In 1997, I visited Europe for the first time, as part of a guided tour that covered eight countries in thirteen days. One place we visited was the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. I had never seen a concentration camp before. It was so painful to see and learn of the atrocities perpetrated there, to see the faces of human beings that were practically just flesh and bone.
I wondered how could that kind of hate exist in the world, a hate so concentrated that people lost their ability to connect to the humanity of another person due to perceptions of difference. As we walked back to the tour bus, tears flowed on nearly everyone’s faces, including the men on the tour. I wondered how do we prevent this type of violence fueled by hatred for another human being from happening again?
I was somewhat smug that day, thinking that we had come so far in America, past all of the divisions that separated us, for we were integrated, and people were allowed to live where they wanted, to attend their preferred college and university, and to work at jobs once denied to them because of race.
I had been hired in 1974 to do a job that had traditionally only been performed by white males. It was difficult, for the men felt victimized to have women in a job through which they defined their masculinity. The one guy that I had the most trouble with, having to constantly tell him not to call me “Baby” or “Sugar,” became a great friend, as he and I created an abiding respect for each other’s talents and strong work ethic.
Over time, we all, male and female, black and white, just coalesced into a functional work group. We developed a zest for our jobs, especially for being the best crew on the job, and race and gender just seemed not to matter any more.
I really believed that America would show the world what it would be like to overcome the violence of hate and start to live together in some semblance of mutual respect. Yes, I knew that there were still pockets of racial hatred, seeing documentaries and experiencing discrimination. But, things seemed so much better and people appeared to let each other live their lives, unafraid that their race or ethnicity could endanger their lives.
So, how is it that we see such hate in people’s faces, hate speeches on college campuses, and the violence of hate today on the news and in the newspapers, 50 years after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968? How have we come to be back in the world news for the hate that divides us?
How is it that I am afraid to leave my home at night, worried about being accosted and maybe having the police called on me as I am doing something perfectly normal like shopping at the grocery store? How do I conquer my fear of being stopped by a police officer and possibly losing my life reaching for my registration, because something in the car or on me looks like a gun?
What is the cure for overcoming the effects of living in a society where the violence of hate is front and center once again? And how do I change people’s perceptions that the color of my skin defines me as dangerous and violent?
For me, it comes down to instilling in each person the love of God that was demonstrated by Jesus Christ our Lord. In Jesus’s encounters with the Samaritan woman and the Syro-phoenician woman, he did not allow race or ethnicity to impact how he saw and treated those women. It was His unfailing love for all humankind that made Him oblivious to any putative differences.
Yes, love is the answer, especially learning to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Love for our neighbor, regardless of their race or ethnicity or immigrant status, will create an atmosphere that allows us to see the humanity of every person we pass by in this life. Hate and love cannot abide together.