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  • Towards the “Beloved Community”: The Church’s Role in the Struggle Against Racism
  • Jon Nilson

We Roman Catholic theologians in the United States stand in great debt to Cyprian Davis, O.S.B.—and we still have much to learn from him. Without his groundbreaking work, especially, but not only, in The History of Black Catholics in the United States,1 we would be far more ignorant than we are about the brutal realities of sin, heresy, and idolatry. Without his portrait of the ways in which white supremacy has permeated our nation and our Church, we theologians will fundamentally misapprehend the structurally embedded character of this great evil and, consequently, misunderstand the nature of the salvation we urgently need. So I hope this essay will, in some small measure at least, acknowledge our debt and express our gratitude to him.

To some readers, the title of this piece may signal an historical essay. Do we now not live in a post-racial America, as the election of Barack Obama shows? Yes, there are still ignorant and bigoted people, but hasn’t the tide has turned fully and finally in the direction of racial justice?

No. There is too much evidence to show that racism has not disappeared. White supremacy has only mutated into new forms and gone underground or “behind the scenes.” The work of sociologists like Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Joe R. Feagin, among others, is painstaking and sobering.2 One has only to go to the internet to see how President Obama himself is despised and ridiculed in the coarsest and most vicious racial stereotypes.

Many African Americans tell of their constant anxiety as they find themselves in “white” settings and anticipating the stinging remark or gesture that tells them, “You [End Page 83] do not really belong here.” No wonder that “blacks never, ever, feel at home in the land of their birth,” says Anthony Walton3 and their anxiety appears in the higher rates of hypertension and heart disease among African Americans. Many know also that if their job application easily identifies them as black (via their black-sounding name or a traditionally black college alma mater, like Morehouse or Spelman), they will be at a disadvantage, even though they are just as qualified as the white applicants. So they “whiten their résumé,” an act that, for many, is “soul-piercing.”4

In short, we are still far from the dawning of the “Beloved Community,” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s image for both the fulfillment of the American dream and the actualization of the Kingdom of God, a society where all live lives that befit their dignity as children of God; a society where everyone is accepted, everyone belongs.5

King’s “Beloved Community” expresses much of what the Catholic Church claims and hopes to be. Consider the well known opening lines of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity. That is, the Church is a sign and instrument of such union and unity.”6

Clearly, the Church is to be both a living example and an agent of human unity. Wherever there is division, enmity, or discrimination, there reconciliation must be the mission of the Church. When the Church is not about the task of reconciliation, it has lost its way, working at cross purposes to its own identity and misunderstanding its fundamental task.

The Council presents a powerful vision and a stirring call. But historians who do not flinch from uncomfortable truths, like Cyprian Davis, compel us to confess that the Church has not always been a reconciling Church when it comes to black-white relationships in the United States. All too often Catholics have tolerated and even actively promoted the oppression of black people.

Before the Civil War, not only individual Catholics but also religious orders, like the Jesuits, owned slaves.7 There were slave-owning bishops8 and even bishops, like John England of Charleston and his successor in the see, Patrick Lynch, who defended slavery, masking and even excusing its horrors...


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