The Father Wilfred Illies Memorial Lecture Committee has invited Father Bryan Massingale to speak on “The Culture of Encounter and Racial Justice: Toward a New Mercy” at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.
The author of the book “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” (Orbis, 2010), Father Massingale is a priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, associate professor of moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, and teacher at the Institute of Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans.
Father Bill Vos, one of the founding members of the lecture committee, said the group invited Father Massingale because “the topic of racism is most relevant, both as a major social problem and as a challenge to be addressed by our church.”
“It is no overstatement to say that racism is among the major issues all of humanity is facing today, much in our time as ever before,” Father Vos said.
“We see it locally in the ethnic confrontations that are all too common within our diverse ethnic community here in the St. Cloud area,” he said. “It has become a factor in the contentious and increasingly negative political climate during this election year. And each day we watch the news of the humanitarian crises, fomented by ethnic and religious bigotry leaving millions of our human family destitute.”
Father Vos added that Bishop Donald Kettler has “called together a wide representation of faith leaders to deal face to face with one another, to acknowledge our common cause we have in addressing racism and ethnic strife. In effect he is saying this is a task for all of us.
“I think spending an evening with Father Massingale will deepen the appreciation of an important task yet to be done,” he said. “We often think of racism in the United States as the overt forms of the violent 60s, with Jim Crow voter suppression, separate facilities, perhaps lynchings. Father Bryan will remind us, from personal experience and in-depth study, that racism is still very much a serious issue.”
Along with the lecture, Father Massingale will have a book signing during a reception after the lecture.
The Visitor interviewed Father Massingale in anticipation of his lecture. The following are his responses:
Q. How do you define racism?
Father Massingale: I begin by talking about what I call the “commonsense” understanding of racism. Most of us think that “racism” equals conscious, deliberate and intentional acts of harm done to another person because of the color of his or her skin. Therefore, racism is something that everyone is guilty of: “They are just as racist as we are.”
This “commonsense” understanding describes something real, but it is very inadequate. It doesn’t deal with the broader reality of racial privileges, or the ways in which our culture instills a certain fear of darker-skinned people, or permits us to excuse criminal behaviors committed by some but not by others. For example, white heroin addicts are seen as people in need of medical help, but black drug users are typically viewed as criminals in need of prosecution.
So, racism refers to the deeper patterns of race-based privilege, advantage and harm that we are largely oblivious to, but which justify and excuse the patterns of unfair treatment in our society.
Q. Why is it important for all Catholics to talk about racism?
Father Massingale: Because if we are serious about our faith in Jesus, we must talk about racism. Jesus was a man who challenged the boundaries of exclusion that existed in his time. He said the acid test of our love of neighbor was our ability to love the despised and excluded. He taught that we will be judged by the measure of our concern for the “least among us.”
So, if we are serious about being disciples of Jesus, we have to overturn a system that excludes others because of skin color. This is not a matter of being “politically correct” but “religiously correct.”
Q. What do events in places like Ferguson, Missouri, reveal about society today?
Father Massingale: “Ferguson” stands for a very terrible situation in our society, namely, that the system of justice does not work for everyone in our society equally or fairly. That our experience with the administration of justice varies widely according to our class and race, that’s a harsh truth.
But “Ferguson” also reminds us of how terribly separated and isolated we are from one another racially. Most white Americans have no idea of these gross disparities in the administration of justice in our country. They believe that everyone is treated equally and fairly. They have no firsthand experience of those who see and experience life in such a different way. And so, Ferguson also reminds us of how separated and segregated our country still is, even decades after the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Q. What do you think of groups like Black Lives Matter?
Father Massingale: That is something I intend to talk about in the lecture. I have to confess that I don’t understand what people find problematic about the phrase. Yes, black lives matter because all lives matter. The phrase doesn’t say that all lives don’t matter or aren’t important. Rather, it is saying that if it is true that all lives matter — have equal dignity, to use Catholic language — then we must be concerned about those whose lives are particularly endangered, threatened or not equally valued. And that black lives are among those not being valued and respected right now. It is calling our attention to the presence of injustice. And that makes people feel uncomfortable.
Q. What is the role of the church? How can it be an agent of education and healing?
Father Massingale: The role of the church is to constantly remind us of what it means to be truly “catholic.”
“Catholic” means “universal,” that is, a faith where all are welcome, because God loves us all and Jesus died for all. So the role of the church is to be a place where human differences are not a source of fear, but a reason for celebration. And then, the church must be prophetic in challenging any social practice or policy that results in detrimental life experiences for any because of social stigma or fear.