Systemic Racism

In a front page headline on April 25, 2021, the Washington Post asked: “In the aftermath of the Chauvin verdict hangs a question: Where do we go from here?” A very good question.

US racism and white supremacy have a long history, and Christians have contributed to that problem, right from the beginning. Jesus brought life and truth but many of his later followers followed his teachings very selectively. Christians today – even those who reside in Rome — are not infallible. When they sin and fall into error, however, they must do more than simply apologize and feel bad. They have to repair the damage. 

This week some historic as well as contemporary reflections about Christianity and racism in the New World.

On May 4, 1493, just a year after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Pope Alexander VI (not a striking example of moral rectitude for sure) issued his papal bull Inter Caetera. Alexander was far more interested in wealth and power than spirituality. His document which became known for proclaiming “The Doctrine of Discovery” announced that any land not inhabited by Christians was open to be “discovered” by Christian rulers and that “the Catholic faith and Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread… and that the barbarous nations be overthrown….”

The Doctrine of Discovery produced clear examples of how racist ideas of supremacy over Indigenous peoples were used not only to justify but to sanctify the seizure of occupied Indigenous lands, the physical removal of communities to undesirable reservations, and systematic genocidal violence. 

There is much about American history that can make one proud of being American. Unfortunately, American history also attests that too often American Christianity promoted and sustained racism through the brutal colonialism of missionaries and the enforced segregation of its churches.

The majority of early American colonists did not recognize the deep culture and traditions of Native peoples, nor did they acknowledge their tribal land rights. They sought to convert the Native people in the New World and at the same time strip them of their land.

Newcomers from England during the 17th century, for example, saw themselves as settling in a “virgin land” where real “civilization” had not yet been established. From the colonial period on, relations between European and Native peoples were predominantly expressed and negotiated in terms of land. The issue of land became, in many ways, the deepest “religious” issue over which world views collided. Many of the colonists saw the new land as a “wilderness” to be settled, not as already inhabited. They also saw the New World as the New Promised Land and considered the Indigenous peoples like the Canaanites of old to be conquered and removed. John Winthrop (1588 – 1649), English Puritan lawyer and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was convinced that God favored his community above all others. In 1641 Winthrop helped write the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first legal sanctioning of slavery in North America. About a hundred and forty years later, in a 1783 sermon celebrating the American Revolution, Yale president Ezra Stiles praised the rise of the “whites” whose numerical growth, he said, proved divine favoritism. Interestingly, there were almost 700 thousand African slaves in the US by 1790, which equated to approximately 18% of the total population. White Supremacy.

Over the course of nearly three centuries, American Indigenous peoples were “removed” from the lands they had occupied, “displaced” to other lands, and had their lands “ceded” to the newcomers. Then, native tribes were forcibly “settled” on “reservations.”

Early Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify the enslavement of darker-skinned people. Vigilante groups terrorized Black Americans as the vigilantes rode around in white hoods with the Bible in hand. Prominent evangelical pastors spewed racist hatred against America’s first Black president. And most recently of course we have witnessed racial hate crimes, murders, and police brutality.

So what do we do once we realize that religious actors have been complicit in forming and upholding American racism? What might we do to correct racism? Certainly racial justice will not come just from individual acts of charity. It will require the transformation of our social structures. Racism is systemic.

A failure to grasp the systemic nature of racism  could explain why the country has not made as much progress as it should—and could—on racial equity. Racism is a virus. Like the coronavirus, if ignored it will not disappear. Many people have a too narrow view of racism that has really blocked racial progress. They fail to understand systemic racism and are, therefore, more likely to attribute poverty, for example, to individual failings rather than to structural disadvantages like racial disparities in wealth and wages and substandard education for Blacks. Segregated housing, too, has left many Black people living in neighborhoods without access to good jobs, reliable public transportation, or quality health care.

As President Biden said following the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter, the killing of George Floyd “ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism” that has become a “stain on our nation’s soul.”

Combating racism is a particular challenge to US Catholic leadership. As Thomas Reese stressed in an article in yesterday’s April 29th National Catholic Reporter: “The American Catholic bishops are frequently criticized by the left and the right for what they say in the political arena….But it’s what the bishops haven’t said, particularly on racial justice, that has kept them from being a more prophetic voice in American life. Few if any bishops, for example, have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement or said anything about voter suppression laws. African Methodist Episcopal clergy, on the other hand, have rallied and threatened boycotts over voter suppression bills in state legislatures across the country. The U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops has said nothing. The reluctance of Catholic bishops to take on racial issues has deep roots in Catholic history. Catholic bishops did not lead in the abolition movement. Catholic immigrants, many of them poor, did not want to die to free Black slaves.”

I am neither anti-Christian nor anti-American, but, being very honest, we all have a lot of transformative work to do. I share Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s concerns about US Catholic leadership; but I also applaud some positive Catholic signs which give encouragement and guidance.

The honesty and reparation of Georgetown University and the Jesuit Community are prophetic examples. In 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 Black men, women, and children and used the proceeds to support their Georgetown University, founded by Bishop John Carroll in 1789. 

I find it noteworthy and encouraging that in September 2015, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia established a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. This led to dialogue with and apology to descendants of the slaves sold. Georgetown today is making key efforts to address the legacy of slavery and overcome racism at Georgetown, in Washington DC, and beyond. In March of this year, the Society of Jesus in the United States announced the establishment of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, a collaborative effort among Jesuits, Georgetown, and some descendants to raise $100 million to help address the legacy of enslavement in the United States and its impact on families and communities today.

We really need to conscientiously and collectively combat racism. 

  • We need to be alert to language, jokes, slogans, and labeling. In the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, a demonstrator wore a shirt proclaiming “Camp Auschwitz.” That action was a sinister danger sign. Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, Fritzie Fritzshall, was greatly upset.“That made my stomach turn,” she said. “Why do they have to still wear t-shirts about hatred and stuff like that? That’s what the Nazis did. That’s exactly what they did.”
  • We need to critique and work to improve educational, employment, and police policies and actions. Friction, for example, between African Americans and the police is a reality that should be immediately addressed. 
  • We need to be alert to signs of racism in our churches, neighborhoods, and social groups.
  • We need to be alert as well to increased antisemitism. Violent antisemitism and hatred did not end with the Holocaust. According to the Anti-Defamation League antisemitic incidents in the United States reached their highest on record point in 2019. Assault, harassment, and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the United States today.

For further reading, I recommend: The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism and Religious Diversity in America (Orbis, 2017) by Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

  • Jack

A Contemporary Creed?

This week, a follow-up from last week…

When looking at Christian history, starting with the earliest Christian communities, we see a dynamic spirituality anchored in the faith experience of the followers of the Way of Jesus. Gradually, recollections of Jesus’ life and deeds and Christian community foundational experiences were recalled and written down. As communities expanded, organizational structures were created for good order and to ensure a correct passing on of the Way of Jesus to the next generation. The Scriptures were written down. Symbols, rituals, and statements of belief were created. A key operational principle was that if language and structures no longer worked, they were changed and adapted to fit the needs of the local community. This explains why we have four very different theologies in the Four Gospels. 

Ideally, change and adaptation in language and structure should be an ongoing process. Occasionally, as history shows, Christians have had times of arrested development and institutional rigidity. In times of rigidity, the message always was: don’t question or think, just believe!

This brings me to my subject today: the Creed. 

I know the creeds – Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed — very well. For many decades now I have recited and sung the Nicene Creed; and in my younger days -– few know this — I even accompanied that singing as a part-time organist in my home parish. 

Now for my first creedal observation: 

The classical Christian creeds: the Nicene Creed, written in the fourth century, and the Apostles Creed, whose earliest version appeared in the fifth century, were formulated within the context of a comparatively simple biblical understanding of a three-level universe: Heaven was up there with God. Earth was down below. Below earth was Sheol: the abode of the dead. What we think of today as “outer space” was believed to be a large universally-wide cosmic ocean. A big dome over the flat earth kept the waters away. As needed God could open little windows in the dome to let it rain over various sections of the earth. The stars were suspended from the ceiling of the dome. Very simple and compact. God was the heavenly manager. He – yes God was considered male — had all the strings in his hands. 

A very faulty English translation of Sheol in the Apostles Creed, by the way, says Jesus “descended into hell.” A more correct translation would be “he descended to the underworld” or “descended to the world of the dead.”  What the creed was really referring to was that, after dying on the cross, Jesus went to the place of the dead. He did not go to a Satanic hell. The Latin version of the Apostles Creed has absolutely no mention of hell. The Latin version reads “descendit ad inferos,” where “inferos” (not infernos with an “n”) means “those below.” 

The three-level universe perspective is also found in accounts of Jesus’ Ascension, where Jesus steps into a cloud, like into an elevator, and then he is lifted up to Heaven. Curiously the same old perspective was used in the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. That teaching dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, says that Mary was lifted up to Heaven, body and soul to sit next to her Son and reign as “Queen over all things.”

Today we have moved far beyond the biblical three-level universe. Consider for a moment that one light-year is the distance light travels in one Earth year: about 6 trillion miles. Our ever-expanding Universe is 93 billion light-years in diameter at the present time. Those 93 billion light-years cover just our observable Universe. The whole Universe might very well be 250 times larger than the observable Universe.

Last week I stressed that the reasons why people are abandoning the churches do not lie within our Christian Faith but rest with the way many church authorities present Christian belief. 

We are not static medievalists. We need to begin with an historical developmental perspective on what happened with the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Then we need to shift to an historical developmental understanding of what is happening to us today as contemporary believers. 

Now for my second creedal observation:

Christian life is a process. Spirituality comes first. Structures, doctrines, and creeds come after that. If certain church structures, doctrines, and creeds in particular times and places fail to nourish the spirituality of its constituents, they will either have to change, or they will fade away. Or people will fade away from them. It is happening now.

When I read either ancient creed, I think immediately about obedience and loyalty to the institution. The Roman Emperor Constantine (emperor from 306 to 337 CE) certainly wanted exactly that when, in 325 CE, he convoked the first Christian council in Nicaea and had the bishops come up with a binding creed to unify Christianity in his empire. Many scholars suggest Constantine’s main objective was to gain unanimous approval and submission to his authority from all classes in the empire. He chose Christianity to implement his political agenda but had to first of all insure Christian unity through loyalty and obedience to the Nicene creed. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 during the reign of Emperor Theodosis I, who ruled from 379 to 395 CE.

Frankly what I miss, in both creeds, is human warmth: a spirituality that speaks of a compassionate and loving God, who journeys with us, and holds us in the palm of his or her hand. I would like a more spiritual creed that speaks of a wondrous creator of the constantly expanding and immense universe, who is beyond our imagination and ability to describe, and yet who is as close to us and as intimate as the air in our lungs. I would like a creed that resonates with Paul in I Corinthians:  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” That warrants much reflection.

I would like to see a creed that reassures people today that Jesus’ voice is just as much a living voice as ever; that his truth is a living truth; and that his God is a living God, near to all of us.

A few years ago, in a summer theology course I taught at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, I asked my students to write their own creeds. The results were amazing and deeply moving. The most touching creed was written by a young fellow who was a professional jockey! When I complimented him in private he replied with a big smile: “Well I guess I am a believer who is also, as you say, an inquisitive still searching believer.” I hope he is doing well today, and still an inquisitive believer.

Third creedal observation:

Please write down your own creed. I am serious. For your own spiritual reflection. Or it could even be a group process.

By way of a example of a contemporary creed.  a friend sent me a creed created by The United Church of Canada. 

We are not alone,
    we live in God’s world.

 We believe in God:
    who has created and is creating,
    who has come in Jesus,
       the Word made flesh,
       to reconcile and make new,
    who works in us and others
       by the Spirit.

We trust in God. 

We are called to be the Church:
    to celebrate God’s presence,
    to live with respect in Creation,
    to love and serve others,
    to seek justice and resist evil,
    to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
       our judge and our hope.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
    God is with us.
We are not alone.

    Thanks be to God.

Now get started writing your own creed. 😇

  • Jack

Contemporary Religious Recession

A Gallup poll released on Monday, March 29 , 2021, indicates that the proportion of Americans who consider themselves members of a church or synagogue has now dropped below 50%. The results highlight a dramatic shift away from religious affiliation in recent years, and among all age groups. When Gallup first asked the question in 1937, church membership was 73%. 

Organized religion in the USA is clearly in recession. In the case of Judaism, the indicators  include declining synagogue membership, a general disinterest in traditional religious practice and belief, and decreased belief in God. In USA Islam, by the way, a substantial share of adults who were raised Muslim no longer identify as members of that religious tradition. Unlike some other religions in the United States, however, Islam gains about as many members as it loses, due primarily to immigration.  

In terms of US church membership, Protestants show a 9% decline from 73% to 64%. Catholics, however, have the greatest decline with 58% indicating church membership, which is down 18 points from 76% in a previous Gallup survey from 1998-2000. Already in 2015 a Pew Research report noted that nearly 13 percent of all Americans are former Catholics.

US Catholicism is a divided house, as we have seen in recent Catholic support and Catholic opposition to the second US Catholic president: President Joseph Biden. 

The contemporary Catholic reality is that most American Catholics, today, do not agree with official Catholic teachings about key moral issues.That official teaching still stresses that artificial contraception, homosexuality, and abortion are “intrinsically evil.” Nevertheless, more than half of today’s US Catholics, 56% as of September 2020,  said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. More than 82% say birth control is morally acceptable; and 61% said in a 2019 survey that they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry. Same-sex marriage of course became legal across the United States following a Supreme Court ruling in 2015.

Most of today’s American Catholic bishops were not educated and shaped by the pastoral focus of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) but by the rigid dogmatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For them obeying institutional directives comes first and they tend to be right of center or very far right. Many strongly supported the former US president, Donald Trump. Most are not positively influenced by the opinions and beliefs of today’s US Catholic laity; and are busily closing and consolidating parishes, closing schools, and worrying about bankrupsies. But asking why? Speaking at a book launch in Munich in 2011, the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who died on April 6, 2021, said that, at that time, the Catholic Church in the United States had lost one-third of its membership. “The American Catholic church never asked why,” he said. “Any other institution that has lost a third of its members would want to know why.” Institutional self-examination is important….

I mentioned in a recent email to a bishop acquaintance, whom I have known for a many years, that we used to say “vox populi, vox Dei,” — “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” His response was a friendly note, but in bold type he wrote: “When it comes to morality, the voice of the bishops is the voce of God.” He also informed me that, since he became a bishop, he has not had to read any contemporary theological books, because the Holy Spirit guides him.

Thinking about Catholics leaving the church, an American priest friend asked recently: “After the pandemic when we are all back to ‘normal,’ I wonder how many people will really start attending church again?” That is a good question. Some of my friend’s parishioners told him they liked and respected him; but they did not miss going to church, due to Covid 19 restrictions. They also said they really don’t resonate with  “zoom liturgies,” because they focus too much on “the priest just doing his thing at the alter.” 

Most researches at Gallup and Pew Forum suggest that a continued religious membership decline in future decades seems inevitable, due to much lower levels of religiosity and church membership among younger generations.

So what is happening? 

To some extent, US culture, norms, and patterns of social behavior are always in flux and religion is part of the ongoing cycle of change. I think, however, something more significant is happening today. In the past, if Americans didn’t like a particular form of church, they simply created a new one. A few years ago even Catholics started doing that. Now more people are simply leaving rather than creating or joining new communities.

As fewer Americans say they are members of a church, some critics say this is just part of a generalized secularization trend. The reasons for this are debatable and complex. In general, however, I think laying the blame on “secularization” is a cop out. The whole point of the Incarnation is that we really do find the sacred in the secular — but that is a discussion for another time.

Other reasons for people dropping out, of course, are: clerical sexual abuse, which is not just a Catholic problem; institutional religious opposition to LGBT people and gay marriage; the blending of religion and politics along lines of far-right politics or theocracy; and institutional misogyny and racism.

The underlying issue in all of the above reasons for dropping out, I suggest however is an institutional disconnect from people’s hunger and thirst for a contemporary spirituality. Spirituality should be our way of life: a real life awareness of  Divine Presence. Many come to church looking for warm living bread but find instead cold old stones. 

My friend, Joseph Martos, who passed away a couple years ago, wrote an excellent book about spirituality and meaningful contemporary ritual:  Honest Rituals, Honest Sacraments: Letting Go of Doctrines and Celebrating What’s Real. 

Symbol, ritual and music connect us – should connect us – to the depth of Reality. I always appreciated symbol, ritual, and times of reflective silence in my Catholic tradition. To be effective, however, they have to be rooted in contemporary life experiences and not in some kind of resuscitated medieval culture

I will share a little personal story and then offer a bit more explanation of what I mean.

A couple years ago, on the evening before Pentecost, my wife and I attended a concert of sacred music in a small local church. The church was packed, with about two hundred people. The concert was marvelous and deeply moving. 

When the concert finished, no one applauded. No one moved. People sat there in deep reflection for a good ten or more minutes. I whispered to my wife: “This is amazing – a deeply meditative group experience.” A few minutes later, the somewhat agitated pastor stood up, looked at his watch, and then spoke to the congregation: “Ok everybody. The concert is over. It is getting late. Time for you to go home. I need to get some sleep. Big Pentecost Mass tomorrow!”

Slowly we all got up in silence and peacefully walked out.

The next morning, I attended the Pentecost High Mass at which the pastor presided. He was a good man but lived in his own small clerical world. For Pentecost there were about twenty people present for Mass. Many showed little enthusiasm, especially when the pastor – never looking at the congregation — read his long homily from a printed leaflet. After Mass the pastor was at the church door wishing everyone a Blessed Pentecost. As I walked out, I went up to him wished him a Happy Pentecost and remarked with a chuckle that he had had a full house for the Saturday evening concert. He smiled but then rather seriously said: “All the heathens came here last night.” I smiled back and said in a friendly way: “I don’t think so. They had a prayerful experience.” Hearing that he shrugged, grumbled something, and turned to greet the next person….

I think many people today are dropping out of institutional religion, for all the reasons indicated above but mostly because their church experiences too often leave them hungry for spiritual experiences and spiritual nourishment. They are hungry for a taste of the Divine, even when they may not know how to express that hunger. Their hunger is real.

This year on Easter, April 4,  I was thinking about the post-resurrection experience of Cleopas and the disciple, who was probably his wife Mary, on their way from Jerusalem to Emmaus in Luke 24. They had an encounter with Jesus that touched them deeply but they did not at first recognize him. 

Luke writes that they met a fellow traveler who talked with them about the events in Jerusalem but then acted as if he were going farther. “But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’”

A healthy church gives people living bread, feeding not only their minds but warming their hearts as well: providing profound experiences in which they feel connected intimately to Someone larger than themselves. We call that the Sacred, the Divine, the Ground of Being or God. I remember the observation of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations (1953-1961), and a deeply spiritual, almost mystical, man: “We die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” 

I suspect many people today feel like uncertain travelers looking for a map and a faithful guide. Christian leaders with meaningful words, symbols, and rituals can indeed give direction and a secure footing. They can enable people to enter into a deeper dimension of life, inspired by THE great Christian leader:  “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10

  • Jack


With Easter wishes, a good friend wrote this week: “Easter is the quintessential expression of our faith in grace as God’s unconditional love.” Christians are Easter people. Easter brings hope and strength when hatred, violence, and fear can seem so overwhelming.

The historical Jesus knew, very well, fear and anxiety in his own day’s environment of terror and aggression under Pontius Pilate, the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea. Pilate was cruel and brutal. He had Jesus horribly tortured and crucified.

The great Jesus event, of course, did not end with Jesus’ agony and death on the cross. The New Testament narrates various kinds of post-resurrection appearances, some quite imaginative. Nevertheless, all biblical authors agree that, shortly after his death, a transformed and living Jesus appeared to the women and men who were his disciples. As Paul the Apostle reminded the Christians in Corinth “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (I Corinthians 15:14) 

The post-resurrection testimony is clear. The early followers of the way of Jesus were empowered to live in his Spirit and to begin transforming the world around them. They understood the message and witness of Jesus — that the way of Jesus is a new way of being and living in which the poor are blessed, in which the gentle are blessed, in which the mourning are blessed, in which the peacemakers are blessed, in which those who hunger and thirst for justice are blessed, in which the persecuted are blessed, and in which the pure of heart are blessed. (See Matthew 5:3–11.)

We live in and with the Spirit of Jesus raised-from-the-dead into a new kind of life. Living in and with his Spirit, we find our prophetic call. It means that WE do his walking today. WE are the ones to do his talking, living life, getting involved. WE are the ones struggling. WE are the ones who need to work hard. Our support and encouragement come from HIM. For some it may seem that Jesus does not take away the difficulties of our journey. In reality he does. 

Following Jesus is not a sentimental journey with lots of pious rhetoric. It is a real-life journey with its ups and downs, but guided by the One who is with us here and now and will not abandon us. As Jesus said in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it in abundance.” And in Matthew 28:20: “I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.”

Institutional Christianity may be having some uneasy days; but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus have great contemporary significance. They give us the strength and energy to be his disciples in the Third Millennium. Alleluia!

Happy Easter! 

– Jack

PS    I will be away from my computer for a couple weeks and plan to return on April 16th.