Watering “Strange Fruit” Trees: Flint and the Lack of Catholic Solidarity

What did your homilist talk about on Sunday? Did they talk about what is being characterized as the ongoing “water crisis” in Flint, Michigan? If you were sitting in a Catholic pew, even with its strong tradition of Catholic Social Teaching that speaks to the innate dignity of all persons and the rights and responsibilities that stem therefrom, the odds are that you probably did not hear much of anything at all about the water in Flint. As evidence has made clear, the human rights abuses that we see in Flint reveal that nominally characterizing the human rights abuses as a simple “water crisis” is a sanitization of a process much dirtier than lead, much deeper than the Flint river. What we have uncovered should create a definitive moral outrage, and yet, simply because it is outrageous does not make it wholly surprising or new. Indeed, institutionalized racism and classism wears many masks in the United States. Unjust wars are continuously waged, predominately fought upon the battlefields of black and brown bodies. Slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow Laws, lynchings, mass incarceration, state sanctioned police brutality and murder, environmental racism—all represent forms of genocidal practices. Flint is just another iteration of a systematic targeting of black and brown and poor persons. It is not coincidental as many would like to have you believe: the population of Flint is constituted primarily by poor persons of color. These persons are undocumented—about 1,000 of them literally and many more metaphorically—and their lack of documentation leaves them ever the more vulnerable to abuses by national and local authorities.

Did your homilist talk about these matters on the Sunday that just passed, or on other Sunday’s following such horrendous violence, and by this, I mean, on any and every other Sunday? Unfortunately, it seems that even with a rich tradition that could address the violence, many Roman Catholic churches decide to keep already undocumented stories hidden. The tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is deeply committed to matters that are “pro-life.” Yet, the definition of “pro-life” remains deeply entrenched in issues related to sexual morality and the defense of the unborn. To this point I can offer a prime example. A South Los Angeles Roman Catholic Church advertised a “‘Black Lives Matter’ Respect For Life Mass.” Though not my own parish, I enthusiastically attended. I anticipated finally hearing Catholic Social Thought alive and in action. The homily began with a heavy focus upon personal sexual morality, particularly pre-marital sex and concluded with a reflection on the ills of divorce, and how the family is being destroyed by these practices. Upon hearing his words what immediately sank in for me was that issues of respecting life were yet again couched within issues of sex, marriage, and divorce. At times the homilist made borderline vulgar statements with sexual implications, you know, to really drive the point home. All I could think of is that this “vulgarity” was not vulgar at all—it was rather safe. It is safe to talk about premarital sex, about marriage, abortion, divorce, and vocation. It would be much more vulgar to have actually spoken about the poisoned, broken, and murdered black and brown bodies in society. It would have been much more vulgar because we may need to face our collective indictment for complicity in such social sin. So, instead of scandalizing the audience with the possibility that black lives do indeed matter and that we must do what we can to act in solidarity towards the common good, the homilist opted for the easy and cheap grace that comes along with nestling issues of life into sexual morality. In his neglect of addressing the real issues surrounding the “Black Lives Matter” movement, he also refused to acknowledge just how well a theo-ethical analysis of this movement coincides with the core of our own Christian faith, and therefore rejected how theological discourse can prove prophetic in times of tremendous suffering—in times where the basic human right of clean water is refused to persons because they do not closely enough approximate the normative center of humanity characterized as white, middle-class, heterosexual citizens.

Catholic Latino theologian Roberto Goizueta indicates that we “cannot see or know God” unless we lament and act in solidarity with the poor—the poisoned, brutalized, and broken black and brown communities.1 In his text, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, black liberation theologian James Cone claims:

They are crucifying again the Son of God (Heb 6:6)

Both Jesus and blacks were the ‘strange fruit’ (that Billie Holiday sung of). Theologically speaking, Jesus was the ‘first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black (and brown) bodies on American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black (and brown) people in America… (but) God was (and continues to be) present at every lynching in the United States. God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God’s own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified body of Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. The lynching tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize they can only meet Jesus in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.

The lynching tree is but one iteration of the indiscriminate violence meted out against persons of color and evokes the memory and tragedy of the cross. The leadening of the people of Flint—the water that creates and sustains the system of “strange fruit”—is just.one.more.example. This is part of the challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement—we must recognize how we participate in the continuous crucifixion of poor persons of color. By refusing to engage in the vulgarities of such systemic violence, particularly in our own churches, we forget our executed God, and his complete identification with those who suffer. It is about time that we get vulgar in precisely the ways our theological traditions lend themselves to. If we do not, we too are responsible for watering those trees that bear ‘strange fruit.’

  1. See M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom for a beautiful analysis on the burden borne by the female, broken, black body.
Melissa Pagán

About Melissa Pagán

Melissa Pagán is a doctoral candidate in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion concentrating in Religion, Ethics, and Society. Her dissertation entitled, “L@s Indocumentad@s: Body Politics and Catholic Social Thought” utilizes the lens of the coloniality of gender to explore the potential intersections of decolonial feminisms, theological anthropology, and Catholic Social Thought. She teaches at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles.

Melissa Pagán

Melissa Pagán

Melissa Pagán is a doctoral candidate in Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion concentrating in Religion, Ethics, and Society. Her dissertation entitled, “L@s Indocumentad@s: Body Politics and Catholic Social Thought” utilizes the lens of the coloniality of gender to explore the potential intersections of decolonial feminisms, theological anthropology, and Catholic Social Thought. Prior to attending Emory University in Atlanta, she received a Master’s in Bioethics and a Master’s in Theology from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA and teaches at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles.

2 thoughts on “Watering “Strange Fruit” Trees: Flint and the Lack of Catholic Solidarity

  • January 29, 2016 at 2:14 am
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    Very, very good article. How sad is it that no matter how hard I rack my brain, I cannot for the life of me remember what our pastor said. Shame on me more than him.

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  • February 7, 2016 at 9:11 pm
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    My sentiments exactly! A fantastic critique of how Catholic Churches today remain relatively silent on issues of racial justice. The Church and its members, as I see it, needs to be more embracing of what the 25th Chapter of Matthew referred to as “the least of these.” The Social Gospel also needs to be more expressed within the domain of the pulpit and lived out more fully. This article was timely and necessary. Really a joy to read, Melissa.

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