Unpacking the 'soul-sickness' of racism

In the aftermath of a turbulent week that saw the unprovoked shooting of two unarmed black men by white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Minneapolis, followed by the shocking assassination of five uniformed officers in Dallas by a black man, many leaders — including those in the Church — have called for a national conversation around the topic of race.

In a statement July 8, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called all citizens to a “national reflection.”

“In the days ahead, we will look toward additional ways of nurturing an open, honest and civil dialogue on issues of race relations, restorative justice, mental health, economic opportunity, and addressing the question of pervasive gun violence,” he said.

In Dallas, Bishop Kevin J. Farrell also called for dialogue.

“We cannot lose respect for each other, and we call upon all of our civic leaders to speak to one another and work together to come to a sensible resolution to this escalating violence,” he wrote on his blog July 8.

Such dialogue is necessary to navigate present racial tensions. But how does this conversation begin?

For answers, Our Sunday Visitor turned to Father Bryan Massingale, professor of theological ethics at Fordham University and author of “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” (Orbis, $26). In an interview, Father Massingale said that the biggest roadblock to a conversation on race was the subject of race itself. When it comes to talking about the issue, he said, Americans face three obstacles: We think of race too much in terms of individual prejudice rather than policy; we are too concerned, particularly when discussing race in a mixed-race context, about being perceived as being insensitive or rude; and we’d rather just avoid the subject altogether because of its tendency to make us “very uncomfortable.”

“If we talk honestly about race, we have to realize one group has been unfairly advantaged and one group has been unfairly disadvantaged,” Father Massingale said. “And that’s a very hard realization for people to admit.”

But this, he said, is where the conversation must start.

“We need to realize that African-Americans aren’t making this up,” he added. “That there are major biases in the criminal justice system and that the playing field is not level. That African-Americans are arrested for offenses that white people are not arrested for, that they experience a greater level of convictions, that they experience longer sentences for similar crimes. There is a problem here.”

For instance, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says rates of drug use among blacks and whites are essentially the same, the American Civil Liberties Union reports that, in 2010, the arrest rate for possession of marijuana was 716 arrests per 100,000 black residents and 192 per 100,000 white residents.

At the same time, Father Massingale said, all citizens want public safety, and “we need to support police officers.”

This support, however, does not have to be indiscriminate.

“I think too often we put one against the other: Either you support our police, and it’s a very uncritical kind of support, or we need to reform police practices, and we forget that fact that the majority of police officers enter the profession with very noble intentions,” he said. “I think what we see in Dallas, for example, with police officers risking their lives to protect protesters, shows us that we can’t paint all police officers with a broad brush. We need to say, ‘Yes, we support police officers, but we also need to reform policing.’

“We believe, as Catholics, in the sanctity of all lives, whether those are black lives or blue lives,” he added. “We need to get out of the polarization of pitting one group — black people — against other groups — police officers.”

The Church’s role

What can the Church do to advance the right conversation?

One thing, Father Massingale said, is for priests and bishops to be better trained on how to “preach effectively about social justice issues.”

“Priests are not trained to have the intellectual or the spiritual or the emotional capability of dealing with these very tough issues in their ministry in the pulpit,” he said. “And many, especially in the younger generation, don’t see social justice and social justice concerns as being something that they think is at the core of their priesthood or even a major part of their priesthood.”

The Church also has to remember that its complexion is changing, he said.

“As the Church gets younger, the complexion of the Church becomes browner, such that by the time that we get to the millennial generation, it’s only a minority of Catholics who are white Anglos,” he said. “For the Church to have a viable future, it has to become more proactive about issues of racial justice. Otherwise, it’s going to lose the very people that it’s going to depend upon to exist in the 21st century of the United States.”

Finally, Father Massingale said U.S. Church leaders would benefit from a “more deliberate, proactive” conversation with African-American leaders in the Church, such as members of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and the National Black Sisters Conference.

The role of Catholics

When it comes to individual Catholics, Father Massingale said it’s important to ask a question that might be uncomfortable: “Where does my fear come from?”

“Let’s just try a thought experiment, and let’s say, ‘student lives matter’ or ‘blue lives matter’ or ‘women’s lives matter’ or ‘unborn lives matter’ — I think most Catholics would have no problem with those statements,” he said. “It’s when we put the word ‘black’ in front of it — ‘black lives matter’ — that people get very nervous and anxious, and I think the reason is because ‘black lives matter’ is a phrase that connotes anger at injustice, and that anger scares many white people.”

Empathy is the key to understanding this anger, Father Massingale said.

“(We need) to ask ourselves, ‘how would I feel if my son, if my daughter were taken away? How would I feel if I had to worry when my son or daughter left home if they would be coming back?’” he said. “That creates the opening, then, for there to be a kind of flash of understanding.”

Where do we go from here?

Father Massingale recommended starting the conversation by using, as a foundation, the 2014 “Statement of Catholic Theologians on Racial Justice.” He called the statement balanced, one that calls for both prayer and measures such as guidelines for the use of legal police force and more effective police training in conflict resolution.

On the local level, Father Massingale suggested that Catholic parishes create opportunities to come together in prayer, honesty and dialogue.

“What if we had, in our Catholic communities, gatherings where we could own and face our own culpability, whether that culpability is conscious or unconscious, in the perpetration of racial injustice?” he said. “And what if we could avail ourselves of using our sacred rites and prayers and rituals to come together to both lament and mourn the state of our nation, to grieve where we are, but also to be reassured in faith that our God is with us even in the midst of very difficult circumstances? I think that would be something that could be a very powerful witness.”

Father Massingale said that it will take more than politics or legislation to resolve the fears and misunderstandings at the heart of racial tensions.

“We can understand racism in various ways. We can understand it as a sociological issue, as a political issue; but at its deepest level, racism is a spiritual issue,” he said. “Racism is a soul-sickness. Racism has become a spiritual cataract; it affects what we see and what we don’t see, whom we notice and whom we don’t notice, and it’s distorted our vision so that we don’t see what’s there in front of us. And body cameras and police accountability review boards, all of those are good and are necessary, but I think they’re going to be limited and even ineffective if we don’t realize that racism is a soul-sickness.”

To really begin an honest conversation about race, we must bring ourselves out of isolation and into community with one another in order to experience “a deep conversion of heart — a metanoia,” Father Massingale said.

Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.