What did we expect? What did we expect when we did not react as we should, when #BlackLivesMatter came and went in the public sphere, when most people–especially most white people–went back to work as if Baltimore never happened, as if Ferguson and Selma never happened? What did we expect when, time and time and time again, the largest unified Christian denomination in the United States–Roman Catholicism–failed to consistently and vehemently repudiate the defilement of the human body that is racism in all its forms? What did we expect when the confederate flag is flown freely? What did we expect when gun laws remained lax, and racial tensions continued to grow? What did we expect would incur from the silence of the Church?
It is not enough to hold protests…but protests are the voice of the powerless when voting seems to matter so little. Riots, in turn, are the voice of the powerless when protests seem but a whisper. Violence is never condoned, but how, I ask, do we measure the physical violence of rioting against the physical, intellectual, and spiritual violence done to black persons through centuries of oppression? How can the violence of riots be discussed alongside the acceptance of Just War Theory in the 21st century Catholic Church? Christianity does not teach laziness in response to violence…it teaches a resilience that is the “other cheek.” It is a hard, violent lesson, and one so rarely taught in churches today.
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On June 10, the USCCB approved a “statement on race relations” at their general assembly. The only way it will not make the matter worse is because very few people will read it. The statement laments the state of affairs in “our beloved country” and asks people, first and foremost, to “pray for peace and healing among all people.” It focuses entirely on what many call “personal racism” without realizing the “societal racism” that underlies and encourages every instance of personal racism in the United States.
Precisely by not mentioning, even once, that US Bishops used to be slaveholders, or that the US Church of the 1950s was widely racist, Archbishop Kurtz and the US Bishops draft a note which gives us nothing but platitudes and emptiness. No–let me be more precise–it gives us, the lay Catholic believers in the US–something worse: a feeling that our leadership is acting to ease racial tension when they are not. People simply do not view anti-racism as an integral part of the Catholic experience, and this letter continues that line of reasoning.
Katie Grimes of Women In Theology says it well:
“Any white Catholic response to the slaughter of these black Christians must begin by confessing that while black churches all over the United States struggled for freedom, white Catholic dioceses throughout the South were owning black slaves as a corporate body. Wealthy white Catholics sometimes deeded slaves to their dioceses in their wills…
The collective, institutional body of the Catholic church likes to combat those evils to which it believes itself at least a partial answer. But it typically speaks much less boldly against evils like white supremacy or colonialism for which it bears major responsibility. The church can blame climate change or inhumanity against immigrants on outside forces–capitalism, corporate greed, apathetic government officials. But it cannot do this in the case of white supremacy: the church can take prophetic action against white supremacy only by confessing its historical alliance with it.”
Its just not a priority when priests do not learn about it in most seminaries, when Catholic school teachers are not forced to teach American history through the lens of the oppressed, when Catholic parents and children do not hear–even once in their lifetime–a sermon addressing racism in society. What did we expect?
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If we turn to God today asking WHY, as we will and should, we must remember that the Church is God’s instrument on earth. We are God’s instruments on earth. On Wednesday, 9 martyrs were sent straight to the Presence of God, having been murdered in a church community that rang of freedom and human dignity in a more tangible way than most Catholic communities around the United States. Let us pray for peace, yes, but let us also pray and act that our communities, and ourselves, might becomes living exemplars of the Word of God. Let us pray that when we are held accountable for the sins of the present, we are able to speak of the justice, mercy and love we brought to the oppressed and suffering of the world.