By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published October 31, 2017
I must admit that I usually feel as though I am preaching to the choir on occasions such as this. I realize that the audience gathered before me this evening is populated with quite like-minded people, most of whom were scandalized and offended by expressions of racial bigotry and violence the likes of which have recently become too much a part of our public arena. You are also particularly embarrassed that some of those events happened in the confines of this historic university city.
Many of you may already have a personal history of working for, praying for, and supporting racial harmony and healing. I could not imagine that there are very many avowed racists in our midst this evening. Neither do I believe that extremist or fringe groups are represented here or that active members of any rightwing militia movements are present. We all are commonly people who have long ago realized that living together as brothers and sisters is the most worthwhile condition for this nation of ours – even though we all realize that this goal is far from being completed.
It is still one of the most awkward issues about which one can ever speak! You know – the “R” word! We still stumble about trying to find expressions to admit that we are not completely healed as a nation. The United States of America professes some of the most noble and civilized sentiments of human equality ever recorded in history, but we still have not yet found a way to translate the nobility of our ideals into the practical everyday living patterns of a people. We have not been able to bring the lofty goals of a nation into the lives of our people. In short, we are still becoming a nation that practices what it preaches.
There are few, if any, areas in American life that are not influenced or shaped by the issue of race. Rather than growing less complicated with time, the issue only seems to have become more complex. We are a nation comprised of people from every human racial group, and still we find that ours is not yet a story of unity and mutual respect as often as it is a cacophony of interests and claims, of accusation and stereotype, of bigoted declaration and hostile retort. Let’s face it, we have a long way to go before we truly reflect the “E pluribus Unum” that our currency so proudly proclaims.
Ours is a nation of immigrants, who willingly or unwillingly fled to or were brought to these shores. We find ourselves together here whether we like it or not. For most of us we can only fantasize about returning to the places from whence our ancestors came. And for most of us such fantasy is little more than that – an unattainable reflection only rarely fueled either by real personal desire or possibility. Whether our homeland was on the great African continent or some European nation perhaps now known by a different name, or one of the myriad Asian or African nations that have also seen new regimes and titles, we are all hyphenated Americans now!
Racial harmony is not simply a gracious hope; it is the only way that this nation will continue to advance toward its own political ideals. A generation ago, people might have thought that mere racial tolerance was a lofty enough aspiration. The United States will never survive if tolerance is the final condition of our people. Tolerance cannot build a united society. We must strive for more than simply a laissez faire way of surviving. Our national future is dependent upon the establishment and fostering of a human respect for diversity – because that is the people and the way that we are!
It’s a common tendency to limit our tomorrows because of our yesterdays. Nearly every sentence that I hear that begins with a sordid story of yesterday ends with a reason that the future is already determined. The issue of race will never be advanced as long as people believe that yesterday has already completely determined both today and tomorrow. And that fact is equally challenging for all Americans of every racial heritage.
History can be an even-handed commentator. There are as many helpful insights in our history as there are horrendous facts. We ought to approach history with enough humility to admit that no one of us can grasp it all. We are finite people and the best that we can do is to glimpse at one small part of history. Our personal experiences are all limited – they may be true and even accurate, but they are limited. When we speak from our own experience, we need to be careful to recognize that it is a limited reference point. Every sentence that begins “all you people …” has already betrayed its own fallacy. It is impossible for an individual to know all about an entire class of people. It is impossible for an entire group of people to capture the essence of a people – even the people to whom they themselves belong. Racial harmony must begin with the humble admission that no one of us can capture the story of an entire people – for good or for ill. Our personal experiences are far too narrow to masquerade as all of history or all of anything except the limited experience of a single person.
As Catholics, we have a long and rich tradition of using symbols in our worship and ritual life. The symbols that we use are not arbitrary, but we believe in faith that they were chosen by the Lord in establishing our sacramental life. Water, oil, bread and wine are essential elements in our worship and faith. As human symbols used in divine worship they affect what they symbolize. Thus babies are truly born again in baptism as they enter life through water as we all did when we were being born. But water in baptism also indicates cleansing as well as being submerged in a watery tomb that leads to life. All of those meanings are found in the waters of baptism. Our ritual symbols are multivalent; that is, they carry many different meanings simultaneously. That’s the awesome power of a symbol – it can express many different realities at the same time. Flags and statues are symbols in the very same way, and it is impossible to say that they stand for any single or limited meaning and then deny that they also carry other meanings at the same time.
History is also an important vista for racial reconciliation and harmony. When we approach one another’s history, we stand on holy ground. The first stage of valuing cultural diversity must begin with the reverence that is due to the history of a people. And having admitted that no one of us can fully appreciate another community’s history, we ought to begin by exploring that history, but always with an open mind.
I strongly endorse cross-cultural educational opportunities. They allow young people to look into the vast storehouse of history and discover that every group of people has heroes and heroines, has its triumphs and tragedies, and has its villains and scoundrels. Cultural history will give every group something in which to take pride as well as things that need to be healed.
Racism is only able to survive as long as there is ignorance. Racism grows only in the soil of ignorance and unfamiliarity. We must be brave enough to acknowledge the savage realities that history may hold. That is why cross-cultural opportunities for all people are an herbicide for the unchecked growth of racism. The more that we know about history the less likely we may be to repeat its failures. The appreciation of a culture’s history is a primary step in the eradication of racism. Tiya Miles, Professor at the University of Michigan in a recent New York Times opinion piece reminds us all that fighting racism is not just a war of words – it requires action and commitment.
I call upon every young person here present to promise only to use proper titles when referring to people – titles that are determined as proper by the people themselves. There is no human right more basic than to determine your own name. I realize that this means that we must continually update our references to other people – is that such a terrible price to pay in respect for other people? Native Americans, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, the hearing impaired, etc. etc. For some people, I suppose that such verbiage is simply trendy or PC – perhaps. But it is an obvious attempt, with little personal cost, to help us recognize our diversity, our uniqueness as people. Such a sensitivity is the next step to respecting people as they determine what respect means for themselves.
Sad to say, we do not really know how to speak to one another. We are still clumsy in introducing issues of race into our conversations. We are also quick to take offense. Our awkwardness and our easily offended feelings are merely the veneer over generations of mistrust of, ignorance of, and fear of one another. Ought we not to admit that in a great cathartic exercise? We need to tone down our rhetoric, especially in today’s climate. I have long felt that in issues of race, the more vehement the rhetoric, the weaker the position that the rhetoric seeks to defend. There are things about which peoples of different races will differ – is that so surprising? We all have different human experiences. And if we are humble enough to admit that my personal experience is not the summit of human wisdom, then we might also be willing to listen to another’s experience realizing that it too is limited in its insight.
There are some volatile topics that we will need to face as Americans: affirmative action, violence, economic and political power sharing, interracial dating, bilingual education, our outdated and inept immigration laws, gender identity and equality, and other such simple subjects. We cannot hide from these issues and they will not be solved by the volume of our arguments but only by their wisdom. Valuing racial diversity is the only reasonable approach to these and many other similarly challenging concerns that continue to lie just beneath the surface of our tense interchanges.
If anyone dares to say that these issues have simple solutions, please inform that individual that if the solutions were indeed as simple as one might propose, then why have they eluded so many people for so long. If anyone proposes that the solution to our American race dilemma is the responsibility or within the ability of any person, governmental agency or organization, then please feel free to inform that individual that even the wisdom of great minds and the goals of noble organizations must be applied to society one person at a time.
It seems to me that young people gathering to understand better how our faith calls us to respond to racial hatred and violence is a clear indication that you are already on the right track. You have committed yourselves to improving the relationship among the races in this university community and in the communities from which you originate.
You young people must be willing to take public and often controversial stands to ensure that our tomorrows will be better than our yesterdays. You must demand only the best from yourselves and you look for others who will follow to improve upon your progress. I am delighted to accept as my own your proud Catholic response in pursuing interracial justice and harmony. I fully endorse the challenges that our Catholic faith places before each one of us in the wide promotion of racial harmony and peace. I add only a few personal reflections. My dignity as a person is not threatened by the dignity of other people. Neither is my personal worth enhanced by the denigration of another person. In fact, the more I learn about the richness of other cultures, the better my own appreciation for my personal gifts, talents, heritage, and culture. Those things that are most valuable about a culture are not lost when placed on the delicate balance of mutual respect and admiration for the treasures of other peoples.
In attempting to bring to reality the words of the great seal of the United States: E pluribus Unum, the unum (one) does not supplant or deny the pluribus (many)—it becomes a new reality of oneness and strength because of the many who enhance it by their diversity. So may it come about in our tomorrows that our unity becomes a new creation from the treasures of our yesterdays.
This is my first visit to this university community that has undergone such undesired publicity recently. I gladly embrace your proud heritage and your faithful commitment to racial justice and diversity.
So why do I continue to accept invitations like this one to speak to people who are so obviously already convinced of the importance and value of racial healing? Once again, I may be preaching to the choir. Quite simply because the task of peace building here and in too many other communities is yet to be achieved and even the choir needs a good rehearsal or a practice now and then. Racial healing is an aspiration that will only be possible because of the ceaseless attention of all people of good will who believe in the value and significance of living harmoniously in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society.
The issue of race is never very far from any dimension of any of our lives in America. We are a people who have been characterized by our failures and our successes in the arena of race interaction and exchange. While it might be nice to envision, as some people suggest, a “colorless” society, we are too diverse and too complex to ever imagine that the differences that distinguish us will ever be without meaning or be inconspicuous. In fact, part of our healing will depend upon our ability to recognize diversity as a positive reality – indeed as a desirable condition.
It is good that we are not all the same – not all identical. It is part of the great mystery first revealed in the Book of Genesis where the ever-creative God fashions a whole universe with splendid variety and repeatedly pauses in the midst of His creative accomplishments to make an obviously self-satisfied reflection that “it was very good!”
The great variety within humanity is occasionally too easily discounted as an enhancement when we consider our society. We are not all alike and that is not bad. In fact, part of the message of our Judeo-Christian religious heritage is that God’s elegant wonder is best experienced in the diversity of His creation. Similarly, our national unity is not predicated on all of us being exactly alike so much as it is on sharing common goals, a national purpose, and an acceptance of our differences as an advantage rather than a liability.
Parmenides, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher of the 5th Century BC is often credited with raising the ancient observations about unity and diversity – the one and the many. In some respects, his ancient questions are still ever new. Humanity continues to struggle to understand how it can be possible to be different and still unified. This inquiry into the ultimate possibility and favored excellence of diversity remains at the heart of any discussion of racial harmony.
The Catholic Church, because we are Catholic, has the responsibility to call all of our people to see with the eyes of Christ. We are obliged to challenge our society and any institution within society that supports, defends, or promotes racism or intercultural hostility. You young Catholic men and women of this university community stand as a wonderful witness to the Church’s desire to present itself as a Catholic family of faith and harmony. An important component of your Christian identity is your ability to be peacemakers. It is that gift that this entire local community depends upon in order to render us more Christ-like. It is very important to have an opportunity to learn more about one another. In spite of the almost constant public exposure in the public media of racial issues, conflicts, and studies, Americans of all races, I do believe, remain ignorant of each other’s deep feelings, attitudes, and fears.
And as I alluded to before, when we act from our ignorance of others, we only exacerbate the problems that we face as a community. An important first step for you in this local academic environment that has recently experienced such unwelcome publicity would be for you to personally admit that we do not really know one another but often presume that we do. Such an acknowledgement would lead to the next and equally significant step of asking ourselves if we really want to know about the other. I have found gatherings such as this one hopeful expressions of a desire to know one another better. In many respects, these types of gatherings are the most encouraging ones for our Catholic community because we gather not in the heat of crisis but in the calm of desire for an improved racial climate in our community.
The honest and comprehensive grasp of history can be a difficult discipline and task. Why? Because the interpretation of history involves personal biases and perspective. This is especially the case when we are asked to understand some of the less glamorous aspects of our regional history. How do we acknowledge the repulsive dimensions of our past relations with one another? How are we to be true to what has taken place and yet move beyond the framework of yesterday? In a word, we need a national reconciliation – a healing of America’s soul from the torment of oppression and hate. We need to forgive one another for all of those things that belong to the past so that we can move into a better more hopeful tomorrow.
Within our Catholic faith, we have a sacramental ritual called “reconciliation” or “penance.” It is a ceremony that invites a person to admit his or her sinfulness and failings and then to hear the words of Christ mediated through the Church’s minister that we are pardoned. Unfortunately, too many Catholics have grown out of touch themselves from this Sacrament. For a wide variety of reasons, many Catholics have not shared in this Sacrament for a long time. I believe that is a pity since the Sacrament is a ritualized celebration of Christ’s forgiveness.
We need a comparable regional and national reconciliation of those things that still divide us as a people. Yet before such a public reconciliation can take place, we need to understand how valuable it is that we are a nation of many faces, many languages, and many cultural and ethnic customs. In other words, we need to reconsider the timeless wisdom of Parmenides’ question about the one and the many. We need to value our rich diversity as the foremost pattern for living as a local community of people and a nation.
I have found many hopeful signs in the almost 34 years that I have been the Bishop of this Church. I have found our children to be open and candid about the way they see other people – unafraid to ask even me as a bishop if I have ever encountered racism. With that childlike innocence that most of us too quickly abandon, our children sense that something is not right when white and black and brown children are infected by hatred and mistrust that they cannot understand.
The ecumenical and interfaith community in our nation needs to continue to reassert its pastoral responsibility in challenging its faithful to accept the dictates of the Gospel and the tenets of our various religious principles and moral teaching in rejecting all forms of racism, bigotry, and injustice. Above all, those in pastoral leadership ought to encourage the fainthearted, the timid, and the hesitant souls to be brave in standing up to counter the subtle and occasionally not so subtle forms of intolerance.
I am more optimistic today than ever before when I encounter a community of young people like this. I am confident because people who have faced the monster of hatred in your own community have not given up. I do not judge this community by the occasional outrageous actions of a few and neither should you. Racial harmony is a persistent, tranquil, and uninterrupted presence in our nation and through its diligence and determination, it will help us all better understand one another – and, please God, even love one another as we are, in our differences and uniqueness so that perhaps we will be understanding what the author of Genesis wrote when he said that God looked at all that He had made and saw that it was very good!
The sin of racism also reminds me of the Greek mythological figure of Narcissus who fell madly in love with himself. According to this ancient tradition of human wisdom, Narcissus was among the most handsome of the entire pantheon of Greek deities. So good looking and handsome was this forest god, in his own estimation, that he could find no other deity worthy of his love. He spurned the amorous attention of all others until on one occasion according to legend, he happened to glance at his own image reflected in a forest pond. He lunged at his image and fell headlong into the body of water. Racism blinds us to the beauty of others and often makes an idol of our own reflection. While the Greeks told this story to lament the fate of poor Narcissus, we have too many examples of people who find it impossible to love others who are not an image of themselves. They too are hopelessly drowning in their own egos and will be lost not only to others but also eventually to their very selves.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory delivered this lecture on Oct. 23 for the St. Anselm Institute for Catholic Thought on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.