By Eric Clayton 7-13-2016 | Series:

I remember talking to my mom on my walk into work not long after the death of Freddie Gray. She had been watching the news and was wondering what my sense of things was on the ground.

“Are there protests?” she asked. “Are people upset?”

This was a week or so before the protests began in earnest, before people took to the streets and images of a fiery Baltimore were plastered on every national newspaper.

“Nope,” I replied, woefully ignorant. “Everything seems to be fine. I think the police commissioner and the mayor are handling it well.”

How clueless I was, basking in my own privileges and biases, blinded by the few clean and friendly streets I march down daily. Baltimore wouldn’t be like Ferguson, I was convinced. Leadership would get things together. We’d be fine.

That was, of course, until April 19, 2015. I was in Washington, D.C., in class, watching what appeared to be apocalyptic events unfold on my Twitter feed. My wife was at home, only a few miles from the chaos. And I was a little nervous, to say the least. As I drove north on 95, I kept wondering why the mayor, the governor, anyone, wasn’t stepping up, getting things under control.

And I was rather surprised when I got home to find both a relatively peaceful apartment and a city that appeared to be occupied by an invading army. Again, privilege, prejudice, and bias were stuck in my eyes, blinding me.

I admit that I am embarrassed. I admit that I feel ashamed. I was among those who found that night of April 19 frightening, violent, out-of-control. Damage to property and to communities seemed unnecessary. And I just wasn’t sure what the desired outcome should be, or who was at fault.

So, when our streets began to fill with peaceful protesters, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t seem angry and upset enough to join the crowds. There was a tragic lack of clarity to my thinking — what was I marching for? Was I brave enough to walk with these crowds and mean it? And did I really agree with chants that called for the toppling of police, that pledged there would be no peace without justice? Should I?

I begin with this confession of sorts. It seems appropriate as I reflect both on the state of my city and the life of the Holy Martyr Alexander Schmorell, or St. Alexander of Munich of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Twenty-six when he was executed by the Nazis, Schmorell spent the final years of his life struggling to topple Hitler’s regime, to rally his fellow citizens to action, to hold all accountable for the violence done to those on the margins of society.

As a founding member of the White Rose, a non-violent, anti-Nazi resistance group, Schmorell, fellow students, and a professor published anonymous leaflets that called for resistance and opposition to the German leadership. In fact, the second leaflet of the White Rose is credited as being the only public outcry against the Holocaust to appear within Germany during the Nazi regime.

In one such leaflet, Schmorell and his peers wrote that overthrowing such an unjust system as Nazi Germany could “be done only by the cooperation of many convinced, energetic people — people who are agreed as to the means they must use to attain their goal.” Those means, the leaflet continued, were passive resistance. How can I not recall in my mind those peaceful, persistent protests in the wake of Gray’s death? I hardly live in Nazi Germany, but I do live in a city, a state, a country where injustice continues, where courageous voices are needed. Who am I to say that this might not be the challenge of my time?

Another leaflet challenged all Germans to “prove by [their] deeds that [they] think otherwise” where Hitler’s decrees were concerned. Inaction was unacceptable. Here I hear echoed those words of Jesus: “By their fruits you will know them. … Every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.” Am I bearing good fruit? What do my deeds say of my own convictions?

Finally, yet another leaflet reminded people of the history of faith, of God’s working out of salvation in the here and now.

“Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men [and women] have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who with his help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course.”

If anything, the racial tensions and xenophobia that have gripped so much of our public and private discourse have reminded me that we are all called to have a prophetic voice, and that prophets still walk among us today. Humility reminds me that I may not be the most vocal of prophets, but that I must have the wherewithal to recognize and support those who are — and call to task those who prophesy falsely.

Ultimately, as all saints do, St. Alexander points me to Christ, reminding me that we aren’t called to be heroes but simply live the Gospel as best we can, where we are, when we are. 

And as I think about Christ in the streets of Baltimore, I realize that God, of course, stands with the marginalized, the oppressed, the suffering. Christ points toward that ultimate vision of God that is both just and peaceful. Alexander Schmorell reminded the German people of this, and he and others were killed for their courage.

I certainly don’t wish for death. But, as I look out at a Baltimore — and a country — wracked by hate, injustice, and bigotry, I too must find my way to stand alongside those with whom Christ stands. And if Christ marches peacefully in the streets, accompanying those whom society has pushed aside, then it is there too that I must go.

Eric Clayton works for a Catholic non-profit based in Baltimore, Md. 

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