The writers are professors of theology at Creighton University.
Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man out jogging on Feb. 23, was stalked and executed — no other word better describes it — by three white men. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was peacefully at home with her boyfriend when, unannounced and mistakenly, three policemen busted in her front door and filled her body with eight bullets. George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by a white police officer kneeling on his neck while he was on the ground, handcuffed and wheezing that he could not breathe. A CNN investigation reported that the policeman infamously shown kneeling on Floyd’s neck had 18 previous complaints filed against him with the Minneapolis Police Department.
No teacher ever taught the white killers that they had white privilege. No teacher ever had to, for they and we all breathe in that lesson from the culture in which we live in America. From the moment the first ships landed slaves on our shores, black people have been viewed as less human than white people and have been treated accordingly, in housing, in education, in employment, in health care and in religion. In America white people are privileged, even to the extent that they can brutally mistreat black people and even kill them. The days of white mobs lynching black men may be gone, but the hard truth is that the beliefs that underlay them still actively underlie the culture of our nation.
The question we ask is: What can we do about it?
That great peaceful protest marcher, Martin Luther King, killed 50 years ago by white supremacist James Earl Ray, had good advice for his contemporaries, and it is, we believe, still good advice today: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” That advice suggests what we need to do to overcome racism and white privilege: shut up and listen to the unheard, and listen not only with your ears but also, more crucially, with your actions.
Catholic social teaching has an important lesson here too, a lesson to instruct not only our minds but also, and more importantly, our actions. It is a lesson founded on the belief that the God we believe in is the Creator of every human being, male and female, black, brown, yellow and white. All enjoy the same God-created human dignity and are to be treated as befits that dignity.
There is a twist, however. The Old Testament reveals that the God who led Israel from slavery in Egypt will continue to lead the poor and oppressed to freedom. To know that God is just and loving is to act justly and lovingly toward every one of God’s creatures and against the systemic racism and white privilege that victimize God’s black children. In the family of God, Paul wrote to his divided Galatian converts in year 55, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). We will have no peace without justice, and we will have no justice without structures that promote the equality and human dignity of all Americans.
We are convinced a different world is possible. We warn, however, that all of us, our Church and our nation, neither of which is free from the cancer of racism and white privilege, have hard work to do to ensure that any new world will be a world in which, borrowing from Paul, there is neither white nor black, poor nor rich, female nor male, but only equal children in the one family of the one God.
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