On Saturday Aug. 12, 2017, a “Unite the Right" rally was organized by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., in opposition to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee by the city of Charlottesville. Participants in the rally, many drawn from far distances, chanted Nazi-inspired slogans like “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us!” A day fraught with tension was then tragically punctuated by bloodshed, when a driver, later identified as a member of a white supremacist movement, drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters and one person died, while more than two dozen were injured.
It should seem obvious—an automatic reflex—to condemn the white supremacy, racism and hate that led directly to this unconscionable violence. It certainly is to our fellow Americans whose lives are haunted daily by the specters of racism and anti-Semitism. Yet it was not obvious to the president of the United States. At least twice Mr. Trump publicly expressed a moral equivalence between the hatemongers who had organized and led the demonstration and the contingent that had assembled to stand up to bigotry and intolerance. It is not possible to parse this failure of leadership in any way but to conclude that the president is either unable or unwilling to provide the moral witness his office requires.
The president is either unable or unwilling to provide the moral witness his office requires.
It therefore falls to the people to act. In the face of bigotry there can be no ambivalence: We must denounce in sure and certain terms all forms of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and violence, which stubbornly remain a part of the American experience. We must also acknowledge that this legacy of racism and oppression manifests itself today in unjust social and economic realities that tear at our nation’s social fabric and put lives, especially the lives of people of color, at risk. “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism,” a statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said over the weekend. “We stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured.”
In the face of bigotry there can be no ambivalence.
We join the bishops in condemning these odious ideologies of oppression and remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s clarion call for action: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” We also harken to the words of St. Ignatius Loyola, that “love manifests itself more in deeds than in words.” Above all, then, now is the time to act, peacefully, in our churches, our local communities and legislative bodies and, particularly, in the human interactions of our daily lives. For all Catholics, but especially white Catholics, taking these actions may require deep and even painful conversion: “History, like prayer, matters when addressing the deep roots of racism in the Catholic Church and in Catholic families,” Michael Pasquier wrote in America in 2016. “[But] thinking about the past and kneeling in prayer can be a lot easier than living in the present and turning faith into action…. [As white Catholics] we will have to admit to some terrible sins, sins that we were born and raised into, sins that we have kept alive in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.”
The way forward is not the lex talionis, nor to pile hate upon hate. The way forward is the way of the penitent and prophet. We must act boldly on behalf of those who are persecuted, or who are in danger of persecution. But we must proceed in humility, from the lived acknowledgment that we are sinners redeemed in Christ and that we are called to reconcile in turn. Christian duty requires us to clearly name and denounce evil. It requires us to act against that evil at every turn. It also requires us to seek to love the evil-doer and not to give up hope that they may realize their errors and seek redemption. That will be, perhaps, the most vexing work of all.
The just world we are called to create will require from each of us nothing less than the radical acts of love and mercy to which the Gospel testifies. Let us ask then for the abundant grace to act, in peace, for justice. Let us pray, let us plead, for the courage to act now.