Two days after counterprotestors clashed with white nationalists at an “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Washington Post ran an article about the science behind racism. “Why are people still racist?” the headline asked. Two scientists, one a social psychologist and the other a psychology professor at New York University, hypothesized that the answer can be found in one’s environment.
“People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them,” one said, adding later: “The only way to change bias is to change culture. You have to change what is acceptable in society.” The reasoning in itself is not unsound, but as people of faith, the culture change we seek is different from the one the two scientists envision. Our change is more revolutionary, going much deeper than the secularist goal of fostering a culture of inclusivity. Instead, our challenge is to foster a culture in which every person is able to flourish in accordance with his or her inherent dignity as one loved by God and created in his image — one in which individuals submit with joy to the will of God and love neighbors as themselves.
This, we know, is easier said than done. But the forces catapulting us toward the crossroads of healing or death are real, and they’re not going away. Charlottesville is only the latest manifestation of that reality, one that carries within its folds the heavy weights of Paris, Brussels, Orlando, San Bernardino, Newtown, Charleston, Berlin, Nice, Boston, 9/11 and so many more sites of violence and unrest. Action is imperative, and as Christians, we must be the ones to offer the world the healing that is found in Jesus Christ.
This healing begins with individuals. Take James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old infatuated with Nazis and “alt-right” symbolism who drove a car into a crowd of people, killing one woman, on a day Charlottesville will never forget. He was seduced by the “answers” of a twisted ideology: power, supremacy, the worshipping of one’s race and self. But these are false idols. Would history have been changed were he to have worshipped Jesus Christ instead? Charlottesville is a reminder that each of us is called to spread the Gospel person by person. Ours is a message of hope for all, and sharing it can’t just come from the top down. It has to begin with us.
This healing begins with our words. It’s may be a cliché, but it’s true: What we say matters. How we speak to and interact with others shapes who we are and influences those around us. This especially includes children, who pay attention to our every word and deed, and co-workers who know we are Christian and who are watching us to see just what that really means. Charlottesville reminds us that we must represent our faith well, and, as such, our words should lift up and never demean.
This healing begins with looking at our neighbor and seeing not a color, hearing not an accent or knowing not a political viewpoint, but instead recognizing the individual’s humanity and God-given dignity. As the late Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago said in a 2001 pastoral letter on racism, “Loving only people who are just like ourselves, loving only those who are members of our biological family or who share our own ethnic or cultural background, our own political views or our own class assumptions, does not fulfill the challenge of the Gospel.”
Our duty as Christians is to create a new beginning. To shun anger, fear, hatred, demeaning words, racism, terrorism, bigotry, death and instead to embrace the hope of the Gospel that is Jesus Christ. This is the challenge of our time, and each of us is called to respond.
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor