Friday, October 10, 2008

An Open Letter to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on the Rise of Violence in American Political Discourse

Dear Bishops,

As I watch the latest developments in our national presidential campaign, I am intently concerned. And I find your silence baffling. Your silence concerns me as much as do some of the alarming incidents in the political sphere in the past two weeks.

I am speaking in particular of the transparent fear-mongering and hate-fomenting tactics of the pro-life candidates Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin in recent days. I am intently concerned, in particular, about the violence Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin’s rhetoric is inciting, and about their seeming refusal to curb or even address that violence.

Credible news reports from many sources state that at recent rallies, after these candidates have dishonestly labeled their opponent a terrorist, those hearing the rhetoric have shouted, “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” Not only did Mrs. Palin (at whose rallies these shouts are said to have occurred) not condemn these hateful anti-life cries when they took place, but to the best of my knowledge, neither she nor Mr. McCain has taken any responsibility for inciting hate that may well lead to acts of outright physical violence against one of our presidential candidates.

I cannot recall a presidential campaign in my lifetime in which such overt hate-mongering, with overt attempts to stir violence among citizens, has taken place. The rage-distorted faces I see on my computer or television screen at these political rallies frighten me. They frighten me for the future of my country.

We are at a precarious moment in our history as a democratic nation. Yesterday, the world markets took another precipitous nosedive. History demonstrates that in difficult economic times, people look for scapegoats. They look for someone to target, to blame, to hate. Demagogues know how to twist and turn this hatred to serve their own goal of gaining power over a troubled populace.

Such social hatred, fed by economic uncertainty, led to the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. You know what bitter fruit that movement bore. You also surely know how muted, how diffident, how ineffectual the response of the German and Austrian bishops to what happened in Nazi Germany was.*

To this day, the church and its pastoral leaders contend with well-deserved guilt because far too many bishops stood by in silence as the fires of hatred began to burn out of control in Europe. Too many actually stoked those fires, to the eternal discredit of the church—just as many pastoral leaders did in the Spanish Civil War and in the conflicts in Latin America in the latter part of the 20th century.

You have told American voters to make the protection of life paramount as we go to the polls. I see a very stark pro-life issue at stake in what has happened in the past week at some American political rallies.

I grew up in the American South in the middle of the Civil Rights struggle. From the formative experiences of my youth and adolescence, I know well that it is entirely possible for hate groups to target and even to kill those who represent alternative visions of the future that the hate group will not tolerate. I have seen violence used as a tool of terror to try to stop necessary social change.

I remember the assassination of Dr. King vividly. I recall as well the murder of Medgar Evers. I will never forget the lynchings of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner in 1964, and the shameful length of time it took to bring one of the killers, Rev. Edgar Ray Killen, to justice for these murders in 2005.

I remember what happened to Violet Liuzzo, as I also recall the countless other scenes of ugly violence from that period, the burnt churches in which children died, the dogs turned on peaceful civil rights marchers, the fire hoses. I will never forget pictures of the faces of those in my hometown of Little Rock who lined the sidewalks to keep African-American students from integrating Central High School, or the stories I heard as a child of lunch trays dumped on the heads of those students when the school finally integrated.

From these formative experiences, I know that it takes very little to tip a culture in the direction of social violence and outright murder, when there is fear of change, or economic disturbance. I also know how easy it is to remain silent.

My conscience will not permit me to be silent now, as I read about the cries for violence at political rallies of candidates who call themselves pro-life, and who appear to have the endorsement of many of you as bishops. My conscience has been formed by the church, and it instructs me to speak out when I see social violence threatening to escalate, lest I become complicit in that violence through my tacit consent to it.

One of the reasons I left my childhood church and became Catholic in a small south-Arkansas town in the 1960s was that this church appeared to be the sole “white” church in my town that welcomed members of all races. I was impressed with the priests and nuns I saw marching in Civil Rights marches in the 1960s, placing themselves in positions in which they might pay the price that others paid, when they asked our nation to live up to its historic ideals of liberty and justice for all.

I am profoundly disappointed by your silence now, in the face of the shouts to kill Mr. Obama, in the face of the silence of Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin as these appeals for violence take place among their supporters. I find it difficult to believe in your commitment to pro-life policies, when you remain silent about this shocking breach of civil discourse in our national political life.

I have to confess that I even entertain the thought that some of the rage-distorted faces I have been seeing at these rallies in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin are Catholic faces, people who believe they are following your lead as pastors. When I look at some of the faces of fellow Catholics who appear to be entertaining violence, when I read their political comments on blogs or in letters to the editor, I wonder what has happened to our church. These comments are all too often full of venom and the desire to punish others.

I wonder how it happens that, though you have drummed into our heads the principle of voting on the basis of life and life alone, so many Catholics who claim to value life seem intent on allying themselves with movements that are clearly destructive to life. If you will permit my saying so, your pastoral strategies in recent decades seem to me to have failed.

They have failed because you have not connected the ethic of life to the entire range of political and cultural issues in which principles of life are at stake. The alacrity with which many citizens today—among them those most strongly committed to what they see as Christian pro-life values—are willing to speak of violence against those who disagree with them suggests to me that your teachings about life have not reached deep into believers’ consciences. To the extent that you have focused solely on the issue of abortion, and have over-simplified that issue and also allowed it to be used to stir social hatred, you have not fulfilled your calling as good shepherds.

Nor will you do so now, if you remain silent about what is happening in our political life at present. You will certainly not do so if you appear to endorse candidates who incite violence while claiming to be pro-life.

My voice is certainly not an important one, bishops. I doubt it is one you will hear. I speak out not because I imagine I have influence among you or anyone else. I do so because I must. I cannot live with myself if I remain silent when I see signs that our culture is tipping towards the kind of violence that occurred in my adolescence—or in Nazi Germany, in Spain as Franco rose to power, and in Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century.

I speak because, as your brother bishop Thomas Gumbleton noted in his homily this past Sunday,

Clearly it seems to me, if we're listening to the gospel today, Jesus is saying to you and to me, “We must challenge our leaders, call them to be the leaders God has ordained them to be.” Jesus did it and paid a terrible price, and perhaps we would have to pay a price, but it is our task, I think, if we want to follow Jesus, to challenge sometimes, even those who are in positions of leadership.
Bishop Gumbleton’s homily makes plain that he considers the church’s pastoral leaders among those we the people of God have a gospel-determined responsibility to challenge, when we see our pastoral leaders failing to be good shepherds.

Your flock needs to hear your voice now, bishops. Will you speak out as unambiguously about the need of our political leaders to stop inciting violence as you have against abortion? This is a moment in which a strong pro-life voice is imperative. The future of our nation may depend on hearing that voice. Your credibility as pastoral leaders surely depends on it.

*For a recent Jewish perspective on these events and their echoes in the violence now entering our political discourse, see Jesse Kornbluth’s open letter to Joe Lieberman’s rabbis at