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Healing Racism Through Faith and Truth

At America's founding, the flawed concept -- and sin -- that "all men except" are created equal was adopted. Does it really have to remain that way?

BY Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua

June 21-27, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/21/98 at 1:00 PM

 

First of two parts

This pastoral letter on racism was issued Jan. 6 by the cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia. The Register, prompted by the racially motivated murder in Texas earlier this month, presents the document in its entirety (in two parts).

On one occasion when the disciples had been unable to cast out a particularly evil spirit, they asked Jesus why they were unable to do so. “This is the kind,” he answered, “that can only be cast out by prayer” (Mk 9:29).

Like these early disciples, we too approach Jesus with the same concern. Why, after all this time and after so much effort, is the grave evil of racism still so much with us? Our Lord's answer remains the same. It is only through a more profound communion with God achieved through prayer and sacrifice that we can truly be healed of this evil.

Our Lord has given us a fundamental spiritual truth. How we treat one another cannot be separated from our relationship with God. Unless and until we understand this truth, racism and all other sins against our neighbor will remain.

The Vatican Council expressed this teaching of Jesus in these words, “A person's relationship to God the Father and his relationship with his brothers and sisters are so linked that scripture says: ‘He who does not love does not know God.’ As a consequence, the Church rejects, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion” (Nostra Aetate, 5).

It must be remembered that race, color, or any other physical trait do not constitute the identity of a person though they can be integral. Differences in races need to be valued. Jesus, however, calls us to transcend the differences of races and find our true human identity in our unique but common human nature.

This commonality of our human nature binds us as a family not only physically by blood but also spiritually. Our dignity as human beings is a sacred one for we are children of God created by him in his own image and likeness. For Christians, this basic equality of all human persons has been elevated to a special relationship with God. Through baptism, Christians are incorporated into the life of the Incarnate Son of God. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

A pastoral letter always has first and foremost the intent of fostering a deeper relationship with God. I write this letter with that intention firmly in mind. I pray that all who read it may hear in it the voice of a pastor concerned for his people's closeness to God.

The primary step in effecting a personal and societal relationship with God is to remove from our lives obstacles that separate us from full union with God. Racism is one such obstacle and, indeed, a grave one. Racism is a moral disease and it is contagious. No one is born a racist. Carriers infect others in countless ways through words and attitudes, deeds and omissions. Yet, one thing is certain — the disease of racism can and must be eradicated.

It must be stated clearly that racism is a sin, an evil that can never be justified. It is a sin against fraternal charity. It violates Christ's command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (cf. Mt 23;39). And as Christ showed us, everyone is my neighbor. In short, racism and Christian life are incompatible.

Healed By Love of God

Racism has been condemned as a sin many times. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Pontifical Commission on Peace and Justice both have done so forcefully. Statements, however, are very limited in what they can accomplish. Pope John Paul II, commenting on the teaching of Vatican II, said that the Council was always concerned with the truth in people (cf. Redemptor Hominis, 14).

For the truth to have an impact, for it really to set us free, it must become our truth. It must be operative within us. It must penetrate and ignite our minds and hearts. The whole mystery of our faith is incarnational. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Our Lord desires that there be alive in each of us the truth that how we treat each other expresses and affects our intimacy with God. Love of God is the only power that can heal the evil of racism within any individual.

Deeply Rooted In American Life

The human condition is one of myriad differences. How we live these differences is the measure of our spiritual growth and maturity. It is deeply significant that the first sin recorded after the fall of

Adam and Eve is the sin of taking the life of a human being. Subsequent human history shows how ingenious human beings have become in continuing and spreading this sin of taking and diminishing human life. All of this is in direct opposition to the spirit of the Covenant which prescribes that we will be God's people and God will be our God only if we respect and nurture life (cf. Gn 9:11-17).

Our nation was formed on such a proposition, namely, that all people are created equal. But as Pope John XXIII once wisely noted, an historical movement cannot be completely understood through its founding principles, because, while the principles remain the same, the movement itself is subject to constantly evolving historical circumstances (cf. Pacem in Terris).

Our American history from its inception, tragically, has been influenced by the historical circumstance that an exception was made. The flawed concept that “all men except” was adopted in practice. Some among us were not to be considered equal. A distinction based on race was set in motion in American life. This distinction in many and varied guises has remained a sin deeply rooted in American life.

Consequences of Sin

Like the original sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of racism dulls the conscience, blinds reason, wounds the will, and erodes charity. As a consequence, the spiritual immunity built up through grace can be severely weakened, exposing the victim to the onslaught of the viruses of unjust discrimination, and racial superiority, breaking out at times into a fever of antagonism and conflict, hatred and violence.

Words are unable to describe adequately the horror of this human tragedy, as evidenced by the unrelenting human toll, the silent weeping of countless mothers inconsolable over the treatment given to their children, the diminished humanity, as well as the searing insult of rejection. People are given no admittance, are unwelcome, stereotyped, and portrayed as backward and inferior so often that one begins to doubt one's own worth. We witness the quiet suffering, the inner rage, the social pathologies causing shame and helplessness. Such mistreatment amounts to an oppressive weight so heavy as to make it almost impossible to breathe America's air of freedom. An exception indeed! It was an exception so pervasive that it became, in all too many ways, the very rule of people's lives.

As we step back and look at all of this, to the extent we are able, we wonder at it. How could it have happened? Is this really the way things have to be? There has been economic progress, as well as new laws, and greater admittance to a wide range of American life. Strenuous, often heroic, efforts have been made to rectify this nightmare. But it is still so terribly with us. Racism remains the unfinished business of America's freedom.

Whatever may be said about its origins, racism has shown a phenomenal capacity to survive and to affect successive waves of Americans. We Catholics have not been immune. As immigrant peoples, we have been assimilated into American society which, in turn, has brought us along with others into the destructive atmosphere of racism. It is true that Catholics have experienced the hurtful viciousness of ethnic and religious bigotry. But, our experience, for the most part, has been one of dramatic and successful inclusion into all areas of American life and culture. With this inclusion, however, has come a susceptibility to the climate of racism.

In established, low-economic neighborhoods where large populations of dependent people were housed in projects without consideration of the impact on surrounding communities, racial tension has been and continues to be the pattern. Although there was a real need to provide housing as well as a value to fostering multi-racial neighborhoods, the building of these projects, nevertheless, has proven to be a massive social failure. It was inevitable that the problems endemic to them would spill over into the surrounding areas. Our society was not justified in imposing the brunt of the consequences of longstanding racism almost exclusively on the shoulders of working people, ill prepared and inadequately assisted to address them.

Whole populations were thrust upon each other without preparation or warning, because integration did not progress in accord with the housing market and the fair housing laws. The result has been episode upon episode of people unleashing their pent-up racial feelings. Who can be proud of that? Who can say this was the right thing to do? Adding insult to injury, the media has highlighted these episodes in such fashion as to brand whole neighborhoods of people as racist. The task that faces all of us is the undoing of these past mistakes that have deepened racial conflicts rather than healed them. These mistakes have brought shame and suffering on all of us. They must not continue.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is justifiably proud of the contribution to Church life made by our African-American faithful. The accomplishments of the parishes, social programs and, especially, of the schools in the African-American communities have been superlative by any measure. The fact remains, however, that the membership of the Catholic Church in this archdiocese is predominantly white. Large numbers of African-Americans have not chosen the Catholic Church as their spiritual home. We cannot help but ask why. With much regret, we must confess that often it has been because the Catholic faithful have been guilty of the racism that surrounds us and for that failure we ask God's forgiveness.

A pastoral letter on the issue of racism does not imply that there are not other serious moral issues. This letter does, however, address the morally destructive force of the ongoing evil of racism and calls upon all Catholics to treat it as such. Concern for what is right and for the spiritual well-being of ourselves and our communities demands an effort of renewal. Not to endeavor actively to eradicate this evil is to be untrue to our deepest selves.