How much did the violence on display in Charlottesville earlier this month shock and sadden you? How did you find out about it?
The first I heard about it was when I got a bulletin alert on my cell phone, and I’ve been following it ever since. My heart sank when I heard about it because it’s another indication that racism is alive and well in the United States and also in our own archdiocese. Racism exists, obviously, in people’s hearts first, but then it travels and manifests itself in our society and also sometimes even creeps into the church. We have to be honest about that. In this case, we have to look very carefully at the white supremacy and the neo-Nazi groups. These are groups who have for a long time made it their goal to foster racism and to exclude and disrespect other people. They see themselves as “supreme.” God has created all people with dignity and value. For us in Louisiana to say that racism is not present among us and affecting us would be very foolish.
Where is this anger and hate coming from?
Racism originates from people who look down on others who are different or who have different ideas and ideals. Racism means I not only don’t agree with the people in the other group, but I also disrespect them and believe I have the right to harm them, either verbally or physically, which is exactly what happened in Charlottesville. Then, I think racism advances to a second phase, which is arrogance. And then, thirdly, it can move into violence. I just noticed a headline on a story on the front page in USA Today’s Life section: “Assassin flicks are making a killing at the box office.” We are basically advertising, and holding up as the norm, killing people, assassinating them. That is a cultural message, and it’s certainly a part of racism. Sometimes racism is verbal and sometimes it’s physical.
The archdiocese has tried to make people aware of this through its racial harmony ministry, which gives workshops all across the area.
It is a wonderful ministry, but in my estimation, it’s not utilized enough. Sometimes when it’s offered to people in a certain area, they may say, “Oh, racism is not a problem in our parish or in our area.” That’s a very naïve approach, and even more than that, it’s not facing reality or looking at the elephant in the room. I truly believe we all have a taint of racism in our hearts. It’s easy to point the finger at somebody else and look at the tragedy in Charlottesville and say how terrible it was. But that should help me ask the question: Is there anything that I do or say – or an attitude that I have – that fosters racism?
What about free speech guarantees?
I agree that we have a right to free speech, but we do not have a right to belittle another person or hurt them physically. We don’t have a right to disrespect another person created by God. That is a truth that comes not only from our Constitution but from the Gospel. This whole issue poses two questions: First, is there something in our lives that is racist or would resemble racism? Second, what must we do to be prophetic voices in our society? When we see racism, do we, in a respectful way, call it what it is and then help ourselves and other people undergo a change of heart? One of the things that worries me the most is what we are teaching our kids. We are teaching them that divisiveness or division is OK. We’re teaching them that violence is OK, that arrogance is OK. We are teaching them that one group hating another group is the norm. At home and at school, we have to teach them what division, racism and a lack of respect for other people look like. We also have to help them, if they are inclined to any kind of prejudice, to name that prejudice. Many times we don’t want to talk about the obvious, about the volcano that’s erupting. But we have to talk about it. Also, we need to help young people identify what’s going on in our society. If a person is a racist, we should tell our children that while they are called to respect the person, they should not follow their example. They should not agree with them. They should pray for them and do whatever they can to help them change. Finally, we have to teach our kids to speak out against racism and to take a stand. All of this is rooted in the Gospel message. If we as Christians and Catholics stand by and do nothing, we become part of the problem.
How concerned are you for our country?
Besides living through segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, I don’t remember in my lifetime our country being this divided, violent or polarized, and that frightens me. It worries me because our leaders are supposed to be leading us toward peace, self-respect and respect for others, and some are doing exactly the opposite. It’s become the norm to just say whatever you want about anybody. That’s considered acceptable. Well, it might be politically advantageous and it might be socially acceptable, but it is not acceptable to Christ. We need to pray for our country and take action to root out all forms of racism in our own lives and, by extension, in our country.
Questions for Archbishop Aymond can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.