As the United States continues to experience senseless acts of violence and deepening societal divisions, I’m reminded as both a Catholic and a citizen that all of us have a responsibility to promote and protect the common good and the general welfare. Nothing reminds me more of such responsibilities than when I read the speeches that Robert F. Kennedy gave in 1968, in the direct aftermath of the shooting and killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. RFK’s timeless words of wisdom about the life and death of Dr. King can perhaps restore some measure of solidarity and unity to a deeply wounded nation.
Here are the core messages of Kennedy’s remarks:
1. Violence isn’t the answer. When RFK addressed a mostly African-American crowd on the streets of Indianapolis on the night of April 4th, many still didn’t know that Dr. King had been killed. If any progress toward national reconciliation was to be made, he keenly understood that violence wasn’t the solution. He echoed King’s vision of nonviolence—creative nonviolence rooted in a commitment to love and justice that leads to enduring change.
With racial unrest and rioting occurring in most other major cities, Kennedy calmed the crowd by stating, “We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization— black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.”
A day later, during a speech at the Cleveland City Club, Kennedy commented that, “The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed.”
King’s vision and RFK’s words still resonate today. Violence may be considered a natural response to injustice and division, but we must strive to find a better way forward. All of us must work to nonviolently construct a more just society.
2. Injustice affects us all. The recent violence and the unjust conditions that precipitated that violence in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Charleston are not the sole concern of those individual communities, but rather of all Americans.
RFK understood any unnecessary loss of life reflects on the entire nation and said, “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence— whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.” We need social and economic conditions that show a renewed commitment to the value of every life. Then, and only then, will the slogan “All lives matter” truly mean anything.
3. Society needs to come together. It is clear that violence and hatred are a symptom of a widespread and systemic problem: societal apathy and indifference toward the suffering and pain of our fellow Americans. Kennedy believed this indifference was in itself a form of violence in many ways.
In what sounds like a passage from Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, Kennedy channels his Catholic faith and states, “We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.”
Robert Kennedy recognized the growing mistrust and divide between Americans when he stated, “We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear— only a common desire to retreat from each other— only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.”
We can continue living under an atmosphere of hatred and mistrust, or we can embrace solidarity and work together to try and end the suffering and alienation of our most vulnerable citizens. History has shown us time and again that violence and hatred only lead to greater pain and suffering. Therefore, the path toward a more peaceful and just world begins once we learn to view our fellow citizens not as aliens, but as fellow human beings trying to live out their lives in peace and happiness.
Stephen Seufert is the State Director of Keystone Catholics, an online advocacy organization dedicated to promoting the common good.