THE CHURCH'S APPALLING SILENCE ON RACISM
Pastors need to decry racism as a sin from
By Father Bryan Massingale
On June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white man,
Dylann Roof, killed nine black people as they
said prayers, sang hymns, and studied the Bible
in a Charleston, South Carolina church. Roof
freely confessed that his motive was frankly
racist. He reportedly said as he was shooting,
“You rape our women and you’re taking over our
country, and you have to go.” His subsequent
statements were a manifesto of racial anger and
grievance. He proclaimed his hope that his action
would incite a race war and ignite a wave of
others who would follow his example. As I write
this, Roof, now 22, was found guilty in a court
of law and has been sentenced to die for his crimes.
It is tempting to see this as the end of the matter,
for some will find solace in the fact that he will
pay the ultimate price for his callous acts of
murderous hatred. But that would be too easy. As
Martin Luther King Jr. observed during his eulogy
for four little black girls, who were also killed
by a white racist attack on a church in Birmingham
in 1963, “We must be concerned not merely about who
murdered them, but about the system, the way of life,
and the philosophy that produced the murderers.”
In other words, Roof may have acted alone, but he
acted out of a context. He alone is guilty. How can
we get a handle on the wider web of a more diffuse
One key lies in a haunting revelation from Roof’s
personal journal. Among its pages filled with rantings
of racial resentment and images of Confederate flags
is a drawing of Jesus. A white Jesus.
This is among the most disturbing revelations to
surface about this young man. He apparently found no
contradiction between his racial hatred, his lack of
remorse for his crimes, his deficit of compassion for
black people, and his faith in Jesus. In the midst of
his racism, one finds Jesus—a Jesus compatible with
his intolerance and hate.
In this, Roof is not alone, nor is he an aberration.
The truth is that many white Christians find no
contradiction between their so-called Christian faith
and their angers, fears, and resentments about people
of color. Too often they never hear such angers and
resentments challenged from their pulpits or denounced
by their ministers. They rarely hear their racist jokes,
slurs, and stereotypes—much less their discriminatory
behaviors—labeled as “sin” by their pastors.
Think of the last time you heard a homily about the sin
of racism. For most of my 70 students in my course on
Catholic social teaching last fall—who were overwhelmingly
white with four years of Catholic high school education—
the answer was “never.” This anecdote reflects a conclusion
reached by a research report commissioned by the U.S.
bishops in 2004 that found that most white Catholics had
not heard a single homily on racism or racial justice in
the past three years.
For too many Catholic Christians, their racism and that of
their friends, neighbors, and family members is abetted by
the silence of their pastors and teachers. A permissive
silence. A silence that gives comfort to those who harbor
resentment, fear, and even hatred in their hearts. A
silence that allows Jesus and racial animosity to coexist
in their souls.
Such silence allows a young man like Roof to draw a picture
of Jesus in a hate-filled journal. He probably never heard
anyone tell him this very simple truth: “You cannot be a
racist and a Christian at the same time.” The silence of the
church’s leadership in the face of continuing injustice is
the faith community’s deepest act of complicity in American
King also said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.
” It is too easy to see Roof as an aberration. It is more
challenging to see him as a reflection of the “unresolved
racism” that infects so many Christians. It is redemptive
to see in him a summons to shatter a silent complicity that
betrays our faith in Jesus.
This article also appears in the March 2017 issue of
U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 3, page 10).
Published: Monday, January 23, 2017
Bryan Massingale is a professor of theological and social
ethics at Fordham University in New York. He is the author
of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Orbis, 2010).