Race and the Body of Christ

Just over six years ago, a bullet from the gun of a would-be robber (“would-be,” because he fled with nothing of value immediately after pulling the trigger) sent bone fragments into my spinal cord, leaving me paralyzed from the chest down and unable to feel anything in my body south of my sternum. Bottom line: Besides my being totally unable to move them, if my legs were immersed in a bucket of ice, attacked with an ice pick and/or set on fire, I wouldn’t know it unless I happened to be looking at them.

However, in the mysterious ways of God, that bullet has become a blessing. Through it, my body has become an object lesson regarding the jeopardy into which the American body politic and the Body of Christ are placed by our inability or refusal to attend to what is happening in other parts of our body.

Specifically, it has shed new light for me on 1 Cor 12:1-26, St. Paul’s marvelous extended metaphor likening the Church to the human body. In verse 26 he writes, “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.”

Recognizing pain

But what are the consequences when parts of the body are out of touch with one another? What happens when the various parts can’t feel one another’s pain?

An example: Several months ago, while sipping very hot coffee through a long, flexible straw, I was momentarily distracted, taking my mouth and my attention off of the straw, and thus failing to notice the coffee continuing to stream from it, siphon-like, onto my chest. I didn’t feel a thing, but the resulting burn raised a sizable blister on my chest and side. A prolonged distraction might have resulted in a life-threatening burn.

This brought home to me how dire the consequences of an inability to feel pain can be. Pain is the body’s way of drawing our attention to troubled places within it. Hence, the more serious the trouble, the more significant our ability (or inability) to feel pain.

A cultural malady

There are many indications that this is precisely the impact on our society (the body politic) and on the Church (the Body of Christ) produced by long-term racial segregation. Events such as the recent, well-publicized confrontation in Charlottesville between white supremacists and counter-protesters, and the seemingly endless series of questionable deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police, are symptoms of a deeper disorder serious enough to demand our attention.

Unfortunately, however, such incidents capture our attention only fleetingly, until the next hurricane or earthquake shifts our focus elsewhere. Still, there are other, more subtle signs of a deep-seated malady in the American body that we ignore only at our peril. These are the ongoing racial disparities pertaining to things such as educational opportunities, home ownership, infant mortality rates, median income, family wealth accumulation, etc.

Sadly, though, since meaningful communication across racial lines has been so effectively short-circuited by racial segregation — just as communications between my head and my extremities have been — it is particularly easy to ignore signs of an affliction that threatens the life of the body as a whole.

New Orleans Archbishop (now-Emeritus) Alfred C. Hughes captured well the impact of this phenomenon on the life of the Church when he said in “Made in the Image and Likeness of God,” his 2006 pastoral letter on racial harmony, “as communities moved from historical segregation in territorial church parishes, white flight has created segregation in many other places. Persistent challenges regarding community life, public education, economics, drugs and violence have been labeled ‘their problem, not ours.’” This persistent “us” and “them” mentality blocks the recognition that we are not merely brothers and sisters to one another, but are indeed members of the same body — some of which are suffering dreadfully while others fail to notice or respond.

Appropriate treatment

Until now, documents from the hierarchy pertaining to race have largely been shelved and forgotten following their publication. Unless and until significant numbers of our bishops, priests, deacons, religious and dedicated lay disciples commit themselves to earnest study and to frank, ongoing intraracial and interracial dialogue about racial issues, a much-anticipated pastoral letter on race from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will likely suffer a similar fate, thereby allowing the malignancy of structural/institutional racism — long acknowledged by our hierarchy — to continue unobtrusively doing deadly damage to Church and society, even without hordes of conscious, conspicuous racists.

Regarding this affliction in the Body of Christ, cancer furnishes an apt metaphor. Who among us, diagnosed with a malignancy, would simply ignore it in the hope that it will go away? Who would be content to put a Band-Aid on a tumor?

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Unless and until we hear and heed the cries of pain coming especially from people of color in our society and in our Church, that in effect is what we are doing.

Archbishop Hughes wrote:

“Institutional racism is also experienced in the Church. While the Church as the Body of Christ is holy in her Divine Head, the Church in her members can and do[es] sin (cf. 1 Jn 1:8). When members, whether in leadership or not, treat other racial or cultural expressions as inferior or unwelcome, they contribute to an institutional form of racism within the Church — for which we must continually repent and ask forgiveness (cf. 1 Jn 1:9-10).”

Walter L. Bonam is associate director for evangelization and catechesis in the Office of Religious Education of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.