The Conversion of Hearts and the Sin of Racism

Traditions

In Open Wide Our Hearts, the US Catholic bishops successfully describe how racism has historically been at the heart of American life, but the pastoral letter emphasizes personal conversion at the expense of structural transformation.

For most of my professional life I have tried to bring attention to two related tensions between Catholic social teaching (CST) and liberationist thought. The first is the insistence in CST that social transformation comes from the conversion of persons. Changed hearts change institutions, governments, cultural practices, markets, and other sources of structural sin and oppression. Liberationist thought, in contrast, pushes for the understanding of structural sin as its own reality, one with its own vortex attracting adherents as well as impaling victims at the altar of their idols. Before such structures, personal conversion seems an extraordinary and foolish hope, less likely than David’s victory over Goliath. Given these structures of oppression – of which racism in all its historical expressions is a profound and painful example – liberationists call for structural change, the conversion of institutions from the different forms of death which they deal to the world, toward life-giving commitments and practices for the benefit of all, but especially those historically downtrodden by these very institutions.

The second and related tension is the inability of CST to admit to conflict as an active structure in history, the result of sin, but one that impacts the life of communities across generations, infecting political, legal, economic, cultural, and religious structures and institutions. In its aversion to see conflict as a constitutive element of history under the conditions of sin, CST overlooks that structural change for justice often runs into conflict with the very interests protected and promoted by these institutions, today’s powers and principalities. CST proposes that personal conversion changes structures, as these have no will and no personhood, and so can only be transformed by the conversion of persons who participate in them.

The recent pastoral letter against racism by the United States Catholic Bishops, Open Wide Our Hearts: the Enduring Call to Love, continues to reflect these tendencies of CST. It places the sin of racism in the context of the sin of Cain against Abel in Genesis 4: “Racism shares in the same evil that moved Cain to kill his brother. It arises from suppressing the truth that his brother Abel was also created in the image of God, a human equal to himself.” (4) According to the bishops, the sin of racism is the sin of unlove, marked more specifically by the failure to see in another the image of God and the very same dignity conferred on each human being by the Creator. The story of Cain and Abel, the second sin in the Bible after Adam and Eve disobeying God’s command to not eat from the tree, serves the purpose to locate the murderous urge humans are capable of deep in the narrative of our existence – there right from the very beginning. It is most definitely a sin of unlove. The transition from these very personal sins to the broader wickedness of humanity described in Genesis 6 is not clear, but we can gather that it signals the way personal sins aggregate to establish sinful structures. From then on the work of salvation becomes the drama of individuals identifying the powers and principalities that spread wickedness, injustice, and terror over the land, and the grace of God confronting them, sometimes with terrible wrath. The work of salvation in the Bible is not the gradual transformation of social institutions.

The U.S. bishops do a good job of describing the way racism is at the heart of many of the practices and institutions associated with the foundation of this nation. The letter rehearses the histories of oppression, violence, and exclusion that have marked the life Native Americans, African-Americans, and Latinx peoples on this land, and that continue to impact the life prospects of our communities. Elsewhere I have noted what I find to be the two most positive elements of the letter: first, the way in which the bishops unequivocally call racism a “life issue,” and second, the accuracy with which they describe how racism infects the very structures we look to for just governance and protection of the common good. On both of these counts, the letter is a provocation for “good and faithful Catholics” to critically and forcefully confront the evil of racism, and to assess the ways in which we reap privilege from the fruits of this evil. The letter notes how “Our churches and our civic and social institutions are in need of ongoing reform” (7), and even considers the ways in which the Church has been complicit in some of the most egregious practices of racial injustice such as the conquest of indigenous peoples, slavery, and the practice of segregated churches (21-22).

It is at this point that the letter seems to lose its grip on the way the sin of racism is present in racist structures that require more than just personal transformation and conversion of hearts. The bishops assert that “Acts of racism have been committed by leaders and members of the Catholic Church – by bishops, clergy, religious, and laity – and her institutions.” (22) But the Church itself is never called out as racist. Likewise, racism as a sin is the purview of individuals committing specific acts, rather than the participation of “good and faithful Catholics” in structures that are racist and that ought to be completely transformed, if not totally eradicated (as in, for example, the call for prison abolition). It seems that using the letter’s operative categories the only racist structures in the U.S. would be slavery, segregation, and organizations founded directly to oppose the rights, participation, and very life of the racial other, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

The recommendations made in the final sections, from “Being Open to Encounter,” to “Working in our Churches,” and even the section titled “Changing Structures,” all focus on the work of individuals to transform the world around them through acts of love and focus on the shared human dignity of all. There are ways in which I have come to agree with CST that personal conversion is at the heart of transforming structures. A truly convicted heart – that is one that is both convinced of a cause as well as convicted as to one’s complicity in its horrors – will not rest until true justice and transformation is achieved. Many of the most significant victories with respect to racial justice in the U.S. involved such moments of conversion and the direct non-violent action of committed and convicted hearts who were willing to put their life on the line for the sake of structural transformation.

But conversion of hearts is not enough. In particular, conversion of hearts for effective social and structural transformation requires listening to the people and the movements that most clearly call out the forms that structural sin take in today’s world. Convicted hearts receive extensive training in direct social action and advocacy, and they also engage in ongoing education about the ways the sin of racism continues to dominate many of our political and economic structures today. This is where the Catholic Church in the U.S. and globally can be a powerful agent for change: by much more clearly and complexly articulating how racism corrupts institutions such as itself.; by admitting that even today there are segments of the U.S. Church that will be biased against people of Indigenous, African, or Latinx background in their hiring practices at the local and national levels; and, more importantly, by indicating where converted, convicted, and committed persons will meet real conflict in their efforts at racial justice, such as the resistance faced by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the hostility and even political violence faced by relief workers on the border and those working for the legal rights of migrants and refugees. The webs woven by racial injustice in our civic, legal, economic, and religious structures represent deep-seated privilege that is very hard to give up for many, including “good and faithful Catholics”. In the first piece in this series Eric Martin rightly calls out how “skittish” the letter seemed to be around issues of structural racism. He specifically notes that “white privilege” does not show up in the letter at all as part of the sin of racism that ought to be confronted. The Church ought to be more reflective about this, as well as honest with the faithful about the difficult conflicts that work for racial justice generates. The powers and principalities do not easily yield to the call for justice of transformed hearts. Conversion of persons can be at the heart of racial justice, yes, but it must be led by a Church ready to dislodge itself from the privileges that have come its way from its historic silence before – and sometimes active participation in – the grave sin of racism. To properly call out the sin of racism, and to properly prepare space within the Church for the conversion of persons toward racial justice, requires a Church honest with its own deep complicity, and ready to call out the ways our economic, political, social, and cultural “progress” and “goods” are intimately tied to systemic and structural injustice. What good is conversion of hearts if we are not aware of the fullness of the confession we must make as part of that conversion?

Open Wide Our Hearts

Symposium Essays

Eric Martin

Blackface and White Comfort: Reading The Bishops’ Letter from Charlottesville

The US Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts seeks to assuage white guilt rather than inspire a courageous stand against white supremacy.

The Conversion of Hearts and the Sin of Racism

In Open Wide Our Hearts, the US Catholic bishops successfully describe how racism has historically been at the heart of American life, but the pastoral letter emphasizes personal conversion at the expense of structural transformation.

Cary Dabney

Open Wide Our Hearts—The Ups and the Downs

The United States Catholic bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism shows how racism has been woven into the history of the US, and is honest about the Church’s past complicity in that racism. It says less about how Catholics today can combat systemic racism, but offers hope for fruitful dialogues throughout the country.

KC Choi

Where Have All the Asians Gone?

Although recognizing the discrimination faced by Chinese and Japanese Americans in the past, Open Wide Our Hearts could say more on the experience of Asian Americans as “model minorities” within the system of white racism.

Dismantling White Privilege: A Reflection on Open Wide Our Hearts

Since the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown in 1619, Eurocentric racist ideals and practices have been embedded in the culture of the United States. The Church must learn from the history of racism in the United States if it is to dismantle systemic racism.

Coming

2 thoughts on “The Conversion of Hearts and the Sin of Racism

  1. I am AUSTRALIAN and Protestant – I read your paper with interest and I will read it again. I have been wresting with this and related issues for many years. If I may, I would suggest an area that s lacking in your paper. That is a discussion of our theological understanding of empire, mission and the colonial enterprise. Catholics and Protestants must have had some theological understanding of what they were undertaking or condoning. I think a missiological understanding is not adequate. As that does not provide an adequate framework for conquering and subjugation. Nor does it address what is essentially theft of lands. Land acquisition drove colonial expansion. Land as a means to generate wealth and prosperity. In Australia I very much see the church as an active participant in the colonial enterprise. Leading churchmen were also active participants in genocidal practises.

    1. Stephen, ABSOLUTELY!!!! The imperial project of expansionism – and how churches (Protestant, Catholic, all) often designed their missions to match or cooperate with this project, is intimately tied, and necessitates the racialization of the other. Part of the problem is the way we begin to see these things as distinct events, so the Doctrine of Discovery – which the U.S. Bishops’ letter decries as one of the errors of the past in the Catholic Church – is presented as in the past, already overturned and decried, and therefore not part of the present engagement of the church with racial justice. How do these historical theologies of mission and expansion contribute to the current state of racial justice within and outside the church??

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