Catholic Committee of Appalachia
Statement Against Prejudice, Bias and Racism
November 8, 1999
“You have heard the commandment imposed on your ancestors, ‘You shall not commit murder; every murderer shall be liable to judgment.’ What I say to you is: anyone who grows angry with another shall be liable to judgment; anyone who uses abusive language toward another shall be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and anyone who holds another in contempt risks the fires of Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
As we enter this new millennium in a society which has been rocked by recent incidents of hatred and prejudice, the call of Jesus could not be clearer.Not only are we to love our neighbors, we are to extend that love even to our enemies. Within a community of followers of Christ, there is no room for discrimination, name-calling, threatening speech, or acts of violence. We are to love one another as Jesus loved us, with generous, compassionate, sacrificial love.
According to FBI statistical records, over 8,000 hate crimes were reported in the United States in 1998. As law enforcement officers in many areas of our country are still receiving training in recognizing and recording such incidents, we can be certain that a substantial number of violent acts of prejudice went unreported. Sixty percent of these crimes involved racial bias, 15% religion, 14% sexual orientation, and 11% ethnicity.
These acts of bias-related violence are calculated to create profound fear throughout an entire community. Their very randomness contributes to the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, as the hater is usually not particular about his target, as long as the individual is perceived to be a member of the hated group. There is generally no precipitating incident on the part of the victims, who are basically interchangeable. The effects of such acts of prejudice extend not only to the person attacked, but to everyone who shares the characteristic being attacked. They send a strong message to the “offending” group that they are different, unwelcome, and vulnerable to violence. The activity generally follows a pattern of escalation until the group being threatened gets the message. Incidents motivated by prejudice are acts of intimidation and terrorism.
Appalachia is not immune from this disturbing problem. Indeed, many of our Appalachian communities have been identified as targets for proselytizing by organized hate groups. Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist organization recently implicated in a series of shootings in Illinois, told reporters for the Charleston Gazette, “We like West Virginia. [It] has a lot of potential – it’s almost all white.” The Winter 1999 Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose information concerning all aspects of prejudice is widely respected, locates sixty-eight (68) chapters of hate groups within Central Appalachia: West Virginia has seven, Kentucky ten, Tennessee eleven, Virginia nineteen, and North Carolina twenty-one.
We must remember that these groups are not a fringe phenomenon, and they have influence extending far beyond their immediate membership. The largest category (41%) of perpetrators of bias-related crimes and incidents are groups of young men between the ages of 16 and 25, according to statistics of the National Center for Hate Crime Prevention. Most of these youth are not members of organized hate groups, but have frequently been exposed to their literature or position. These organized groups sometimes publish sophisticated propaganda, buy radio time or present cable television programs, and can be skillful in manipulating the media. Some groups have formed alliances with other conservative or Christian organizations to run candidates for public office.
Both our scriptural traditions and Catholic social teachings challenge us to help our society move beyond being threatened by differences to embrace all our people in their full range of gifts and diversity. As Paul states in the letter to the Ephesians (4:30-32):
“Do nothing to sadden the Holy Spirit with which you have been sealed against the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ.”
Pope John Paul II, encouraging us in the renewal of the Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae #98), states:
“This renewed lifestyle involves a passing from indifference to concern for others, from rejection to acceptance of them. Other people are not rivals from whom we must defend ourselves, but brothers and sisters to be supported. They are to be loved for their own sakes, and they enrich us by their very presence.”
It will not be an adequate response simply to know in our hearts that acts of discrimination, threatening and hateful speech, and acts of violence are wrong. We must be moved to action against discrimination and prejudice, and to action that values inclusiveness and diversity. First, we must speak out against prejudice and bigotry in our communities. When no one objects to biased and hateful speech, perpetrators often take this as acceptance, or even an invitation to escalate their activity. We must assist in creating a public atmosphere of respect and appreciation for the unique gifts of others that will nip prejudice in the bud.
We can also work in a spirit of understanding and concern with those persons in our communities most likely to be recruited by hate groups. People frequently become associated with these groups because of fear, anger, and frustration over economic opportunity and inequity. By assisting these neighbors in identifying meaningful social, educational, and economic alternatives, we can reduce the appeal of bias-based organizations as well as the likelihood of participation in them.
Within our parishes, we can present diversity training aimed at increasing our understanding of others, and at eliminating racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and other crippling prejudices. Such training opportunities are particularly important for our youth, as young men, in particular, seem vulnerable to becoming involved in hate incidents. Excellent program materials are available from peace and reconciliation groups, and can be provided to our youth. Peer leadership has been shown to be an essential element in the success of these activities. Individual parishes or parish coalitions, depending on their resources, can provide assistance or referral to victims of hate incidents and their families. Christian groups might also offer community service opportunities and diversity-related education for perpetrators and at-risk individuals.
Legislation that enhances penalties for crimes based on prejudice, or in which prejudice is a factor, can send a strong message that such behavior is unacceptable to the larger community. Such legislation often provides the possibility of civil injunctions against harassment or threats against individuals. Civil injunctions seem to be particularly effective with youth in establishing boundaries for behavior and stating firmly that threats and hateful speech are not “cool,” and their escalation will not be tolerated. Coalitions of religious and community groups can be powerful forces in support of this legislation.
Above all, we are called and challenged to serve as living reminders within our parishes and the broader community that we are all equal as children of God. We share so many more similarities in our humanity than the differences we exhibit. Each of us has unique gifts that should be brought to the service of the common good. By joining together in a spirit of charity and respect, we can build a society in which all people are valued.