I was literally just a kid, enjoying a warm and waning San Fernando Valley summer in August of 1965, when a “routine” traffic stop quickly devolved into a full-blown race riot. Violence, vandalism, looting, and destruction were the order of the day.
Threatened citizens in “nicer” neighborhoods checked their weapons and ammunition, if they had them, and hunkered down in their homes. When the dust settled and the smoke cleared, recriminations and blaming ensued.
Sound all too familiar? Little would we know that this scenario, known to us as the Watts Riots, would become a “template” for future conflict in our society and even in our own hearts. Racism did not start that day, and it clearly has not ended in our own.
While we can take some easy comfort (what we call in my line of work “cheap grace”) in the notion that we are not where we used to be, the fact remains that we are not where we ought to be. Dialogue and conversation on racism are in their nascent stages, and the Church, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, has a moral responsibility to bring this conversation to the forefront.
It precedes conversion and substantive change. A significant part of those initial conversations has involved a lot of talk and even heated arguments about Black Lives Matter. It is difficult for some to make the distinction between supporting the BLM organization as an institution with its own ideology agenda on the one hand, and supporting the dignity and worth of every person on the planet on the other.
Black lives do matter, but the talk becomes so strident, ideological, and politicized that, in fact, people turn away with deaf ears. They literally and immediately stop listening. In our Catholic Christian tradition, we have never viewed the dignity of life, the dignity of every single human being, through a political lens. No, it is a deeply spiritual lens that we employ and a prism through which the light of faith — for Christians the light of the Gospel — shines forth and reveals the diverse and multicolored nature of our common humanity.
Recently the California Catholic Conference, a gathering of all the Roman Catholic bishops in California, established a task force on racism and conducted several listening sessions at which a number of Black Catholic leaders were invited to speak. It was sobering, moving and challenging all at the same time. It is eminently clear that, yes, we still have huge problems with race. There are vestiges of damage done recently and from long ago. In all of this and throughout the centuries the Church has been a kind of microcosm of society; no less susceptible to racism and discrimination, overt and otherwise, than some other institutions.
Yet we all need to hold ourselves to higher standards. We find no higher standards than in the Scriptures, which challenge us not so much (if at all) to “feel” good as to be good. The oft repeated phrases, “We are better than that. That is not who we are,” ring true somehow, but are hollow if not founded on reality, on real change and conversion of heart.
We are just beginning to surface the issue, much less really deal with it. We live in a day and age of quick and simple solutions. This will be long, difficult, and messy. In a word, it will be uncomfortable. Speaking of which, let me leave you with a quote from a very challenging book entitled Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America by Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson. He speaks about leaving behind the “… comfort of swift reassurance that while things are pretty bad, in the bigger racial scheme you’re not that bad; the comfort of believing that a few quick symbolic changes here and a few quick personal adjustments there will solve everything; and the comfort that after a few bruising months things will get back to normal. But the racial pandemic, much like the global health pandemic, has changed some things forever.”
The above comes from a Feb. 15 essay in the Fresno Bee by Bishop Joesph Brennan of Fresno.