One of the things that the month of January calls us again to remember is the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his efforts to work against racism and seek healing and reconciliation among people of different races. In this regard, we as members of the church support the foundational teaching of our church that calls for a respect for the human life of every person, created in the image and likeness of God.
“Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love — a Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” issued in 2018 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, states, “Racist acts … reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons affected, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love. … Every racist act — every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin — is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God.”
It is for this reason that “Open Wide Our Hearts” further states, “The injustice and harm racism causes are an attack against human life. … As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue.” Like the Rev. Dr. King, we as people of faith, as baptized followers of Jesus Christ, strive to root out racism by respecting the human life of every person.
As we strive against racism today, we recognize the role that civil law must play in overcoming racism. It was the Civil Rights legislation enacted in the 1960s that allowed us to make the progress that we have made to this point in combating racism, even though there remains much work to do.
However, as we work to continue to enact civil legislation that will address racism, as people of faith we must understand that ours is a deeper task. Racism is not only a struggle in civil law but is also perhaps even more tragically a spiritual and moral challenge.
“Open Wide Our Hearts” states, “Racism has no place in the Christian heart” and “Racism is a moral problem that requires a moral remedy — a transformation of the human heart — that impels us to act. … What is needed, and what we are calling for, is a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society.”
In its 1988 publication, “The Church and Racism,” the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace highlighted the role that this conversion of heart plays in completely overcoming racism when it stated:
“In order to … eradicate racist behavior of all sorts from our societies as well as the mentalities that lead to it, we must hold strongly to convictions about the dignity of every human person and the unity of the human family. Morality flows from these convictions. Laws can contribute to protecting basic applications of this morality, but they are not enough to change the human heart” (No. 16).
While governments must create laws that respect the civil rights of people regardless of race, the aspect of the struggle against racism that people of faith alone can accomplish is the conversion of human hearts. This task of the conversion of human hearts is conversion to a respect for all human life and the common human dignity of each person, made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, as people of faith, as baptized brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we work to address racism and root it out, not only on the critical level of public policy and civil law, but even more importantly, on the level of the human heart because we recognize that a conversion of heart is necessary to completely overcome racism.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, in a like manner, recognized this need to convert hearts because while he knew that civil rights were important, his real goal was for what he called the “beloved community,” a community that does the right thing not only because of civil laws, but even more foundationally because it is the right thing to do.
In a similar manner, “Open Wide Our Hearts” recognizes that the end of racism will come when we convert hearts, and “the end of racism will mean that our community will bear fruit beyond simply the fair treatment of all.”
By converting hearts, we can become more and more the beloved community that Jesus Christ calls us to be.