A couple of years ago I reflected on the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement for Catholics. I wrote this after after attending a prayer vigil, where I joined a large and diverse group in lamenting and protesting the murder of teenager Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. That night remains burned into my mind as I have awaited what comes next.
Last month, the trial for which so many fought so hard and for so long was convened. And two weeks ago the jury reached an historic verdict: Officer Van Dyke was found guilty. Of second degree murder. And 16 counts of aggravated battery. One for each of the shots fired into the boy’s body.
So again I think it is important to offer a reflection. But this time through a different lens: Why should this verdict matter to Roman Catholics?
Simply put, it matters because the verdict is a “sign of the times” that helps us understand the movement of God’s Spirit more clearly in the United States.
In theological jargon, what happened last week was a “moment of fragmentary salvation.” This phrase comes from the great Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, who observed that God’s salvation is experienced in the here and now. Although finite and imperfect, humans can glimpse God’s kingdom and a small realization of human wholeness.
In social justice, this phrase, “moment of fragmentary salvation,” refers to the fact that every so often a small glimpse of God's reign comes about despite the best efforts of unjust systems and social structures to thwart the moving of God’s Spirit. I have little doubt that the jury’s verdict in finding Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery is one such a moment of fragmentary salvation.
On one hand, such resolution is far from perfect. As Schillebeeckx observes, “human salvation is only salvation, being whole, when it is universal and complete. There really cannot be talk of [final] salvation as long as there is still suffering, oppression, and unhappiness that we experience, in our immediate vicinity and further afield.” Laquan McDonald is still dead, his family and community are grieving and wounded, the society and culture that formed Van Dyke is still intact and will claim another young victim at some point, and the family of Officer Van Dyke has also been torn apart. Our justice system is imperfect. Incarceration is not the same as restoration. It is not ultimate justice.
On the other hand, what happened is indeed salvation. As Schillebeeckx points out, God’s saving action can be discerned “wherever good is done and injustice challenged, through a praxis based on love of the fellow human being.” A jury decided an African American boy’s life had infinite value and held the white perpetrator accountable for his violent actions that took that life away. The years of tireless work by a critical mass of faith leaders, community activists, and young people agitated the power structure so much that Van Dyke was eventually charged with a crime and brought to trial. The trial and its verdict show my teenage students of color that the system may provide them, too, with some measure of justice.
In a nation that has neither honestly acknowledged nor atoned for its great sins against the lives of African Americans—from slavery to Jim Crow to lynching to Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to Tamir Rice—this is unprecedented. This verdict is a “sign of our time” speaking to us and begging us to listen.
U.S. history is littered with the corpses of black boys and young men who have had their lives violently taken from them. And, this month, there was a small glimmer of hope: The world need not be one in which black and brown lives are treated as if they do not matter.
So even though this all is imperfect, and it doesn’t change everything, it’s not nothing either. It’s a small victory. It is a moment of fragmentary salvation.
May God empower all of us to become co-creators in the birthing of a better world. One in which we all learn to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
Image: Chicago activists react to the guilty verdict of Jason Van Dyke in the killing of Laquan McDonald. Flickr cc via Alek S.