Today, as we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States, we can be certain that Pope Francis is joining with us in spirit from the Vatican. Over the weekend, the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association (NBA) gave Francis a personalized jersey emblazoned with Dr. King’s initials (MLK) in honor of the civil rights icon’s birthday. Recently, the pope met with a delegation from the NBA, including five players to discuss their work on social justice issues.
Francis’s admiration of Dr. King is well-known, as he has spoken about him many times, including in his 2015 address to the Joint Session of Congress in Washington, DC. In that address, he mentioned “the march which Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery fifty years ago as part of the campaign to fulfill his ‘dream’ of full civil and political rights for African Americans. That dream continues to inspire us all.” Later in the speech he describes Dr. King’s dream as one for “liberty in plurality and non-exclusion.” In his conclusion, he says that a nation is great “when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do.”
In Amoris Laetitia, Francis quotes a 1957 sermon by Dr. King at length, describing him as a man “who met every kind of trial and tribulation with fraternal love.” These words of King’s seem particularly relevant than ever in today’s polarized society:
“The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God’, you begin to love him in spite of [everything]. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off… Another way that you love your enemy is this: when the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it… When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system… Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and so on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil… Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love”. (118)
Francis once again invokes Dr. King’s name in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (286), acknowledging that King was one of several non-Catholic leaders who provide a source of inspiration for the Church’s vision of fraternity. Dr. King and Pope Francis are of the same generation—they were born only seven years apart. And one can’t help but notice that both of these men speak frequently about their dreams for a better future and a world in which people live in justice, peace, and fraternity. Remember, the title of King’s most famous speech is I have a Dream, and that of Francis’s new book is Let us Dream. Clearly, Pope Francis has been greatly moved by the work of King. Pope Francis desires the same kind of fraternity—rooted in justice and peace—that King preaches. Like Dr. King, he also reminds us that racism is still a pressing issue and that our work is far from over.
Sometimes our observation of Martin Luther King’s birthday is saturated with nothing but his words about non-violence and fraternity. We tend to gloss over his strong words about the work that still needs to be done today. The events of January 6 remind us of the pervasiveness of racism in the US today. Members of the violent mob that stormed the Capitol carried Nazi and Confederate flags. Many were chanting racist and Anti-Semitic slogans. One man wore a sweatshirt that read “Camp Auschwitz Staff” and another wore one that said “6MWE”—which stands for “6 million wasn’t enough”—a reference to the Jewish people slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps.
Even more disturbing than the overt hate on display was the silence of many thousands more in the crowd—which included prominent Catholics. They may have been wearing more respectable attire, and may not have been shouting racist slogans, but they stood right next to those who were, united in their support for the same cause.
Many of the participants in the events of January 6 would probably not consider themselves racist. Many of them are members of the religious right, who profess the Christian faith—evangelicals and Catholics— and attend church regularly. Most of them have undoubtedly heard that racism is a sin. Sadly, white American Christian leaders, including Catholic priests and bishops, have failed to identify and condemn racism in any meaningful context or relevance.
When speaking about racism, our clergy often uses vague and general language. Platitudes about equality and justice are invoked. But by not addressing the systematic injustices caused by racism in our society today, the religious right has failed the marginalized and people of color. Even in the aftermath of the Capitol Hill insurrection, the handful of statements from bishops have largely condemned violence in general and stuck with safe terminology. How many of those statements explicitly condemn the racism and white supremacy that was on full display during the violent uprising? This refusal to name even the most overt instances of racism in our country is causing great damage.
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis calls on us to address racism, in all its covert and hidden forms. He writes, “Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think” (FT 20). He says later in the document, “Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting” (FT 97). How often do we hear that racism is a thing of the past? How often are we reminded that slavery has ended and segregation has been outlawed?
Many pundits claim that to speak out about racial disparity is divisive, and that we should just be “colorblind.” These are the lies of today’s racism that Francis says has mutated, and it deceives so many. This type of racism ultimately fears change. It fears progression toward authentic equality—one that requires white people to give up their privileges and advantages. This type of racism works by insisting on the denial of systemic racism—as many outspoken Catholic leaders and figures do—or by simply ignoring it in any meaningful way. We see this so often from Catholic leadership.
It is an objective fact that there are serious racial disparities in wealth, income, education, employment, housing, health care, incarceration, criminal justice, life expectancy, and in so many other areas of our society. These disparities do not exist in a vacuum. They can be traced through an interconnected series of historical events that began with a brutal system of slavery. It continued through reconstruction, sharecropping, segregation, redlining, lynching, violent attacks on Black towns. We can look to the seemingly endless list of well-documented laws and ordinances that discriminated against Black people and kept wealth and power in the hands of white people. This happened for generation upon generation. There has not been one day in the history of this country without racial inequality in many areas of life. We know the system is still broken, and if we really do want equality for all people of every race, we must actively address racial inequality.
Far too many of us are only comfortable seeing racism as something in the past, or as something that doesn’t affect us that much. Some of us prefer to see it as something abstract. Many people imagine that racism is only found in concrete individual acts of discrimination or uttering derogatory slurs. The notion that racism is a failure to work against communal and systemic inequality causes many to become defensive, apathetic, or resistant. They reject the idea that complacency or complicity in an unequal system is racism.
Undoubtedly much of this stems from American hyper-focus on individualism. We often negate the interconnectedness of our actions and omissions in allowing collective sins to perpetuate. The thinking goes: as long as I don’t hate Black people, I’m ok. But our faith is clear that we are called to do more. Our faith tells us that we will absolutely be held to account for our omissions. This is taught throughout the Gospels in numerous parables. Let us also not forget Jesus’ words: “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me” (Mt 25:42-43).
Having just witnessed the riots of January 6, and seeing so many in the crowd complicit with overt racism, it is appropriate that today we meditate on these words from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963):
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Where does our Church stand? Are we content to be the moderates who have been “the greatest stumbling block” against racial freedom and equality? Do we seek nothing more than a negative peace? Let us pray today for repentance for our failures, and for the grace of a new resolve to identify and banish the sin of racism in all its forms. Let us pray for the strength to take up the work needed to bring Dr. King’s dream to fulfillment.
Image: Wikimedia Commons. By Unknown author – The Smithsonian and National Portrait Gallery, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74755658
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Melinda Ribnek is a lifelong Catholic, originally from Savannah, Georgia. She currently lives on California's Central Coast with her husband Brian and their seven children. In her spare time, she volunteers for the Church and in her community.