It’s been two years since my last reflection on a Catholic’s response to racism, and much of those thoughts apply now more than ever. However, the most recent flood of protests and outcry over the black men and women who have lost their lives due to racist acts, carries with it a whole new intensity.
In reading comments and thoughts from Catholic friends, one concern that is raised repeatedly is, “How can I, as a Catholic, respond? What should I be doing to help change things?” However, there are also others who wonder, “If I do not think that I am racist, why should I have to fix this? I didn’t do anything to cause it.”
It is that response, specifically, that I want to address here – from the context of Catholic theology.
Racism as a Sin
Living in a city with a history of segregation, racism is a very real cause for concern and action. It is a topic discussed in our priests’ homilies, in a video from our bishop, and in the local community. I have heard priests preach on the sin of racism, but what does that mean?
When most people concerned with racism use the term, they are not using it in the way that I (a white woman) grew up hearing it used. Even in the years since my childhood, our understanding of racism has deepened, and we have learned to listen to each other. Growing up, I assumed that racism and prejudice were actions, not attitudes. If I did not overtly discriminate against someone because of the color of their skin, I assumed that that meant that I did not need to worry about racism.
But, in recent years, I have come to understand that racism is not just about actions but also about attitudes. Speaking for myself, I can say that attitudes are trickier to root out than behavior. Attitudes, biases…they are tricky. They are quiet. They can seem quite harmless. Of course, is not this how the devil works? He tempts us by minimizing the problem, making it seem less insidious than it is.
It is a sin against charity. It is a sin against unity. It is in contraction to Jesus’s prayer that we might all be one. It is not about whether we are doing a “good enough” job. It is not about whether we are causing bodily harm to someone of another race. It is about the attitudes of our hearts and whether those attitudes are conformed to the heart of Christ. The more that I have read about racist attitudes, the more I have recognized them quietly hidden in my own thoughts at times. Once I began to recognize that, I could bring that weakness and temptation to Christ, and begin to pray for the grace to root out any traces of racism in myself.
What has that meant for me? It means recognizing the times when I mentally judge an approaching stranger as more or less of a threat because of the color of their skin. It means recognizing that I may be tempted to think of people in other neighborhoods as being “other” to myself or even assume that their neighborhoods are “dangerous.”
What is Christ calling me to, though? He is calling me to view others as my brothers and sisters in Christ – regardless of race. That is my desire, but I nonetheless catch myself thinking thoughts that are contrary to that goal.
How Racism Matters in the Mystical Body of Christ
Although I have not overtly done any serious racist actions, although I am actively working on examining my thoughts and attitudes, and although I take the time to listen to voices other than my own – it is not enough.
I do not know how God may be calling my family to fight against racism. It may be as simple as being mindful of how we talk to our children, continually evaluating our own actions and attitudes, and praying for an end to racism. I do know this – racism matters to Christ. He loves all people, and He desires all to be treated with dignity and love.
However, this issue is even more pressing within the Church.
In the Catholic doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, we believe that all the baptized (including non-Catholics) are united in a very real way through Christ, our head. St. Paul writes about how, when one part of the body hurts, all parts hurt with it. In the Eucharist especially, we are drawn into deeper and deeper union with one another. And, if we are truly open to conforming our hearts to the heart of Christ, we must be open to the pain and suffering of others. Even if I did not directly cause the suffering of my black brother or sister in Christ, I am called to ease it. More than that, I am not just called to ease that suffering – I am called to desire their relief from suffering because of my deep love for them. Frequent reception of the Eucharist should lead us to that – to an increase in union with and charity towards the other members of the body of Christ. If we are open to this, then Christ will open our hearts to desire that all are treated with the same love, dignity, and respect as ourselves. We will be able to see past the ways that politics interferes with these discussions, and realize that, regardless of our political party, racism breaks the heart of Jesus. It leads to suffering of other members of the body of Christ.
So, whatever response we discern that God is calling us to, it must begin with the prayer that our hearts may be conformed to the heart of Christ. In conforming our hearts to his, our hearts will break over the sufferings of others. It will not be a question of whether we are obligated to do something to make a difference. Rather, it will be the case that our hearts, burning with the love of Christ, could not imagine doing nothing.