A recent outrage swept over the globe as the news of a Minnesota policeman murdering George Floyd, an African American whose neck was pinned under his knee came into light via social media platforms. The victim was seen pleading for air as the police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for over 9 minutes. Of controversy was how Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd after he had lost consciousness, and for a full minute more after paramedics arrived. On 3 June, Wednesday, Chauvin and his colleagues were charged for second-degree murder.

Prior to the court’s decision, hundreds and thousands had taken to the streets of America to protest the actions of Chauvin, causing civil unrest, and excavating America’s painful past of slavery, racial segregation, and discrimination.

Catholic Social Teaching has always upheld that human life is sacred and that the dignity of a human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.

Today, that dignity of human life has been threatened and devalued through things like Abortion, IVF, Stem-cell Research, and Euthanasia. In many countries and corporations, human labour is cheap, and the value of human life is deemed as insignificant. This has led to a flawed rationalisation that some human lives are worth more than others, and others worth nothing at all. In turn, this has warped people’s mindsets to justify paltry wages, and the mistreatment of fellow human beings.

According to Pope St. John Paul II, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come  from the work they do, but from the persons they are.” (On the Hundredth Year [. . . Centesimus annus], no. 11) Created in the image and likeness of our Father God, there is immeasurable worth to a human being’s life.

At the heart of the George Floyd controversy is the deep seated racism that is embedded into society. Equally disturbing is how a person’s life can be taken from him as he cries out for help, while nobody steps forward to help him or stop the perpetrator, and as this human person is dying under the noses of the bystanders, it is perversely recorded on video.

As Pope Francis has exhorted in response to what has happened, Catholics cannot tolerate racism and also “claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” At the same time, we have to recognise that “the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost”.

In Scripture, we see clearly how each person is precious and valued far more than things.

Genesis 1: 26 – 31 states, “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (25) and God saw that what he had created was good.

In Deuteronomy 10:17-19, we are given an insight into how the Lord upholds the widow, the stranger, and the orphan.

While Psalm 139 tells us that before we were made, the Lord God knit us together in the secret of our mothers’ wombs and that he knows us intimately, having saw our days before they were formed, and that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (14)

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus spoke of how the Samaritan recognised the dignity of the person who was lying injured by the road, and took him up and treated him with care and respect. (cf. Luke 10: 25-37)

Yet again in John 4: 1-42, we see Jesus breaking away from the societal and cultural norms of his time to speak with the Samaritan woman at the well, and to honour her dignity as a person.

Proverbs 22:2 tells us that God made both the rich and the poor and that there is no distinction between either.

Romans 12: 9-18 gives us the gold standard of how to treat each other: to love one another, and contribute to each’s needs.

Unfortunately, tainted by upbringing and societal biasness, and a culture that exonerates the rich and the powerful, privileging the people of certain classes and ethnicities, we fail to acknowledge the worth of the human embryo, the person of colour, the person with disabilities, and the person who is poor. This speaks about a cultural malaise that is plaguing society and “as a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalised: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel [Evangelii Gaudium], no. 153)

The mark of a matured civilisation ultimately is seen in how its society treats the poor, the different, those who fall through the cracks, and those who do not fit into the society’s narrative of what normal is. If human beings are rightly taken to be “the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution.” (St. John XXIII, Mother and Teacher [Mater et Magistra.], no. 219.

Then how we treat the prisoner, the migrant worker, the poor, the homeless, our brothers and sisters, is indicative of the health of the society.

Yet, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, “There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel: Their equal  dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and  peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.” (CCC 1938)

The case of George Floyd thus brings to fore these inequalities and the exploitation of human life as cheap, as insignificant, and to be considered of little worth, even ignored, or objectified. This case should rightly perturb us. As Pope St. John Paul II says, “Every individual, precisely by reason of the mystery of the Word of God who was made flesh (cf. John 1:14), is entrusted  to the maternal care of the Church. Therefore every threat to human dignity and  life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart; it cannot but affect her at the core of her faith in the Redemptive Incarnation of the Son of God…” (cf. Mk 16:15). (The Gospel of Life [Evangelium vitae.]no. 3)

All lives matter.

By the Grace of God,

Brian Bartholomew Tan

Sources: Channel News Asia; Washington Post; NPR.org; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Catechism of the Catholic Church; Centesimus annus; Evangelii Gaudium; Mater et Magistra; Evangelium Vitae