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Martin Luther King Jr.

“Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere”

—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

Demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, touched our collective nerve last summer. At their outset in early July, I thought, “Wait—did I hear what I thought I heard?”

One month later, August 12-13, round two arrived—same city, similar actors, and more publicity and dangerous aftereffects. Divisions over ultranationalism and white supremacy stressed the nation.

What is an appropriate response by our faith communities to these occurrences? An opinion-editorial by a Catholic Latina theologian and a classic essay by a 1960s civil rights leader both bear consideration.

Nichole M. Flores, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, wrote in “When the K.K.K. came to town, Catholics prayed. Now what?” (America magazine, July 12, 2017):

I am not naïve about the existence of racism in the United States. As a Mexican-American with brown skin, I have often experienced instances of racism. Until recently, however, I had imagined the K.K.K. as a fossil calcified in our national history, not as a living, active organism still instilling fear, marshaling intimidation and potentially inciting violence.

Flores asks how effectively the Church combats racism and bigotry. She mentions being pleasantly surprised when she received an invitation from an unexpected Catholic parish to attend a holy hour for peace and the end of racism and hatred. Flores wrote:

A holy hour against racial hatred is a profound way to begin this urgent mission of the church: rejecting racism in the clearest possible terms at all times and in all places. These prayers send us out to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all people of good will against racial terror that assaults human life, inhibits human flourishing and demolishes the common good.

One month later, after another weekend of tension between White nationalist demonstrators and counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, the Catholic Mass that I attended on Saturday afternoon contained no references to the need for healing and reconciliation; the Unitarian Universalist gathering at which I spoke the following morning did include a period of silence before the start of the service for everyone to respectfully reflect about the ideological tensions facing our country.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Martin Luther King Jr.Conversations revealed little references to the Charlottesville events in Green Bay area churches, but some comments on Facebook posts and online articles did reveal that religious leaders were calling the faithful to the need for unity and accord among our divided populations. When a Public Radio guest recommended that an initial response could be to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” I fired up Google and read the 1963 classic. King wrote, in part:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. … There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society [emphasis added]. … Small in number, they were big in commitment.

Church folk in northeast Wisconsin cannot sit by idly when African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, and Latinos are being persecuted in the name of nationalism and white supremacy. What is preached from the pulpit and prayed for in the Universal Prayer of the Church at every Mass must connect the Scriptures and our current social successes and challenges. May what we hear on Sunday within the walls of our churches help inspire us to stomp out hatred and bigotry the rest of the week, every week.

DISCLAIMER: This blog represents Br. Herro’s own opinions and experiences. It does not represent an official position or opinion of St. Norbert Abbey or of any other Norbertine.
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