Let me begin by quoting the end of the legendary speech of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Washington, DC: “When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, “We are free at last.”
But I think Dr King got it wrong.
In place of his use of the word “free,” he really should have said “freed.” There’s a subtle but important difference here.
From what do we need to be freed? Well, since some people don’t like the phrase “systemic racism,” let me offer an alternative: “socially racial.” Even though some of my examples are for some the “ancient past,” let me offer them:
What, exactly, was Rosa Parks’ crime?
Why was the appearance of Jackie Robinson in a Dodgers uniform so important?
Why was Henry Aaron so hated when he hit home run #715?
What was the thinking behind the Supreme Court decision for “separate but equal” (even ignoring that there never was any equality, only separation)?
Why did George Wallace stand in the doorway of the University of Alabama?
What we need to be freed from is the idea that the color of one’s skin should matter at all; to quote Dr King’s speech again, what should be of paramount importance is “the content of one’s character.” And we should be committed to helping everyone develop that content to the highest degree possible. As Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin put it, “Society should be structured so that it is easy to be good.” If we are all brothers and sisters because we are all children of God, we should be willing to act on it, and to do everything possible to make sure that the most vulnerable among us (unborn, migrants, elderly, people of color) have the extra leg up to succeed as human beings with God-given dignity.
What about being “free”? Sadly, this is already with us.
We are endowed with the capacity to choose—we are blessed (or cursed) by our Creator with “free will.” It has been exercised for the benefit of countless selves and others throughout millennia; it has also been abused by countless others. These choices are choices to hate, most often based on self-centeredness.
Are we genetically pre-disposed to bigotry and hate? No, I don’t think so. But are we culturally conditioned to bigotry and hate? Yes, I’m afraid this is often the case. Are we are free to embrace this conditioning? Yes, unfortunately. Are we willing to be freed from it? This is the question of the hour. Let’s ask, once again: what would Jesus do?