Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

Archbishop Aquila

The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.

COMING UP: Bringing love to a violent world

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Bringing love to a violent world

Two Denver Catholics share their stories

Aaron Lambert

Ferguson. Baton Rouge. Charleston. Dallas. The list of places where violence has occurred in the U.S. within the last year goes on and on.

Right now, people need hope. Each day seems to bring a new headline of a shooting or a killing, and it’s easy to become numb to what is occurring around the community, nation and world on a daily basis.

As Catholics, we are called to promote justice and uphold the dignity of all people. However, with the narratives the media feeds into, knowing how to approach some of these issues through the lens of the Gospel can be difficult.

Still, hope perseveres, be it through prayer or acts of compassion. Cure d’Ars is one example of a local parish that’s relying on the power of faith to spread hope throughout the community. Last summer, they began embarking on prayer walks in the local neighborhoods, and on Aug. 4, they held a prayer vigil for peace and prayed for an end to the violence that has been occurring locally, nationally and internationally.

Two different worlds

Skeet Johnson is a cradle Catholic and a longtime parishioner of Cure d’Ars. He is also a former Colorado State public defender of 23 years. Johnson retired from his post as a public defender in 2007, but he’s kept plenty busy. He helped to facilitate the prayer walks last summer along with several other local churches, and he volunteers as a basketball coach at Smith Elementary, working with kids.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff,” Johnson told the Denver Catholic. “I’ve seen a lot of carnage and wasted potential. I’ve seen a lot of courage and I’ve seen evidence of redemption and true contrition and changing even in the face of situations that would require that a person give up a substantial portion of their freedom.”

As an African American who grew up in the projects of Chicago, Johnson has lived in two different worlds. He has seen racism firsthand, but has always viewed it through the lens of the Gospel.

IMG_8041

Skeet Johnson is a parishioner of Cure d’Ars parish and a former public defender of 23 years. As an African American man who’s been on both the racism side and the criminal justice side, Johnson views the issue of violence through the lens of the Gospel and said the biggest challenge he faces as a Catholic is overcoming his fear and going out and doing what he can with the tools he’s been given. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

“There’s a lot of circumstances that exist as a consequence of racism, and those circumstances are beyond the personal kind of racism, but are rooted in the institutions. That can, in some way, answer the question of why black and poor people find themselves very close to the same position they were in historically,” he said. “But, there comes a time when you have to make a decision as to what kind of person you’re going to be, how you’re going to deal with your circumstances.”

Johnson also looks at these issues as a former public defender who dealt with criminals and police on a regular basis. In his career, he saw police officers who were “about protecting themselves to the exclusion of protecting the community,” and he also saw police who “amazed me with the kind of commitment they had.” Johnson recalled one case he handled where he was defending a man who attacked a police officer with a knife.

“Nowadays, you’d be reading about how many bullets entered his body,” he said. “But this one cop did not do that, and he ultimately disarmed the guy. I asked him at the preliminary hearing, ‘man, why didn’t you [shoot] him?’ And he said, ‘Skeet, my job is not to take life, my job is to protect life.’ That attitude is what it ought to be about.”

When speaking about the numerous incidents that have occurred around the nation, he said the point isn’t how numerous or not they are; the point is how it’s breaking down the relationship between the community and the police.

As a Catholic, my challenge is to break away from my fear and to go out and to do that which I can with the tools that I’ve been given.”

“All I can talk about is a mistrust that exists between the police community and the black community,” he said. “What is occurring and how it’s affecting other people, in how it’s breaking down the relationships between the community and the folks who are to protect them — that’s the issue. Although statistically that may be one situation, that’s a situation that’s like a cancer that spreads throughout the body politic.”

Even so, Johnson refuses to let fear stop him from doing what he believes is his God-given duty to love others and make the world a better place.

“As a Catholic, my challenge is to break away from my fear and to go out and to do that which I can with the tools that I’ve been given,” he said.

To protect, serve and love

Lily is a police officer who just began her career working for a Denver Metro police department (For safety reasons, Lily’s last name and the specific police department she works for have been withheld). She is also a practicing Catholic, and one whose faith informs and affects the way she does her job every single day.

“What makes you a good cop is that you do feel things,” she said. “I’ve always felt that one of my strengths I bring is that I am emotional. I feel things a lot deeper than most people do, and I think that’s why God called me to the profession. It’s the human part and the compassion part that makes my job worth it.”

Being a cop has changed the way Lily sees people. She feels compassion for the people in the community she’s serving. There is a large Latino population where she works, and she said that she’s seen firsthand the way in which race can affect the way people are approached or treated. She can also relate to it because she’s a young, white and female officer.

I don’t care what color skin you are, I don’t care about your history, I care about that moment and loving you in that moment. That’s the most important thing I can do.”

“Seeing how difficult people really have had it gives me so much compassion for them. I can’t condemn people as easily as I once could,” she said. “I can taste it from a minority’s perspective in my job. People do look at you differently and you never know what they truly feel about you. I can see where that might be an issue for someone who is African American or Latino.”

As a member of the law enforcement community and a Catholic, Lily hopes to see the nation heal from the wounds that have been broken open as a result of racial and police violence.

“My goal as a police officer and as a Catholic is to have healing and peace come from this,” she said.

Though racism might not be as prominent in the community she serves as it is in other parts of the country, Lily said that she doesn’t deny that it exists. From her perspective, though, race has nothing to do with the way she does her job, and in her experience with other officers, she said the majority are concerned first and foremost with protecting and serving their community. Lily, however, adds another action to that list: love.

“I don’t care what color skin you are, I don’t care about your history, I care about that moment and loving you in that moment,” she said. “That’s the most important thing I can do.”