Photo on Unsplash by Tito Texidor III.

One year ago, the murder of George Floyd, captured on video and shared around the world, set off a summer of protests with people demanding change in how police treat Black Americans. Following the protests, leaders in businesses, politics and religion promised change: that we would listen more carefully to the lived experiences of Black Americans and do more to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and respect. A year later, what has changed? As we begin to move on from pandemic and re-enter the real world, are we leaving this issue too fast?

Last summer I spoke with the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics at Fordham University in New York, just days after the George Floyd video went viral. Then, we talked about the challenges that lay ahead. A year later Father Massingale spoke with America about the work that remains.

Our conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.

Watch the full interview

What is on your mind as we approach this anniversary?

When you look at the actual lived experience of African-Americans, for me the question is: “Do I as a Black man feel safer walking the street or safer in my interactions with the police a year later?” I would have to say, “No, I don’t.”

A year later, we’ve had a guilty verdict; we can actually call the killing of George Floyd a murder— that’s been adjudicated by the legal system. But even that verdict, people greet it with a sense of relief and “Now, let’s put that behind us,” rather than looking at the larger systemic questions that we still need to address as a church and a society.

A year later, I’m glad for the energy of last summer, for the protests to have happened and that there is now an increased space for the kind of conversation that we’re having in the Catholic Church about racial issues. But in terms of what’s actually changed, we have a long way to go.

I don’t yet see Catholic dioceses really embracing the cause of racial justice as part of their Catholic identity

Were there things that you had wished we could look back on a year later and say, “Yes, this has changed?” Or is this just simply not enough time for the kind of change that people say we need in order to move forward?

I’m not Pollyannaish in terms of thinking that things are going to change magically in the space of a year. After all, we’re talking about dealing with centuries of entrenched racism and entrenched white advantage and privilege. For many white Americans, this is a brand new conversation, something they never really gave a whole lot of sustained attention to prior to the events of last summer.

I’m not naïve enough to think that one year later we’re going to be at some kind of magical Promised Land. But one of the things that still distresses me, despite the amount of attention that we’ve given to these issues, is how in many dioceses this has not yet become a critical issue that is at the forefront of Catholic conversation. To the extent that these issues have become part of the Catholic conversation, it has been because individual parishes, individual groups in parishes or outlets, such as America or other Catholic media, have pushed this to the forefront of the conversation.

I don’t yet see Catholic dioceses really embracing the cause of racial justice as part of their Catholic identity or even as part of the faith offerings they make available to the faithful in terms of catechetical programs or adult formation activities; these haven’t yet become a diocesan effort or a national effort. But in terms of where the church as a whole is in the United States, I don’t think we’ve yet reached the point where people see that being anti-racist is an intrinsic part of being a Catholic.

No. And in fact, we have seen, in some circles, the opposite; that kind of pushback against the idea that anti-racism is something that needs to be taught in Catholic schools or is something that Catholics as a body have to contend with. How do you respond to those assertions that this is an issue that the church has dealt with (it has clear condemnations of racism) and now it’s time to move on to different issues?

I would push back and basically question the very premise of the conversation, that the church has clear condemnations of racism. For example, if we take the 2018 pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts,” I tell people that you won’t find [people like] George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor in that document. When the document talks about police violence, the bishops say: “We must admit the plain truth that for many of our fellow citizens, who have done nothing wrong, interactions with the police are often fraught with fear and even danger.” And in the next sentence: “At the same time, we reject harsh rhetoric that belittles and dehumanizes law enforcement personnel who labor to keep our communities safe. We also condemn violent attacks against police.” Never do they admit or even attend to the fact that there have been African-Americans who have lost their lives through encounters with the police. Never are those deaths—that the judicial system calls murders—rejected. Never are they condemned.

There’s been a tendency in Catholic circles to want to say, “Let’s move on; we’ve been there, let’s not go too deep into the issue. Let’s not make people uncomfortable.” I maintain that the Catholic Church’s greatest deficit when it comes to dealing with issues of race is that we don’t want to deal with white people in a way that’s going to make white people uncomfortable. (We don’t have that kind of reticence when it comes to other issues, such as issues of sexual morality or issues around abortion and life issues.)

We haven’t yet reached the point of saying that the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to have difficult conversations, and not only to have difficult conversations but to take difficult actions in terms of eradicating a major radical social evil in our society.

Conversion is simply a religious way of saying that reality is not closed and that there’s always room for the Spirit to work.

There have been some changes. As I report the news and kind of pay attention to what’s happening around the country, a few items have stuck out: One here in Chicago, in the city of Evanston, the city council passed a program to help black homeowners, either with existing mortgages or to buy homes as a way to make up for past racial injustices; as part of a Covid relief bill President Biden signed into law, a special fund that will help black farmers, either with loans or operating costs, again, to make up for past injustices; and even the Jesuits have begun confronting their history of racism and owning enslaved people at Georgetown University and committed to launching a foundation, raising $100 million to help the educational costs of the descendants of those enslaved peoples.

All those things are receiving a fair bit of criticism from different sides. If there’s so much blowback and controversy around these things, do you have hope that there could be bigger societal changes that could lead to permanent structural change?

As persons of faith, we believe in the possibility of conversion. And conversion is simply a religious way of saying that reality is not closed and that there’s always room for the Spirit to work. We just celebrated Pentecost; the Holy Spirit is still active and alive in the church and in the world—I always believe that there is hope.

These initiatives you’ve talked about are definitely steps in the right direction. However, the blowback that they’ve received is, again, nothing new in our history. Our history has always been one of tentative steps forward and the impassioned resistance that occurs. There’s this subtle retreat, again, when we reach the point of triggering people’s resentments or people’s discomfort. There’s a sense of pullback rather than pushing forward and saying, “This is what the Gospel calls us to.” Another way to put it is that when there’s pushback, that’s actually where the hope enters in; that means we’re actually making change and progress.

I’m not distressed by the resistance these initiatives encounter. What I’m distressed by is the tendency of those who are pushing forward, when they encounter resistance, to say, “Oh, we were moving too far too fast.” I was thinking about this the other morning, when someone on another related issue said, “Well, is it just that white people are just endemically racist?” And I said, “No, it’s not that all white people are racist. The problem is that far too many white people are cowards. And that effectively leads to the same result.”

I think what we need in our church right now is an infusion of the Spirit’s gift of courage to continue to push forward in the face of the resistance and the pushback that is inevitably going to happen whenever we move forward in terms of racial justice. This is nothing new. We’ve seen this before in terms of Reconstruction after the Civil War was soon abandoned in the face of entrenched resistance; after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, that those initiatives were abandoned in favor of white resistance; and we’re going to see that also in what some people are calling the third reconstruction, in terms of this current movement toward racial justice.

You brought up this issue of courage among white people to address these issues and, of course, most Catholic priests in the U.S. are white. What role does courage play in having church leaders speak out on this issue? And if there’s a lack of courage, how can we encourage our leaders to speak more courageously about these issues?

I’m glad you asked the question because it gives me a chance to be very Catholic here. St. Thomas Aquinas says courage is the moral virtue that translates moral convictions into action. The problem is not that Catholics don’t have the right convictions (we know what the right thing to do is; we know that we should not be prejudiced or bigoted). The problem is we don’t have the courage to translate those convictions into action.

One of the problems we have in the Catholic Church when it comes to the formation of priests is that we haven’t formed priests well in the art of how to preach about social justice issues effectively from the pulpit. Anecdotally, whenever I talk to priests they will tell me—after they’ve had a few scotches—that the weakest courses in their seminary formation were their courses on homiletics (which is no surprise to most lay Catholics) and Catholic Social Teaching. So, when you ask priests to preach on social justice issues, you’re asking them to go far outside of their comfort zone and far outside of their zone of competency.

We have to really revisit clerical formation to train our future priests, and future lay ministers as well, in terms of wrestling with their own implicit biases and their own unconscious racism. We need to reach a point in the Catholic Church, and say forthrightly, that if you are unwilling or unable to address your own unconscious racial formation, and your unconscious racial malformation in our society, then you do not have a vocation of service in the church of Jesus Christ.

For most Americans, the conversion to racial justice is going to be like being in a London fog: If you stay in it long enough, you’re going to get wet.

Like most churches in the United States, Catholic parishes are largely segregated, of course, not officially but by practice. How can ordinary Catholics deal with that reality while being open to confronting this issue of race, if it’s through dialogue, when there are just so few opportunities within everyday parish life for those discussions to take place?

One of the glories of being Catholic is that the word Catholic means “universal,” and that is that we have sisters and brothers in the faith. We’re not just a parochial community; we’re actually a worldwide community. So my challenge would be what are we doing in suburban parishes that reminds worshipers that they belong to a universal church and they have brothers and sisters around the world who worship in the same church, who do not look like them and who do not share their own life experience? Let’s start with something really common but very important.

Let’s look at the sacred art that’s present in Catholic churches. If you go into most churches, you would think that there are no people of color in heaven, because the sacred art only has white angels, white saints, white depictions of the deity. Why can’t our Catholic churches and our sacred art remind people in a very visceral, visual way that our church is not a congregational church or a parochial church; we belong to a universal church. Where are the pictures of African and Asian and Latin American saints?

Or on Pentecost, when we talk about the Holy Spirit descending upon the Christian community—everyone hearing the Word of God proclaimed in their own language. Why is it that bilingual worship only takes place in so-called parishes that need it? All parishes need it. My point is that there’s a way in which we look at racial justice as being a program that we have to institute in the church: our racial justice series. Whereas, I think, for most Americans, the conversion to racial justice is going to be like being in a London fog: If you stay in it long enough, you’re going to get wet.

How do we institutionalize this in our Catholic worship, so that people, when they just go to church, day by day or Sunday after Sunday, they’re understanding that my frame of reference has to be bigger than simply my parish or my neighborhood. Because when I go into my church, I’m reminded over and over and over again that I have sisters and brothers of the faith, who do not look like me, who have a different life experience than I do. And if I’m going to be an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ and an authentic member of the Catholic Church, their concerns have to be my concerns; because we’re not only Americans, we’re also fellow believers.

It is much easier to have a conversation about race in South Africa than it is in the United States.

You spent several weeks in South Africa over the past few years, bringing your work from the United States to another country that has its own history of racism and present challenges. What were you able to bring there from your perspective in the United States? And then after we have that discussion, what did you bring home that is helping inform your work here?

The Jesuit Institute South Africa invited me two years ago to give a series of lectures in what they call their Winter Living Theology series (basically a lecture tour of South Africa, where I visited six different cities, talking to a largely lay audience but also church leaders and pastoral agents about the challenge of racism). Ninety percent of what I would say in America translated very well in South Africa; people were very hungry and enthusiastic for the kind of conversation that I was able to provide.

One of the lasting memories or lessons that I brought back from South Africa is that there it is much easier to have a conversation about race than it is in the United States. They’re still dealing with the legacies of apartheid, and they still have entrenched racial divisions and antagonisms and suspicions and animosities, but you don’t have to make the argument in South Africa that we have a race problem. Everyone agrees.

Cardinal Napier, the archbishop of Durban, after I gave a series of lectures in Durban, got up and thanked me publicly. He said that race is not simply an issue in South Africa; it is the issue in South Africa. In South Africa, you don’t have to make the case that racism is an issue. In the United States, you have to make the case, because in the southeastern United States you’re met with denial or even a passionate opposition in trying to have the conversation. I have never talked to more Catholic and Episcopal bishops in my life as I did in South Africa. There, the Catholic bishops, the Catholic archbishops, the Catholic conference is eager to have this conversation. Whereas I do not see that the Catholic bishops of the United States are eager to have that conversation.

In South Africa, my book Racial Justice in the Catholic Church was eagerly embraced; the bishops in the United States won’t even list my book as a resource on their website for bishops and Catholic parishes to use in dealing with this issue. In South Africa, they’ve had a long and tragic history of racism, but they understand we need to face it. In the United States, we have a long and tragic history of racism and racial injustice, but we are nowhere near as eager to have that kind of conversation or that forthright acknowledgment that this is something that the nation and the church need to grapple with.

Until white people understand that they pay a price for racial injustice, nothing is really going to change.

As I was researching for this interview, listening to some of your presentations and interviews, you mentioned that there’s a conversation that needs to take place that shows that racism not only hurts people of color but that it hurts white people, too. And you said that that was a very uncomfortable conversation that went even beyond the discomfort that comes from talking about race at all. Why does racism harm white people? And why do you suspect there’s so much discomfort in acknowledging that and then trying to dialogue to move forward on that part of the question?

In the beginning of my book, and again in my lectures, I say racism harms us all; it harms us in different ways but harms us all. One of the questions I give my students is: “Tell me, how does racism harm white people who would seem to be advantaged by it?” Because until white people understand that they pay a price for racial injustice, nothing is really going to change. I remember once talking to a group of provincials of religious orders here in the United States. One of them asked me the question “Okay, I get that there’s white privilege, and I get that I am advantaged by it. So why should I give up something that’s benefiting me?” I thanked them for the honesty of the question and said: “Well, because it’s not helping you.” Here’s why:

  1. You are paying a price in moral integrity. I think that what makes the conversation uncomfortable for many white people is that, in part, they realize that if they take struggling against racism seriously, it means that they are going to have to take a stand against people that they grew up loving and respecting and realize that they have a major moral blind spot that they need to challenge: “How do I challenge my family and my friends?” One of the costs of racism for white people is that, at times, they have to swallow their own conscience and conviction in order to be in right relationship with their family and their friends.
  2. Another major price for white people is that you’re living in a society that is plagued with racial divisions and tensions, and the only way beyond those racial divisions and tensions is by saying, I’m going to be on the side of right. If I want to live in a society where we get beyond racism, then I’m going to have to be uncomfortable enough to go through that kind of growth process, and that process of change and conversion, to come to a place of reconciliation.
  3. Another point that makes racism uncomfortable for white people is that it means that they have to own their own ignorance and their own maleducation. I was teaching a class at Fordham on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin. I asked students, “Well, why are you interested in taking this?” Two of my white students said: “When I study African-American history, I understand how little I was taught and how most of what I was taught about American history was partial, misleading, inaccurate—and even a lie.” I think that’s another part of what makes racism uncomfortable for white people to engage.
  4. Also, a price that white people pay is that they are living in a bubble—a bubble of ignorance at best—that’s been carefully constructed. I think that’s a very painful realization for white Americans to come to, to realize that a lot of what they’ve learned about the history of this country is fundamentally flawed. I asked one of my students this semester, “What is the one thing you’ve learned that surprised you?” And one student said, “I always thought that police brutality and police misconduct was something recent, like with the Black Lives Matter movement; something that we’ve only had to deal with in the last three years. Studying these three figures and having a more in-depth understanding of the Civil Rights movement, I now understand that police misconduct relative to African-Americans and other people of color is something that has been a longstanding issue in this country and that we don’t even have the perspective for how to understand Black Lives Matter because we're looking at this as something of recent vintage and not seeing that Black Lives Matter is just what the most recent chapter of a longstanding struggle in this country for African-Americans to be treated with full dignity and respect.

For white people, what makes it very uncomfortable is that if they engage racial justice seriously, they not only have to confront how this is a reality in their family and their friendship circles; it also means they have to deeply question what they’ve been told about the truth of our national experience.

Racism is a profound failure to love.

You’re a Catholic priest and a theologian. If, as the Church teaches, racism is a sin, what does it do to people’s souls, their relationship with God and each other, if they either hold explicitly racist views or don’t confront the subtle racism that has crept into their outlook, in how they interact with the world? Can you talk about the theological implications of living a life that refuses to confront inherent racism?

I often say that racism is a soul sickness. We can understand racism as a sociological challenge; it is a political divide. But at its core, racism is a soul sickness. It is a profound distortion of the human spirit that enables us to create unequal societies—or to live with complacency in the face of injustice.

Let me make it real obvious.

In the First Letter of John, we hear that God is love, and those who live in love live in God and God in them. Later in that same chapter, the sacred writer says: Those who profess to love God but hate their brother or sister are liars, because if you do not love the brother, the sister, the neighbor that you can see, how can you love the God that you cannot see?

Racism is a profound failure to love.

That failure can take place in terms of acts of commission; by deliberate exclusion, by derogatory jokes or negative slurs. But we fail to love also by omission; by what we’ve failed to do, by not speaking up and challenging when we see obvious injustice, by not calling our friends to account by saying, “Hey, bro, I don’t think that’s funny.” That’s all you have to say. Or to say to your mom or dad, to your grandpa, your uncle, “Hey, you know, don’t talk that way.” But our failure even to do that much compromises our relationship with God, because our relationship with God is predicated upon our willingness to love.

In the Christian tradition, we’re not called to love only those who think like us or look like us. Anyone can do that. The acid test of love is loving those who are actively despised in our society. The acid test of love is creating a church in a country where those who are as much in the image of God as you are can live and breathe. What haunts me a year later is how when George Floyd was being killed he cried out: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”

We just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, where we’re talking about the breath of God, God’s Spirit, where Jesus breathed on the disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit. If we aren’t willing to create a world, a church, police practices that enable men and women and boys and girls who are of color to breathe,and to breathe freely, then we fail not only as Americans; we fail as Christians. We fail to love. And ultimately, we’re judged by our love. By this, all will know you as my disciples; by your love for one another. That has always been the hallmark of what Christianity is all about. And what grieves me and causes me the most pain as a priest is that my church is unwilling to challenge its members to love.

Or it creates a church where people feel that it’s okay to love if that love only goes as far as those who worship in their neighborhood church or who look like them. That’s not good enough. That’s not what our faith is all about. And so racism is not just a social issue. It’s not just a political issue. This is an issue of faith. We cannot be in right relationship with God if we are complacent with a nation and a church where people live in fear of whether they’re able to breathe and to live freely as sons and daughters of God.

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