Buffalo, Racism and the Church – Catholic World Report

A man at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, NY, lights a candle May 16, 2022, for the victims of a May 14 mass shooting that authorities say was racially motivated. (SNC Photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

In this Sixth Sunday of Easter, the readings begin to wait two weeks before the climax of the Easter season, the great solemnity of Pentecost: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and disciples of Jesus; the anniversary of the Church.

Our Lord speaks of Pentecost in today’s Gospel when he tells his disciples that “the advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of everything what I told you” (John 14:26).

And it is this gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that gives the apostles the authority, in the first reading of the Acts of the Apostles, to resolve the dispute at Antioch, even writing in their letter: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” (Acts 15:28).

The conflict in Antioch is between Jews and Gentiles, involving a faction of Jewish Christians called the Judaizers, who taught that Gentile followers should accept circumcision and live by the law of Moses, the Torah. The apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, reject this division between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised. Sin divides and creates conflict; grace unites and brings peace. What does Jesus say in the reading of the Gospel? “I leave you alone; I give you my peace” (John 14:27). What do the apostles write to the church in Antioch?

We have heard that some of us who have come out without any warrant from us have upset you with their teachings and troubled your peace of mind…(Acts 15:24).

Reconcile human beings with God and with each other

The story of sin is a story of division, conflict, estrangement, from the moment our first parents, Adam and Eve, turned away from God in the Garden of Eden until the thought or act selfish, resentful, or most recent self-centered in any of our hearts; from the time Cain raised his hand to murder his brother Abel to the time Russia invaded Ukraine – or a gunman in Buffalo walked into a supermarket intent on killing as many black people as possible.

“I leave you alone; my peace, I give it to you. Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians that Jesus

is our peace, which has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity…so that he may…reconcile us both to God…thus ending enmity (Ephesians 2: 14-16).

See how reconciling human beings to God goes hand in hand with reconciling them to each other? This is why Jesus died and rose again: to reconcile us with God and with each other. And, from Pentecost, it is also the mission of the Church in the Holy Spirit. Hear it Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The primary purpose of the Church is to be the sacrament of the interior union of men with God. Because the communion of men among themselves is rooted in this union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. (CCC 775)

“The sacrament of the intimate union of men with God” and “the sacrament of the unity of the human race”. The two are inseparable, because Jesus came to reconcile human beings with God and among themselves, putting an end to all hostility and giving us his peace.

Medieval anti-Semitism and modern racism

And yet, even after Pentecost, even in the Church, there is still so much hostility, so many disturbers of the peace. It has been so from the beginning: conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentiles; between Peter’s converts and Paul’s converts, and even Peter and Paul themselves.

Remember how, three weeks ago, we heard in the Acts of the Apostles how the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem harassed the early Christians? Centuries later, when Christian leaders had authority and power, we were the ones who harassed and persecuted the Jews. Jews in medieval Europe were segregated into ghettos and often had to wear special clothing or badges. False stories spread about Jews poisoning wells or kidnapping Christian children and ritually drinking their blood.

In modern times, conspiracy theorists have blamed Jews for everything from the rise of communism to the conspiracy to replace white European populations with people of color – the so-called “great replacement theory” or “white genocide.” which we have heard so much about. this week about the Buffalo gunman’s manifesto, explaining why he drove three hours looking for black people to kill.

Five years ago, that same poisonous idea echoed on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, at the so-called “Unite the Right” rally, with marchers chanting “You won’t replace us!” or, in some cases, “the Jews will not replace us!” (meaning replacing white people with people of color).

This kind of card-carrying racism is easy to condemn when seen parading through the streets with tiki torches, let alone committing mass murder in a supermarket — or a Walmart in El Paso; or a synagogue in Poway, California; or a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s also easy to think that since these are isolated extremist crimes, there aren’t larger social implications that we all need to worry about in our daily lives. After all, society has made such progress.

But Pope Saint John Paul IIvisiting the United States in 1999, said:

As we approach the new millennium, there remains another great challenge facing… the whole country: to end all forms of racism, a scourge that your bishops have called one of the most persistent and destructive evils of the nation.

Pope Benedict XVI in 2008, warned of “worrying new forms of racism… emerging in various countries.” And, just last year, Pope Francis called racism

a virus that rapidly mutates and, instead of disappearing, hides and hides in expectation…[showing] that our supposed social progress is not as real or final as we think [cf. Fratelli Tutti 20].

Who needs to change?

It’s not something we want to hear. The thing is, when people really don’t want to hear something, they won’t hear it – whether it’s from the last three popes or black catholics and other people of color or anybody else.

Some of you may know a former member of our ward: Damon Owens, a well-known lecturer on marriage and body theology. Maybe you saw it on EWTN. I interviewed him a few years ago about racism, especially in the Church. I also interviewed three members of my diaconal class who are black Catholic men (among many other conversations). And what they tell me is that when they or others try to talk about racism, people who don’t want to hear about it, especially white people, will find ways to distract. “What about black violence?” “What about absent fathers in the black community? You know what our black brothers and sisters hear at times like this? They hear us sayWe no need to change. You need to change.”

Want to know one of the most painful aspects of this discussion? Despite what popes have said about racism, and other bishops, clergy and Catholic leaders, polls and studies see that the influence of racism in our churches is more widespread than outside. Our white neighbors who don’t even go to church are more open and aware of the reality of racism than practicing Catholics like me.

How does that feel to our black, Hispanic, or Asian brothers and sisters, not to mention our Jewish or Muslim neighbors? How can the Church function as “the sacrament of the unity of the human race” when the concerns and struggles of minorities are ignored or even denied by a large part of the majority? And if we do not convincingly show the unity of the human race, who will accept our Church as the sacrament of the interior union of men with God?

Open wide our hearts

Three years ago, the American bishops – much like the apostles in the first reading – approved a letter, a very good pastoral letter, entitled Open wide our hearts, addressing this difficult issue of our time. It addresses the experiences of Hispanics and Native Americans as well as African Americans, and addresses anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. This was before Covid and the peak of anti-Asian violence, and sadly there is almost no mention of Asians. An important point of the letter is the need to

a true conversion of heart… which will force us to change, to reform our institutions and our society…

In this regard, each of us should make the words of Pope Francis our own: that no one “thinks that this invitation is not intended for him”. We all need personal and ongoing conversion.

“Why do I need ongoing conversion? I’m not racist. I’m a good person. I hate racism.” You know, we can be good people and still have blind spots: areas where we need to grow and learn from each other. Do you know where conversion begins? By resisting the defensiveness of this question, “Why do I have to change?” There is no greater obstacle to God’s grace in our lives than the belief that we are already good enough.

Open wide our hearts can help us begin to understand how influences from our culture or upbringing “can lead to thoughts and actions that we don’t even consider racist,” but which are still rooted in prejudice. It also explains how racism can be “institutional” or systemic, a form of what Catechism calls “social sin” (CCC 1869).

Ongoing conversion includes the willingness to learn more about these realities in order to recognize them and to oppose them – not to be silent. By the grace of God, we can put aside our defensiveness and deviations and hear each other in a new way. Open wide our hearts says: “As Christians, we are called to listen to and know the stories of our brothers and sisters. It’s amazing how the simple act of listening can be a profound step towards healing.

And, as our awareness of the problem grows, we need to take ownership of the problem. It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s my problem and yours. My neighbor who still resists recognizing the extent of the problem: This is my problem.

Lord, open wide our hearts and minds. Send your Holy Spirit to break down all the walls of separation, to put an end to hostility and to give us your peace. Amen.

• Related to the CWR: “A Catholic Response to Racism” (June 29, 2020) by Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers


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Martha J. Finley