Our enduring call to love
Soon after we begin the new year, we will celebrate the holiday honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, we mark it on January 21. The day provides the opportunity to recall the leadership of Dr. King in the struggle against racism and prejudice in our country. His influence, grounded in his passionate rhetoric honed in his religious roots and ministerial preaching, was an important part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He was murdered in April 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., a city he was visiting to advocate for civil rights and justice for workers. In recalling his memory, we remind ourselves that the work he did, and the cause he advocated, the equality of all, is still a goal. There have been many positive changes that were the result of the civil rights movement and the legislation which resulted from that advocacy. The fact remains, however, that racism has not been eliminated from our society.
It is because racism and prejudice are still a reality in our society that I joined with the other bishops of our country at our plenary meeting in November and voted to publish a new pastoral letter addressing the issue. The letter, entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, A Pastoral Letter Against Racism," aims “to combat the scourge of racism in the hearts and minds of the faithful, in our own Church communities, and in the structures of society.” In presenting the letter, Bishop Sheldon Fabre, chairman of the committee that guided the preparation of the letter, explained its purpose. The bishops, he said, “felt the need to address the topic of racism, once again, after witnessing the deterioration of the public discourse, and episodes of violence and animosity with racial and xenophobic overtones, that have re-emerged in American society in the last few years.”
I would encourage you to read this letter and study it in your parish communities. It is intended to help us to reflect on our own attitudes about others, particularly those who are different from ourselves. The letter gives special attention to the experiences of Native and African Americans, but it also speaks of prejudice against people of Hispanic origin. In addition, the letter reminds us that, sadly, we continue to witness episodes of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in our country. This, too, is prejudice. All of this creates problems in our dealings with each other and in the harmony of our society.
The pastoral letter specifically deals with racism. It teaches that racism arises when a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior to others. This attitude can be conscious or unconscious. The conviction of being superior can result in judging persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and of being unworthy of equal regard. This attitude can then lead to exclusion of others, ridicule, mistreatment or unjust discrimination against persons on the basis of their race or ethnic background. Such behavior is rightly named sinful. It is a violation of justice. It denies the fundamental worth of each human person. As Catholics and Christians, we believe that we are all equally made in the image and likeness of God. When we ignore this fact, we open ourselves to prejudice or fear of the other.
The pastoral letter states, “Every racist act – every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin – is a failure to acknowledge another person as brother or sister, created in the image of God. In these and many other such acts, the sin of racism persists in our lives, in our country, and in our world.”
Most of us, I am sure, would say that we do not harbor any feelings of racism. But the fact remains that there are many people in our society who feel that they are treated differently because of the color of their skin or where their parents came from. In the interests of creating a just society, this letter invites us to listen to the stories of these people. It may, indeed, be true that we do not harbor any feelings of prejudice. But the fact is that racism still exists. Those who are the victims of this prejudice see it in their own lives, as well as in the social, political, and economic structures of our country. It is not enough for us to say that we do not harbor personal prejudice. It is also a responsibility to listen to those who are affected and to work together to overcome the sin of racism where it is present in our society. This pastoral letter, and the helping materials published with it, provide ample opportunity for parishes and groups to reflect on this. It encourages us to remember that “God dwells in the equal dignity of each person” and asks us all to consider ways in which we and our families can encounter, grow, and witness through an understanding and commitment to this core value of the Christian message today.
The pastoral letter and resource material can be found at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/index.cfm.
May you and your loved ones know God’s rich blessings in the year that lies ahead!