As a Catholic priest from the Diocese of Camden, I was so proud of our own Bishop Dennis Sullivan’s swift and categorical condemnation of the violence and murder perpetuated by the criminals and thugs including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that assembled this past Monday in Charlottesville, Virginia. Bishop Sullivan’s statement addressing these unfortunate events reminded us that “Catholics have a crucial role to play in the fight for racial justice, inspired by our belief that every single person is sacred because each person is created in the image and likeness of God.”
His statement is a powerful reminder that all of us are created equal by God and we Catholics here in South Jersey are called to “work to promote respect and unity among all Americans.”
Bishop Sullivan joins many religious leaders in our country calling upon the faithful to work toward overcoming racism. It was certainly racism that was at the root of the violence that unfolded. As Christians, we have struggled with the still smoldering divide over race ever since our arrival on these shores. While it is easy, I hope, for religious people to condemn such heinous groups like the KKK and Nazis, it is a bit more difficult for all of us to look back at our religious institutions’ historic contributions to racial divides. As well as the even more difficult yet necessary look into our own hearts and question our own contributions by what we have done or failed to do in reference to the racial divide.
As Catholics from all ethnic groups who have come to the United States over the centuries, all of us have experienced some level of prejudice or bias. Catholics over the centuries have experienced violence and exclusion by many of the groups that assembled in Charlottesville at one time or another. However, most of our ancestors came to these shores seeking a better life or freedom, not in chains in the bottom of slave ships. The echo of the evil institution known as slavery resounds unto our own day. Sensitivity to one another’s individual or corporate memory and pain is essential for a fruitful dialogue among people in our country.
The symbols of a vanquished cause that sought to perpetuate the intrinsic evil of enslaving human beings and denying them their human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be removed so that purveyors of hate cannot adopt them as symbols of new forms of hatred and sin. The white supremacists who gather to actively suppress the rights of African Americans or others in their sights, and who often claim to be Christian, should listen to the core of Christ’s teaching on love and equality and reform their hateful stances.
Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, has a message for all who preach the Gospel in an interesting article in The Washington Post: “Despite all our efforts, some white pastors still remain silent on Sunday. They relegate racism to the status of a ‘social’ issue and not a ‘Gospel’ issue. Leadership in churches and other Christian organizations remain all or mostly white. It’s the same with the boards of directors and trustees of these institutions. Evangelicals who prostitute the faith for political power remain in the pulpit and are given wide latitude to stir up racial resentment in the guise of ‘race neutral language.’”
Traci Blackmon, the executive minister of justice and witness ministries for the United Church of Christ, was in Charlottesville when all hell broke loose, and she wrote to her fellow UCC ministers, “Might you consider beginning your worship tomorrow morning with prayer for our nation and the people of Charlottesville in particular? Will you pray for the wounded? The healers? The witnesses? The warriors and the dead inside? Will you pray for the families of those who have died? And will you call out white supremacy by name and rebuke it in the name of Jesus?”
Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted that “the so-called alt-right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core.” Jack Graham, a Texas megachurch pastor, a member of President Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, wrote that “white supremacy and its movements are evil to the core and are to be condemned.”
Let us do all that we can in our own circle of life to champion the just cause of racial equality in all that we say and do.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.