Monday, April 7, 2014

Dignity and Equality

Over the past two weekends, my husband and I have watched three movies about civil rights in the United States: Lincoln, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and 42. Each is set in a different period of our country's history, and each addresses a different facet of the long struggle to achieve true equality for all Americans, regardless of race.

The Butler and 42 do a particularly good job of depicting the dignity with which African Americans endured the derision, threats, and violence of those opposed to equality. The scene from 42 in which Phillie's manager Ben Chapman taunts the at-bat Jackie Robinson with a barrage of n-words is especially powerful, as is the scene from The Butler where Louis Gaines gets beaten while participating in a sit-in at a Woolworth's lunch counter. In both cases, dignity triumphs over hatred because of the extraordinary self-control of the victims, whose suffering evokes sympathy in people of good faith who witness the attacks.

Another realization I had after watching these movies was that history truly is unkind to those who oppose equality. From the congressmen who gave speeches justifying slavery in during the debate over the 13th amendment, to the people of the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia refusing to accommodate a black man or his team, those who oppose progress through hatred and scorn inevitably end up looking bigoted, stupid, and evil.

I have been thinking about these movies a lot since seeing them because of the lessons they teach. As a Catholic, I see two issues of equality that need to be addressed by my church: marriage equality and women's ordination. And I am wondering how the lessons of the civil rights movement can inform those who are working to effect change within the church.

I recognize that there is a vast difference between what happens in a democratic society and what happens in a religious organization. However, the arguments made by those opposed to change in the church often sound a great deal like the arguments made by those who opposed equal treatment of blacks. And I suspect that, in retrospect, their arguments will sounds similarly small-minded and out of touch.

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