve the practice considering that Catholic sponsored institutions, parishes, and religious communities do offer disruptive assistance that includes the sanctuary of shelter. In addition to Church folk, the Spirit moves others as well, considering what Peter L. Merkowitz opines in the New York Times is legal precedent for local law enforcement “to do nothing” that would assist federal immigration enforcement efforts to arrest and deport people without papers. Sanctuary efforts in this vein disrupt the Federal order of isolationist and fear-mongering business with local non-violent, strategic, subversively inspired non-cooperation.

The Spirit is moving. Her winds are howling in some corners and whispering elsewhere but winding their way nevertheless as “the divine force that changes the world” (Pope Francis, Pentecost, 20 May 2018). In collaboration with the Spirit, some days we follow her lead with outward gestures and disruptive collectivist civil action. Other days we work behind the scenes with disruptive and life-giving social action in safe houses, food banks, and service programs. And still other days we labor with disruptive scholarship activism. This activism brings the weight of Scripture, theological reflection, and Catholic Social Teaching to our failures of inclusive justice. And this activism can expose the sins against the Spirit, the divine force who abides in all including those whose humanity is compromised by another’s avarice and bigotry, and who grieves for the sins committed against them. The Spirit is speaking in this activism. Are we hearing and heeding the force of change that howls and whispers support those bent low with dignity, hope, and material comfort?

As I finish this essay, newspapers, broadcast news, and social media are abuzz about the latest in a series of US-Mexico border tragedies surrounding refuge/asylum seekers. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is uncertain vis-à-vis the whereabouts of 1,475 children taken into protective custody with sponsors; other child-related practices concern the immediate separation of babies and young children from their parents with assumptions of unlawful crossing and expectations of prosecution by the Department of Justice. UNICEF estimates 26,000 children were apprehended at the US-Mexico border in just the first six months of 2016, sadly, more sinfulness to be confessed and repaired by strategic disruptive nonviolent activism.