Black History Month-February 2017


Pastors need to decry racism as a sin from

the pulpit.

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).