Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Response to Fr. Massingale on Prioritizing Racial Concerns in the Church

I realize that white people are not supposed to be allowed to have any opinion other than submission to the prevailing cultural headwinds, that we may not dispute or contend that things are different than they are presented by BLM and BLM-like advocates, and yet, here I go..

Contrary to the binary mentality promoted these days on all sides, that is, you either fully agree with me, or you are my enemy and evil, I assert that we can and should be allowed to argue about these things in a reasonable, respectful way. To that end, I offer some critiques of this interview and some of the positions asserted by Fr. Massingale.

Possibly the most “problematic” thing I take away from the interview is the effusive condescension. This is maybe not something new, but it seems to have gotten to fever pitch these days. As I said above, white people are, effectively, being told to “just shut up and listen.” “Your perspective on race is completely worthless and meaningless, because you are white.” (If you think about how racist that kind of talk is, it is rather shocking, but I digress.)

Not only that, the Father here goes on at great length to tell us how white people think, what our problems are, what our failures are. Again, this is based on the simple fact of the color of our skin (yikes). But if we use the prevailing logic of our culture nowadays, he should have zero grounds to speak on what white people think and what our experiences are—because he’s not white. 

We have been told by the broader culture that if you are not the thing then you have no valid standing to speak on it. This applies to being a woman, being a mother, being of color, being gay, trans, etc., being married (i.e., if you are a priest), and so on. If you personally do not have lived experience, your opinion is worthless and meaningless. So, following that logic of the Left, on what basis does Fr. Massingale assert what all white people think, believe, have experienced, and so on? It’s mind boggling the scale of broad generalization that he is undertaking, and yet he does it with such conviction and certitude.

He says that we white people are cowards—that is our core problem. Okay. Wow. Maybe some of us are. Maybe some of us aren’t. The broad assertion is kinda farcical, when he is speaking to a white interviewer who is giving him a platform to speak on this issue. And let’s not forget how so many white people (of a certain mindset) have fallen over themselves to appear to be advocates, especially in this last year. In this social moment, it is far more unpopular and risky to voice criticism of the BLM movement than not—at least in the broader culture.

The thing is, I happen to agree that there are (or seem to be, so far as I can tell from my “ignorant” white perspective) remaining race-related issues to address in our country. What I oppose is the overreaction we are seeing along these lines. I have seen/heard some persuasive cases made that we do in fact have some forms of effectively institutionalized racism. (Whether or not those things were in intention racist is another debate entirely.) But as a pragmatist when it comes to something as practical as government and people’s lived experience of human dignity, I think the rationales/intentions are less important—now—than the effects, which do seem to be problematic for at least some non-white people. (Though rarely are these practical issues simply a matter of racism but are also tied up with social class/economic background, so focusing only on racial thinking is only solving part of the core causes.)

What I do not jive with is the ongoing demonization of white people, as a whole, our country’s history—as a whole, and the current social situation—as a whole. I need not provide examples. It is everywhere we look these days. There are even vocal people who cast the entire history of Europeans as being “white supremacist.” Utter hogwash. A case of forcing a pre-determined point of view onto the data of history, which is no better than what white people are accused of, only these “enlightened” social activists today should walk their talk.

So back to Fr. Massingale. He notes how well received he has been in South Africa. He asserts (and I have no reason to doubt him) that South Africa has prioritized dealing with racism as its #1 challenge and that he perceives little to no resistance on that. Whereas, he can only attribute American resistance to such prioritization as, well, racism (or cowardice!).

I checked Wikipedia, and the white population of South Africa is around 8%—and seems to be dropping. That not only inverts the reality in the US, but even more than that. In the US, the non-hispanic white population as of 2019 is 60%. Only 13% are black/African American. Perhaps the most obvious explanation for resistance versus non resistance is simply population-based. And in the past (1960 for example), we had 85% non-hispanic white population. Needless to say, for most of our history, we have been very much mostly white, by a very large majority, and it is only in recent decades that trend has been slowly changing.

The point is, the assertion that there is always and everywhere white supremacy as the key social driver in the US is rather better explained by simple demographics—the overwhelming majority of people were white. So it’s normal (not evil) for them to be culturally white, to write history from a white perspective, and so on. And to demand and pretend that history is better retold in a distorted way as some kind of social justice corrective does not really make sense. And I say that as a trained historian. 

Nowadays we are being told everywhere that we should force diversity—even where it doesn’t actually exist. Diversity is some new supreme virtue. It should also be forced on history. Not only that, we are told implicitly and sometimes explicitly that any good that white people have done—in the country or the world—is negated by racism. Thomas Jefferson was not a great man—because he held slaves. George Washington was not a great man—because he held slaves. And so on ad infinitum. I think we can all agree that it was certainly a moral flaw and, more than likely, a moral blind spot for so many in those days. 

But that moral failure does not negate everything good they may have done in their lives. Especially considering the prevailing culture and mindset in those days, it would be anachronistic to expect every person who did great (momentous) things to have been outstanding in their day with regards to the issue of racism. As terrible as racism is and was, we have to see things in their historical context and judge people by their historical context, if we are to judge justly. And what should social justice advocates be concerned with if not justice?

Similarly, if we are to understand prevailing social currents today, we need to do so in context. Applying how South Africa thinks about racism to the US and trying to equate our contexts does not hold water. There are other important differences beyond demographics between us, and to blithely assign the cause of the difference in our responses to racial activism today to moral failure is unjustified. 

Fr. Massingale also notes (as have others) that if you go into a mostly white Catholic parish today, you will see mostly white depictions in the artwork. This is, largely, true of European art as well. Again, why? Not because of overt racism or even so-called subconscious racism. These people have simply been making art based on the reality that they lived on a day to day basis. When most (by far) of the people you interact with are of a certain skin color, your art will de facto reflect that. If we go by actual proportions, we might want to see like 1 out of 10 images (historically, at a national level) non-white, but the point—let’s be VERY clear on this—of religious art is the RELIGIOUS subject. It is oriented towards God as its end and primary concept. It is not inherently a matter of (nor should it be preoccupied with) promoting the idea of skin color diversity. That is a very, very historically novel concept—the idea of consciously (and often artificially) forcing “representation” into art.

Now, I do not disagree with his point that if we live in and are exposed to greater diversity, it will permeate our consciousness and eventually be reflected in how we think. I do not even, really, object to the idea of adding more diversity in our religious art, especially as we are ever becoming a more diverse society. It just makes sense, and humans being humans, it will happen naturally as the demographics change. Go to any culture round the world, and you will see their art reflects who they are. That is not inherently racism or xenophobia or any other -ism. It’s just human nature (and nothing inherently wrong in that aspect of human nature, to boot). 

Further, you will not find a priest today who will say no to art because it is “diverse.” (Of course, when I generalize, there are doubtless exceptions, but this is a rule we can rely on.) Not “prioritizing” making this happen is, again, not racism. It is a matter of logical priority that each parish/priest faces. Making ends meet as parishes close all around us is, I dare say, likely to weigh more heavily in priorities for the average parish. (And that's just one of many possible reasonable examples of things that may take higher priority without inherently, implicitly, much less explicitly being racist.)

So again, my objection is based against the assertion that it is racism (implicit or not) that has driven this reality of non-diverse art. It is rather better explained as simple demographics and the nature of humans for their art to mimic their perceived reality. And on top of that, the purpose of the art is religious, not so much cultural, and so there is even more reason to not presume any ill intent or latent racism. 

I am sure there are those, if anyone is still reading at this point, who will agree with most of this. I am also sure that there are those who would disagree and, likely, feel like I am nit picking on these points. To that I reply that these points are simply emblematic of the larger, broader problematic trend in our social discourse today. For those of us who have not already kowtowed to the prevailing social zeitgeist because it makes us feel more socially woke, IF the desire is to actually change hearts and minds of those who resist, then coming at us with this kind of “you are all and have always been moral failures” messaging is just going to go nowhere and fast. That is, of course, presuming there is an intent to win over hearts.  

If we want a more realistic explanation of the resistance today, it is largely and simply drawn on political lines. Because we have politicized EVERYTHING. And when our favored talking heads say “this is what you should think about this,” the VAST majority fall into lock step behind that. This is true on both the Left and the Right. And so, when the Left champions BLM, the Right picks up their rhetorical weapons on the other side. This is not inherently about racism. It is political tribalism, plain and simple, as is the case with nearly every social issue we face. The resistance is not about being white and racist against people of color. It is about NOT being a Democrat, NOT being a “socialist” or “communist” or "bleeding heart liberal.” 

As soon as caring about still-existing racism is seen as part of the Democrat agenda, it’s game over for about half the population on that issue. It doesn't help that a BLM founder openly admitted she is a "trained Marxist," either. If you actually look at what "the other side" says, they worry a lot about "socialism" and "communism," and they focus more on the rioting that came with BLM and the diminution of the lives and service of police men and women ("blue lives matter"). These are not, no matter the facile assertions to the contrary, racist motives for resisting. And that doesn't even get us into actual, substantial differences about what to do (if anything, some might argue) about the problem. 

And then, for those who tend to try to think more independently of parties, we see the exaggerations and vilifications, and when we are the target of them, we naturally are going to be defensive and resist. It’s not about “not wanting to feel uncomfortable.” That is a remarkably cheap rhetorical ploy from the BLM playbook. I have put myself in plenty of “uncomfortable” conversations and listened to plenty of people that I had a good sense would really rub me the wrong way (as in this case). I have made an effort to push through that discomfort, hear the other side, ponder their points of view, and I have actually amended my opinion on some things based on these experiences. But I am not going to lie down and let people walk all over me, just because they say I should--because of my skin color, my gender, my sexual orientation, etc. I will not be emotionally manipulated into submission. And I certainly will not stand for wholesale rewriting of reality based on a very flawed epistemological lens just because some people who had my skin color did bad things in the past towards people of other skin color. If you want to have a reasoned discussion, I’m all ears, though.

So if we want real social progress, real increasing of the common good, we gotta stop with these extremist rhetorical tactics. We gotta stop giving voice and support for bad history rewrites and fallacious generalizations, however well intentioned it may be. We gotta stop vilifying people—today and in history—based solely on skin color or their not being activists against the prevailing social systems. We gotta be honest about what the data say and where we have insufficient data, we need to 1) have humility to acknowledge that (and not fill in the gaps with our prejudice) and 2) work to get better data. Case in point is policing in the US—we need better data/transparency to make more informed decisions about how and what to change. 

Everything is not about race. It just isn’t. And trying to make everything about it is not progress. It is not advancing social justice. It is simply hardening hearts, on both sides of the aisle. We may have underemphasized its impact and role in the past, but “correcting” that by a corresponding error of overemphasizing it now is not a winning strategy. And, we also have other real, serious issues to face—as a country, states, locally, AND as a Church. 

And as for the Church (which ought to be the focus here, given it was America magazine interviewing a priest!), to make racism THE issue of the Church would be a great reduction of what the Church is, why Christ founded it. The Church exists to help souls to eternal life with God, starting here in this life. I guarandamntee that buying into the cultural moment’s emphasis on racism is not why Christ died. He did not, even, die for social justice in general. He died BECAUSE of our sin—the fundamental and greatest injustice of preferring ourselves to Him, to heal that wound, primarily and pre-eminently on a spiritual level. And because we are embodied beings, that healing should have real-world, this-life consequences, among which are, indeed, healing the wounds of racism. 

Fr. Massingale is right—if a Catholic harbors racism in his heart, that is wholly incompatible with the Gospel and needs to be dealt with. If we refuse to do the good plainly before us, that too would be a moral failure. But let us not de facto equate resisting what is—at best—a very mixed bag of a social movement with such failings. To make our primary focus “racism” and fixing what remains to be fixed in that area is an example of the danger of particularity I wrote about here: Another example, just to ruffle some feathers on the other side of the political spectrum, is the practically exhaustive focus on criminalizing abortion, or, say, the promotion of sexual chastity. All of these are pressing moral matters of great import facing our society today, but they are not THE issue that every last one of us has to be inordinately preoccupied with in order to be “good Catholics.” Having the “wrong” opinion on how to pursue these does not ipso facto make one a “bad Catholic,” either.

For any Catholic to insist that we must make these particular things THE MOST IMPORTANT THING for the whole Church is, at best, putting the cart before the horse. Our primary focus is precisely what Christ told us: Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Helping people to do that is always and everywhere the primary mission of the Church. And by virtue of Her doing that, she also inescapably follows the second greatest commandment: love your neighbor, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “in God and because of God.”

I can’t help but think of Christ’s counsel to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41) This is not to say that we have no social moral responsibility—obviously—but it is a counter to the prevailing political-activist mentality that has become so prevalent in the Church, which is itself a manifestation of being more conformed to this world than to Christ (see Rom 12:2).

God will guide us into the actions that we need to undertake (Eph 2:10), but we should first and always foremost be people who keep our focus and priority on conforming our own selves more and more to Christ, through prayer and worship. When our hearts, minds, and wills are conformed to God’s, we will do the good works he has prepared for us. As we seek God diligently, he will reveal to us those areas in our lives that may need amendment. And, as opposed to artificially imposed from without as a generalization for all Catholics (or all Catholics of a certain color, or all Catholics of a certain political persuasion), this revealing will always be infallible and absolutely and utterly applicable for each person, coming as it does from the Holy Spirit’s action in each individual believer’s life.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:1-2) This clarity comes through our continual prayerful worship.

I pray God that we will as the people of God regain the urgency first and above all else to seek God (Matt 6:33) without ceasing in prayer—as bishops, as priests, as religious, and as lay persons. This exhortation (1 Thess 5:17) applies equally to all. May we never prioritize social activism over, nor think it is more worthwhile or important than, a genuine and enduring life of prayer.