An Open Letter to the Portsmouth Abbey Community from Prior Administrator Fr. Michael Brunner, O.S.B.


Today, on the Memorial of the martyrs St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, we share an Open Letter to the Portsmouth Abbey Community from Prior Administrator Fr. Michael Brunner, O.S.B., on behalf of the School and Monastery.

These are tumultuous times. Charles Dickens may well have been writing about America today.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Fifty-five years ago our cities were wracked by riots sparked by police brutality against the African American citizens they were sworn to protect. But the anger that exploded then was not just about police. It was anger at a whole system and a host of habitual humiliations inflicted by white people upon black people.

There was a whole civil rights movement; saints were martyred; laws were passed; victory was declared. But what really had changed? You can’t legislate attitudes out of existence.

If you can’t say “Black lives matter,” then you have no right to say “All lives matter” because it is Black lives that are under attack.

There have been so many. A teenage boy walking home in Florida, Trayvon Martin was a wake-up call. But we hit the snooze button. Now within a short few months a young black jogger in Georgia is hunted down and shot dead by white vigilantes; a young black woman in Louisville is shot dead in her own home by police, while serving a search warrant at the wrong address. And now George Floyd is murdered, yes murdered, by a policeman on camera. The Black bird-watcher Christian Cooper was very lucky in his Central Park confrontation with a hysterical white dogwalker, who probably didn’t regard herself as racist. And that’s a big part of the problem. We don’t recognize our racism.

To be black in America is to be at risk of your life, even from those who are purportedly protecting you. And white privilege means that you are NOT endangering your life when you jog, or sit in your own living room, or go bird-watching. The deep-rooted attitudes and systems of racism are intolerable. It is un-American. It is un-Christian. It is un-Jewish, un-Muslim and un-Buddhist too. It is inhuman.

It’s not Dickens, but it is appropriate. As Howard Beale raged in the film "Network," and tapped into what people were feeling, what we are seeing and hearing is “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Let’s not be distracted by the sporadic violence that has followed some of the protests. The protests are not the cause. If we don’t like the violence that has followed George Floyd’s murder, we must eliminate the root cause, the racism. American racism has created an underclass, one that is most affected by the coronavirus and by the economic shutdown. Aristotle writes in his Politics that poverty and inequality are the source of revolution and crime.

Jesus said that whatever you do or don’t do to or for the least human being, you are doing or not doing to or for Him. Jesus was patient, but not that day in the Temple when he overturned tables and drove out merchants with a whip. There is righteous anger to be expressed when human beings, images of the One God, are being systematically abused.

The truth will set you free, but the truth is not always convenient, and freedom brings with it responsibility. It is not for us to rail against any irresponsibility of others. We need to live up to our beliefs and ideals and abandon the baggage of racism once and for all.

We need the protest and we need prayer.

As we look into our own hearts, this is a good time to pray St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer for peace.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;  

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.  

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

And this is a good time to act on Saint Pope Paul VI’s words: “If you want peace, work for justice."