“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
These words spoken by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s classic American novel on race, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” have come to my mind frequently since first reading them in high school. As reasonable as they seem, they are not so easy to put into practice. They offer, however, a compelling and profoundly Christian suggestion for us all.
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At this year’s November meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – dominated almost exclusively and rightly by discussions on the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church and related issues – the bishops overwhelmingly approved a pastoral letter against racism, in preparation for over a year, titled, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” It is well worth reading.
“Open Wide Our Hearts” is divided into three principal parts, derived from the oft quoted prayer of the Prophet Micah: “Do Justice”; “Love Goodness”; “Walk Humbly With God” (Micah 6: 8).
This is not the first time the USCCB has addressed the topic of racism. Thirty-nine years ago, the bishops approved an earlier pastoral letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” in an effort to combat this enduring evil in American history and society.
“Racism has rightly been called America’s original sin,” the USCCB announced last year, creating an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism (Sept. 12, 2017). “The entire body of bishops 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 xenophobia overtones, that have re-emerged in American society in the last few years (Nov. 14, 2018).”
“Racism still profoundly affects our culture,” the bishops observe in their most recent letter, “and it has no place in the Christian heart. This evil causes great harm to its victims and it corrupts the souls of those who garner racist or prejudicial thoughts. The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now.”
“Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans share a common origin, they are brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God. When this truth is ignored, the consequence is prejudice and fear of the other, and – all too often – hatred.”
“What is needed, and what we are calling for, is a genuine conversion of heart,” the bishops continue, “a conversion that will compel change and the reform of our institutions and society. Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual. ... However, in Christ we can find the strength and grace necessary to make that journey.”
“Do Justice.” Citing the experience of the Native American, African American and Hispanic communities who have lived and continue to live in our country, the bishops identify justice as recognizing and respecting “the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. These rights precede any society because they flow from the dignity granted to each person as created by God.” The bishops state that Christians “are called to listen and know the stories of our brothers and sisters ... with open hearts.” Truly “hearing” one another is only the first step in our ability “to act in solidarity to change prospects for future generations.”
“Love Goodness.” Love is “at the heart of the Christian life ... (Christ’s) command to love requires us to make room in our hearts. It means that we are, indeed, our brother’s keeper.” Love, therefore, “compels each of us to resist racism courageously ... and to begin to change policies and structures that allow racism to persist.”
“Walk Humbly With God.” The bishops affirm that such “walking” leads us to “to press forward without fear in rebuilding our relationships, healing our communities and working to shape our policies and institutions toward the good of all, as missionary disciples” — a favorite theme of Pope Francis. This is an aspect of evangelization in our Church and the witness it requires.
“Racism is a moral problem that requires a moral remedy – a transformation of the human heart – that impels us to act.” To be effective, the witness of evangelization requires our “acknowledging sin”; “being open to encounter and new relationships”; “resolving to work for justice,” and “educating ourselves” in our churches, about our structures and through the conversion of all.
The bishops share their deeply felt belief that “walking with God” by combatting “systemic” racism in all its forms – personal as well as societal/structural – is at its core a “life issue.” “To overcome discrimination,” the bishops argue, “a community must interiorize the values that inspire just laws and live out, in day-to-day life, the conviction of the equal dignity of all.” To that end participating in or fostering organizations that advance racist ideologies “is sinful” and have “no place in a just society.”
The time has never been more urgent for every individual and all of society to devote an unrelenting effort to eliminate racism whenever and however and wherever it rears its ugly head. The Catholic Church in the United States must be a leader in this effort. “There is no place for racism in the hearts of any person.”
As with all important initiatives, the bishops pray for the intercession of Mary, Mother of God and patroness of America, to guide our Church and nation in this cause, to seek God’s forgiveness for our past failings, to build a truly just society by eliminating the evil of racism and to fill our hearts with “a love that respects the dignity of each person.”
Atticus Finch was right in urging us “to walk around” in the experience of our brothers and sisters. The bishops remind us once more of scriptures’ “ever ancient, ever new” three-fold path: “do justice; love goodness and walk humbly with God.” Spirit of God, open wide our hearts!