Take Steps Toward Intersectional Justice for Martin Luther King Day

Today, the United States of America celebrates the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great non-violent civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968 after years of spiritual and strategic work for justice, equality, and anti-racism. For those of us in the U.S., when there are more military troops stationed in Washington, DC, than at any time since the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, and coming a little over a week when violent white supremacists stormed the Capitol Building, this commemoration of Dr. King is greatly needed.

As Catholics who are focused on LGBTQ justice and equality, this day should remind us that our work must be intersectional. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black lawyer, developed the concept of intersectionality to explain how we cannot look at any justice issue as if it existed in a vacuum. Rather, we need to be aware that injustices connect with one another. Anti-LGBTQ oppression intersects with race, gender, age, ethnicity, ability, economic class, and other categories which are used to privilege one group over another. The reality is that many people, if not most, are not oppressed in just one way. They experience multiple, compounding oppressions. If as Catholics we are concerned with oppression against LGBTQ people, we must recognize the ways in which our work intersects with other liberative movements. In short, we win together or not at all.

2020 was a year that magnified the virulent racism that exists in the United States. LGBTQ groups and leaders–including Catholic ones–recognized they must actively and intentionally work to end racist structures and attitudes in the U.S., beginning with ourselves. New Ways Ministry made a commitment to become an anti-racist organization, and we have begun to work toward this reality. Since the summer, we have devoted three board meetings to education and reflection on anti-racism, and we know that we still have a journey ahead of us.

It isn’t ever easy to acknowledge how privilege operates to the benefit of some and to the painful detriment of others.  This is especially true, I think, for people who consider themselves progressive on social issues. We don’t like to realize that although our principles value equality and justice that we have, in fact, perhaps unknowingly, been participating in structures of oppression which harm others. As people in the LGBTQ community know, though, “coming out” takes times and it happens in steps. The most important step is to begin–and/but then to keep going forward.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, another great prophet for the racial justice movement, reflected on why it is important to work intersectionally, and also why it is important for people to come to awareness of their own participation in systems of oppression:

“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, White and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

I often feel very sorry for anyone, but particularly Catholic leaders, who maintain an anti-LGBTQ stand. They are missing out on so much! They do not allow themselves to learn and benefit from the gifts that LGBTQ people bring to church and society. It’s like a festival is going on, but they adamantly refuse to attend. The same, of course, is true for those who maintain racist stands. They do not get to experience the rich and diverse cultural values and ideas that people of color celebrate. In trying to keep others out, they end up locking themselves in.

On this day devoted to Martin Luther King, Jr., we should all take some time to reflect on how we each can start or continue on the road of intersectional justice, to help liberate others and to liberate ourselves. Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace movement, has prepared a wonderful handout in honor of Dr. King to help people “Pray-Study-Act” to end racism. New Ways Ministry encourages you to make today’s holiday into a holy day praying, studying, and acting to transform our church, nation, and world into anti-racist communities.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 18, 2021

For Bondings 2.0’s previous posts about the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements, click here

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