Almost 40 years ago, the Catholic bishops of the United States wrote a pastoral letter on racism. "Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father," the bishops wrote.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day honors the achievements of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement to end racial segregation. The federal holiday is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which this year is Jan. 15, Rev. King's birthday. Now is a good time to take to heart the bishops' words on the sin of racism and act to combat it.
Rev. King was arguably the most influential of African-American civil rights leaders in the 1960s. He was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, facilities and employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was assassinated 50 years ago on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he had come to support striking sanitation workers.
Rev. King's essay, "Nonviolence and Racial Justice," appeared in the Feb. 6, 1957, issue of the Christian Century, a theological journal. It laid out his principles for acting nonviolently to seek change.
One of the points Rev. King made about nonviolent resistance is that it "does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding."
We have yet to achieve the reconciliation that Rev. King sought, as society faces renewed racism and polarized communities. Last year, the U.S. bishops established an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, focusing on addressing the sin of racism in society and even the Church as well as the urgent need to come together as a society to find solutions. In a statement on Jan. 10 calling for courage and commitment to break the chain of hate, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that the country has made progress but racism remains a living reality.
"We pray in confidence that Jesus Christ will remind us all that He is the most powerful means to break the chains of hate that still bind too many hearts, a truth which lies at the center of Dr. King's legacy," Cardinal Dinardo wrote.
Cardinal DiNardo called for the Church and society to work together in unity to challenge the sin of racism," to listen to persons who are suffering under this sin, and to come together in the love of Christ to know one another as brothers and sisters."
Bishop George V. Murry, SJ of Youngstown, Ohio, chair of the committee, said that through listening, prayer and meaningful collaboration, "I'm hopeful we can find lasting solutions and common ground where racism will no longer find a place in our hearts or in our society."
We need to recommit to the Gospel message Rev. King preached, which urges us to defeat racism with love and the light of faith. Follow his dedication to nonviolence. Take up the challenge issued by the bishops to love one another as brothers and sisters.
Be the hands of Jesus Christ in breaking the hate and building a more just society.