I am a lover of cats. Before I met my wife and became a stepfather to two dogs, I only had cats for pets. Now we are a blended family of both cats and dogs!
When I used to leave for work, I would always say goodbye to my two cats and then I would say, “You be good cats today!” Then I would laugh. The joke I made with myself was centered on the idea that there is no such thing as a good cat or a bad cat. There is only “cat.” Cats are filled with qualities that are “cat-like.” Put another way, anything a cat does or doesn’t do is neither good nor bad, it is just “cat.”
This idea is related to the question of being, specifically, what it means to be human. Cats cannot choose to change their behavior in the same way a human can. This idea reminds me of an essay by the philosopher Kenneth Burke called Definition of Man (1966). His definition has several parts, but one part is that “man is the inventor of the negative.” I believe this means that in order for intentions or actions to be bad or negative, you must possess free will or God-given choice.
For example, if my cat digs the dirt out of a potted plant while I am at work, I will certainly feel that she is a bad kitty. However, for my cat, this is an instinctual response to the presence of dirt, not a malicious act of will. In order to be truly negative or bad, it takes human freedom or the ability to make choices. I understand the impact I am able to have on fellow humans. I know that my actions and my intentions can hurt or heal. In other words, I am never like my cats. My actions and attitudes have intentionality.
Sometimes we may try to fool ourselves into thinking we are like a cat or a table or a hammer. We attempt to make ourselves and others believe that we have only one way of being or responding. We have probably all heard people say, “You know how I am. I am just stubborn,” or hot-headed or any number of things. You may have even said something like this yourself. This is never true. As the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre asserted, “We are condemned to freedom.”
This freedom can be uncomfortable. There are moments when I don’t want to make decisions. I don’t want to be responsible for this freedom. However, I believe that this freedom is from God. This freedom is ours because we are made in the image of God.
This is why the recent video of the death of George Floyd was so tragic. Mr. Floyd’s freedom was taken away and someone in authority made the choice to abuse and ultimately kill him. Because we are all created in the image of God, it was something sacred and holy, something of the divine that was violently destroyed.
We have all watched in horror the videos of violent acts, often perpetrated under the guise of law enforcement, against people of color. The sad truth is that this has been happening for years but it is more obvious now because we have so many cameras and ways to disseminate information on social media platforms.
Watching news programs, I have seen so many responses to this horrific video. In some cases, peaceful protest, in some cases destruction and looting. I have seen wonderful moments of love and caring from both law enforcement and protesters, and I have witnessed violence from both. These are all choices and we each have to choose how we will respond to this moment. I recently read the words of a former First Lady of our United States that I personally find inspiring and might provide a space for moving forward from our places of fear and despair.
It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets. I pray we all have the strength for that journey, just as I pray for the souls and the families of those who were taken from us.”
– Michelle Obama
I was also deeply moved by a statement from our former President, George W. Bush:
It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country. It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future.
We serve our neighbors best when we try to understand their experience. We love our neighbors as ourselves when we treat them as equals, in both protection and compassion. There is a better way — the way of empathy, and shared commitment, and bold action, and a peace rooted in justice. I am confident that together, Americans will choose the better way.
We are at a crossroads, my dear friends. And we will most certainly have to choose.
Grace & Peace,
- Ray Wheeler, Ph.D.