You’ve seen the almost unbelievable headlines. Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner, after spending his whole life believing himself to be a woman. Rachel Dolezal isn’t really black, even though she has masqueraded as such for years, going so far as to teach as a black professor and serve as President of her local NAACP. Michael Slager, a white cop, shoots an unarmed black man in the back. Dylann Roof, a white teen with a hatred for blacks, opens fire and kills nine people with whom he’d just spent an hour praying. Mind reels that these things are even happening, and in certain cases glorified, in our so-called “evolved” society. In the wake of these events, we’ve all seen the name-calling from all sides, being relentlessly spewn in regards to the very real PEOPLE each of these headlines involve. My Facebook feed has become almost intolerable with all of the back and forth garbage we are hurling at each other. Words like “thugs,” “punks,” the N word, “fags,” “liars,” and “idiots” are literally permeating almost every post. I’ve stayed mum on the blog about all of these things, partly out of fear (shame on me) and partly out of LITERALLY not even knowing where to begin.
This week, Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, his first encyclical written entirely during his tenure as the Vicar of Christ. I haven’t yet finished reading it, but just the bit I *have* read drives home for me the underlying theme that connects the headlines above:
The dignity of man.
When I was in college, I remember being super excited about Ann Coulter’s newly-released book, How To Talk To A Liberal, If You Must. At the time, I LOVED me some Ann Coulter (ugh, it pains me to type that now.) I loved that she seems to be a breath of fresh air, continually writing “winning” posts about why everything the Liberals believed was so very wrong. And if that’s all she wrote about, I probably would’ve been right to admire her. Here’s the thing, though. She didn’t stop there. She called people, entire groups of people, names. Anyone who disagreed with any of her ideology was fair game. To say that her writing is brutal, harsh, and just plain rude is an understatement. Buying the book was an eye-opener for me, and reading the first two chapters didn’t sit right with me at all. I never finished the book. Though I thought I agreed with her that Liberals WERE crazy and unhinged all about their agenda, it was really hard for me to see her call them “stupid,” and to even insinuate in the title of her book that talking to them was a chore that should, but often couldn’t, be avoided. Still, I had a very “us vs. them” mentality, and definitely felt that all Liberals were evil people. Yes, I really did.
What I didn’t understand then, and what took me a long time to understand eventually, was that while people *do* sin – they do lie, they do steal, and do cheat, hate, kill – they are not the sum total of their sins. None of us are. Our actions might be stupid, but *we* are not stupid. Calling someone stupid based on the objective stupidity of their actions is the first step in dehumanizing them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something but someone” (#357; emphasis mine.) When we fail to condemn the ideological flaws in others’ viewpoints, and instead attack the people themselves for holding those viewpoints, we are primarily responsible for the undermining of their humanity. This way of thinking gives rise to the dangerous idea that we are somehow Better Than Those People, and I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that the vice of pride is what earned Lucifer a one-way ticket.
The CCC further states that “the law of human solidarity and charity, without excluding the rich variety of persons, cultures, and people, assures us that all men are truly brethren (#361.)” This is reflected in the beauty of the Catholic faith. “Catholic” means “universal,” and we are reminded of the great love Christ had for people of all races and cultures when He laid down his life for the salvation of all who would accept Him. If each person on this planet is truly our brethren, how can we justify the kind of speech that strips them of the equality due a brother?
Years ago, I read an incredibly moving account of the Rwandan genocide penned by a courageous survivor. The book, Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza, chronicles the events that led up to the beginning of the genocide. Part of the propaganda of the aggressor Hutu tribe included referring to the victim Tutsis as “vermin” and “cockroaches,” calling for their immediate “extermination.” Doesn’t this sound vaguely familiar? We are so ready to brand people as “thugs” or “hoodlums” or “scum” that we perpetuate the notion that they are somehow less than human because of their crimes. In her book, Immaculee shares that while in hiding with seven other women during the genocide, she hated the Hutu murderers. Most of her family was dead at their machete-wielding hands, and she was angry – and wanted immediate revenge. But a funny thing happened. She prayed the Rosary several times a day, every day. At first, she prayed for herself, but over time, she began to feel her hatred slipping away. She remembered Christ forgiving those who killed Him, asking, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” It was then that Immaculee realized, through God’s grace, that they believed they were doing the right thing. Upon further reflection, she reasoned:
“[The killers] were like children…cruel, vicious, and dangerous, as kids can sometimes be…they saw, but didn’t understand, the terrible harm they’d inflicted…their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil” (emphasis hers.)
“Their souls weren’t evil.” I pray this simple truth comes to mind next time you’re scrolling through the headlines. For me, anytime I find my voice helping to marginalize others, I have found the Litany of Humility exceedingly helpful. May it be a balm to your soul as well.