WHEN THE HOLY FATHER addressed the United States Congress in September 2015 he mentioned four particularly outstanding Americans (shown here). Two were Catholics, the journalist and founder of the Catholic Workers the Servant of God Dorothy Day (of whom, I suspect, many members of Congress knew little or nothing) and the Cistercian spiritual writer Thomas Merton; two were not Catholics, President Abraham Lincoln and the civil rights activist and Baptist Minister, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
The fiftieth anniversary of Dr King’s assassination was earlier this month, just after Easter. His death, although he had been warned repeatedly of threats against his life, shocked the world, including many Catholics. Dorothy Day wrote in The Catholic Worker: ‘Martin Luther King died daily, as St Paul said. He faced death daily and said a number of times that he knew he would be killed for the faith he had in him. The faith that men could live together as brothers. The faith in the gospel teaching of nonviolence. The faith that man is capable of change, of growing in love…Always, I think, I will weep when I hear the song “We Shall Overcome” and when I read the words “Free at last, Free at last. Great God Almighty, Free at last.”’
The second Catholic mentioned by the pope, Fr Thomas Merton, wrote a letter of condolence to King’s widow which has survived. Books, documentaries and films about King’s life give a horrifying picture of the depth of racism and hatred in the United States a mere fifty years ago; it is perhaps easy for us to forget exactly how recent this was. The anniversary of his death is not the only reminder of how bad things were in 1968, as this month also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the politician Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, also marked by articles and analysis. Both anniversaries give us the opportunity to refresh our understanding of Catholic teaching about racism – as the Easter season is about what it means to be part of the Church, we have a responsibility to strengthen our faith. The fact that King was a Baptist and not a Catholic is significant: combating the evil of racism, wherever it is found, is something which has brought Christians from different backgrounds closer together, back in the 1960s and much more confidently now.
One of the clearest summaries of what the Church teaches, drawing on various sources, is in a book called the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, here talking about the international community: ‘Despite the widespread aspiration to build an authentic international community, the unity of the human family is not yet becoming a reality. This is due to obstacles originating in materialistic and nationalistic ideologies that contra-dict the values of the person integrally considered in all his various dimensions, material and spiritual, individual and community. In particular, any theory or form whatsoever of racism and racial discrimination is morally unacceptable’ (section 433).
Racism is not simply about being un-charitable or nasty towards other people – it’s really a denial of the Christian doctrine of creation, an act of blasphemy. Our faith teaches us that all men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, with a dignity and sacredness as persons which comes from God. If we discriminate on the grounds of ethnic background we are denying that doctrine. All Christians have grown in their understanding of what this means in the last fifty years, in no small part because of the heroic witness of people like Martin Luther King, as also of the countless Christians and others who witnessed against institutional racism in what is now Zimbabwe and in South Africa under apartheid.
Much has improved since the dark days of 1968. However, many of you will know, if you are black, Asian, Eastern European or Irish, that there is still discrimination and racism in this country. Many commentators this month, reflecting on these anniversaries, have shown how the shadows linked to King’s murder and Powell’s speech still hang over the United States and Europe. Indeed we have seen in the last week Powell’s ghost in the Home Office. Catholics have a particular opportunity to witness to our faith in the constant battle against racism: this is because, much more than is true of most other churches in this country, we are a genuinely international church. Indeed this is more true of this parish than it was twenty years ago – we have families in our parish from countless different countries in the world, and this has enriched our community enormously. This requires us to make sure we know what the Church teaches in the name of Jesus; it also needs confidence and courage.