Confronting the sin of racism

Last week, James Alex Fields, Jr., was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Heather Heyer with his car on Aug. 12, 2017. Heyer was one of many people attending a counterprotest in Charlottesville, Va., one day after a white nationalist group held a “Unite the Right” rally in the city.

The white nationalist rally, as well as the counterprotest and the death of Heyer, was one reason the U.S. bishops established an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism on Aug. 27, 2017.

“Recent events have exposed the extent to which the sin of racism continues to inflict our nation,” Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in announcing the committee’s formation.

One of the committee’s duties was to help write a pastoral letter on racism on behalf of the U.S. bishops. That pastoral letter, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” was approved by the bishops at their fall meeting in November.

It is disturbing that racism not only exists, but that it seems to have surfaced more openly and brazenly in recent years, even in church settings. During listening sessions sponsored by the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, held over the past year in preparation for the pastoral letter, incidents of racism were shared with the bishops, according to Catholic News Service:

  • “A student at a Catholic high school was denied the right to ask for prayers for Michael Brown, an African-American young man slain by a white police office in nearby Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The student was told that unborn lives were more of a priority during Respect Life Week.”
  • “A teacher who moved (nearer) to her job at a historically black college said that at her first Mass at her new parish, the priest denied her Communion, asking her instead, ‘What do you want?’”
  • “At a listening session in St. Petersburg, Fla., one speaker talked about waiting to go to confession, while two people on either side of him talked to each other. One asked, “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?” The other replied, “Yeah, they don’t matter.”

Most, if not all people of color, have at least one story to tell about racial injustice. Regardless of one’s economic or religious status, the color of a person’s skin forms opinions — in the eyes of some — of that person’s worth. Such views are sinful and we as a church community need to lovingly challenge this attitude.

In “Responding to the Sin of Racism,” issued in 2017, the U.S. bishops call racism an “inner demon.”

“This inner demon infects our soul as a nation and attacks each of us individually,” they say. “It is ugly; it is real; and it is sinful.”

This inner demon of racism can exist as “a voice that whispers in our heart, ‘be wary of them.’” It can exist as a thought in our mind that says, “stick with your own kind.” It is “that temptation to lash out against those who are different so that we have someone to blame when we feel frustrated or afraid,” said the statement.

How can we challenge the inner demon? It begins with prayer.

“Pray for the strength to overcome this demon by the power of Christ,” said the statement. “Fight the temptation of prejudice with the truth that God created only one race of people — the human race.”

When we accept and believe this truth, there will be no more “Unite the Right” rallies or people dying while defending the rights of brothers and sisters of color.

For more suggestions on confronting racism, read the U.S. bishops’ new pastoral letter on racism.