While America grapples with racism and bigotry and other societal ills, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory said that people must reach out to one another, learn about others different from themselves and rediscover that all religions teach that hatred is wrong.

“Ignorance of the other is the soil in which hatred and bigotry grow,” he said. “If we do not know each other, share our fears and share our hopes, we make it possible for hatred to grow.”

Archbishop Gregory made his remarks during a June 30 online discussion sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on the role faith can play in overcoming racial injustice. The talk was viewed by several hundred people across the country via Zoom.

Titled “Race in America: The Faith Perspective,” Archbishop Gregory and Rabbi Noam Marans, the director of the AJC’s interreligious and intergroup relations, spoke of racism, anti-Semitism and other problems facing America today.

Rabbi Marans noted that the discussion was held “in the fourth month of quarantine time – an unprecedented time that has taken lives of more than 130,000 Americans, caused economic insecurity and vast unemployment – and now we see protests by Americans of all colors against racial injustice and the policing that led to the death of George Floyd and may other unarmed African Americans over many years.”

“At this time my heart is full of sorrow at the suffering of people in light of the pandemic, in light of the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the unjust death of many people, but my heart is full of hope,” Archbishop Gregory said. “I have a certain hope that maybe we have reached a plateau where we can address together some of the things that have reached a flash point, some of the events that has caused national anxiety and angst.”

Archbishop Gregory said this time differs from earlier struggles against racism because “in addition to the protesters and the coverage of these events, there is another investment that has occurred at this moment – the American business community is now responding, the American sports community is now responding. The American media is covering this at a level I do not recall from before.”

“I think we have seen a steady and prolonged involvement of a corporate nature that was not present before,” he added. “When we as a nation start to talk about these heavyweight realities that so influence our nation, it bespeaks a different moment, I hope, I pray.”

The protests and demonstrations currently occurring across the country also differ from those of the Civil Rights era, Archbishop Gregory said because “this moment offers us the possibility of changing hearts.”

“It is not just changing laws, not just changing structures, but changing hearts and ultimately I think this is the cause – the reason – why we are at a different moment in time,” he said. He added that in changing hearts and turning away from hatred, racism and bigotry, “we have to ask ourselves, ‘What part in this do I play? Is there in me a need for conversion… a commitment for me to do better?’”

In addition to the racism that “has rocked and still rocks our country,” Archbishop Gregory noted that “there is not only hatred against the African-American community, but the Jewish community.” Pointing to several shootings at synagogues, the archbishop said that rejection of all forms of hatred “hopefully has touched and is touching the hearts of people across the country and across the world.”

Archbishop Gregory said this moment is also a time for all faiths to teach their young members that all religions call for respecting the lives of others.

“Whether we are Jewish or Catholic, there is a huge mountain we have to climb to make sure our young people know their religious heritage,” he said. “But I think this moment is a hopeful time because we see so many of our young adults engaging in the protest of hatred and racism. What we are protesting is the rejection of our religious principles of human respect and dignity. This is a hopeful moment if we as Catholics and Jews and Americans can seize on the openness many young people have and say this is a part of our religious heritage.”

Rabbi Marans said that while “people of goodwill are coming together, people are worried that after this first flash of marching and coalition, we cannot stay the course of change.” He asked Archbishop Gregory what would be an effective “plan of action.”

Archbishop Gregory pointed out that in November 2018, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter against racism titled “Open Wide Your Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.” In it, the bishops said racism is “an attack on human life… We will not cease to speak forcefully against and work toward ending racism. Racism directly places brother and sister against each other, violating the dignity inherent in each person.”

“One of the things I am happy to say I can build on as archbishop of Washington, as an African-American, is the recent letter, ‘Open Wide Your Hearts’,” the archbishop said. “It is a response to racism that calls for actions that bring together our people for listening sessions and advocacy programs.”

Rabbi Noam Marans, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s interreligious and intergroup relations, joins Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory in the June 30 online dialogue on “Race in America: The Faith Perspective.” (Screen capture/Andrew Biraj)

When asked if being an African American archbishop affected the way he leads the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Gregory said that “I feel a special responsibility as a member of the African American community, but as the archbishop of Washington, I am not just the archbishop of African American Catholics, but of all Catholics of every age and culture and language.”

“It is a dual responsibility,” he said. “And I ask the prayers of the people and the Lord’s grace to balance those responsibilities well so that I do not neglect one at the cost of the other.”

Rabbi Marans – noting that “religion and politics are as entangled today as they have ever been and the Archdiocese of Washington is in the maelstrom of politics” – asked Archbishop Gregory what the proper role of religion in politics should be.

While stressing that the First Amendment guarantees the separation of Church and State and ensures there is no established state religion, the archbishop said faith has an important role to play in politics.

“The role of religion is to provide a moral voice based on the highest principles of our religious beliefs that challenges and encourages … and will help our nation wind its way through the labyrinth of social challenges that we face,” Archbishop Gregory said. “With no national religion, it frees the wide variety of religions that call the United States their home to speak boldly. It is important that our religious institutions are not co-opted and lose their platform of spiritual prophecy.”

Speaking of Black and Jewish relations, Archbishop Gregory said after he became archbishop of Atlanta in 2005, “a group of about 30 or 40 Jewish leaders gave me a lesson in Atlanta history.”

“In Atlanta, the African American community and the Jewish community were joined at the hip because they have both suffered the bigotry that was common there. We both suffered from the extreme hatred that until quite recently was sometimes glossed over and not cared about,” he said. “We need to recognize that we both have been victims of hatred, and the other side of that coin is that we both are also survivors and triumphant in our resilience.”

He said that Catholics, African Americans and Jews must remember that “our traditions call us to forgiveness, call us to recognize that hatred can never be the last word that is spoken in any dialogue.”

Rabbi Marans, addressing Catholic-Jewish relations, said that Nostrae Aetate (the 1965 Vatican II document that redefined and revolutionized the Church’s relationship with Judaism and other religions) “helped usher in a new era – even a golden era – of Catholic-Jewish relations.”

Archbishop Gregory said that in addition to that document, relations were also improved by Pope – now Saint – John Paul II who “brought his personal experience of living though the Second World War and the effects of the Holocaust on his own Jewish friends, and he never forgot that.”

“Throughout his papacy, he (St. John Paul II) kept reminding us that our Jewish brothers and sisters are our elder brothers and sisters, and he reminded us what religious hatred could do.”

He said Pope Francis has continued that tradition, and “when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he developed a wonderful relationship with the Jewish community of Argentina.”

Despite those advances, Archbishop Gregory added, “we have to continue to be reminded to set aside anything that has any vestige of anti-Semitism. We still have work to do – we are not standing on the winner’s platform yet, but we can see it from here.”

Rabbi Marans, observing that a rise in anti-Semitism has paralleled the rise in racism, asked Archbishop Gregory what could be done to address that.

“Understanding each other better,” the archbishop said. “Those things that make us Jews and Catholics – we want each other to know about that and to respect and honor that.”

Archbishop Gregory said that while the dialogue between him and the rabbi was shared across the country via Zoom, “I would think it is very important on the local level for Catholic dioceses and parishes and Jewish communities to find an opportunity to be together. However small it might be, it will be a beginning and a way to bring them (Catholics and Jews) together. Hatred cannot grow where there is personal respect, knowledge and involvement.” 

(Here is a link to watching the online dialogue: https://www.facebook.com/367292494407/videos/race-in-america-the-faith-perspective-a-conversation-with-archbishop-of-washingt/191581638951107/)