Bishops’ letter on racism promotes dignity

“You have been told, O mortal, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8).  

Father Taylor Leffler, associate pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha, explained this verse and its connection to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) November 2018 pastoral letter on racism at a parish gathering June 5 at the church.

Most of the letter, entitled, “Open Wide Our Hearts, The Enduring Call to Love: A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” breaks down what it means to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, especially in light of the crisis of racism, he said. 

The document addresses the experiences of three groups particularly affected by racism in the United States: Native Americans, Hispanics and African Americans. 

“We read the headlines that report the killing of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement officials,” the bishops wrote.

“In our prisons, the number of inmates of color is grossly disproportionate. Despite the great blessings of liberty that this country offers, we must admit the plain truth that for many of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing wrong, interactions with the police are often fraught with fear and even danger.

"At the same time, we reject harsh rhetoric that belittles and dehumanizes law enforcement personnel who labor to keep our communities safe. We also condemn violent attacks against police."

To some, it may seem that racism is in the past, but the bishops point out that it’s still prevalent. “Racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart,” the bishops wrote. 

Racism arises when a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior to that of another, they wrote. “When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful.” 

These judgments based on race and ethnicity stem from a failure to acknowledge the inherent human dignity of each person, Father Leffler said. In the letter, the bishops said that everyone is called to a greater conversion when viewing their brothers and sisters in Christ with the same human dignity. Acknowledging that inherent human dignity is one of the foundations of Catholic social teaching, Father Leffler said.

“We want to talk about racism not just as social activists; we’re Christians, we’re Catholics,” he said. “So what we do as humans is always done in light of Christian redemption, in light of who God is and who we are in his eyes.” 

God has revealed himself to be a loving Father, which means human beings are all united as brothers and sisters and children of God, he said. Building upon Pope Benedict XVI’s words in his 2005 encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”), Father Leffler said, “So if God is real, and God is love, then we’re all united in love with God. It makes us this ‘we’ that transcends anything that could divide us. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There’s just ‘us.’ We’re together as a human family.” 

United as one family, it makes sense that salvation is meant for all, Father Leffler said. Though it may initially seem an easy concept to accept, he challenged audience members to think about whether they truly believed that fact.

“Do I really believe, when I’m looking at all my brothers and sisters in the world, no matter how faithful they are, no matter what they believe, no matter how they live their lives, do I believe that God labors to save this particular person?” he asked. “Especially that person that drives me crazy, that person that’s so different from me. Do I firmly believe in my heart that salvation is for them too?”

In closing, Father Leffler shared steps from the pastoral letter that Christians can take to combat racism. Among other things, the bishops instruct that to fight this injustice, Christians must acknowledge personal sin, be open to new encounters and relationships, work for justice, pursue ongoing education, change economic and social structures and trust in conversion for all.

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