Father John Raphael is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. Ordained to the order of Josephites in 1995, he currently serves as chaplain at Saint Thomas West Hospital in Nashville.
The term “dialogue” has become the byword of our day. There are calls for dialogue from every corner, for every heated topic, and after almost every major adverse event. Yet are these calls for dialogue truly calls for intelligent and informed discussion with people who have different opinions, or are they currently solely a handy tool for propagating one’s opinions or imposing one’s worldview?
One recent example that illustrates this for me includes many of the reactions to the tragic events in Charlottesville; most especially, the intentionally caused death of the young protester.
Let me begin by saying that I am an African-American Catholic priest. Given my own personal and vocational identity, and the fact that the Founder of my religion is a Jewish carpenter, I think it suffices to say that I have no sympathy at all with and deplore the ideological stance of the KKK, neo-Nazis or racial supremacists of any stripe.
Like many others have rightly done, I denounce and condemn all direct acts of violence and attacks on innocent human life. There is never a justification for this kind of response.
My thoughts, however, are not directed to those responses, but to a number of related ones that have surfaced. Since these events, there have been calls for public statements and declarations about racism, there have been committees established and days of prayer announced, and action plans have been drawn. All these are legitimate in and of themselves. There have also been blanket calls for some racial/ethnic groups to examine themselves in light of Charlottesville.
The pure, abject evil of those who marched there is taken for granted and, because of that judgment, those who countermarched — a very diverse group, as well — are either regarded as heroic or as a bloc, and the more unsavory among that constituency is simply ignored.
My question, then, is: To whom is the call to dialogue being issued? Is it a discussion to be held only among those who are already united in their condemnation of what took place in Charlottesville or does/should the dialogue have a broader scope?
An additional question for me includes the uniquely Christian approach to this crisis. What should that look like? Does our faith give us a blueprint, a road map for encountering the very persons who are at the source of this crisis?
Think about this for a minute. Would a dialogue between Christians and white supremacists look any different from a dialogue between Christians and young people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and national origins who have converted to radicalized Islamicist rhetoric and activity?
Would a Christian dialogue with neo-Nazis look any different from a Christian dialogue with Latino or African-American gang-bangers, whose credo and activity endanger and destroy the lives of innocents in their own communities on a nightly basis?
Without a doubt, there are significant differences among these groups. There are different social settings and different motivating factors. Religion plays a different role, or sometimes no role at all, in their destructive activity.
But there are also many similarities. Most of the active practitioners are young. Many are unemployed or underemployed. Some have abandoned the values of their parents and grandparents; others are actively encouraged by an older generation, clinging on to the belief systems that motivate them. Some have been abandoned by their parents in various ways and have been reared in the groups whose violence they perpetrate.
For Catholics and all reasonable people of goodwill, the violence, the murder and the harm to the common good done by all these groups are deplorable. Yet for us as Catholics, the persons engaging in this violence, regardless of the reasons for the vitiation of character that spurs their behavior, are made in the image and likeness of God.
Each of them is called to the same holiness of life that we are called to. Each of them is in need of the same conversion experience that each of us needs. Each of them is a subject of the reconciliation won for us by Jesus on the cross.
If our calls for dialogue, commissions, declarations, action plans and days of prayer are meant to encounter those encumbered by hate in order to convert the hate to love, should they be limited to one group in our midst to the exclusion of these others?
It seems to me that if we are ever to break out of much of the public posturing through which selective outrage and pietistic self-congratulations masquerade as prophetic utterances, then we must take seriously the call to authentic dialogue, to encounter and to accompany even those whom the current social and political climate — and their own reprehensible behavior — make it quite easy to demonize and dismiss.
These are the peripheries into which we are sent. What would the way of encounter and accompaniment look like and sound like if we took the Gospel demand as seriously with these persons as we do with others? What would building a bridge over these troubled waters entail? How (differently) would we shape our rhetoric and purposes if our dialogue was truly intended to engage the very people whose behavior has triggered our reactions?
With all these persons — brothers and sisters to us — we find that it is indeed all the more critical for believers to hate the sin and love the sinner, especially the most difficult sinner to love, the one who offends us immediately and directly.
Only then will our dialogue be engaged with those who most desperately need it. Only then will it be oriented toward true reconciliation and not more of the usual, often self-serving, rhetorical fare. The latter makes for wonderful soundbites, moving editorials and even advances some temporal causes. The former accomplishes what Jesus calls us to do.