Is it possible to be true to the Catholic faith while dismissing the existence of systemic racism? For a large number of Catholics, the answer is, unfortunately, yes.
Bryan Massingale, S.T.D., wants to change that. Because when it comes to problems like police shootings of black men, solutions such as body cameras, retraining, and civilian review boards are not enough on their own.
“They’re going to be limited and ineffective if we don’t go deeper, and we don’t probe the woundedness in the human spirit that enables people to be less valued than others simply because of the color of their skin,” he said.
“Until we’re willing to look at root causes, we’re going to be stuck in this destructive feedback loop.”
Father Massingale, a native of Milwaukee who joined the theology faculty in September, has devoted his life to the intersection of faith and race. For too long, he said, Catholics have turned a blind eye to racism even though the teachings of Jesus explicitly call for respecting the dignity of all races and genders.
He experienced it himself as a child, he says. At his Catholic grammar school, the priests were devoted to racial justice. But his Catholic high school fostered a culture that was less supportive of the cause.
“As I went further in my studies, I realized that this was not necessarily an exception. The Catholic Church in general is marked by silence and complicity in the racial injustices of America,” he said.
This argument was the central theme of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Orbis Books, 2010), which won Father Massingale a first-place book award from the Catholic Press Association.
Key to his argument is Jesus’ teachings: When we die, we will be judged not for our attendance at Mass, but by our concern for the most vulnerable.
“Who are among the most expendable in this time and this place? Young African- American men who are being regarded with suspicion and treated with a social callousness that we haven’t seen in this country for a long time,” he said.
The challenge lies in the fact that research that shows that the more religious a person is, the more likely they’ll embrace racially discriminatory attitudes. A study released this year by the Pew Research Center that found that 80 percent of black Christians say the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner are evidence of systemic racism in this country, while over 70 percent of white Christians disagree, saying they are simply isolated incidents. Father Massingale called it an uncomfortable paradox, given that Christianity was a guiding force for civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.
One way to advance the conversation is to educate others on racial history: Black Americans start out with fewer resources than whites, a residual effect of racist Jim Crow laws that only disappeared in the 1960s.
“Conversations about race are very uncomfortable because they force us to understand that the privileges that have accrued to white Americans haven’t accrued simply because of hard work, but because of a playing field that has been deliberately constructed to not be level,” said Father Massingale.
When teaching, he uses the game Monopoly to introduce the concept of privilege to his students. Two players get packets representing poor blacks and Latinos: $250 and a house on Baltic, Mediterranean, or Oriental Avenues. Four players get packets representing white, middle class Americans: $2,500 and a house on one of the orange or red properties. One player gets a packet representing a wealthy, white American: $6,500, a hotel on Boardwalk, a house on Pennsylvania Avenue, Reading Railroad, a utility company, and a “Get out of jail free” card.
Since everyone is “equal,” they all get $200 whenever they pass GO.
“Very soon students will start saying things like, ‘Why should I play a game that I can’t win?’ I’ll see students with $250 dollars going bankrupt, and I’ll say ‘What, you’re not working hard enough?’” he said.
“Even though we’re living in an era of formal equality where everyone is supposedly treated the same, you’ve got a legacy of unequal treatment that doesn’t just vanish,” he said.
Father Massingale is currently working on two new projects: editing a collection of writings by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who wrote powerful, prophetic essays about racism that have since gone out of print; and a book on the life and legacy of Malcolm X. Malcolm recognized the depths of racism in ways that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t until later in life, and his influence can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement today.
He says he’s hopeful that, with faith, changes will come, even though ultimately it will take a long time and many people will be hurt in the meantime.
“Faith gives us a different horizon for how to look at these issues . . . not in terms of a zero sum game, or in terms of a current election. When we look at them in terms of faith, we say, ‘These are truly sisters and brothers who share a common humanity.’”