As we move past Charlottesville, words matter

For nearly a week, the individual and national wounds opened by the violence in Charlottesville, Va., have been raw and pulsating. As a pastor, I struggled to say something to make sense of what we’ve all heard and seen. I wrote in the name of “the one and a half million Catholic men, women and children of the Archdiocese of Newark – people who trace their roots to every continent of the world and represent every race and ethnicity,” who viewed with horror the recent events in Charlottesville and condemned the racism and vicious rhetoric that contributed to this tragic moment in our nation’s history. This vast Catholic community hopes to stand in prayer and solidarity with all people of good will and we witness to our Christian calling to ‘love your enemies…that you may be children of your heavenly Father’ (Mt. 5:44-45).

In that message, I embraced gratefully the profound wisdom of the mother of Heather Heyer, who told reporters in Charlottesville “hate cannot fix the world. Hate only creates more hate.” I believe that the faithful of our Church want to join her in rejecting the brutality that killed her child, contributed to the deaths of two Virginia State Troopers – Jake Cullen and Berke Bates – and left dozens injured.

Of course, it is not enough simply to denounce such violence, and I called for “a thorough examination of racial bigotry and intolerance in the light of reason and love.” Why? Jesus tells us “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed” (Jn 3:20). Dark words and deeds must be met with light and love.”

The bigotry and hatred that were so visible last Saturday continue to convulse our country. The airwaves and print media have been engulfed by honest and heartfelt words far more eloquent powerful than mine. It is important to speak. It is even more crucial to listen. Words matter. Truth matters.

Today, words matter even more than we otherwise would expect because the collective body of Americans – regardless of our political viewpoints – represent a nation in need of healing, a nation in search of a moral compass. Vague or tepid responses will not heal us or guide us towards a new and more authentic path. Far too many of our fellow citizens no longer have faith in the systems or institutions that have shaped and guided our daily lives for centuries. Such a void easily is filled by hateful words that seek only to destroy truth and love.

People my age may recall coming of age when Americans struggled to find words to speak to each other. Watching the news last weekend and this week, I wonder how many of us had a vague feeling that we had seen and heard this before. While most of us baby boomers have cherished memories of our wild and wonderful youth, recent events can remind us of the vitriolic fragmentation that lacerated the country in the late 60’s and 70’s.

Is it possible that we still lack the words to speak with each other in a way that generates respect and love, that creates space for justice and peace? Many of the problems and the pain that tormented us then continue to vex us today because we refused to see what was truly there or hear the voices of those on margins. That must stop now.

Let me get back to today, and the challenge that Charlottesville presents us. Leaders must speak clearly and respectfully as they name the real evil that torments our people. There is no time for playing with words that purport to placate, evade or confuse. I am confident that Americans will understand and forgive a leader an occasional verbal gaffe, so long as his or her intentions are true, transparent and consistent. We have far less patience with equivocation.

This painful moment in our history invites us to recognize our national aphasia and learn to speak with each other in new and respectful ways. If we strive to be truly eloquent, we might test the teaching of Jesus, to “love your enemies…that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”

These are words that matter.

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