In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a dramatic movement for racial justice coalesced this past spring in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police. We asked Rev. Gregory Chisholm, SJ, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem, how Catholics can respond to the tragic injustice and the divisions in our culture.

Archways: What do the life and teachings of Christ tell us about how Catholics should respond to horrific events like the death of George Floyd?

Rev. Chisholm: Racism is a plague on America. It infects us not unlike the coronavirus, except that racism has been around longer. The disease has worked its way into every corner of our country, affecting individuals, institutions and cultures.

In Mark’s Gospel (9:14–29), Jesus encounters a boy who is possessed by a “mute and deaf [unclean] spirit.” The spirit convulses its victim, causing him to roll around on the ground, foam at the mouth and even harm himself. These are horrible and fearsome effects that threaten to destroy those infected.

Racism is a communicable disease that works to destroy its victims. The victims of this disease include those who exercise power in society and communicate the harm, as well as those who suffer the full effect of the harm. That “mute and deaf” spirit threatens to destroy the life of a policeman who would place his knee for a critical length of time on the neck of a man who could not breathe, as much as it destroyed the life of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

When asked by his disciples how we could rid ourselves of this evil spirit, Jesus answers, “This kind can only come out through prayer and fasting.” Thus He indicates that a focused and demanding effort is needed to exorcise the evil spirit.

Archways: During the summer of 2020, demonstrations around this issue frequently spawned clashes and even acts of violence between people of opposed beliefs. How can Catholics stand up for justice while also promoting peace?

Rev. Chisholm: Throughout the history of our country, the evidence of injustice has never been accepted by all citizens. Our history has included the burning of convents, churches and synagogues, the exclusion of immigrant cultures, the lynching of American Blacks and the near-complete disenfranchisement of segments of the American public. For every advocate in the cause of justice there have been others who are blind to injustice.

Violence against the cause of justice is an unfortunate consequence of almost every American effort to achieve freedom.  In the context of the fight against racism I am reminded of St. Paul’s warning about the battle against evil in Ephesians (6:10–15). He urges us to “draw strength from the Lord and from his mighty power…. Stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace.”

Archways: In addition to working to protect people from racist violence and injustice, what can Catholics do to support opportunities for Black Americans and other people of color to fulfill their dreams and receive full respect for their contributions to society?

Rev. Chisholm: We must face the fact that centuries of American racism have left us with structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality. Our systems of education, health care, housing, finance and even churches are American institutions whose histories include the exclusion of Americans based on race, color and ethnicity. In our current generation, many American Catholics who have in the last century emerged from suffering the harm caused by these institutions and systems now reside in the very center of what ensures their continuance.

In his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, our Holy Father offers a pathway toward a more just future based on the Gospels and our Catholic traditions. He writes with the conviction of St. Francis of Assisi about the concept of fraternity. He offers fraternity as the image of anti-racism and justice for Catholics.

Archways: What can we do to ensure that Catholics of various races and ethnicities are able to fully celebrate their specific traditions while also coming together in a unified community with their diverse brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ? Can we achieve a loving unity while also embracing our differences?

Rev. Chisholm: Our common belief, our common acceptance and our common baptism in Jesus is what creates the Body of Christ. The accidents of race, color, culture, gender and circumstance, while significant to human beings, do not affect it. However, their significance among humanity means that we must foster respect for these differences without ever allowing the distinctions to divide the community of the Church.

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew (15:21–28) speaks volumes about the triumph of faith and the distinctions that exist among us. Jesus at first refuses to acknowledge a woman in need because she does not share his Jewish identity. She asks him for help, yet He demeans her request by indicating that she has no more right to His help than a dog has a right to food set aside for the children of the family. Nevertheless, the persistence of her faith convinces Jesus to acknowledge and respect her need. She remains distinct from Jesus, but her faith is unassailable.

Raising Racial Awareness: Called to Intervene

In addition to our conversation with Rev. Chisholm for our Forum on Racial Justice, Archways interviewed notable Black Catholic thinkers Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor of theology and ethics at Fordham University, and writer and New York City educator Monica A. White, EdD. (The full text of their interviews will be published this month on the Archways blog.)    

Fr. Bryan Massingale

How can the Catholic Church in New York contribute to a racially just society? One way is for priests and catechists to teach the powerful truth proclaimed by Pope Francis in June. Speaking about the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he offered his prayers for the family and our country, and then declared, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” Racism is a life issue. Anti-Black violence is a life issue…

Catholics need to become attentive to the grief, the anger and the lament from people of color that too often goes unheard and unheeded. They need to imagine what it would be like to be told, in ways both subtle and blatant, “You don’t belong. You don’t count. You don’t matter.” That’s the kind of empathy that leads to love of one’s dark-skinned neighbors.

That love is the key to salvation and right relationship with God. Because as Scripture reminds us, if we do not love the neighbor that we can see, how can we love the God we cannot see?

Monica A. White, EdD

Those who don’t worship like us, who don’t look like us, who don’t love the same as us, are all deserving of Christ’s love, and we are called to give it. Those who are at the “edges of society” matter…

When the woman was about to be stoned to death for the sin of adultery, Christ intervened. When His father’s temple was disrespected, he intervened. When the sick were ostracized, he intervened. When the hungry cried out, he intervened; when there was not enough food or drink, he intervened. And when He was on the cross, he gave his ultimate intervention that saved us all… So when Black lives such as George Floyd’s are aborted and broadcast on a continual loop into our living rooms, we are called to intervene. Through Catholic social justice teachings, we know how we should respond to the horrific events that plague our society today. We know. Christ demonstrated the response clearly. The question is, do we find Black lives like that of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery, Garner, Rice, Martin, Bland, Jefferson, Till and countless others worthy of our intervening?