Until recently, there was a painting hanging outside of the Mary, Mirror of Justice Chapel at the Catholic University of America. The icon-like image, titled Mama, depicted a stricken mother cradling her dead son in a pose reminiscent of the Pietà. The depiction of the Son–who some interpreted to be Jesus and others saw as George Floyd–became the center of an intense controversy that eventually led to the painting’s theft (and that of the smaller copy that replaced it) late last year.
While there are reasons to object to using an imperfect human as the model for a perfect Savior, I suspect that much of the controversy over the display of Mama was not based on purely theological convictions. After all, how many of us have cried, “sacrilege!” when watching living men portray Jesus in The Chosen or The Passion of the Christ? The letters of protest that Catholic University received confirmed these suspicions: President John Garvey noted that some of the letters contained explicitly racist content.
Certainly, I could write volumes about the racism that was associated with responses to Mama–and to George Floyd’s death and the murder trials that followed. Justifying discrimination based on someone’s race, social standing, or age is abhorrent. As Catholics, we are obligated to speak out against such injustice. However, it is easy to miss a specific form of discrimination that was also at play in the controversy around the use of Floyd in this iconography: discrimination against people with substance use disorders. Both in the debate around the painting at CUA and at the Derek Chauvin trial, Floyd’s substance use was highlighted in an attempt to mitigate his victimhood. While discrimination against people who struggle with substance use is often linked to racism, it also tragically impacts all those who find their lives engulfed by the physical and psychological need to use a substance, regardless of race.
So many of us are guilty of this kind of discrimination. Admittedly, my own initial reaction to the Mama painting was to flinch at the idea of an image of Jesus being interchangeable with that of someone who struggled with substance use. Yet, this is a reaction that I have never had to self-portraits of Renaissance artists who chose to portray themselves as Jesus to emphasize their God-like creative abilities. That practice was certainly disturbing enough to deserve a flinch.
Still, despite my automatic prejudice, I was shocked last year when I heard friends and family suggest that Derek Chauvin should not be held accountable during his trial. In their minds, Floyd’s struggles with opioids somehow lessened the horror of his breathless last minutes. This highlighted a tragic fact: too often, we are quick to forget that substance dependence is a complex and tangled web of physical and psychological sickness. When we fixate on sin, we can miss the tragedy of addiction and begin to see those who wrestle with substance use as sinful and “other”. That othering often leads to the devaluing of precious lives. In fact, it was exactly this tragic progression from misdeed to othering–and then to minimizing murder that the defense relied on in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial and continues to rely on in ongoing trials of his accomplices.
Yet, the idea that someone’s drug use–or any other behavior–could make their life less valuable and their death more acceptable is opposite the teachings of Christ and His Church. As His followers, we are obligated to reject such thinking, but how can we root out such an ingrained and pervasive form of discrimination?
In 2018, Pope Francis hinted at the answer when he remarked that there was an “urgent need to create in today’s world a form of humanism capable of restoring the human person to the center of social, economic and cultural life: a humanism grounded in the ‘Gospel of Mercy’.” The secret lies in allowing the ‘Gospel of Mercy’ to permeate our understanding of who we are in light of our relationship with Christ, because at the heart of the Gospel is the reality that we are all sinners, yet we are all deeply loved. All of us.
Christ’s death is the foundation of the Gospel, and it has real implications for how we understand ourselves and others. Paul wrote about Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself thus: “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul then reminds us that Jesus died for us “while we were enemies of God.” Jonathan Edwards, a congregational minister from the 1700s, paraphrased Paul’s words in Romans 5:7-8 when he wrote, “Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good.” Then Edwards spelled out the implications of this passage: “…so we should be willing to be kind.” Jesus comes to us in our sin and while still sinners, He loves and values us enough to give His own life so that we might have eternal life with Him. That is how desperate He is to avoid separation from the sinful objects of His affections: He would rather die. If our Savior so valued us as sinners, who are we to say that anything anyone else does diminishes the value of his or her life?
If we doubt that we are sinners who need Christ’s mercy just as much as any other sinner on earth, consider this story that Pastor Timothy Keller recounts of Yehiel De-Nur. De-Nur was a Holocaust survivor who was a key witness in the trial of Adolf Eichmann (a major Nazi figure and architect of the Holocaust). When De-Nur saw Eichmann at the trial, he was overcome with emotion. He realized that Eichmann, sinful as he was, was human just like himself, and that realization caused De-Nur to recognize his own human propensity for evil. In De-Nur’s words: “I was afraid of myself…I saw that I am capable to do this. I am…exactly like he.” Of all people, De-Nur knew the extent of Eichmann’s sin. He had intimate knowledge of the horrors Eichmann had committed. Yet, even knowing the measure of this Nazi’s sin, De-Nur recognized that he possessed the capacity to sin just as greatly.
I know, without a doubt, that the same sins course through my own heart that lead to the wrongdoing that I so easily see in others: despair, hatred, selfishness, unchecked ambition, gluttony, impatience, sloth, indifference, and turning away from God and His will from my life. When I look at George Floyd, a man who became addicted to substances that were meant to blunt pain, I see a bottle of wine sitting on my kitchen counter and promising to numb my sorrow at eight o’clock in the morning. I remember how difficult it was to dump the promise of forgetfulness down the drain. I know how easy it would have been to drink one glass that morning, then two the next, then a few more a week later, until I was as much a prisoner of a substance as Floyd was. I do not know why I made a different choice from the one Floyd made, back when it was a choice for him. What I do know is that the same impulse flowed in both our veins, and we are not as different as our outcomes would suggest. Most importantly, I know that Jesus loves and values us both, despite our sins and that because of His love, He hung on a cross and died for us.
If we want to fully understand the depth of the Gospel’s love and for it to ring true to those around us, we must remember this: as we look upon Christ’s broken body, hanging on the cross, we did this to Jesus. As we see His mother sobbing at His feet, we did this to Jesus. As we hear His body breaking in the bread and His blood pouring out in the wine, this sacrifice is made present for each one of us because each of our sins demands that sacrifice. We did this to Jesus. It was our sins that cried out “Crucify, crucify!” and out of love for us, Jesus submitted. He cherished our lives, even when we were still living in sin, and He sacrificed His own. If we let that reality sink deeply into our hearts and allow it to change the way that we see those around us, even when their sins are more visible than our own, it will prevent us from devaluing the lives that God cherishes. If we remember that Christ’s sacrifice was for them, too, then we will be true witnesses to the Gospel: “That while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Image: “Christ on the Road to Calvary,” Peeter Baltens. Public Domain.
Ariane Sroubek is a writer, school psychologist and mother to two children here on earth. Prior to converting to Catholicism, she completed undergraduate studies in Bible and Theology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She then went on to obtain her doctorate in School and Child Clinical Psychology. Ariane’s writing is inspired by her faith, daily life experiences and education. More of her work can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://mysustaininggrace.com.