Racism and Transfiguration
As we continue the penitential season of Lent, it is appropriate that we are also celebrating Black History Month. The Church in the United States has yet to effectively proclaim the Gospel in a full-throated manner that denounces racism in both its personal and its structural manifestations. We are still in need of both penance and conversion. This is not my assessment alone, but the grim appraisal of Bishop George V. Murry of Youngtown, Ohio, who is the chair of the USCCB’s recently formed Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
Racism against black people remains paradigmatic of the deep problem of racism in our culture more generally. We saw its ugly face in Charlottesville last summer. The very fact that white supremacists and Neo-Nazis continue to exist in our society is extremely disconcerting, but even more worrisome is that they feel empowered to come out from the fringes. These monstrous examples of racism harken back to the days of lynchings, de jure segregation, and slavery, and they remind us, as William Faulkner wisely noted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
These grotesque acts also distract us from less obvious, structural forms of racism, such as we find in our economic arrangements and in our justice, immigration, and education systems, which demand our focused attention. Moreover, heinous acts allow white people like me to define racism only in terms of its ugliest manifestations and therefore to credit myself with not being racist. Yet, being a member of a majority race that sometimes benefits from structures of oppression, I cannot become complacent. It is not enough to say “I have black friends” and “I don’t discriminate.” Being against racism demands what Catholic social teaching calls solidarity. I am compelled to work for racial justice as if it were myself who were being oppressed. This is the meaning of the second half of the Great Commandment after all: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
In my work against bullying in schools, I see racism and white supremacy joining homophobia and mockery of those with disabilities as common forms of violence among our youth. It didn’t surprise me when I read about a Catholic high school chanting racist slurs against the opposing Catholic school’s basketball team recently. What surprised me was that it reached the surface, demanding a response from the Archbishop of Cincinnati. “Behavior such as this is directly contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and falls well short of the expectations that I have of any of our Catholic high schools,” Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr said. “Our Catholic faith demands that we respect and love all of God’s children, and our words and actions should reflect this at all times.” Typically, bigoted, bullying language is hidden from adults in the school, who often fail to assess correctly the prevalence of such language and prejudice among our young people. In this case, the racism was directed at students who are black or Asian. In other cases, it is bigotry and dehumanization directed at those with Middle Eastern, Native American, Latino, Jewish, or any other non-white identity. Racism, we know, is a learned behavior, and learned very early. It should worry us deeply that we belong to a society that is teaching it.
All this brings me back to Bishop Murry’s statement. Reflecting on the USCCB’s 1979 pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us, which acknowledged that “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church” and that “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family…and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father,” Bishop Murry asks the pointed question, “Why has the church in the United States been incapable of enunciating straightforward principles and taking decisive action regarding racism that has led to a change of attitude?” He points to a USCCB study as evidence of his criticism. “Since 1979… only 18 percent of U.S. bishops had issued statements condemning racism. Of those, very few addressed systemic racism. In addition… many diocesan seminaries and ministry formation programs were inadequate in terms of their incorporation of the history, culture and traditions of the black community.”
On Mount Tabor, Jesus was Transfigured and the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” When it comes to racial equality and respect for the human dignity of all persons, we need a socio-cultural transfiguration, but we have not been listening. The Church must do better. White Catholics must do better. We have to acknowledge the sins of the past, including that “During the 19th century, some U.S. bishops defended slavery; and during the 20th century, many Catholics opposed the civil rights movement and encouraged—or at least acquiesced in—racial segregation.” It is time to listen to the Beloved Son who teaches that God is Father of us all. The U.S. Bishops are doing exactly that. The work of Bishop Murry’s committee is an important step forward. We must follow their lead in our classrooms and communities, from our pulpits, and in our politics. Lent is a perfect opportunity for greater conversion towards an unequivocal rejection of racism as both personal prejudice and systemic discrimination.