Racism and the ‘scandal of the value of every human life’

Mary Beth Bonacci

In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.” Flannery O’Connor

Is anyone else wondering how we got here? Or, more accurately, got back here? It’s like I woke up one morning and somebody had turned the clock back to 1968. Racial unrest, riots in the streets. Have we made so little progress in all this time?

As I read the news, on the rare occasions that I’m not trying to avoid the news, my mind keeps going back to this quote. We are so separated, so horribly divided. And I don’t think there is anybody on either side who is not feeling some tenderness, some compassion, for somebody. I know no one, for instance, who doesn’t feel compassion for George Floyd and for his family, and outrage at what happened to him. Regardless of his or anybody’s criminal background, nobody deserves the merciless “vigilante death penalty” he received. That’s not how we do things in America. It is outrageous.

But once we move past that agreement, everyone seems to split. Based on what I’m seeing on the news, and on social media, and scrawled on the sides of buildings, it appears to me that we are balkanizing. We are seeing each other, not as individuals with individual autonomy, but merely as members of a group. Groups who feel justified in lashing out at other groups.

Of course, this is nothing new. The roots of racism, and all unjust discrimination, lie exactly here: in looking at a unique, unrepeatable human being created in the image and likeness of God, and only seeing that person’s skin color, or nation of origin, or religious heritage.

I thought we had figured it out. But apparently we haven’t.

For many, the response to this gross injustice has been to further balkanize ourselves. At that has led, in many cities, to riots where “justice for George” has led to violence, to destruction of homes, businesses and property, and to the loss of additional lives.

This is what our friend Flannery was talking about.

She went on to say “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” Tenderness is good. Compassion is good. But they are emotions, and they go where they will. And, according to O’Connor, when detached from the source of tenderness [i.e. Christ], those emotions can become dangerous indeed.

What is it about Christ that anchors and secures our tenderness? It is what Walker Percy called Christianity’s “scandal of the dignity of every human person.” The world has never been quite able to grasp that true Christianity is dedicated to the good of every human person. Yes, the one in front of you. But not only the one in front of you. All of them.

And when your compassion for the person in front of you comes at the expense of your compassion for someone else, your compassion becomes disconnected from the source of compassion.

Racism — and so many other evils — sprung from disconnected compassion. It was in no small part concern for the success of the southern plantation owners that drove this nation to endorse the “peculiar institution” of slavery — the wholesale buying and selling of human lives — in the first place. Likewise, it was misplaced “compassion” for a lying woman named Carolyn Bryant that spurred her husband and brother-in-law to literally beat the life out of young Emmett Till. And how did Hitler inflame German sentiments against the Jews? By portraying them as a threat to their innocent German neighbors. This is the history of tyranny since the beginning of time. Incite hatred for one group by stirring compassion for another.

People are naturally compassionate. It’s difficult to get them to hate any group just for the sake of hating. But if you can convince them that one group is a threat to someone else for whom they feel compassion, then the sky is the limit. Or the gas chamber.

As Christians, what is our response — to racism, or to any other human evil? Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy would tell us that, whatever we do, we must respect the dignity of every human person. If we don’t, we are no better that the persecutors who came before us.

Dr. Martin Luther King understood this. “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” He mobilized an entire movement, battling a violent culture of racism non-violently, without ever reducing himself to the level of those he opposed. Many people — of all races — have retained that spirit, but their attempts at peaceful protest have in many places been coopted by others — again, of all races —  with more violent intent.

We all, as Christians, have a duty to fight injustice wherever we see is. But, as we do it, we need to constantly examine our consciences. Are we, as individuals and as a nation, respecting the dignity of every human person?  For instance, wherever there is a culture or subculture of disrespect for any human life in our police departments or any of our institutions, that evil needs to be rooted out. But that is very different from a social culture which views all police officers — or all anybody — as evil.

My point here is simple: without Christ, without the “scandal of the value of every human life,” the natural human temptation is to value some lives more than others. And we cannot do that. The only truly loving, compassionate way to live — or to govern — is to see every human person as unique, unrepeatable, and infinitely loved by God, and to act accordingly. One look at our past tells us that we never really got that right. But as we lose our Christian bearings, we risk slipping even further into groupthink and balkanization. And that is always wrong, and it will never fix our problems.

It only leads to lynching. And bloodshed in the streets. And the gas chamber.

COMING UP: A conversation with Black Catholics on racism

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The death of George Floyd on May 25 has once again sparked a national conversation about racism in American society. As Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila put it, “Racism has no place in the Gospel message or any civil society”; other bishops have echoed this sentiment. This conversation is a necessary one and there are many voices that deserve to be heard. One of those voices is that of the black Catholic community. The Archdiocese of Denver is home to a diverse community of faith, and we asked three local black Catholics to share their perspectives on this pressing issue: Kateri Williams, Director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver; Janaye Matthews, a Colorado State University student who grew up at Cure d’Ars Parish; and Dustin Caldwell, a parishioner of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and member of the Julia Greeley Guild.

Denver Catholic: As a Black Catholic, how are you feeling in this moment of history?

Kateri Williams: It’s been tragic. It’s a tragic time. But it’s been a time that really has called upon the need for prayer and the need for to remain faithful and hopeful, to rely on our faith. And for me, it’s been bittersweet because I can see where God is working through all of this, and that’s where we often meet crises, in our brokenness. For me, it’s just been a time of sadness and a time of deep reflection. It’s been a time of racial fatigue. I know for me personally is that it’s opened wounds that have never quite healed. And we all have stories. There’s not a single person that doesn’t have a story. For older African-Americans, it’s opening unhealed wounds, and for younger people, I can only imagine what it means for their future. But you know, where I’ve found hope is that they’re undeterred by this and that they are steadfast in their faith. And that’s what gives me hope in terms of being steadfast, is looking to the youth and seeing that they are. I’m speaking just strictly in terms of Catholics, not the overall movement, but just in terms of Catholics, that gives me great hope.

Janaye Matthews: I would say it’s been pretty difficult for me, honestly. Being 22, I’m at that point in my life where having gone through my religious education in middle and high school, I’m at that point where I really understand what it means to take control my own faith. As I become more aware of how history has played itself out, it has led me to a place of a lot of doubt and really questioning my faith. And so I’ve been going through that piece of what I was taught and what I was raised on and how I’m actually seeing it play out and how history has seen it play out. And so it’s been quite a journey. I know that I have a purpose and I know that God has a plan for each person that that he puts on this earth. For me as an individual, as well as me and what I represent in my community, I see this as an opportunity to continue to play out that role and to take responsibility for myself and then to also help others understand that that’s almost literally like that’s almost all we can do at this time, is to really just understand that we all have a role. We all have a place in this. And that’s what’s going to help us get through, is clearly playing our roles and also maintaining our faith that God has a plan and that we’ll find a way through it.

Dustin Caldwell: I’ll say this to start. It’s fitting that we’re having this chat on first Friday because I’m very, very devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And it’s ironic; you see how God works in situations where, ironically, these protests are happening in the month of June, which is essentially the month of the Sacred Heart where the feast falls. I think that’s really the answer and solution to the problem. I think that we will find healing and refuge as a people from all races, but particularly I think of my black peers and older people and younger people as black Catholics, that’s where we’ll find healing, is in the sacred heart of Jesus, because it’s a deep wound that runs years and years old. And the best I can describe it is it’s like any time you have a sustained wound, it leaves an impression like, “oh, that was so terrible. I never want that experience again.” And people tend to react very passionately against having to go back to that direction and understandably so. But I think the only real healing that will be had is if we first turn back to Christ and his most Sacred Heart because he understands the wound and he feels it in his heart.

DC: What do you wish non-black Catholics and people of faith knew about what it’s like to be black in America?

Kateri: All of us are created in God’s likeness and image, and any time any one of us anywhere is looked at as less than then, we’re not living the mission of the Gospel. And that is painful to sit in. It should often be very painful to sit in a pew or to sit in an office or to sit in a classroom, but especially in a community of people who share the same faith and for that basic tenet to not be understood. My Catholic faith is my foundation and the foundation of my family. I’m a cradle Catholic. My husband’s a cradle Catholic. But when we walk down the street, that’s not what people see. That’s not the first thing that comes to their mind. There’s a prejudgment that is there and that happens even within in the pews. So what I would what I would want to come out of this is that we take the time to really do a self-reflection and an examination of our own consciousness to see where we fall in this whole issue of racism. Have we either been complicit either by our action or by our lack of action because indifference is still a choice? What I would want is first for people to start with themselves and to pray upon it and to seek enlightening from the from the Holy Spirit to be able to be a spiritual warrior in regards to racism. And also to listen, to take the time to listen to the stories. To reach out and to educate themselves on what the issues are, because there’s a lot of people who are allies who want to know more.

Janaye: I would say a lot of times my identity is politicized and used as that dividing point where when I start to talk about my experience as a black person and how it differs from someone who isn’t black, it tends to drive people away. But at the end of the day, we all have similar qualities. We all have this human experience that we’re going through. My ultimate goal is just to help people see that I’m just as human as the next person. When we look at what happened to George Floyd, and we have such a long list at this point of how he’s just representative of so many other people and so many other victims who have gone through similar experiences, some of whom have died and others who have lived to tell about it, there’s still this implicit threat or this implicit bias against what it means to be black. I live in more than a bit of fear a lot of times of how I might come off to others, and it changes how I navigate [the world], but it doesn’t make me vindictive and it doesn’t make me hateful towards others. I hope they can see my humanity, my flaws and my strengths and all of that and just really accept me for who I am and remove, especially in the U.S., the politics around race and the negative connotation that’s been placed on us for generations.

Dustin: As a black Catholic watching this unfold on a human level, I’d like to share with all my Catholic brothers and sisters that racism is a real thing. Racism is unfortunately something that rings true to reality. I don’t think it’s smart to think we could ever eradicate something like that, because that would almost be like saying let’s eradicate all sin altogether. For anyone who has had to deal with or suffer some kind of injustice, because we all have in different ways, there’s certainly a history of racism with the black community. But I think we’ve all, at different points, had some kind of prejudice worked against us, even just as Catholics in a pagan society. I think that a goal for us is to look at that and say, “when someone is saying this is happening and I think it might be because of race,” not to dismiss it or discredit it as, “oh, that’s a political issue or that’s a left wing thing.” I think that this does go hand-in-hand with pro-life [issues] and protecting life at its most delicate stage in the womb of its mother. We have to acknowledge it’s evil and we have to keep fighting gently and then working harshly against the evils and injustices.

When I start to talk about my experience as a black person and how it differs from someone who isn’t black, it tends to drive people away. But at the end of the day, we all have similar qualities. We all have this human experience that we’re going through. My ultimate goal is just to help people see that I’m just as human as the next person.”

DC: Where do you see Christ in all of this?

Kateri: You see people of all walks of faith who are coming together in the way that I would say our Lord calls us to be there for each other. I have seen elderly people who clearly should not be out there and not even the people who were are just out there. There are people who are doing things behind the scenes as well that are not being spoken to. I see people who are praying together who maybe would have never had the opportunity to pray together. I see the fervent prayer of people across not only this nation, but across the world in regards to today that I was shocked to see. All of the other countries that are speaking out about what is going on here, and just the way people are reaching out to help each other. I also know the importance of standing strong in the midst of the storm because that’s what we’re called to do. The community of faith has definitely gathered and rallied during this time. But it’s a time of loss. It’s a time of grieving. But I think there is a phoenix that’s going to come out of these ashes.

Janaye: I see it in the way that we’re actually seeing change happen. For me, growing up at Cure d’Ars, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of folks who were around in the 1960s and 1970s and saw what progress looked like for the black race at that time. I’ve grown up in a setting where I’ve seen how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Now we’re seeing that progress being made and we’re seeing people really stand up for what they believe in. I think the other way is that I’ve found a place that I can share my voice in a way that people can hear themselves and that they can actually see themselves, specifically for women of color and black women. Being able to give people that release that they’re not alone going through it is one way that I would say we continue to see that hope and that grace with one another.

Dustin: I would have to go back again to the Sacred Heart and say that I see him showing us his wounded heart that’s so aflame with love for all men, since after all, it was God himself that brought up all races, including black people, and that from the thorns and the blood and things that flow out of pain and all the sacrilegious or outrageous against that Sacred Heart, he’s just saying, “love me and let me love you.” I really believe in that power. I really believe that if we just focus on that heart and ask that heart to heal our hearts, then those who are or who have been affected by it will find healing and comfort and be able to move to closer to him. And those who are confused and don’t understand it can do the same if that’s what they really want, if their heart is open to receive those graces.

DC: How do you think the Church can be more supportive of the Black community?

Kateri: I do think there’s a growth opportunity there. I think we’ve seen a lot of it, obviously, in the past few days. Clearly, it comes from the top: Pope Francis has made a statement and Archbishop Gomez on behalf of the United States bishops, and that has trickled down. But it needs to happen at the grassroots level for people to really feel it because, yes, all of this is happening now. And it’s got to be something that’s talked about not just at the point of tragedy, but throughout the year. We’re talking about issues of pro-life or talking about immigration, we’re talking about all types of issues within the Church, and this just needs to be added. When you hold back any one group of people, everyone is being held back. Racism is not a black Catholic issue or a Latino Catholic issue; as it affects us as people God, it’s a Catholic issue. When the Church comes at it from that perspective then we will really be on the right track. Historically, I do believe the Catholic Church is far behind in addressing those issues. But we’re moving in the right direction.

Janaye: I always feel like there’s more that can be done. I really do think it’s really just about bringing it back to the fundamental teachings of the Church and how they’re applied to everyday life. Recognizing humanity in one another, preaching the same love for your neighbor… that’s the foundation of a lot of how we as Christians and as Catholics really guide ourselves. Helping people to see past difference. A lot of times, we find fear in indifference instead of being able to reach across and really just embrace someone who has different values, who looks different. It’s not really just a race issue either. It’s something that I think if we apply that same approach to a variety of issues that tend to polarize or divide this country and this world, that we will be able to better understand each other. For me, that baseline philosophy across the board is just, “how do we work across difference?” If the Church is able to show that and not just say it, but also act on it in a way that sets an example, it helps those of us who are following those words and following those teachings to then also do the same.

Dustin: I think the Church has done an amazing job in the recent situation. I will say that I think it’s important for all of us to realize that like any sin, we all struggle. We all have to get better. And we all have to go to the Holy Sacrament to be healed and absolved of things that we struggle with. I’ve seen people that are part of the mystical body of Christ, whether in a leadership role or clergy or even just my fellow lay people, practice racism in ways that I don’t even know if they realized it. I’d say there’s an inherent, “Well, I just have never been in this situation. I don’t know how to treat you. I don’t know how to deal with this. I didn’t even know there were black Catholic people.” It’s unfortunate that it still tends to infect even our faith communities. But I wouldn’t say it’s the Church in any way, because the Church is much bigger than that, and I think the Church does to do its part to speak out against these things and does a beautiful and amazing job. I like how the USCCB mentioned that this is a life issue, because I’d love to see this go with hand-in-hand with life. In some ways it’s like systemic or structural sin – one begets another. You have abortion clinics in all of these inner-city, poor and impoverished neighborhoods. You’re essentially saying that black lives don’t matter starting at the womb. We’ve got to be on the same page here because it’s really all about the sacredness of life at all stages.

Racism is not a black Catholic issue or a Latino Catholic issue; as it affects us as people God, it’s a Catholic issue.”

DC: What would your message be for somebody who perhaps isn’t black but wants to show their solidarity and support for the black community?

Kateri: I would say be willing to not only be part of but to encourage the difficult and courageous conversations that have to be had because we have to be able to communicate. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but with a loving, generous heart, say “yes, I’m going to push myself out of my comfort zone” and to encourage that within your own circles of influence and definitely within the Church and within your own parishes, because even though many people do belong to parishes that don’t have many people of color, those conversations still need to be had. Support your priest when they want to have homilies about racism, even if there’s pushback and people say, “well, none of us here are racist,” That’s still something that needs to be spoken to. To be willing to be that advocate means having to step out of your comfort zone and to be able to hear some truths that although you may not agree with or may not be part of your experience, it is the reality for others.

Janaye: There’s still things that you can continue to learn. A lot of times I think we fall back on our educational system, and from my perspective, there’s shortcomings in that, in the way that they tell the history and how they capture part of it, but not all of it. So educating yourselves, but also families; I think that’s the biggest thing for me, is talking about it as a family, bringing the issue of race into the home because there’s such a taboo around it. If we normalize it, then people can address difference in a different way. It’s really just about educating yourself, educating your kids, your friend groups. It’s not as visible a form of solidarity as a lot of people would like to see or would like to practice, but in my mind, it’s one of the most impactful on a long term scale that we can have.

Dustin: I’d like to see all of my fellow Catholic peers take a little time to be a little more sensitive to the history, because when you know the history, you see how deeply it impacts the minds and hearts of the black community. This isn’t a George Floyd issue; this is the last five times this happened. This is a constant virus; this is a virus that just keeps re-infecting situations again and again, and no two are alike. There’s always more to the story than what the news says, but there is a there is a real evil that’s hidden in these situations. I would ask my peers to first just understand a little bit of the history and not get locked in on this particular situation here, but see it as a timeline. Look at the timeline of the issues, whether with the police or otherwise, that’s spanned quite a ways back, all the way to slavery, and just have a little taste and sensitivity of that history. And then with prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, look at a situation where people are saying “Black Lives Matter” with compassion and empathy before you start getting into the logos or the philosophical. Make sure that you don’t allow the evil one or the enemy of our soul to hijack this once again and create schism. I think it’s interesting that there’s a schismatic component to racism. Racial schism is another way I would phrase it. Once something terrible happens to a community, to a race of people, that affects them, that’s a racism thing, I think the enemy takes that and tries to create even more schism. Until you experience it, you really don’t know what it feels like. And when you do feel it, it’s kind of like a kick in the stomach. Maybe we disagree. Maybe there are parts of the story that need to be more thoroughly examined. But that will never happen until we can have that sympathy and that compassion. Understand the history, be empathetic and compassionate, and then realize that in order to win the battle against the enemy himself, you have to keep that bridge and that connection going.