Racism, the Church, and Healing for a Broken World

Stan Chu Ilo1
When I left my homeland Nigeria for Rome in 2001, my identity as a Black African man was not of any concern, at least to me. I didn’t have to figure out my identity or how it was perceived by others. My introduction into the Western world through the Italian Catholic Church was a rude awakening for me and a realization that I was perceived as different. It became crystal clear to me in my first interactions with white people in Italy that the acceptable color-code of Roman Catholicism was white and that being black is a marginal reflection in this color-coded spectrum of my church. I immediately realized that there was something fundamentally flawed in the way Western societies and the Catholic Church have—intentionally or unintentionally—constructed otherness in relation to the non-Western other and particularly in the perception and treatment of people of African descent.
I struggled in Rome then with how to make sense of who I was and of who I was not—a struggle which affected my inner spiritual balance – because I began to question everything I believed about belonging to one family in the one universal Church. I had studied and knew the history of slavery, colonialism, racism and of apartheid and the oppression of blacks and colored people in South Africa. I knew from studies and stories which I heard growing up in Nigeria of how missionaries in Africa treated our people as inferior, and that many foreign missionaries in Africa never accepted Africans until recently. So, I had a general idea of how racism and white privilege function in the U.S, South Africa, Zimbabwe and in many parts of the world and sadly in our church. However, knowing about racism against blacks did not prepare me for the alienating sense of otherness which I felt once I settled in Europe.
I must also add, however, that the genocide in Rwanda, the subsequent black on black xenophobia in South Africa in both 2008 and 2019, and the frightening black on black violence in my city of Chicago or the unrelenting gun culture in the black dominated favelas of Rio, have also struck me. They are the ugly faces of the painful reality of the fissures and fragmentation in the contested and troubled world of Africans and blacks as they are consumed with the deadly struggle of making sense of their identity in many segregated ghettoized settings where they have found themselves.
The question of identity—the in-group vs. the out-group—is indeed a human complexity which has been at the root of many of the horrible evils in human history—racism, Nazism, genocide, sexism, religious wars and persecution, nationalism and homophobia, anti-immigration sentiments, to mention only a few. The renowned economist and winner of the 1998 Nobel prize in economics, Amartya Sen, in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny warns, for instance, of the danger of a solitary approach to human identity. This occurs when people limit the notion of identities to strictly defined spheres. This narrow mindset often spurs dominant groups to see other people as threats to their own identity. It also forces them to build walls in order to inhabit an exclusive social, economic or cultural comfort zone with clearly defined identity lines which they wrongly believe would help them achieve a unique destiny.
1 Fr Stan Chu Ilo is a priest of Awgu diocese, Nigeria and a research professor of World Christianity and African Studies at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, U.S.A.
Ultimately, identity politics which has defined the global order and created social hierarchies in our world today can only be understood through an analysis and critique of the asymmetries of power, privilege, injustice, and neo-liberal capitalism. Identity politics and competition for interest are the greatest causes of poverty, suffering, and all forms of exclusionary social and economic hierarchies which often lead to violence and wars. Identity politics is founded on deep fear and vulnerabilities. The truth is that the advancement of the interest of the champions of exclusive identity for a race, civilization, nation or religion in an increasingly diverse and multicultural world is a project that has no future.
My proposal in this essay is that the Catholic Church being a historical subject has been touched and tainted by the same identity politics of power and privilege for white people. The polarization in the Church today, which has become loudest in the post-Vatican II era, and has come to its head in the papacy of Francis, is rooted in the contested identities within the church and how progressives and traditionalists understand social change and the movement of history. Interestingly, this polarity is also present in the divisive ideological battles among different camps in the Church which we see in the current response to the anti-racism protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement here in the U.S and elsewhere.
However, the church has the inner capacity to overcome these historical contradictions if she returns to her trinitarian identity. Indeed, I am convinced that the Catholic Church can offer a capacious and inclusive tent where the great multitude spoken of at Pentecost (Acts 2: 8-12) and in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 7:9)—every tribe, language, and people and nations—can find a home.
In a wounded and divided world, torn apart by divisions and violence and political contestations; in a world where the poor and people on the margins continue to suffer injustice and cry every day to God in anguish, the Catholic Church can help to bring healing and restorative justice. The Church can be an instrument for justice, healing and peace through her teaching about God, human dignity, the cosmos and how all things are related (belief), through creating a community of the beloved where everyone feels like a first born child (a sense of belonging), and through the actions and choices of her members and her institutional priorities and practices; her advocacy and witnessing in the world (behavior/practices/ecclesial models of a new world).
A Church True to her Catholic Identity: A Sense of Belonging
One of the privileges of my life as a Catholic priest has been the opportunity to serve diverse congregations in many countries including Italy, Canada, England and the United States in addition to my work in Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda. What I have observed is that the Catholic Church at its best reflects a Trinitarian identity of universal openness to all people. It is a powerful sign of unity and fraternity, when one walks into a church in a different country and feels a sense of welcome and a spirit that you truly belong to a community where everyone is a first-born child of God.
On the other hand, I have been wounded as a Catholic priest in many instances where I was not welcomed into a rectory or chancery, where white priests and bishops regarded me with suspicion and looked down on me. I am often broken when I hear of the stories of many African priests who have been removed from their ministries without due process and sometimes asked to ‘go back to where you come from’ by bishops who failed to understand their unique personal situation and
cultural backgrounds. It pains me when I hear fellow priests, religious, bishops and Catholic faithful and organizations defending racism or justifying violence against black bodies.
I have cried in those moments when I have been told that a couple that I had been preparing for marriage would prefer a white priest or when some white parishioners refuse to shake my hand or receive Holy Communion from me. It pained me last year when a priest colleague of mine from Nigeria had to leave a parish in Germany because racists threatened to harm him if he was not removed from the parish—they did not accept a black priest. How many times have I turned off my television watching soccer in Europe because people were singing monkey chants against black players! When I saw that revolting video of George Floyd’s death, I recognized that that could have been me. I have privately expressed to my colleagues at DePaul University – Chicago, my fear of moving around freely in town because I am afraid that I could get shot by the police or a private citizen.
Systemic racism is not about one or two good white priests being nice to me or many white parishioners appreciating you as a priest. It is a mindset; it is about the internalized, racialized thinking which treats blacks as inferior and which reinforces or defends existing patterns of bias and stereotypes about blacks. It has given birth to a culture where some white priests or bishops in interacting with some of us black priests think themselves superior and better than the blacks. This is a common occurrence in our Mother Church where black clerics and nuns have to constantly prove that they are good enough in the rectories, chanceries and convents as well as at the altars, pulpits or in the schools, hospitals and nursing homes. It is also a mindset which thinks of Africa and Africans as backward, disease-prone and always needy. It is these racist frames and denigration of blacks which hurt me the most.
So, while we must admit that there are many decent white people who repudiate these racist acts in the church and society, there is a generalized feeling among Black priests that the Catholic Church is weighed down by systemic racist attitudes, teachings, policies, and actions towards blacks and people of color. Most black priests, bishops, nuns, and laity will admit that they are not given equal respect and recognition as their white counterparts and that they do not see themselves as fully belonging to the church or participating in shaping the future direction of the church. A painful example was during the Synod on the family in Rome in 2014. During one of the sessions, Cardinal Kasper spoke out publicly against African bishops and delegates on their positions on some of the contested issues during the Synod. He was quoted to have said: “Africans should not teach us too much what to do.” Even though he later apologized for this offensive statement, but it reinforces the perception that African Catholics are not part of the ‘us’ of mainstream Catholicism.
This reality should not be the case if the church embraced fully and truly her Trinitarian identity and God’s mission of celebrating in history the universal bond of love that holds all of God’s people together. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when the catholicity of the church is fully and faithfully lived. We are one family, one world, the people of God without class or distinction (Galatia 3: 28). We all live together in a shared space. There is a place for everyone in this kind of church because everyone is seen as an irreplaceable and unrepeatable piece of divine art; someone beautiful to God and made in God’s image and likeness. The human being is to be prized and not priced because of this dignity and the theological anthropology which is the basis of our Christian humanism. This theological anthropology is what is reflected in our sacraments of
Christian initiation which give each of us the identity and dignity of a child of God as the basis of our equal and common life in Christ and full access to all the blessings and gifts of God.
Gaudium et Spes, describes the Trinitarian origin of the church as the deepest of bonds which hold the human family as a community. Vatican II, harking back to New Testament times, makes a clear theological judgement that the Church has been brought into being from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This creates a bond of unity and love between humanity, God and the entire cosmos and all that God has made. What it means is that the Church must have the character which we find in the Trinity in all she does and in the relations of her members and in her engagement with the world. Some of these qualities include respect, equality, acceptance, mutuality, participation of all her members in the life of the church, love, friendship, solidarity, and collaboration all of which help to bring human and cosmic flourishing. These are qualities which racism, white privilege, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of discrimination negate.
The credibility of the Catholic Church in the wounded and broken world today will be determined by how she speaks to the pains of the world today. She can model for the world how an inclusive world would look like by reforming her institutions and systems which continue to promote exclusionary practices on the bases of sex, race, gender, and nationality. Institutional and structural reform in the church is the best way through which the church can teach people so that all may see in the body of Christ, that which is possible in the wider society.
Healing of the Mindset of Racism: Believing
The global anti-racism protests of the last few weeks call us as a church to an examination of conscience, purification of memory, and to concrete acts of reversal which can speak with credibility to a world that is wounded and broken. The church is also challenged to examine how her teaching, practices, and belief systems have contributed in creating the mindset of superiority of the white race over other races and her role in the enslavement of blacks and denigrating blackness. According to John Calvin in his famous Institutes of the Christian Faith, there are two questions which everyone must answer, first is who is God, and the second is who am I? He proposes that if we got the first question wrong, we would definitely get the second question wrong as well.
Christian anthropology has been developed from a perspective of Western epistemological frameworks of what it means to be human. The white color-coded humanity has been projected as the universal standard. It is not surprising that the images of God on which Christian anthropology was built were images of a white God and of a blond and blue-eyed Jesus. These are the images which still dominate the liturgical space in Africa today. Both the African notion of what it means to be human, and black cultural representations of God were all affected negatively by the narrative of contamination attached to the African humanum and the African accounts of God. The African had to be saved from heathenism, and worship of false God(s) (through Western Christianity and theology), and from barbarism and uncultured mannerisms ( through Western anthropology), and from the kind of society and culture which were judged to be backward, uncivilized and doomed (through Western sociology); and from poverty (through Western modernity and development designs).
I think that the greatest challenge facing all religions including Christianity is that they created false images of God. We have painted the picture of a God designed by us to reflect our own image
and likeness and limited God to our narrow cultural and doctrinal systems. This human, cultural, and political human design of God has misled people sometimes to invoke the name of God to justify narrow human ends which do not rise up to heaven in praise to God.
We used the name of the Christian God, for instance, to justify Trans-Atlantic slavery and oppression of blacks, colonialism, racism, war, violence, cultural erasures, oppression, injustice and abuse. We have used the name of God to promote division, segregation, political ideologies, false religiosity and false piety. In the name of God, we have condoned the oppression of the poor, covered up terrible evils of sexual abuse in our churches and societies and propped up misrule and justified religious wars and intolerance.
Indeed, for many of us black people, the worst racism committed by Western Christianity in Africa is the presentation of a white God to Africans and the denigration and derision of our cultures, our religious systems and our ancestral ways of life as pagan and contaminated. As children in catechism classes and in our children rosary groups, we learned that our African ancestors did not know God and that Africa was covered in darkness and wallowing in falsehood and paganism until Westerners came to rescue us with their white religion.
All the images of the saints and models of holiness presented to us as children were of white people, and the names we took at baptism were not the names of our ancestors but the names of white saints. The unfortunate thing is that these realities are still there in the socialization and initiation of young Africans today into the faith, leading to false historical consciousness, and spiritual alienation. Africa is still designated a mission land by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Even though the dioceses and religious orders in Africa are mainly led by Africans, in truth the local churches of Africa are still colonies of Rome and most of the religious orders are controlled by their Western Mother Houses. All these take away the agency of local bishops and episcopal conferences in shaping the future of the church in Africa. They also undermine the autonomy of Catholic universities and seminaries in Africa in designing and shaping the education and socialization of Africans into the faith.
Today, there is a greater recognition in the Catholic Church of the agency of African cultures, intellectual history, and spirituality in the beliefs and practices which Africans embrace today as Christians. However, the long history of the contaminating narratives associated with our history, and culture have contributed a great deal to how Africans are perceived today in the church and how African worldviews and narratives are treated when it comes to questions about morality, sexuality, and life in the church and society.
From Pleasant Poetics of Hope to Prophetic Praxis of Hope: Behaving
The word is in desperate need of hope today as it faces the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and racism. Just as we are seeking for a cure for Covid-19, so also should everyone in the Church today begin a serious search for the best way to cure the pandemic of racism, bring restorative justice to African-Americans as well as give hope to blacks who have historically borne the painful weight of racism and its destructive effects.
Can people find this hope in our churches and what does hope look like for those who are hanging and slowly dying on the Cross today before our eyes like George Floyd? The church exists as a
space of belonging where all God’s people can find a home. The church serves as the site of learning where people discover the beauty of diversity through the trinitarian model. In this kind of space people are inspired to embrace those ethical choices which are driven by gospel values and which help to bring about in history the fruits of the reign of God. The hope which the church can help to give to the world, is a reversal of history. The Church is a space for reimagining a better possible world where people are moved to embrace life-giving choices which make concrete in people’s lives and cultures, the saving and transforming grace of the Risen Lord. This saving hope is particularly needed in those places where people feel deep wounds and suffer injustice and the painful consequences of oppression and suffering. Hope is a movement which shows people in their lived realities that their history is not contaminated, but that there is a reversal which is real in an experience of redemptive history today. Christian hope is not an idea or an ideal, it is a concrete emergence of a new agency and a new experience of triumph and release from the chokehold of history for those who have been battered by racism and other social evils.
In order for this hope to come upon the earth, there is the need for the church and all of God’s people to move away from pleasant poetics of hope to a prophetic praxis of hope. The pleasant poetics of hope is the all too familiar reaction to social problems where church leaders and ministers use moral suasion and spiritual platitudes to drown the historical injustice and deep human pain borne by those who suffer. These preachments and condemnations are appealing to the ears, but end up being only empty rhetoric which might temporarily raise people’s hope for change, but which ultimately fail to show how change could actually come about. It is similar to the preaching which many of our ancestors heard in the slave plantations which spoke to them of a God who is pacified by their suffering and who accepts their death as an offering similar to that of God’s crucified Son.
The pleasant poetics of hope also sometimes speak of repentance and of why black people should take responsibility for their lives. However, it fails to speak of conversion of hearts for those who benefit from white privilege and a white-coded church. It does not show how the church could begin a process of reform of our institutional culture and hierarchy of power and privilege which are often coupled to political ideologies and systems of racism and oppression and neo-liberal capitalism. Pleasant poetics of hope is a false hope because it fails to address how to change those factors which have conspired to bring the sad circumstances under which blacks and people of color have suffered for centuries. The pleasant poetics of hope is an empty religious noise which often ends up emptying the Gospel of its force, saving truth, and power.
The prophetic praxis of hope, on the other hand, is the commitment by the church and all her members to become the architects of a new future. It is born from an ecclesial practice which by its very character and manifestations is a reimagination of a new future, and a new possible world and a new possible church. It inaugurated a change in attitude and behaviors through the conversion of hearts. The prophetic praxis of hope leads to a change in mindsets, change in our ecclesial priorities and practices, and the change in church’s teaching, institutional culture and hierarchy of power and privilege so that she can become truly a poor and merciful church. It leads
to a firm resolve and commitment to turn our anger and outrage into daily acts of reversal of history by working for the realization of a just and peaceful world for all of God’s people, and especially the marginalized.
An essential part of this kind of hope is that it is prophetic and praxis-oriented. It is prophetic because it requires listening to the cries of blacks, correctly reading the signs of our presents times and by embodying the pathos of the poor and the broken throughout her systems and structures, the church becomes a credible site for reimagining a different world while amplifying the voices of the poor in a noisy world. As a prophetic hope, the ministers of the Church and all Christians must become architects of a different future. This means that our church’s central mission should be informed by the cries and anguish of the long-suffering black race and the victims of history and that our liturgies celebrate the diversity in our traditions and provide a space to lament for those who have been held down by the injustice partly started and legitimatized through our churches.
Hope is also a praxis because it is concerned with constructing a new pathway of reversal through a conscious counter-witnessing which is capable of changing the status quo. What this means in actual fact is that the church commits herself and her members to a new way of life, a new institutional culture, a new ethics and a new moral and spiritual journey which will transform the inner life of the church and her mission in history. Racism is the longest lasting pandemic that humanity has faced in the last 500 years; healing the world of racism is perhaps the greatest challenge facing people of faith and all women and men of goodwill today.

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