At some point in every true leader’s service to the human community, a situation arises that is so urgent, so deeply troubling, so shocking or alarming to the people that the leader must rise above the fear, the disorder, the fog of uncertainty and cacophony of conflict to become virtually transformed as a pillar upright in the chaos, a clarion for strength and order, a compelling force to guide the people away from the danger and back to a place of balance, civility and calm. True leadership is a moral act, the lever to restore hope, to ensure justice and achieve peace.
While leaders in every walk of life, famous and obscure, have these moments, history has given us examples on the national stage of such leadership: President Franklin D. Roosevelt assuring a Depression-demoralized nation that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself;” President John F. Kennedy addressing the nation after the Cuban Missile Crisis; Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma; Senator Robert F. Kennedy announcing the death of Dr. King; President Ronald Reagan’s remarks after the Challenger disaster; President Barack Obama’s emotional words after the Sandy Hook tragedy; New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressing the reasons why Confederate statues must come down.
A leader must be a moral voice for people in pain and fear, must find a way to articulate the shared values of a community even when the people are in conflict with each other — perhaps especially when people are in conflict or when the tyranny of the mob threatens the well being of both individuals and the social fabric, itself.
The United States is in a moment of increasing domestic conflict and, sadly, increasing violence over issues we thought were long settled. We need leaders to confront and root out the evil causes of the conflict, and to bring all of the people to a place of greater moral clarity, justice and civil peace. The task before us is not something we can trust to only one elected official, must as we might wish that the president of the United States had the kind of leadership ability we need right now. Absent the singular leadership of the national president, however, the beauty of a democracy like this great nation is that there are MANY leaders in many different roles, and all of us now have the chance to work together to restore moral balance and civil harmony. Not only elected officials, but also private civic and corporate leaders — corporate and nonprofit CEOs, college and university presidents, bishops and clergy, civic leaders in all communities — ALL of us have an obligation to step up, speak out and bring forceful leadership to bear on the eruption of racial hatred and the most vile forms of racial oppression rearing so many ugly heads once more.
The words should not be hard to say: There is no place in this nation or any community for the racial hatred and evil of the Nazi movement, the white supremacists, the KKK, and other hate groups that have perpetrated some of the worst atrocities in human history. For any American to wave swastikas and sport tats and other symbols of the Nazi regime is a profound insult to every person who fought to defeat Hitler and the Nazi regime in World War II, an appalling part of human history that gave us the legacy of the Holocaust. In the same way, for Americans to claim any affection or kinship with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations is an insult to the very citizenship that gives them the freedom to do so. We carry the long and deep stains of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings and profound discrimination against African Americans, and our work every day should be to do all that we can to eradicate those stains a little big more, though they will never disappear. To permit the rise of groups that would tear open those old wounds, revisit the evils as of they were good or useful, is simply intolerable for for this nation’s present or future existence.
There are not “many sides” to the clear moral imperative of leadership in this moment. As Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago wrote, “When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it.” The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the racism and said in a statement: “We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism. We stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured. At Mass, let us offer a special prayer of gratitude for the brave souls who sought to protect us from the violent ideology displayed yesterday. Let us especially remember those who lost their lives. Let us join their witness and stand against every form of oppression.” Many individuals bishops and cardinals and clergy have also spoken forcefully against the hatred perpetrated by the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville.
We must not abide moral equivocation on the events of Charlottesville. The event was called “Unite the Right” and was staged by people with a very specific intent of glorifying and celebrating the kind of racial hatred that the Nazi swastikas and symbols and Confederate flags all symbolize. The photos and videos clearly show heavily armed men in uniforms marching in ways intended to intimidate and threaten the general population. The subsequent violence was almost predictable since the presence of so much hatred and deliberate provocation can and did evoke fights, and, as the ultimate act of terror, the death of a young woman who was bearing witness to social justice by her presence and advocacy for justice.
We can only enjoy the considerable freedom of this great nation if we respect each other, if we welcome every other human being as equal and worthy of life and dignity. NO person has a right to claim dominance over another, to mock or disparage another, to seek to drive another away, to harass, intimidate or assault or maim or murder another. Respecting human life is the bedrock of Catholic social teaching, and it is also the essential basis for a community and nation to live in peace and prosperity.
We need to demand that our national leaders be morally clear and forthright in denouncing hatred, and committed to rooting out the hate groups that are using the old symbols of evil — swastikas and other Nazi symbols, confederate flags and related symbols — to masque new and even more atrocious forms of racial hatred and violence. No public official worthy of the office should ever give aid or comfort to people who mock the most fundamental values of our nation. We need leaders on all corners of all communities calling out our public officials who have the means and methods at their disposal to put an end to the violence and restore domestic safety and security for all.
We also need to demand that our public officials rise above their own partisanship to articulate a truly shared vision for this society, a vision that is premised on mutual respect, that has no place for the hatred that currently finds encouragement and welcome in too many high places.