Our nation has gone through a great deal since its founding. Particularly around the issue of racism. We started as a nation built on the backs of slaves stolen from their homeland. We fought a war amongst ourselves over the issue of slavery. After freeing the slaves, we enacted laws to take away and severely limit their freedom. In the 1960’s we passed civil rights and voting laws. These laws happened because a few people were willing to stand up, to march and, if necessary, to go to jail. Most people were content to sit back and watch from their places of comfort. The majority supported what was happening but did not want to really get involved. These pieces of legislation should have been transformational for us as a nation. In some regards they were. But like what was happening in another transformational movement in the Catholic church at that time, Vatican II, some of those in power were not so willing to share their power. Most people felt that we as a nation had accomplished a great deal in moving towards equality. We congratulated ourselves and talked about what a great nation we had become while moving back into our comfort zones. As Catholics/Christians we felt good that we were moving forward to create a society based on the principles that Pope Leo XIII first talked about in his writings on Catholic Social Teachings.
But there were those who did not want change. They wanted to continue a system where their race and sex had power over other races and sexes. While most stopped paying attention they began organizing and planning. They started enacting legislation that would erode the transformative power of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. They gerrymandered voting districts to ensure they stayed in power. They enacted numerous restrictions on people’s right to vote. While a few prophetic voices spoke out most simply watched and did not pay attention. After all, “we had already fought this battle and besides I am white Christian, not a Muslim or Jewish, I am not Black or Brown, I am not gay so what they are doing doesn’t really affect me.”
When two young black state representatives were ousted in Tennessee, one wonders if the actions of their white colleagues still reflect a political system founded on racism. Duly elected state representatives had lent their voices to a student demonstration supporting gun control that poured onto the state House floor.
Right down the road, three children and their teachers had been murdered at school. Outrage and free speech were deemed “a lack of decorum.” The will of all those who voted for Democratic former Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis (primarily black) were tossed aside. All the time, “the world is watching” was being chanted. But their fellow lawmakers were undeterred. The two found themselves out of office, their constituents unrepresented.
As people of faith, we must speak up and condemn the actions of the Tennessee House Republicans. There is nothing less Christ-like than shunning those who disagree with us – especially those who are giving voice to the voiceless, working to protect children, and condemning violence against others as we believe the “Tennessee Three” were doing.
If all men (people) are created equal, how can Americans stomach the blatant examples of racism and discrimination we regularly see on the evening news? Pope Francis has not shied away from expressing the church’s view. The pontiff denounced racism, likening it to a virus that lurks in waiting only to emerge and show that “our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive” as people think. The spectacle in Tennessee is just the most recent dreadful example.
The number of examples of racism and antisemitism everywhere cause us to become numb to the reality that the lurking virus of hate and racism is alive and well. When Americans elected a black president, many Americans thought we had taken a big step in achieving the high bar the founders had set for our new nation. But as Pope Francis rightly predicted, “The virus, instead of disappearing, went into hiding and mutated.”
What do we, as Catholics/Christians, do when overwhelmed with so many images of hate?
Negative campaigns work. Voters may have naivete surrounding candidates in their party, believing individuals running for office have more credibility and integrity than often in reality. We all must dig deeper.
In recent years we have witnessed a new phase of campaigning, where no low is too low, and the truth is in short supply. Elections are consequential on so many levels, and every voter wants to make the right decision and align their vote with their values and hopes for the country’s future.
The Catholic and Christian churches are powerful conveners. It is advantageous to recognize that the potential of young people is the future of the church and the country. A new generation of activists has taken to the streets, begging to end racism and gun violence. Active shooter drills in the classroom are vital because guns are now the leading cause of death of children. Mass school shootings are a weekly occurrence. These are the same aware and socially conscious individuals we all want to see in the pews on Sunday morning. They are also our future elected leaders. When there is little movement to change gun laws and racism, they see their activism efforts as ineffective. Frustrated and losing faith in the potential of the many to make a difference, we risk creating generational apathy.
Our Churches have an opportunity to harness the power and passion of the most diverse generation in history. They also vote in record numbers. Pope Francis’s words challenge us to step into a void, connect millennials, and Gen Z with resources to fight racism and make wise decisions at the ballot box. It is complicated, but the great minds in Catholic and Christian churches (across the nation and the world) must respond when discrimination and racism are exposed. With ‘losing our democracy’ making the list of national priority issues for the first time in history, there is no time like the present to address a myriad of important initiatives, including voter advocacy across the generations. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires all of us to be active participants.
Donna Sines is a natural facilitator, gifted visionary, creative strategist, and writer. Nationally, Sines is best known for her community-building work engaging non-traditional stakeholders. Before leading the country’s first grassroots Community Vision organization for a quarter of a century, she served as Executive Vice President of the largest Chamber of Commerce in Central Florida. Among other successful efforts, she invented a non-traditional Leadership program that, by design, bonded business leaders and elected officials to advocates representing the homeless, faith-based community partners, as well as non-profit, education, health, environment, economic development, and criminal justice leaders. To celebrate this experiential-focused program’s 25th anniversary and mark its impact on the future of Central Florida, Donna Sines was recognized with a Congressional Commendation. Donna is also a National Distinguished Leader, receiving 20 Walt Disney Community Service Awards and grants. Additionally, she was honored as Regional Legacy Champion of Sustainability, Woman of Outstanding Leadership, and coveted Governor’s Community Investment awards, bestowed by Lawton Chiles throughout his administration. Lastly, Donna was selected by a grassroots committee to be the Grand Marshall of her hometown Christmas parade and was designated Osceola County’s Woman Warrior.
Patrick Carolan is a Catholic activist, writer and storyteller. He served as the Executive Director of the Franciscan Action Network, co-founded the Global Catholic Climate Movement, the Faithful Democracy Coalition and the Catholics Vote Common Good organization.