What About Us?

What About Us?

One of the most vicious and hateful organizations in American history was, and is, the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK; it was founded down South after the Civil War, and it targeted, terrorized, and persecuted blacks and other minorities, Jews, and Catholics with threats, vandalism, violence, and sometimes even murder and lynchings.  Its members arrogantly considered themselves super-patriots and guardians of white privilege; the idea that one of these practitioners of hatred might convert and become an apostle of peace and racial harmony was unthinkable—yet such a thing actually happened, as described in the 2019 movie Best of Enemies.  In Durham, North Carolina in 1971, C. P. Ellis was leader of the local branch of the Klan and a proud racist; Ann Atwater was a black mother and local activist for racial equality—and, naturally, the two of them despised each other.  The black high school Ann’s daughter attended was badly damaged by fire, raising the possibility that the black students would have to attend the local white high school—an issue which enflamed and divided the entire community so badly that outside facilitators were brought in to help resolve the matter peacefully.  C. P. and Ann were both on the committee that was formed, and were forced to begin getting to know and grudgingly accept each other.  During the committee’s tour of the damaged high school, Ann’s daughter was introduced to C. P.; the look of fear and disgust that appeared on her face when she learned C. P.’s identity shook him badly.  This, and some other things that happened, caused him to do some serious soul-searching.

The climax of the movie was the community meeting in which the ten members of the committee—five whites and five blacks—were to vote on whether to integrate the high school.  When it was C. P.’s turn to announce his vote, he made a short speech explaining how his thinking had changed and how he was now willing to accept blacks as fellow citizens; then he tore up his KKK membership card and voted in favor of integration, and the measure passed, 6 – 4.  His former racist friends were outraged, and they and much of the white community boycotted the gas station he owned—but Ann arranged for the black residents of Durham to begin buying their gas at C. P.’s station, helping him stay in business.  The two new friends began going to other communities experiencing racial tensions, where they spoke on the need for mutual understanding and reconciliation, and when C. P. died many years later, Ann gave the eulogy at his funeral.  Miracles of grace and amazing conversions are not limited to past centuries; they can occur in our own day and age—especially when we pray confidently and persistently in Christ’s Name.

St. Paul (2 Thess 1:11-2:2) prays that the Name of Jesus may be glorified in and through his converts in the ancient Greek city of Thessalonika—a prayer that also extends to us in 21st century America.   How can this happen?  We cannot imitate Jesus in His divine nature by being present at the creation of the world, as He was, or by working miracles or establishing a Church, as He did.  There is one very important way, however, in which we can follow Our Lord’s example:  by showing mercy to those who sin against us, and by accepting and welcoming sinners who repent.  The Book of Wisdom (11:22-12:2) describes how God loves everything and everyone He has created, and is thus always willing to forgive even the worst of sinners.  We human beings often forget this; we tend to hold grudges and discount the possibility of someone genuinely changing—as demonstrated by the people of Jericho, who found Zacchaeus’ conversion (Luke 19:1-10) almost impossible to accept; they would have considered his genuine change of heart even less likely than the odds we’d give on the Detroit Lions someday winning the Super Bowl.  However, this corrupt tax collector really was converted by the presence of Jesus, and the Lord wanted everyone there to be inspired by this repentant sinner’s example.  When Jesus said He had come to seek out and save what was lost, He wasn’t referring only to Zacchaeus, but also to the residents of Jericho whose inclination to reject and condemn the tax collector was contrary to God’s plan.

What about us?  Are there people whom we consider hopelessly lost in sin, beyond any possibility of redemption, or unworthy of our prayers—perhaps persons whose values or lifestyle we, with good reason, utterly reject or despise, or someone who has seriously hurt or harmed us personally and afterwards never shown any sorrow or desire for forgiveness?  There are indeed many millions of people in our country, and throughout the world, who are apparently headed toward eternal damnation because of their sins and, so far, their stubborn rejection of God’s grace—but it’s not our job to punish or pass judgment on them.  Instead, we are called to pray for their conversion and salvation, no matter how unlikely it may seem.  

What about members of the Ku Klux Klan, satanists, Planned Parenthood, al Qaida and other terrorists, Communists, dishonorable bishops and priests and teachers and coaches guilty of sexually abusing the young, corrupt and greedy politicians and businesspeople, and any other evil persons undermining society and oppressing the innocent?  Do they deserve our prayers?  Strictly speaking, no, they don’t—but Jesus expects us to pray for their spiritual well-being and repentance anyway.  The fact that some people sin grievously and inexcusably does not give us the right to sin by hating them or refusing to pray for their conversion.  Jesus, after all, loved, forgave, and prayed for the very persons who condemned Him, tortured Him, and nailed Him to the Cross—so it’s not too much for Him to ask us to pray for the conversion of sinners, too, whether they’re public figures, or individuals encountered by or known to us personally.  Many hateful persons or notorious sinners expect to receive nothing but hatred and rejection in return—so instead experiencing love or acceptance from us may produce the tiny crack in their hearts that allows God’s love and mercy to enter in.  Not every loving word or deed on our part will produce a miracle—but if even one hardened sinner is converted because of our kindness and prayers, we will be able to rejoice forever as honored partners in the Lord’s work of redemption.  Jesus gave thanks when salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house.  May our prayers, efforts, and example give Him further reasons for rejoicing.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper