To be a Christian is to be antiracist

The only way we’re going to succeed in the fight against racism is by imitating Jesus.

Let’s talk about racism. A caveat to this article is that I am a white, straight, Christian male, and as such I have not had a lived experience of my opportunities, relationships, and whole life being limited simply because of the color of my skin. However, I can’t call myself a Catholic and avoid speaking up. Jesus’ second greatest commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves is critical to any Christian’s mission to overcome division, and as Christians, we need to continue standing up for our brothers and sisters who experience racism.

Christians should strive to meet people right where they are at and strive to show them just how much they are loved by God. There need not be any qualifiers of any kind; this should permeate literally every interaction you have with people. You should do it with your children, your coworkers, the checkout person at the store, and even people you really don’t like; everyone deserves to experience God’s boundless love. 

Something that makes this challenging is that our brains are wired to have prejudices. Our base wiring is very tribal; there is research that shows that our brains think in terms of groups of about 150 people. That makes it hard for us to mentally extend our tribes beyond small groups. Because of this, our brains are constantly scanning to see who fits into the tribe and who doesn’t. It is easy for our brains to do this regarding race, of course. If a person looks substantially different from us, then they probably are not in our tribe. But we do this all over the place – we have our tribes at work (are you in the group that agrees with the boss or are you not), and we even do this among our friends (this is part of the function of gossip), seeing if people are in your tribe and cutting out people who don’t fit. 

What’s crazy is that we extend this prejudicial dividing even to people who are in our own group. Think about this: if you are an American traveling in Europe and you run into a fellow American, it’s amazing how an instant camaraderie develops. You run into someone who you can say is “in your tribe” even though back in the good ole’ U.S.A., you probably would never hang out with that person in a million years! 

On the other hand, we divide our tribes even into little “microtribes.” You probably know a lot of people at church who share 90% of your values. You’re in the same parish, neighborhood, and school. Even so, it’s easy to find reasons to not associate with them: “That family is too conservative or that family is too liberal. They are friends with so and so, so we don’t hang out with them.”

We are all fighting against these internal prejudices all the time — prejudice is a universal human experience. As Christians, we are in a unique position to respond to this specific issue. A Gospel-centered approach turns tribalism on its head. If you think about Old Testament Jews, they were pretty darn tribal! They were constantly invading people living literally across the river, and they made the Samaritans total outcasts…so Jesus’ ministry is directly applicable to the racism battle we face today.

One beautiful thing Jesus did was that he was able to demonstrate to others that they were all of one family, one tribe, while at the same time he specifically acknowledged people’s specific differences. Jesus didn’t “whitewash” anyone. When he talked to Samaritans, he spoke to them as Samaritans, when he talked to the Romans, he spoke to them as Romans. He didn’t ignore differences, he honored them. 

The only way we’re going succeed against racism is by imitating Jesus. The fight isn’t just in society, it is against ourselves. Our tribal brains aren’t going away anytime soon. We have to bring down the systems that reinforce prejudice, but it starts by taking a deep look at our own prejudices. 

We have to remember that every single human soul is handcrafted by God. Our biological parents give us our genetic identity, but it is actually God Himself who forms our souls. If we have disdain for someone, it means we have disdain for one of God’s personal works of art!

If it is true that each soul is handcrafted by God, then we have to be intentional about honoring that fact. Truly, every one of our interactions with others should be directed at showing people just how much God loves them. Imagine what would happen if we all started doing this. We could sweep away so much of the pain that people feel and revolutionize racist institutions overnight. The hard thing is that it starts with us, and we can only do it one soul at a time; every color, every identity, every person, deserves to know how much God loves them. So maybe today, try an experiment. Be intentional about your interactions with others; people long for respect and kindness, but really it starts with just noticing them. When you’re in line at the check-out be sure to say the checker’s name. Make eye contact with people; smile at them. This makes people feel loved, and it also gradually reshapes our tribal brain. Fighting racism is the responsibility of every Catholic, and we have to take intentional action. Here are some starting points to consider:

Do your homework: We have no excuse to be ignorant of this topic. Racism exists – it disempowers and demeans the dignity of people all around us, every day. Take time to learn more about your own prejudices and privilege and stay plugged into the larger dialogue going on right now. Seek out books and other literature to read and continue educating yourself so you can think critically about the issue and cut through the politicized noise on the topic. 

Talk about it…and listen too: Avoiding our discomfort around racism only perpetuates it. Talk about it with your spouse, children, and friends. Open up to others and allow them to share themselves as well. Never underestimate the power of deeply listening to another’s experience; it brings healing and insight to both sides. We have to step out of our self-defined tribes and be apostles to people different from ourselves. This doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it might feel. It can begin by befriending a more diverse group of people within your own parish.

Be fully pro-life: We can’t call ourselves “pro-life” and passively allow racism to continue. Catholics must honor both the life and dignity of all people. While we can’t help having prejudice, racism is sinful. Antiracism should be reflected in how we participate in civic life and what institutions we support in addition to how we treat others. 

We have huge institutions to tackle, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t do it brick by brick. 

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”