Here is the text of an address Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has given to a conference on racism taking place in Birmingham, Alabama. The two-day event entitled “Black and White in America” concludes tomorrow.
A Word of Encouragement
Your Grace Archbishop Anthony Obinna, Your Excellency Bishop Robert Baker, Reverend Dr. Timothy George, Your Honor Mayor William Bell, distinguished Speakers and Sponsors, dearest Brothers and Sisters of faith and hope,
In the name of Pope Francis, it is both a real joy and a profound responsibility for me to address you with warm greetings of encouragement at the beginning of this important gathering, “Black and White in America”. Congratulations to those with the vision to conceive of this conference, thanks to everyone who worked hard to organize it, and welcome to each and every speaker and participant.
Almost 30 years ago, the American Catholic Bishops stated, “Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it means an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society”.
Echoing and expanding this teaching, Pope Francis most emphatically condemns the evil of racism in the world today. “The problem of intolerance must be confronted in all its forms: wherever any minority is persecuted and marginalized because of their religious convictions or ethnic identity, the wellbeing of society as a whole is endangered, and each one of us must feel affected “.
When the Zulu people of South Africa greet someone, they say “Sawubona,” which means “I see you”. The one being greeted responds with “Sikhona” which means “I am here.” The greeter ends by affirming “Ubuntu” which means, “We are, and so I am”.
Let me contrast this remarkable form of exchange with the experience of racism. Its effect is to render people invisible, and from that follows the denial of human dignity, then loss of identity, then personal despair, then social and political distrust – it unleashes a host of ills that have penetrated into every facet of life.
Racism excludes its victims from the basic resources they need. Among these are decent housing, a good education, jobs for those who can work, upbringing for the young and care for the elderly. These barriers are not imagined – they are all too real, and the enormous injustice and suffering they cause cry out for them to be torn down and overcome. In his second inaugural address (the 15l” anniversary is tomorrow, 4 March 1865), Abraham Lincoln so eloquently bemoaned “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil”.
The suffering is found on both sides of the barriers: among those who harbour hatred in their hearts and minds, and those who must endure its impact. And it does not dissipate quickly. You know better than I do what the legacy of slavery has meant for this country, and other countries are marked in similar tragic ways.
All peoples must restore and preserve the fundamental bonds of mutuality – brotherhood and sisterhood – that God intends for us.
The healing of racism begins in our own hearts. How our hearts would be shaped if everyone learned to greet each other in the Zulu manner! It invites us to self-examination: how often do I overlook people who differ from me and my kind? Do my biases cloud my ability to fully “see” another person in his or her full human dignity? Admitting my failure to see the other as human is to begin the struggle to vanquish unconscious bias and interpersonal racism.
In his Encyclical Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XVI taught that: “Jesus’ programme is `a heart which sees’. This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly”. Those who are not fully “seen” are marginalized, excluded from the circle of human concern. Love, says Pope Francis, brings them back in. “From charity we learn how to see our brothers and sisters and the world. Ubi amor, ibi oculus, say the Medievals: where there is love, there is the ability to see. Only by remaining in God’s loves will we know how to understand and love those around us”.
Education plays a fundamental role. Children can readily accept differences; they can also be taught to hate. Perhaps you recall a short song from the musical South Pacific with these terrible lines:
“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/ Before you are six or seven or eight/ To hate all the people your relatives hate/ You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
The effective dismantling of racism must begin within. The fundamental belief that each of us is created in God’s image is essential. Such conversion must then extend into laws and public policies and into systems of education, healthcare, employment and housing. This inner-and-outer healing needs to begin now – to stem the rising tide of despair among the young – many of whom doubt that they will have a place in the societies of today and tomorrow. It is high time to expand opportunities for all people of colour, who for generations have been on the receiving end of such grinding racism.
“We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family,” Pope Francis teaches in Laudato si’, and I pray that this gathering of “Black and White in America” will be a rich opportunity to do just that. Allow me to suggest some possible themes:
1) Let us further explore what our faith says about racism and, as we examine our conscience, let us pray for pardon and reconciliation.
2) Let us deepen our understanding of racism as one of the drivers of poverty and systemic violation of basic human rights within the United States and beyond our borders, too.
3) Let us work to remove the personal and systemic barriers of racism that prevent us from “seeing” the brothers and sisters whom God created equal in his image and likeness.
4) And finally, in the words of Pope Francis, “Let us combine our efforts in promoting a culture of encounter, respect, understanding and mutual forgiveness”.
With this blessing, may God abundantly bless your Conference and every effort of truth-telling, inclusion and reconciliation until racism is no more.
Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson
[Text provided by Vatican Radio]