by John Gehring, NCR
As cities and towns prepare to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the persistence of racism, police brutality and economic exclusion requires a more systematic response from U.S. Catholic leaders. In his address to Congress last September, Pope Francis cited the legacy of King as a way to both reconnect Americans to our “historical memory” and remind us that the struggle for equality continues.
It’s easy to praise King’s dream of racial inclusivity while glossing over his searing critique of structural injustice, militarism and the way capitalism permits what he called “necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few.” We sometimes prefer King as an icon stored safely behind history’s glass case. The temptation to temper his prophetic witness should be resisted. King’s life, struggle and death speak to us today. Even in the age of President Barack Obama, the leading cause of death for young, black men is homicide. The killing of unarmed black men, children and women — Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and others — has provoked protests, scrutiny of police tactics and a broader debate over race in America.
What is an authentically Catholic response to the Black Lives Matter movement, mass incarceration, abuse of police power and de-facto segregation in many public schools and communities? There are no easy answers. Even raising the question requires an acknowledgment that something fundamental must change. This takes conscious movement on the part of individuals and institutions that often prefer to avoid hard conversations. Those who benefit from the status quo are not eager to question their realities. It’s more reassuring to laud the progress made rather than ask why so many dreams are still deferred.
If bishops, women religious, Catholic university leaders and lay Catholics truly want to honor King’s contributions, we must do more than look back and remember. Statements and vigils are not enough. Scrubbing the names from university buildings that give a place of honor to racists carries a symbolic importance, but the collective task of creating new edifices of equality and inclusion — in our economy, communities and churches — is a deeper test of our commitment. Pope Francis asks us to take risks and go to the margins. The peripheries of pain, brokenness and injustice are not hard to find but easy to avoid…