Last summer, a large delegation of leaders from the Archdiocese of Baltimore attended the National Black Catholic Congress1 in Orlando, Florida. They were part of an impressive gathering of black Catholic leadership seeking to strengthen evangelization in and through our nation’s African-American communities. The Congress provided dioceses throughout the United States, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, with a blueprint for ministering in and among black Catholic communities for years to come.
I am happy to say that a number of young people from our Archdiocese were part of the Baltimore delegation to the Congress. Sister Gwynette Proctor, S.N.D., and Howard Roberts, representing our Office of Black Catholic Ministries for the Archdiocese, thoughtfully arranged a bus tour that brought the young people to historically pivotal places of the Civil Rights Movement. Among the stops was the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, where, in 1960, a lunch counter sit-in took place that raised national sentiment against the evil of segregation. Their tour also brought them to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been pastor. There these young people connected with Dr. King and his legacy: his preaching, his witness to truth and justice, and his Principles of Nonviolent Direct Action. It was an eye-opening experience for these young people to learn how Dr. King responded to injustice – not in anger or with violence – but with a peace and love that resists and overcomes injustice.
Now it is time for all of us to reconnect with Dr. King and his teaching.
As I write these reflections, our nation is celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In many towns and cities, including Baltimore, there are prayer services, parades, demonstrations, prayer walks, lectures, days of service and discussions. In 2018, these gatherings take on special relevance for two reasons: first is the approach of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4; and second is the sense, shared by many, that Dr. King’s wisdom is more necessary than ever in our violent and fragmented society.
The wisdom of Dr. King’s teaching is both timely and important for our family of faith, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and indeed for our whole society. We are planning to gather on April 12, 2018, with our interfaith and ecumenical brothers and sisters to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death2. In preparation for that celebration and long afterward, however, we urgently need to retrieve, understand, embrace and put into practice his teaching and legacy. For, if in God’s grace we are to create the just, peaceful and compassionate society that Dr. King envisioned, we must undergo a lasting conversion of heart and mind and make a firm commitment to teach, learn and practice nonviolent direct action for social change.
Good reasons for doing so are not hard for us to find. We grieve over the many people who lost their lives to gun violence in the City of Baltimore in the year just ended. We are concerned about the urgent need to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the residents whom the police and city leaders are duty-bound to protect. Weighing heavily on our minds and hearts is the sin of racism that continues, sometimes overtly but often subtly, to insinuate itself in our relationships, institutions and communities of faith, including our own. Indeed, the sin of racism has tarnished the soul of our society for so long that racist attitudes can be deeply embedded in our subconscious, such that we may hardly know they are there. We must bring to light such attitudes and overcome them.
Not to be ignored are conditions which create despair and spawn violence in our neighborhoods: lack of education, unemployment, a dearth of decent and affordable housing; a proliferation of illegal weapons; drug abuse and gangs; the disintegration of the family; homelessness; and so much more. These deep and systemic problems do violence to the dignity of real human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Even worse is the tendency on the parts of many who see continued decline as inevitable and who react to these harsh realities with indifference or jaded cynicism. In this stark environment, Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence are more necessary than ever: they are prophetic words of hope that can light the path forward.
All of us need to walk this path of nonviolent hope. Indeed, we should not imagine that Dr. King’s principles apply only to troubled urban neighborhoods or solely to our African-American brothers and sisters. Violence, racism and a host of social problems exist in different forms and degrees throughout our suburban and rural areas as well. No family, no neighborhood, no community is immune from violent crime, domestic violence, drug abuse, racism and many other social problems that give rise to an angry and violent way of life. How often, for example, do immigrants face discrimination, hatred, denied opportunities and even unjust deportation? Think of how vitriolic and coarse public rhetoric has become in politics and the media, a coarseness that often spills over into private conversation. Instead of trying peacefully to reach the common ground of understanding, people far too often and far too quickly resort to abusive language. They may not kill their neighbors with bullets but they do “kill” them with words and gestures of disrespect. The commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” pertains to all forms of violence against others, including the violence of economic inequality.
“Cardinal Shehan was booed twice last night by segregationalists who came to hear him testify before the City Council in favor of open occupancy legislation.
Councilmen who sat through the crowded three-hour session in the War Memorial Building were visibly impressed with the Cardinal’s bearing – and shocked at the rudeness of a large section of the crowd…the Cardinal called on the City Council to give leadership to the counties by passing fair-housing legislation first.
‘The legislative remedy,’ he remarked, ‘must be applied in the areas where the social sickness is most apparent.’
He pledged his own support and that of the Catholic Archdiocese, to help achieve passage of similar laws elsewhere and to support the Council ‘in what I ask you to do.’”
From a January 14, 1966 report in the Baltimore Sun
In these past weeks, many in Baltimore, including me, have spoken about “changing the negative narrative” about our city. Without denying or minimizing the tragic problems that beset our community, we need to abstain from a narrative of hopelessness that fails to see the good that is going on all around us. We need to acknowledge and actively support the efforts of many in the government, faith communities, education and non-profit communities to improve conditions, not to mention the heroic efforts and witness of many good people who live in our most underserved neighborhoods. When we fail to heed these voices and acknowledge their good work, we weave a story of despair, a self-fulfilling prophecy that only makes things worse. Hopelessness, as much as violence, destroys people and their communities. On the other hand, when we acknowledge one another’s efforts and try to maximize and coordinate them, then we are building enthusiasm, momentum and goodwill – all necessary ingredients for achieving a better day. Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence help guide us toward changing the narrative from fear to courage; from enmity to friendship; from injustice to human dignity; from hate to love.
Let us be clear: Dr. King’s principles are meant to change us and in changing us to change our society. They are addressed first and foremost to the heart, calling us to conversion, a conversion that leads to a different way of thinking, speaking and acting. They urge us to leave behind “business as usual” and instead to find ways not only to come together but to stay together for the long haul, in peaceful dialogue and cooperation for the sake of each person’s dignity and for the common good. Thus, if we truly allow Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence to guide us to conversion, we will not be content to camouflage our problems but rather be spurred into action; we will be moved to address and resist injustice in our community. Ultimately, however, it is only a change of mind and heart on the part of many that will lead to a new beginning for us and our beloved community.
Archbishop William D. Borders, who served as spiritual shepherd of the Archdiocese of Baltimore from 1974 to 1989, was known as a gentle man who had stood up for racial justice as a first-time pastor in the deep south where he desegregated his parish by burning the ropes used to separate black parishioners from whites. He arrived to Baltimore just as public schools were being desegregated. He went on television to appeal for peaceful cooperation. “It worked,” he recalled at the time of his retirement, noting others made similar appeals for calm… “but I was the only one who went public.” Under his leadership the Archdiocese adopted its first affirmative action hiring plan and Baltimore was the first diocese in the nation to protest apartheid by divesting holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. The Archbishop also nominated Father John Ricard, S.S.J., to become Baltimore’s first black bishop.
In seeking to make Dr. King’s principles our own, we need to remember that they were the product not merely of his own study3 and reflection but also of his lived experience and that of his people. They came to birth in a society saturated with racism and injustice. They were born in the hearts of people of dignity and greatness, yearning to be free; yearning to lead peaceful, productive and generous lives; yearning to be the persons God created them to be. These principles took shape as Dr. King held up the experience of his people to the light of the Gospel and the Christian Tradition. Thus, they constitute not an abstract philosophy, but an applied theology of liberation.
All across this Archdiocese, those same yearnings well up in many hearts, especially in the wake of the unrest that rocked the City of Baltimore in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray Jr. In setting forth Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence, it is to your heart that I appeal – to your desire for justice, love and peace. And so I invite you to reflect with me on these principles and then to make them a springboard for further prayer, study, reflection and discussion in your families, parish communities, prayer groups, and in other gatherings throughout the City of Baltimore and nine counties that comprise the Archdiocese. I would also welcome your observations on various ways these principles might be lived and applied as we seek to create a civilization of peace, justice and love. This page has been created on the archdiocesan website so that such conversation and further study can occur. I pray it will be useful in advancing the healthy exchange of ideas that is essential to creating an atmosphere where the conversion of hearts and minds can be achieved and injustice can be addressed more vigorously.
“We gather this evening mindful of an evil, a spiritual malady that has gnawed at the moral fiber of our nation, our community and our church from the early days of colonial America. The early history tells us of the slave trade. Like other sad pages whose message causes pain, these have been torn from the history books most people study, but the scars, the consequences remain. The illness festers. Today we call it by the name of racism.”
Cardinal William H. Keeler, December 2000
There follows a description of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence:
Many years ago, St. John Paul II said, “The contemporary world … needs the witness of unarmed prophets who are often the objects of ridicule.” Dr. King was himself one of these “unarmed prophets” who taught us to resist evil actively without resorting to violence of any sort. Embracing his teaching requires of us courage, that is, a deep spiritual strength. Courage summons our spiritual, mental and emotional resources so that we can speak and do the truth in love (cf. Eph 4:15). Renouncing physical, verbal and emotional violence, as Jesus did when the temple guard struck him (Jn 18:22), the nonviolent person instead bears witness to the truth by living it and seeks not to coerce others into conformity but rather to persuade them in love. Living and acting in this way can be risky. We derive the courage to overcome the skepticism and cynicism of the world around us through friendship with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus for us to live this principle as followers of Christ, we must rely on the strength of the Holy Spirit, whose gift of courage we received in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. Such courage prompts us to resist injustice by persuasion, negotiation, personal witness, use of the media and, when necessary, peaceful protest.
A key principle of Catholic social teaching is “solidarity,” which, as St. John Paul II said, must include “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.”4 Solidarity requires us to recognize that, as brothers and sisters, we are equal because we share a common humanity. More profoundly, it means recognizing God in every person and every person in God. To cite the motto of Catholic Charities of Baltimore, it means “Cherishing the Divine” within each person. Our common humanity, sharing the spark of divinity, is the basis for a friendship that crosses lines of race, ethnicity, politics and culture. By renouncing all forms of violent and belligerent behavior, we seek to open doors of friendship, to build relationships across the lines that divide us, to touch the hearts even of those who believe that violence is the only response to injury. As Dr. King has written, “Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.” And it is friendship that often paves the way for a meeting of minds and hearts in dialogue and mutual understanding and leads to authentic human development. We need to cultivate civic and political relationships aimed at human dignity and the common good. We need to foster friendship in our famil