The intrinsic dignity and worth of each human person is rooted in our common origin in God Almighty, said Bishop Earl Boyea to Lansing City Council in an address to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2020.
“Our dignity is not something we confer on ourselves or on one another. Rather, we are endowed with that dignity from our wise and loving creator,” said Bishop Boyea, January 17.
“We are told in the Acts of the Apostles, ‘God shows no partiality’. St. Paul affirmed this truth to the Galatians: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus'.”
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday marking the birthday of civil rights campaigner Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in January 1929. The holiday was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and was first observed three years later.
Bishop Boyea was invited to address Lansing’s City Council to mark this year’s holiday. He used the occasion to explain the Catholic Church’s teaching on racism.
“Racism is a form of idolatry, of placing my race in the place of God, and thus a serious violation of the First Commandment and thus a great sin. Idolizing myself is such an easy thing to do—to make myself the measure and mark of others. This also usually involves the suppression of the truth of the nature of the other person.”
“This calls for an intentional focus on the God who is the origin and destiny of us all. This must be our starting point for without this foundation few of us will move forward except due to external force, something which never changes the heart.” Bishop Boyea’s address to Lansing City Council is reproduced in full below.
* “Catholic Teaching on Racism” by The Most Reverend Earl Boyea, Bishop of Lansing, City Hall, Lansing, Michigan, January 17, 2020:
Last month I was at Gabriel Richard High School, our Catholic school in Ann Arbor, and, as I always do, I had a Q and A Session with the seniors. It was rather humorous to me, but several kids got on the “alien” kick and one wondered whether Jesus saved the aliens in other parts of our universe. I always take all questions seriously and so I responded that if they were comprised of matter and spirit and if they had the use of reason and a conscience, then, yes, Jesus saved them too.
This would conform to our teachings that they are made in the image of God and thus have their origin in God. By this reasoning as well, they too would be equal to us and deserving of the same dignity we recognize in each other here on earth (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1934).
But that is the issue, isn’t it? I know that I am constantly making snap judgments about people based solely on their external appearances. And if we are honest all of us do the same thing. Differences can make us pause or wonder or more alert or even fearful. In our better moments, we recognize that these reactions are groundless and we quickly dismiss them. But we all start here.
What helps us achieve those better moments? If the basis for change rests only on our agreed-upon parameters or solely upon our reasoning, we may not get very far. That is why I believe the foundation for the common dignity of all human beings rests solidly on the fact of our common origin in God. Our dignity is not something we confer on ourselves or on one another. Rather, we are endowed with that dignity from our wise and loving creator. We are told in the Acts of the Apostles, “God shows no partiality” (Acts,10:34). St. Paul affirmed this truth to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal, 3:28)
Some may wonder why God allowed all these differences. There is no other reason than that they can be the opportunity for the exchange of gifts, something that is made possible when we are kind, generous, and open to one another.
One of the great principles of Catholic Social Teaching is solidarity, as a manifestation of brotherhood and sisterhood. We are to achieve this solidarity by creating “a more just social order where tensions are better able to be reduced and conflicts more readily settled by negotiation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1940). These kinds of engagements are to take place between those who find themselves in all kinds of social and economic strata. For us Christians, however, this is fundamentally an action of seeking first the Kingdom of God such that all these things will follow (Matthew 6:33).
Specifically, today, as we honor the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., these actions of solidarity and the exchange of gifts are the avenues for overcoming the sin and scourge of racism. Racism is a form of idolatry, of placing my race in the place of God, and thus a serious violation of the First Commandment and thus a great sin. Idolizing myself is such an easy thing to do—to make myself the measure and mark of others. This also usually involves the suppression of the truth of the nature of the other person (USCCB, Open Wide Our Hearts, p. 4). This calls for an intentional focus on the God who is the origin and destiny of us all. This must be our starting point for without this foundation few of us will move forward except due to external force, something which never changes the heart.
It is on that foundation that we can intentionally seek solidarity and the appropriate exchange of gifts. It never ceases to amaze me how we have created so many shells in which we live, where we live with, work with, socialize with, and often even pray with those who are like ourselves. In such environments we really need to be intentional about engaging in true dialogue with others such that solidarity and the exchange of gifts can be real possibilities. This, of course, requires a real change of heart, a conversion, which is, as we know, “a long road to travel for the individual” (Open Wide Our Hearts, p. 7).
One caution, too often we think that dialogue should always lead to agreement. It doesn’t. In fact, part of the exchange of gifts is to hear differences, value them, and recognize that if should my views remain they are never quite the same. Too many of us give up on dialogue simply because we don’t agree with one another. It is the valuing of one another which should be the issue. The bishops of the United States issued a statement against racism in November 2018, Open Wide Our Hearts, which included this (p. 10):
“As Christians, we are called to listen and know the stories of our brothers and sisters. We must create opportunities to hear, with open hearts, the tragic stories that are deeply imprinted on the lives of our brothers and sisters, if we are to be moved with empathy to promote justice.”
Now, I have no magic way of achieving all that I have said. However, I do believe that with good hearts and with an abundance of God’s grace, which is always being pledged to us, we can move toward the full recognition of the human dignity of all our brothers and sisters. We know that such a journey can only be accomplished if we learn to “’walk humbly with God’ in rebuilding our relationships, healing our communities, and working to shape our policies and institutions toward the good of all…” (Open Wide Our Hearts, p. 20). May God bless us, our community, our state, and our country to reach such a noble goal.