While the world’s attention is focused on a deadly virus that has taken the lives of more than 318,000 people worldwide, another virus continues to plague the cities and towns of America: racism.
The allusion to racism as a virus and a plague on society came from Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C. In a statement he issued on May 12 in response to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Archbishop Gregory said the “virus of racism inflicts hatred, violence and death in our society and in the lives of far too many people.”
Arbery, 25, was shot to death Feb. 23, 2020, in Brunswick, Ga., while jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood. Two white men carrying firearms, Gregory McMichael, 64, a former police officer, and his son, Travis, 34, confronted Arbery. During the confrontation, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery.
The father and son were arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations on May 7 and charged with murder and aggravated assault — more than two months after the killing. A video captured by someone at the scene led to the arrests.
“In the Georgia case of Ahmaud Arbery, once again, an unarmed black man has had his life violently cut short,” Archbishop Gregory said. “This murderous attack, like all acts of racism, hurts all of us in the Body of Christ since we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and deserve the dignity that comes with that existence.”
Archbishop Gregory is the first Catholic bishop to speak out publicly on the Arbery case. He isn’t the first bishop to address the sin of racism. In 2018, the U.S. bishops approved a new pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.”
Five years ago, Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., issued a 19-page reflection titled, “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.” The letter addressed racism from the eyes of a black bishop who has personally felt the sting of racism.
“Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father,” wrote Bishop Braxton.
He also revealed that he had two personal encounters with law enforcement officers “that made me very conscious of the fact that simply by being me, I could be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong.”
The first episode happened while he was a young priest and the second while a bishop. In the first, he was walking down a street “in an apparently all-white neighborhood.”
“A police car drove up beside me and the officer asked, ‘What are you doing in this area?’ … I never told him I was a Catholic priest, but I wondered what it was I was doing to attract the attention of the officer,” wrote Bishop Braxton. “This was long before I heard the expression, ‘walking while black.’”
In Arbery’s case, “jogging while black” could have led to his death.
Gregory McMichael told authorities that he and his son spotted Arbery running through the neighborhood and believed he was a burglar. Arbery’s family, however, said he often jogged through the neighborhood.
Racism is indeed a virus that can kill. Like COVID-19, it’s not easily detected and we need a vaccine to stop its virulent spread. According to Archbishop Gregory, “we already have the balm that cures racism — compassion, mercy, love and justice.”
“The prophet Jeremiah reminds us to seek the balm of Gilead and we know from Scripture that the balm is Jesus,” he said. “Through Jesus, we become more compassionate, merciful and loving to seek justice for all our neighbors.”
As followers of Jesus, our duty is to make sure we apply the balm.