When I watched the video of George Floyd being slowly killed, I was horrified. We all can recognize the reality of the horror of death and helplessness. We all fear those things in the abstract. But we have brothers and sisters who know a similar fate can be just one interaction away. That is a fear many of us will never know.
Denying the validity of that fear keeps us from a necessary conversion of heart. Beholding racism and its effects in our neighborhoods and country is hard to do.
As a people of faith, we have room to improve in how we respond to racism. We don’t understand it and so we miss our part in hearing and healing it. And because we can’t heal what we don’t understand we miss out on our call to love.
The evil of institutional racism is often denied as a reality, or treated as a “B level” sin that doesn’t much affect our personal path to salvation, and so receives little attention in our cultural church psyche. But maybe the biggest impediment to confronting racism is that it requires understanding things we do not understand. We need to listen with an open heart to live up to our vocation to love.
It is daunting to have our worldview, and the way we see ourselves, vulnerable to reshaping. It is uncomfortable. But as the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us, “We were not made to be comfortable, we were made for greatness.” We can only approach this challenge through humility.
As we mine the cultural landscape for “takes” about the many ways our world is coming apart at the seams, its hard to find anything coming from a place of humility. It can be comforting to hear what we want to hear.
We are all drenched in the heavy hurt of confronted egos and tribal news warfare. But is constant validation by our media the path to the conversion of heart, or “metanoia” Christ calls us to? I see this weakness in myself, and I see it in our world. We can all do better.
There are many ways that the power structures of our society make life difficult and dangerous for people with black skin. Their experiences can’t be boiled down to quick bullet points. People outside the black community have the luxury of deciding whether they want to acknowledge or confront the issue of racism. Not everyone does. Lots of people have to deal with it every day of their lives.
Even those who have a desire to understand, and work toward a more equitable world, can never know the experience of being black in America, because they’re not. And it seems the task of our community in the church is to be open, to listen, to be humble and to begin to understand, to call things what they are.
We need to become at peace with the discomfort of listening to injustice and pain with an open heart. And we need to become uncomfortable with the pain inflicted on our brothers and sisters, and accept our ability to address the causes of that pain.
We can begin by being honest with ourselves. We have the country we have because it is what we have cultivated. What has the luxury of silence on this topic done to the capacity of our hearts to live out our call to love?
Personal responsibility is part of the answer. The simple bigotry of a few outliers doesn’t require us to change anything about ourselves. Perhaps this is why the idea of systemic racism is so hard to believe. Because then we would be complicit in a way, and that would require change of personal behavior and conversion of heart.
Anyone who has ever been married knows that living in relationship requires an open heart, listening and admitting where we’ve gone wrong. They can also tell you that after cumulative transgressions boil over, denial and pointing to the perceived failures of the other is not the path to healing. As a church, we are in relationship with people of all backgrounds. We have a responsibility to listen to black communities without a laundry list of talking points in the back of our minds.
A first step toward a better country is listening. Listening with an open heart will set us on our own course to understanding our responsibility to act. The cures to systemic racism begin in people who are not racist, opening their hearts, listening and being docile to the movement of the Spirit.
It is us who have a lot of work to do, and God through us. As Archbishop Nelson Perez reminds us: “Never doubt the power of the Holy Spirit moving in you, through you, and despite you.”
Patrick Walsh manages Martha’s Choice Marketplace, a choice model food pantry at Catholic Social Services’ Montgomery County Family Service Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about Martha’s Choice, a beneficiary of the Catholic Charities Appeal, can be found at www.marthaschoicemarketplace.com.
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