Charlottesville: A clear and urgent invitation

by Marie Dennis
Pax Christi International Co-President

Despite decades of faith-based activism, I remember very few occasions when the invitation has been so clear and urgent. As their town became a lightning rod for white supremacists, Charlottesville faith communities issued a call for clergy and religious leaders from other parts of the country to come to Charlottesville to participate in carefully orchestrated nonviolent resistance to the public demonstration of racist violence planned by extremist groups for August 12th.

I was able to get to Charlottesville for the interreligious service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church on Friday evening. The standing-room-only gathering was solemn and prayerful. Traci Blackmon, Cornell West, Lisa Sharon Harper and other leaders from many different communities and traditions spoke a powerful message in word and music – that fierce, risky love is stronger than hate, a message repeatedly affirmed by all of us present. “CongregateCharlottesville” organized a response to expected violence that was intentionally nonviolent and very articulate in addressing the roots of racism and white supremacy.

As a Catholic, however, I was very disappointed that no Catholic clergy or leadership person participated in the service itself. Were Catholic religious leaders invited and did they refuse to participate – or are we so invisible in the struggle against racism and hatred that no one in Charlottesville knew a Catholic leader to invite?

During the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in early July, I was on panels in two different breakout sessions focused on violence and racism. A repeated plea from African American deacons who were also on the panels was for the institutional Catholic Church to be more visible in response to the violence of racism. They were particularly focused on bishops being “in the streets,” but how do we as the Church/people of God become more visible and engaged in a consistent way? Pax Christi USA has been working for over 20 years to become an anti-racist organization. Lots of important effort has been dedicated to recognizing our own participation in the mortal sin of racism and to rooting out our ways of living and organizing that perpetuate racism. But I am convinced that is not enough. Racism is systemic in U.S. society – woven into the fabric of the structures that shape our ways of life.

Some of us have been deeply involved in the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative for the past few years. That effort to engage the institutional Catholic Church worldwide in teaching and developing our understanding of active nonviolence is very clear that one major form of violence we are trying to counter is the institutionalized violence of racism. But what does that mean? How do we live that commitment?

Strategic nonviolence has to be contextual. Racism is the context here. I believe those of us who live white privilege have to be attentive to our own racism but we also have to be more visibly in the streets and engaged in dismantling racist structures in our society. Our statements of shock and solidarity are important but insufficient. Holding a candle in front of the White House is a good step but not the only important step. If we take Catholic social teaching seriously we have to figure out why there was no visible Catholic presence in Charlottesville and do something about it!

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